What a crying shame we've lost the ability to convalesce, says one woman who's recovering from her THIRD cancer treatment
- Journalist Lucy Deedes is recovering from radiotherapy for ovarian cancer
- Says convalescence is a vital jigsaw piece between treatment and normal life?
- Medical experts agree, likening the human immune system to a military unit?
- Like our health, they need time to recuperate after any heavy bombardment?
Growing up I had the usual litany of childhood illnesses: chickenpox, tonsillitis, measles, whooping cough.
When I was better, my mother, who was something of a wise woman, always allowed me an extra day off before I went back to school.
A precious day to myself when I could milk our Jersey house cow, pootle about in the woods with the dogs or push the kittens, who were always up for larks, about in my pram. A day of grace, and then I was ready to get on the school bus.
Recuperation: Journalist Lucy Deedes is recovering from radiotherapy for ovarian cancer
For recuperating adults, I remember the small local nursing homes where my mother’s friends went to recover from ailments that were only whispered or hinted at — time to convalesce after nervous breakdowns or cancer.
The homes were often just a few converted rooms in a private house: peace and quiet and a jug of snowdrops on the breakfast tray. Restoration time.
Now those little places are gone, and care homes are there to house our increasing elderly population.
But even they are closing at a faster rate than they are opening: 280 shut down last year, amounting to the loss of around 7,000 beds.?
The smaller homes — with fewer than 25 beds — struggle to survive, due not only to the exigencies of planning regulations, but also employment law, the exacting standards for rooms and bathrooms, fire regulations, the need for cooks, cleaners, gardeners and car parking.
We may have lost the wherewithal for convalescing, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.
A friend of mine was recently admitted to hospital with suspected meningitis; she spent four days on intravenous antibiotics, but on the fourth day she was sent home as the ward was closing. She was tearful, still had a crashing headache and couldn’t look at the light. She was very clearly someone still in need of care.
Respite: Lucy enjoyed a stay at the?Grayshott Spa, which specialises in recuperation?
Even if you are not going home to an empty house, as she was, your spouse may not be up to delivering the care you need upon emerging from hospital. Sometimes the patient is the one who normally feeds and ministers to the family.
As I finish my third session of cancer treatment, I have come to believe convalescence is a vital piece of the jigsaw between what can be quite hardcore treatment and returning to life full-on.
Ovarian cancer first loomed into my life in January 2013. The pattern since has been surgery, chemotherapy, 18 months in remission; more surgery, chemotherapy, 18 months in remission, and most recently five weeks of radiotherapy since October.
It’s like having an officious carrier pigeon on your case, who manages to find you however many times you move house.
You think he’s gone and dare to relax, then there’s a tap at the window and he’s back with a message which reads: ‘Your CA125 [the blood test which acts as a tumour marker for ovarian cancer] is raised.’ And off we go again.
It is encouraging that we are now living almost ten times longer after a cancer diagnosis than we did 40 years ago, and new treatments are emerging all the time.?
Like a hotel: Grayshott’s team of professionals includes nurses, fitness experts, physiotherapists, holistic practitioners and nutritionists
'Kindness, care and time to reflect — the art of convalescence is not complicated, but it’s an easy skill to forget, and we lose much by doing so,' says Lucy
I have been lucky. Yes, a door closes behind you when you have cancer, but I also found that an odd sense of serenity descended on me. When something major happens, the other small anxieties fall away. I’ve been treated by astonishing doctors: I trust them and I feel they’re on my side.
But the treatment is still punishing. Each radiotherapy session has consisted of my lying on the bed with my arms above my head while the technicians found the tattoos, inked on the previous week, as a target for the beams.
They manoeuvred me into the right position and I had to keep still while the machine rotated to deliver the first dose to the middle of my back, and the second to the top of my abdomen.
The machines are mind-blowing but the dedication of the nurses and their warm, careful hands feel like healing factors, too. The staff in any branch of oncology are the warmest-hearted and most reassuring of people.
‘Kindness’, said Goethe, ‘is the golden chain by which society is bound.’ At no time is this truer than when you have cancer.
I became so tired, even with friends driving me there and back, that I could probably have fallen asleep standing up, like a carthorse. I often nodded off in the hospital waiting room. I felt permanently sick and ate all the wrong things, like white toast.
But — hurrah! — I woke up one morning feeling almost human. Almost. Somewhat frail and battered, with a short fuse and not much inclination to be sociable, I was too weary to contemplate going back to work yet.
Cancer treatment is a big physical and mental trauma. Even if there are encouraging results when treatment finishes, we will be drained and anxious. However loving our family and friends, we may have lost weight and stamina or have money worries.
And now science can explain why convalescence is important for recovery.
Dr Suranjith Seneviratne, an immunologist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, has likened the immune system to a military unit — and like a military unit, it needs time to recuperate after heavy bombardment. Otherwise, if you’re soon exposed to another onslaught, you may not be ready to fight it as effectively.
To find out more, I meet up with Dr Roz Gibbs, principal lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of Portsmouth. She is also a practising acupuncturist and is collaborating with Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust to look at the benefits of complementary interventions for cancer patients.
We discuss how maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm is one way to aid healing. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle. Every cell has a ‘clock’, and if our bodies are to rest and repair damaged tissue then the rhythms need to be kept steady.
Even healthy bodies will suffer from the pernicious effects of ‘blue light’ (from the computers, phones and TVs we surround ourselves with) which confuses the body’s internal clock and delays the release of the sleep-encouraging hormone melatonin. Sleeping in a dark bedroom and avoiding computers late in the evening is especially important during recovery.
Eating at set times and avoiding grazing can assist recovery. The gut also benefits from periods of complete rest, or fasting.
Studies have shown that prolonged fasting (for more than 48 hours) protects our haematopoietic cells (the cells that can turn into all other blood cells) from the damage of chemotherapy. Another study showed overnight fasting for 13-plus hours correlated with lowering the risk of breast cancer.
There is strong evidence that mindfulness — the practice of keeping ‘present’ and thereby reducing stress — acts not only on our mental state but on our body. Yoga, pilates, acupuncture, reiki, art therapy — any of these may be beneficial.
Which is how I find myself spending three days and two nights at Grayshott Health Spa, near Hindhead in Surrey, on one of their Nurture And Support packages — a gentle, supportive programme especially designed for those who have had cancer treatment, to relax and strengthen them and their immune systems.
Recuperation and diabetic packages are also offered, as well as those for weight-loss and general health. Grayshott is a wisteria-covered Victorian house in 47 peaceful acres of Surrey with a par 3 golf course, tennis courts and two swimming pools. You can also take walks on the common, which is all around.
Inside, there are male and female spas, countless treatment rooms and exercise classes, a gym and weights room.
They have nailed the relaxed country house feel, and while there are no actual dogs on the sofas, you feel they’re there in spirit. It’s warm and quiet, with a blissful lack of music.
The house is deliberately comfortable rather than luxurious — no hen parties here — and the residents drift restfully around in their robes and slippers, even at breakfast and lunch.
First, I had an appointment with a nurse (we’d already spoken on the telephone). My treatments were geared to my post-treatment situation: head, face and limb massages, facials, reflexology, and what was for me a game-changing nutrition lecture by Stephanie Moore, the senior clinical nutritionist.
In addition to my treatments, I was able to join whatever classes I wished. A session of aqua fitness in the pool was a step too far and I lasted a shameful 15 minutes, but the Relax And Unwind class was right up my street — we lay on mats, cocooned in blankets, and were gently talked into a meditative half-sleep.
Kindness, care and time to reflect — the art of convalescence is not complicated, but it’s an easy skill to forget, and we lose much by doing so.
After those few days of grace, I drove home feeling looser and calmer, the knots in my shoulders smoothed out — ready for whatever comes next.
Grayshott Health Spa grayshottspa.com. Nurture And Support programme — inclusive prices are from ￡675 for a two-night stay
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