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Supporting Your Survivorship

CVPH Program Helps Patients Cope With Life Beyond Cancer

If hearing, “You have cancer,” is one of the scariest things your doctor can say to you, then the other side of that, “You are cancer free,” is certainly one of the best things to hear.

But for the millions of people who are living beyond cancer each year in the United States, it is not always that simple.

“After the treatment is done, it’s difficult to explain. As much as it feels good, there’s always this tug at you,” Kim Bresette of Plattsburgh says. “Every time I get a sore back, I wonder, is it back? Did it spread?”

“It’s really difficult to imagine not having anxiety over the next oncology appointment or the next surgical appointment. They are constant reminders that you don’t know what the next day is going to bring,” the 58-year-old adds.

Bresette finished her last treatment for breast cancer in July 2022. Since then, she has found it challenging to “move on,” even as her loved ones have done so.

“Family and friends try to be helpful. They’ll say, ‘Oh, thank God this is over. You must be so relieved. Hey, do you want to go grab a glass of wine?’ I’m like, yeah, I’m relieved that I hit an anniversary. But I had cancer, and not everything just goes back to normal for me,” she says.

Bresette is experiencing what many people go through after finding out they are cancer free or in remission. Research shows that anxiety and distress are more common in long-term survivors compared to people with no history of cancer. And this is expected to become a growing concern in healthcare over the next decade. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of people who have lived at least five years after their cancer diagnosis is projected to increase about 30% to 16.3 million people.

The FitzPatrick Cancer Center (FCC) at CVPH has developed two programs to help North Country patients cope with the anxiety, distress and depression they are experiencing after learning they are in remission or are cancer free. Bresette participated in both programs. The first was “Moving Towards Wellness: Finding Your Best Path for Life After Cancer” in spring 2023. She learned coping techniques to deal with things like fatigue, anxiety around scans, fear of recurrence and stress management.

One of the biggest things Bresette realized during that program was that she wasn’t alone.

“It was just such a relief to hear other people say all of those things that I was feeling. The fear, the worry, all of it. The first two classes, I honestly think there wasn’t one person who didn’t cry,” Bresette recalls.

She also appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm and learn from others.

“There were a lot of really good ideas over the eight week course about nutrition, anxiety, how to have conversations with family members, questions to remember to ask the oncologist. I heard ideas I had never even thought of. And that was really a saving grace for me,” Bresette says.

Kim Bresette walks with a llama at
the Dakota Ridge Farm in Ballston
Spa. A "Llama Trek" was one of her
favorite activities in the summer of
2023 after missing out on time
outdoors during radiation treatments
the year before.

The second program she participated in was the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) series, which was also an eight week course that took place from August through November 2023. This is an emerging program that aims to make mindfulness a part of the daily routine while developing tools to manage stress more effectively. Bresette says she learned about breathing, meditation and yoga, and she was able to practice a variety of techniques during the classes and at home on her own.

“I’m so glad that I participated. It’s so easy to get in your head when you’re stressed or worried about that next appointment, or something is feeling off, and your mind starts racing. Then before you know it, you’re down that cancer rabbit hole again. This program has helped me learn how to stay out of that rabbit hole and stay in the moment,” Bresette offers.

And Bresette, who works as a probation officer, notes that she is able to apply what she has learned in situations outside of cancer, adding, “So I was in court probably week two of this, and things were a little uncomfortable, and I felt myself getting agitated. And I thought, okay, you’re getting agitated. Let’s use some breathing exercises to bring the heart rate down a little bit, get the stress level down a little bit.”

“Living with that cancer diagnosis, it just notched up my stress and my ability to get anxious pretty quickly,” she continues. “So having these kinds of tools has been a godsend for me in my journey.”

Staying in the moment is something Bresette tries to practice as much as she can. She says she tries not to take things for granted and give herself permission to take a break. This past summer, that included two weeks of vacation time from work to get out and enjoy the warmth of the sun and being outdoors as much as possible.

The FitzPatrick Cancer Center offers additional support groups for patients and their loved ones, as well as members of the community. Among them:

  • Grief Support – This group is open to all who experienced a loss and meets the first Monday of the month at 6 p.m. in the FCC.
  • The Big C: A Group for Men With Cancer – This group meets the second Monday of the month at 6 p.m. in the FCC.
  • Leukemia/Lymphoma Patient and Family Support Group – Open to all experiencing blood cancer and their loved ones, the group meets the third Monday of the month at 6 p.m. in the FCC.
  • Look Good Feel Better – This group meets six times a year for women coping with the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment.

The Moving Toward Wellness Cancer Survivorship program will resume in the spring 2024, while the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction series returns in January 2024. For more information and to sign up for any of these programs offered by the FCC, contact Alexander Fleming, Licensed Master Social Worker at (518) 562-7534 or email him: AFleming2@cvph.org.

Bresette is a big believer in the power of these programs after going through them herself, and she is strongly recommending them to anyone in the North Country who is living beyond cancer.

“It’s hard to leave the house and put yourself out there like that,” she admits. “But let me tell you how liberating it is once you take that first step and take advantage of these programs. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not alone, and you can get help with what you’re going through. It makes a huge difference.”