As I approached Urban Zen, Donna Karan’s holistic wellness center in New York’s West Village, I was immediately greeted by friendly faces checking people in and handing out swag bags filled with fancy shampoo, conditioner, lip balm, books and other self-care treats. It didn’t feel like a cancer event — and as a cancer survivor, I know what these events are like — but rather a glitzy media affair complete with a red carpet, step and repeat and rooftop cocktail hour.
Yet, here I was at the Cancer Wellness Expo, a one-day occasion featuring experts from various wellness fields addressing the unique issues women with cancer face. The issues often neglected by our oncologists. Plus, attendees got the chance to pamper themselves with yoga, therapeutic stretching, and one-on-one beauty tutorials. Caitlin Kiernan, a cancer survivor along with her co-founders Sarah Kelly, Cynthia Besteman and Leah Robert came up with the concept for the event because of a nagging feeling that something important was missing from the treatments that women with cancer receive. The Hollywood-like atmosphere was not by accident. It was painstakingly designed by Kiernan, who hoped to educate guests on the importance of self care as adjunct services to traditional cancer medicine and therapies, in a manner that wasn’t medical, scary, or stuffy.
“The energy and vibe in the room was beyond incredible,” Kiernan, who also authored Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer, tells me over the phone a few days later. “Everyone was there to learn, share, and support each other.” They also learned a lot about Kiernan, a veteran beauty editor who at one point, boldly told the sea of strangers at her event: “Get ready to see my titties!”
Kiernan’s boisterous personality and willingness to literally bare all, created a safe space for others to talk about living with cancer. A woman in a headscarf stood up, mic in hand, and discussed her inability to have pleasurable sex, due to severe vaginal dryness following stem cell cancer treatment. “I’m scared to even self-stimulate, with one finger!” she shared. Looking around the space, many women nodded and sympathized with her. Another woman in black skinny jeans and a black leather jacket, with a pin-straight lobe hairstyle told the crowd she’s in remission, but since she has to go for blood work every six months for the rest of her life to check for “tumor markers,” she lives with anxiety that the cancer will return. How could she not?
Sure enough, the brave woman who openly discussed her roadblocked sex life was in luck. Panelist, Dr. Tammy Schuler provides clinical care for those coping with sexual dysfunction following cancer diagnosis. “For pain and vaginal dryness during sex, after cancer treatment, it can be helpful to use a non-hormonal, perfume-free vaginal moisturizer – not just during sex, but regularly too,” Dr. Schuler shared with me. “Vaginal dilators, used regularly and correctly can help women overcome pain from vaginal penetration.”
Dr. Schuler also says communication is key: “I think that first, it's important to know that it's typical for sex to be different after cancer compared to the way it was before cancer. For women with a partner, open and direct communication is important. With or without a partner, taking small steps at a time, exploring what you’re comfortable with, determining what now feels best and building up from that point is also key.”
It’s not breaking news that cancer patients face so many obstacles and stressors, however wellness experts, services, and adjacent therapies specifically targeting these ladies in the Big C club is new — and getting everyone together in the safe space Kiernan provided was needed.
I saw first hand how women talked and leaned on one another, plus got advice from panelists who stuck around to do just that: Share their knowledge.
No one debated that chemo, radiation and surgery should take priority over art therapy, Reiki, and massages, but everyone there collectively agreed that wellness practices make dealing with cancer and all it’s baggage more tolerable.
“As a medical professional, I can say, and do believe, wellness and self-care is not a hoax. There is tremendous value whether it’s exercise, yoga, mindfulness, dietary changes — there are so many aspects to this adjunctive field that can assist during cancer treatment through various stages,” Dr. Leo Keegan, an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Health System, says. But adds, that he wants people who are newly diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment to understand that wellness practices like Reike do not treat cancer. “Run away, if someone tells you that,” Dr. Keegan says.
Dr. Rujuta Saksena, an oncologist and hematologist at the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Overlook Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey, believes the concept of treating a cancer patient solely with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation is outdated. “Practitioners are increasingly more aware of the important role that emotional support, nutrition, exercise, and stress control plays in the healing process of an individual with cancer.”
Reiki is the traditional Japanese practice that harnesses the power of touch to help with healing. “It can offer benefits that range from improvement in energy, reduction in pain, lowering of stress levels, improvement in mood, and perhaps even enhance the body's ability to respond to treatment,” Dr. Saksena says.
Reiki has been a blessing for Maimah Karmo, 44, a breast cancer survivor. She says her self-care and wellness practices comes before everything else. “Without my health, nothing else is possible, so I’ve made wellness a priority, not something I do when I have time.” She says her first Reiki experience “was great,” and that she feels so calm during the treatments that she oftentimes falls asleep during the sessions and always leaves feeling peace and relief. “It’s a restorative experience,” Karmo says.
“What’s most beneficial about Reiki treatment at any stage of cancer, on a physiological level is that it engages the body’s own healing mechanisms,” says Pamela Miles, a Reiki master who has been in practice since 1986. “This makes such a difference because while conventional treatment is life-saving, it’s traumatic — and when the system is traumatized, the self-healing capacity is in lockdown.”
Miles also believes that Reiki is essential once people enter remission. “After treatment is finished, people feel like they’ve just fallen off an abyss, because they didn’t realize how much the structure of treatment helped them feel taken care of and positive. There’s no gentle transition. They don’t wean you,” she says. “Reiki enables people to support themselves; it’s a spiritual practice. It engages our system at the most subtle, intimate level, of who we are. It’s our relationship to ourselves; how we feel about being alive, where we find meaning and get perspective.”
Growing evidence suggests that psychosocial and psychoeducational interventions are beneficial adjunctive treatments for patients with cancer. According to the Indian Journal of Palliative Care, stress management techniques that have proven helpful for cancer patients include progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery, and social support. Participating in intervention programs before treatments, like chemotherapy, have also enabled patients to tolerate therapy with fewer reported side effects.
Lauren Beloff, 37, who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, was diagnosed with Melanoma on her right breast when she was 26 and basal cell carcinoma on her face five years later in 2012. She says yoga saved her life.
“The surgeon cut the cancer out of my right breast, until the margins cleared,” she says. Angry at herself and “mad at the world,” Beloff started practicing yoga four months later. “Practicing helped me escape from cancer, even it was for just the 40-minute class,” Beloff says.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health on mind-body interventions suggests that yoga may help with anxiety, depression, distress, and stress in people with cancer. Results of patients with early-stage breast cancer and survivors suggest that yoga may help to reduce fatigue, a serious concern for patients in treatment and remission. Meditation, one of the tools of yoga, has similarly been shown to address anxiety, stress, fatigue, and general mood and sleep disturbances.
Spinning, or group cycling classes, is another physical activity that Beloff turned to in order to offset feelings of fear and anxiety. “I had spun before both of my diagnoses, but it became my passion after I had cancer,” Beloff says. “During my second diagnosis, the doctor had to remove cancer from my face. “I was 31, single and living in Hoboken. I remember walking into spin class after learning about that surgery. “The [initial] thought of having a Freddie Kruger scar on my face was too much to deal with.” There was a nurse who took the class, too. I just started crying. She hugged me and told me it would be alright and she would see me on the bike next week.”
She was so empowered by spinning with her “crew” that she became an instructor in 2016. “I have turned my daily anxiety into power and my fear into passion. Today, when I get on that bike and lead my class, I know that cancer doesn’t control my mind or thoughts.”
“When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, they lose control over their body, and in many ways, their lives,” says Kiernan. “Being able to do things that help you maintain some normalcy gives patients a small, but vital, sense of control.”
During her diagnosis and treatment, Kiernan worked full-time as a beauty editor at Life & Style. “There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I had responsibilities,” she says.
Kiernan believes that cancer is not only a health crisis, but an identity one, too. “Beauty and wellness treatments are helpful adjunct therapies combined with medical treatments,” she says. “When you look good, you feel better.”