January 2010: Pari Forood

Imagine the unimaginable. You find a lump in your breast. You go to the doctor and it is confirmed through testing that you have breast cancer. Now what?

According to the American Cancer Society, excluding cancers of the skin, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, accounting for more than 1 in 4 cancers diagnosed in the US. In 2008, there were 182,460 new cases of breast cancer in women in the United States. The 5 year relative survival rate for breast cancer in the localized stage (cancer that has not spread to other sites in the body) is 98%. The earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the more successful the treatment.

The federal government along with private agencies and foundations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cancer research each year and they should be commended for all of the major treatment breakthroughs in the past 25 years. However, there is still an area that is often times ignored or at best relegated to a back burner when determining overall patient care and that is how is the patient’s psychological status affected by this diagnosis.

The Miles of Hope Breast Cancer Foundation was started in 2004 to fund support programs for people affected by breast cancer in the eight counties of the Hudson Valley. We recognized early on, that we wanted to fill the void frequently not addressed in a patient’s physical medical care. Hospitals offer support groups and counseling, but we wanted to help them do more.

Recently diagnosed patients experience high levels of anxiety and stress – understandably. Studies from the Mao Clinic in Minnesota and Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City show that these high levels of nervous tension can be soothed with non-traditional forms of physical therapy like massage therapy, reflexology, reiki, and relaxation technique.

According to an article in the August 2009 issue of the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, women in a trial study who received 30 minute massage sessions 3 times per week for five weeks experienced less depression, anxiety and pain. “By the end of the treatment, levels of dopamine, natural killer cells, and lymphocytes had increased from the first day to the last day in the massage therapy study group.”

Miles of Hope funds two programs at local hospitals to reduce the stress and anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis: a massage therapy program at Vassar Brothers Medical Center and a Reflexology and Reiki program at St. Francis Hospital. By alleviating some of the strain associated with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, we hope to enhance recovery. It may not be as important as a patient’s physical treatment, but we believe, in the bigger picture of overall patient health, both mental and physical, it will help.

We have also funded art therapy programs to reduce stress and stimulate coordination after surgery at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, and the Barrett Art Center in downtown Poughkeepsie.

Aside from an emphasis on early detection (yearly mammogram) and prevention (exercise, healthy balanced diet, and healthy life style) Miles of Hope strives to eliminate some of the financial pressure exacerbated by a cancer diagnosis. Last year we gave over $100,000 to individuals in treatment for breast cancer for a financial emergency not covered by insurance through the Medical Gap Care program. The program reimburses patients for expenses like transportation to and from treatment, food, gas, heat, electricity and rent. Often times we get a call just as someone’s electricity is being turned off or as they are being evicted from their apartment. To eliminate this level of stress represents some of the most rewarding work we do.

Miles of Hope sponsors a program at the Dyson Center for Cancer Care at Vassar Brothers Medical Center called Healing Vibrations. The program brings live chamber music to the atrium of the cancer center for patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Often times, someone will roll their i.v. cart up to the musicians and sit amidst them just to listen. It is well documented that music has a calming effect on patients receiving therapy and we see it first hand in this program.