Melanie W A Calming Way to Cope with Cancer

“The aromatherapy was very calming and relaxing, and it put me in a better frame of mind. It was extremely helpful.”

How Holistic Therapy Helped One Patient Sail Through Radiation Treatment

In November 2019, Melanie Wright had back surgery. A month later, she had her annual mammogram. There was a suspicious finding in her left breast, and follow-up scans and a biopsy confirmed she had ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, a noninvasive precancer that’s confined to the milk ducts. At the end of January 2020, she was back in the operating room for a lumpectomy.

Rachana Singh, MD
Rachana Singh, MD

Even after all she’d been through, Melanie, 64, of Trenton, still faced a difficult road ahead. Rachana Singh, MD, Melanie’s radiation oncologist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Hamilton, recommended four weeks of radiation treatment, an accelerated schedule that allows patients to return to their lives more quickly. The radiation didn’t worry Melanie as much as the machine used to deliver it. She had to lie on her stomach on a table so the treating arm of the machine could rotate around her.

“I’m extremely claustrophobic, and I had to lie flat on my stomach with my head down,” says Melanie. “It was very unnerving for me.”

It didn’t help that Melanie was still experiencing soreness from her back surgery, making it difficult to get on and off the table and remain comfortable during each of the 15-minute treatments.

A Soothing Solution

Melanie was so anxious that she had to take a tranquilizer prior to the first few radiation sessions. But then she discovered a more soothing solution: aromatherapy, which was offered through the hospital’s Holistic Program.

Thanks to funding from the RWJUH Hamilton Foundation, cancer patients can receive a range of complementary treatments, including Reiki (a hands-on healing technique), meditation, massage, pastoral care, nutrition counseling and art, music, and pet therapies, all free of charge.

For 30 minutes before each radiation session, Melanie relaxed in a reclining chair with warm blankets and lavender aromatherapy. “It was a half-hour of peace and quiet,” Melanie says. “The aromatherapy was very calming and relaxing, and it put me in a better frame of mind. It was extremely helpful.”

The aromatherapy was so beneficial that Melanie was able to stop taking a tranquilizer before her treatments and relied only on pain medication for her back.

“The aromatherapy gave her time to center herself and get ready for her treatment sessions,” says Dr. Singh. “She tolerated the treatment well. By the end, she was so calm.”

Holistic therapies can benefit patients emotionally and spiritually, says Dr. Singh. “Very often, these specialized services are offered at bigger hospitals, so patients have to travel,” she says. “The stress of travel negates the benefit. So being able to offer these services at our center has been amazing. We want to help our patients get through treatment in the most stress-free way possible.”

Maqsood Amjad, MD
Maqsood Amjad, MD

The Holistic Program has been in place for more than a decade but has become even more robust in recent years as interest in complementary therapies has grown and doctors are focusing more on treating the mind as well as the body, says Maqsood Amjad, MD, director of medical oncology at the RWJUH Hamilton Cancer Center.

“The field of oncology has progressed significantly in the last decade with newer medications, and we are treating the diseases much more effectively,” says Dr. Amjad. “But we don’t always pay attention to the patient as a whole. That’s why we are looking at patients not only in terms of their physical ailment but also what goes on in their mind, their spirit. It’s about integrating a holistic approach into our conventional treatment.”

The approach has been very successful, and the hospital is continually striving to offer evidence-based holistic therapies that meet patient needs and interests, says Dr. Amjad.

Staying Well

Melanie is now cancer-free, and her only treatment is to take a daily medication that can help prevent a recurrence of her cancer by lowering her estrogen levels for 10 years. She’s still doing aromatherapy for relaxation.

“I’m a believer in holistic therapies,” she says. “I think they play a big part in helping people get well. Now I do aromatherapy at home with a diffuser a couple of times a week. I even have one in my car.”

RWJBarnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, in partnership with Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey—the state’s only NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center—provide close-to-home access to the most advanced treatment options. To learn more, call 844.CANCERNJ (844-226-2376).