Your friend was diagnosed with cancer this morning. She is scared and you are scared. Distraught, you make a beeline to a bookstore, seeking guidance. As you browse through various books, you come across one that you think might help your friend because it provides practical, immediate tips to short-circuit fearful and anxious thoughts.
Emotional Wellness: The Other Half of Treating Cancer, offers an “Emotional Wellness Toolbox” of techniques for cancer patients to escape anxious thoughts, self-soothe, problem-solve more effectively, and reach out for help. The author, Niki Barr, practices psychotherapy with patients — at all stages of the disease. She works at the University of Texas Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Institute, the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, the Careity Foundation, the Breast Care Center of North Texas, Texas Oncology, and Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.
One could say the book’s main theme is that both our ability to fight cancer and our quality of life will improve if we take care of ourselves emotionally. In her introduction, Barr writes, “Cancer calls you to meet it head on emotionally or be left in shambles.”
Barr writes about the techniques that she teaches to patients in a straightforward style. Each chapter outlines techniques and provides quick descriptions. The simplicity of the format may be especially helpful to the panicking mind of a patient.
The foreword is a stirring pep talk by bestselling author and medical doctor Bernie Siegel. In May 2011, Siegel was honored by the Watkins Review of London, England, as one of the “Top 20 Spiritually Influential Living People on the Planet” for his career of “humanizing” medical training, empowering patients, and explaining mind-body connections.
“Through my experience working with cancer patients for several decades,” Siegel writes, “I can tell you that creating a state of wellbeing is a vital part of the ability to survive.”
The rest of the book is organized by stages of cancer, so that the patient can jump into just the chapter that applies to him or her: after initial diagnosis, during medical treatment, after medical treatment with a successful outcome, or after medical treatment with an unsuccessful outcome.
While some techniques are mentioned in multiple chapters, that repetition allows the reader to review only the section that fits their current situation. An upset patient can quickly find a small suggested action to take, one meant to be easy to begin. Barr’s tools are the nitty-gritty behaviors of improving one’s quality of life no matter what — starting with five-minute increments of change.
Suggested techniques include using index cards, journals, music CDs, and hobby activities. The cognitive therapy methods include cognitive reframing, mindfulness meditation techniques, taking positive actions, reaching out for resources, and focusing on healthy lifestyle habits such as good nutrition and sleeping strategies. Appendix A lists resources of books, magazines, websites, and CDs; Appendix B lists citations of technical articles and books. The ideas are applicable to any spiritual belief system.
I was first attracted to the book because through a minor health challenge last year I found that there were two battles to be fought: the fight for physical wellness and the fight for emotional wellness. Seeing the title, I wanted to read Barr’s tips.
My one criticism is that it would have been better to split some caregiver-focused sections into a separate book for caregivers. After I had read most of the book from the perspective of someone facing cancer, it was jarring to reach the introductory paragraphs of chapter 5: “Outcomes — Grieving,” and the entirety of chapter 6: “Outcomes — Loss,” in which the author shifts focus to a caregiver’s needs in grieving a cancer resurgence and the loss of their beloved. Not something a cancer patient wants to come across at the end of a self-help book.
In fact, Barr recommends repeatedly in earlier chapters that patients avoid “horror stories” about other people losing their battles. And yet she doesn’t shield her own readers.
Other than that oversight, however, the book seems quite helpful. So perhaps if you are a caregiver, the best approach would be to buy it for your own reference, photocopy the chapter applicable to your friend’s disease stage, and put those pages in a special care package for her. That way, she won’t have to be shocked by the end chapters.
Emotional Wellness: The Other Half of Treating Cancer
Orion Wellspring, Inc., March, 2013
Paperback, 150 pages