Complementary Therapies Ease Side Effects: Marie Farrell

August 1, 2018

Marie Farrell experienced side effects from treatment for stage II breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2010 when she was 33 years old, she had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, trastuzumab (Herceptin) and took tamoxifen. She had short-term woes such as nausea and insomnia, and longer-lasting problems: peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, anxiety/depression and pain.

Marie tried medicines for her side effects, then turned to complementary approaches offered at her cancer center, including acupuncture, art therapy and more. Later, she found options outside of the cancer center.

Now, 8 years after her diagnosis, Marie, age 41, lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her 8-month-old foster daughter. She still uses complementary practices to help her feel better and manage long-term effects.

Robin: Why did you think about trying complementary therapies?

Marie: After Taxol (paclitaxel), I had to walk with a cane because my neuropathy was so bad. They said it was numbness and tingling but that was least of it. It was horrible pain. I was exhausted and couldn’t sleep. And AC (doxorubicin [Adriamycin] and cyclophosphamide [Cytoxan]) was rough because I felt seasick all the time.

At the cancer center, there was a little room that was like a library. During chemotherapy, I remember going in there and seeing pamphlets for different things – yoga, a support group, art therapy. Somebody recommended a nutritionist through the hospital. There was also acupuncture and massage. I saw one pamphlet for rock climbing and said, “That’s nuts, I can barely walk!”

Robin: So you tried massage?

Marie: I went for massage every week when I went for treatment. My insurance paid for all but $20 of the $100 charge. The guy I saw was amazing. He knew what to do because he was massaging people who had mastectomies, people with neuropathy, he was trained in that. A regular massage therapist wouldn’t know and would have you laying on your chest. He put a thing under my shoulder so he wouldn’t push on my tissue expander.

Robin: Was acupuncture helpful?

Marie: I tried acupuncture, but it was in a single room where I was alone. I was having a lot of anxiety and I got panicked. So I only had it one time in the hospital and it was not a full session.

At some point, I found community acupuncture outside of the hospital, which was more affordable. You’re in a room with other people, you can see they have needles in them, you’re not alone in a tiny room. Something about that made it less anxious for me and I felt safer. I was doing it pretty regularly for pain. It helped my pain, my anxiety and my digestion.

Robin: What encouraged you to try art therapy?

Marie: I went to the hospital’s art therapy during the time I was taking Herceptin and seeing a psychologist. It was phenomenal and really supportive. I found out about it after chemotherapy and wish I had known earlier.

It made me feel calmer and my anxiety was lessened. This was something I could focus on. I got out feelings that I couldn’t express in another way. I would draw terrible pictures and sometimes really great pictures. My apartment right now is covered with art I made during that time.

It got me into doing more. I took a quilting class at The Creative Center at University Settlement, which offers art classes to people living with illnesses. I became a good quilter. I also took a collage class and card-making class.

Robin: When did you decide to go outdoors for therapeutic experiences?

Marie: During art therapy, I went back and looked at those pamphlets (in the little room). I saw the rock climbing pamphlet and thought, “Well, that doesn’t sound as crazy as it used to!” So I connected with them [group whose pamphlets she saw], First Descents, an organization that gives outdoor adventures to young people with cancer.

That got me doing something I never thought I could ever do — go rock climbing, especially when I had to walk with a cane. On a weekend to The Gunks [climbing region in New Paltz, NY], I watched a man who had brain cancer and no eyesight climb up the rock. He was climbing a mountain, basically, and couldn’t see anything. I thought, “You know, if he can do this, my lazy butt who can barely move is gonna be doing this.”

I’ve gone white water rafting, kayaking in Oregon and rock climbing with them. They have local groups. Last year, I did a caving/rafting trip, just for people in New York City.

Kayaking was really hard for me. I didn’t enjoy it but I liked being in this group of people, seeing that I wasn’t the only one who has cancer and is young. Rock climbing was more my thing. I have fun with that.

Robin: How did the outdoor activities help your side effects? 

Marie: They definitely gave me a lot of control back. You lose a lot of control when you have cancer. Kayaking helped me confront PTSD[post-traumatic stress disorder], trauma and anger from surgeries and chemo. It sort of paralleled what I had gone through, in that the river was wild, unpredictable and scary.

Rock climbing helped my neuropathy because I started climbing blindfolded, which made my senses adjust. Suddenly, the cold rocks weren’t hurting my hands, they were guiding my fingers to a good hold I could grip. It was a connection to nature where I could feel the rock speaking to me and helping me get up higher. It’s probably the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

Robin: Have other physical activities helped?

Marie: About 2 years ago, I started movement therapy but I can’t always afford it. Movement therapy is about getting anything I’m feeling out. I can punch a pillow. I can scream if I need to. I can talk about something with the movement therapist and then act it out. You let your body guide you. There’s no judgment.

One time, as a group, we climbed into a bunch of paint and painted with our bodies. We threw paint at each other, rolled it on a wall, the kind of thing little kids do. It’s very cathartic.

Robin: What about yoga?

Marie: Doing yoga after cancer has been really hard because I have neuropathy. The teacher corrects what I’m doing, and I say, “No, I have to do it this way because of my issue.” Certain teachers want to pronounce your issue in front of the whole class. I don’t need for everyone to know. So I do my own version of yoga at home.

Robin: Did talk therapy help?

Marie: The therapist at the cancer center was by far one of best therapists I’ve ever had. But after a couple years, she had to discharge me because I wasn’t being treated for cancer anymore. I’ve since gone to therapists who I liked but it hasn’t been enough. Sometimes when I can be outside with nature and moving, it’s more effective than just sitting and talking about my problems.

Robin: Did you talk with your cancer care team about using complementary therapies?

Marie: My first oncologist kind of laughed off what I was feeling. When I moved to a different oncologist, she wasn’t really any better. She sent me to millions of doctors for other things. I would tell her I was in art therapy … but I don’t think she cared. The plastic surgeon and surgical oncologist were more understanding. They said, “I’m glad you’re aware of those things in this hospital.”

Sitting down and talking is not all I needed. I need to be doing all these different options that are out there.

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