After 42 happy years of marriage and with their children all grown up, Heather and Steve Head were both retired and looking forward to a long-awaited caravanning holiday. They were forced to put their plans on hold, however, while Steve went through treatment for prostate cancer, and then also had to have open-heart surgery.
Thankfully, he was later given the all clear, and things were starting to settle down. But then out of the blue, Heather was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
“To say I was gobsmacked would be a gross understatement!” says Heather.
Before she retired, Heather was an inpatient physiotherapist, but her experience with clinical situations didn’t make what came next any less frightening.
“The next few days were taken up with scans and surgeon appointments. I found it was all quite overwhelming, and the speed with which I had been booked in for scans and to see the surgeon was initially quite scary. I thought that they were hurrying everything because it was so serious – my professionally clinical brain was in overdrive.”
Heather’s family were also struggling with the shock and distress that can come with having a loved one diagnosed with cancer.
“When Heather was diagnosed, it initially knocked me a lot,” says Steve.
“I think the kids were more affected than we were, the threat of losing their mother was overwhelming. But we were not going to accept anything other than a complete recovery.”
Heather found she was able to take a pragmatic yet positive approach to her treatment, and even nicknamed her cancer ‘The Slug’ due to how it appeared on her colonoscopy. Thankfully, Heather’s surgery and hospital care went very smoothly, and even when cancer cells were found on one of her lymph nodes, Heather rationalised that it was only one of the nodes that had ‘Slug cells’.
Then Heather commenced chemotherapy at the St John of God Murdoch Hospital Cancer Centre, and it was during this treatment that she began to feel overwhelmed again.
“Chemotherapy is extremely draining, and everyone reacts differently. By the time of disconnection of the 5th cycle, the nausea and other side-effects had overwhelmed me, again, and I broke down in the Centre,” she says.
Fortunately, the Cancer Centre staff were equipped to support Heather.
“The Nurse Manager who was treating me at that time immediately swung into action. She strongly recommended that Steve and I join the Group Therapy sessions which were due to commence the following week.”
This was, Heather says, “The best advice ever!”
Thanks to generous donor support, a group therapy program has been established at the Murdoch Cancer Centre, for self-nominated patients and carers who have reported spiritual distress.
Spiritual distress is experienced by many patients and their carers following a cancer diagnosis. The condition can be all-consuming and difficult to articulate for the people experiencing it, and is known to cause feelings of alienation, helplessness, and hopelessness.
The group therapy program forms part of a spiritual distress study led by Professor Leanne Monterosso at St John of God Murdoch Hospital, and the outcomes of the study will support the future vision for the program to be available for cancer patients and their carers across St John of God Hospitals and Services.
For Heather, the group therapy program had a positive impact almost right away.
“As with many of the other participants, I was a little hesitant at first, but both Farrah and Beth [the facilitators] were able to effortlessly draw everyone out of their shells, resulting in multitudes of shared experiences and tips for dealing with many of the different aspects of the cancer journey,” she says.
“For me personally, the breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, thought and feelings charting, and meditation techniques were extremely helpful. There was plenty of time to socialize before and after each session which I felt benefited everyone in the group.
Although he was initially apprehensive, Steve also found the group therapy to be extremely beneficial.
“I did not think this group would help, especially since I was not the patient. I thought I knew it all,” he says.
“How wrong I was… We discussed many of life’s conundrums and different approaches, we all had many ideas and views, all of which were extremely valuable. We have found a bunch of new friends, some of which we have seen outside the group.”
Now, Steve says that he feels that the group therapy program was one of the most beneficial aspects of the whole experience for himself and for Heather.
“These sessions have affected the way I view the world, I know this sounds a bit crazy, but it is how I feel.”
Heather feels grateful to the donors who have made the program possible.
“Their generosity has enabled this program to provide the much needed support for both patients and carers at the time they need it most. For this I am forever grateful.”
With treatment out of the way, Heather and Steve are looking to the future – and Heather feels skills they’ve learnt in group therapy will help with whatever comes next.
“With the cyclical nature of the treatment, it’s inevitable that both patients and carers have physical and mental ups and downs along the way,” says Heather.
“I feel that because this was dealt with so well in the group, I am able to keep practicing the tools used in the group to manage these changes. That doesn’t mean I don’t experience them, just that now I can recognise them for what they are and deal with them far more efficiently and effectively. This has been such an immense help in encouraging us to once again start planning that elusive caravan trip…”
We are incredibly thankful for the generous donor support that will enable St John of God Murdoch Hospital to continue to offer this important program to people like Heather and Steve, and to support them on their cancer journey.