Luana DeAngelis is a patient navigator and founder of You Can Thrive!, an integrative survivorship center in New York City. Here she shares her story and celebrates the organization’s ten year anniversary, along with a brief introduction to holistic methods.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago. I had a background and training in natural health, and at the time, there were not many programs for survivors, and hardly any that incorporated natural and holistic methods of treatment.
I believe in an integrated method of care using holistic modalities in conjunction with medical care.
I also recognize the importance of early palliative care. Palliative care is not just end of life care. Most cancer care is outpatient, but we associate palliative as end-of-life because traditionally, hospitals or hospice only give it when a patient is confined to bed. Early palliative care (ie: integrative care) can help reduce symptoms and manage pain—it can help people live a healthier life. A healthier life is a longer, and more balanced life.
“Community is the final stage in healing, so when you have created a community and found meaning in this experience, then you have moved to a state of healing where you’re no longer suffering.”
Acknowledging Fear, Stress and Trauma
As a young person dealing with cancer, one of the most important things for me to understand was stress reduction. You can get through treatment, but how do you reduce that feeling of fear and lack of control? The feeling that my body has turned on me—how do I have any power over this? I felt this figurative ‘axe’ perpetually hanging over my head, and it really disturbed me. You can remove the cancer tumor, but you’re still in fear. The post-traumatic stress that’s associated with being diagnosed returns every time you go back to the doctor or put your hand on the door of where you got your treatment. For me, that constant feeling of fear was the most important aspect in need of healing.
When I was first diagnosed, I never considered a mastectomy—pre-emptive strikes on my body were simply out of the question. But then I went through six biopsies in the first six years after cancer. Every time I had to go for a mammogram, it brought back the memory, fear and trauma of being diagnosed. Then, to get the call back saying “we found something we don’t like,” having to endure another biopsy and wait for days afterwards, only to find out it’s negative or, worse, positive, is extremely excruciating. It’s also one of the main reasons women choose prophylactic mastectomies. The stress aspect has to be addressed.
Healing through Navigation
For some people, I think it’s their upbringing or culture that fosters an atmosphere of mistrust of medical institutions, and this is where my role as survivor navigator is important. Because I’m a survivor and versed in integrative medicine, I’m able to guide people into care who wouldn’t normally want to go to a hospital. Every year we meet women who are not taking any treatment and would have died, and we convince them to get treatment. We help people have better outcomes.
To help our clients, first we focus on the post-traumatic stress of the diagnosis. We address one stress trigger after the other: chemotherapy, radiation, questions for doctors, trauma of hair loss, and whatever else comes up. Then we work as a community though sharing our gifts to alleviate the stress and the fear by giving women the tools they need to empower themselves.
We educate and hand-hold survivors to implement holistic or healthier options into their lives. We teach them about environmental chemicals in certain products like cleaning agents and plastics that can act as xenoestrogens that the body can’t process properly. Even things like water: how can we filter our water to help us feel safe; what chemicals might be in it? Are there toxic people or toxic habits to address in your life?
There’s a thousand ways people can become empowered and do things to reduce their risks. It’s about helping them understand their environment and their relationship to it, so they can aid their bodies to heal long-term in return.
The Power of Community
We’re helping women heal themselves and activate their bodies to be the healing machines they already are. We do this by giving them a community embrace, and creating a sisterhood without making them replay the trauma over and over. This is why our organization is located outside of the hospital setting; it is very much a community project. No one is turned away for lack of funding and most services are given free.
Community is the final stage in healing, so when you create it and find meaning in this experience, then you move to a state of healing where you’re no longer suffering. And that’s my goal, to help women heal and end their suffering.
The pain that goes along with the diagnosis is inevitable, but suffering is entirely optional.
“The pain that goes along with the diagnosis is inevitable, but suffering is entirely optional.”
An Introduction to Holistic Care:
You Can Thrive! is powered by survivors and volunteer practitioners who provide a plethora of helpful resources. In addition to individual holistic treatments, You Can Thrive! provides educational events, “thriver” circles to deepen understanding and introduce new practices and modalities. We also provide bedside care post-mastectomy, and end of life care. The therapies listed below are helpful supplemental therapies to complement medical care. For those looking to learn more, check out the guidelines and ideas listed by the American Cancer Society.
- Integrative Patient Navigation: A unique brand of unbiased survivor-centered patient navigation. Survivor navigators are funded by Avon Foundation to help answer all questions to impart a better understanding of a client’s diagnosis followed by answering questions and giving education on integrative methods that can prove useful in a long-term survivorship plan to address mind/body and spirit.
- Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy is the use of fragrant substances, called essential oils, distilled from plants to alter mood or improve symptoms such as stress or nausea.
- Acupuncture: An important aspect of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves inserting extremely thin needles into specific points on the body. Acupuncture can be used with many issues. It is also shown to help cancer patients with nausea, vomiting and hot flashes associated with treatment.
- Nutritional Counseling: A health professional or registered counselor consults and follows up with clients about their consumption habits. One on one education answers specific questions about foods and helps clients become accountable. This followup has been helpful to clients in helping implement healthier long-term lifestyle habits. They may also tailor eating around medications, side effects from treatment, or other health issues.
- Reiki: A hands-on technique in which a practitioner places hands along the energy channels of the client with the goal of inducing relaxed states that promote healing and restore physical and emotional well-being.
- Emotional Freedom Technique, or Tapping: A noninvasive technique used to relieve symptoms of PTSD. EFT treatment can be done on yourself or administered by someone else by tapping with your fingers on energy points on the body. During treatment, the patient also thinks about emotional issues and works through psychological symptoms.
- Animal Assisted Therapy, or Pet Therapy: Therapists bring an animal to the session to make the patient feel more at ease, and the comforting presence of the therapy animal can be used to help with a patient’s social, emotional or cognitive function.
- Therapeutic Sound: Therapeutic sound induces frequencies like harmonics and overtones that are felt through the tissue, water and bones of the body. This helps the body into brainwave states similar to advanced meditation, which are conducive to healing.
- Multidisciplinary Exercise: Exercise can help to reduce risks of recurrence of cancer significantly. You Can Thrive! has a multidisciplinary approach, offering weekly classes and a combination of movement techniques, incorporated with the reverberations of a gong and other sacred instruments.
To learn more about patient navigation, check out the rest of our Heroes in Pink!