‘Beyond Cancer: Finding Spirit’ Conference a Success

Sep 21, 2017

Written by Anna C. Christensen, Senior Communications Coordinator, University of Arizona Cancer Center

TUCSON, Ariz. – Cancer survivors, friends, families and caregivers spent a day learning about healthy living and long-term well-being from cancer experts and patient advocates at “Beyond Cancer: Finding Spirit,” a conference focused on survivorship, presented by the UA College of Nursing in partnership with the UA Cancer Center on Sept. 9 at the Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa in Tucson.

The conference focused on fostering well-being for anyone affected by cancer, providing resources and networking, two crucial components of the healing process. Linking therapists, health-care providers and community partners, this conference is one component of survivorship programming offered by Community Cancer Connections and the UA College of Nursing.

Mary Koithan, PhD, RN, director of Community Cancer Connections and associate dean of student support and engagement at the college, said, “For this third year, we chose to focus on spirit because we believe that spirit is just what is needed to live well, to live fully and to walk our path — whatever that may be.”

The event launched with a keynote presentation by Miguel Flores Jr., a traditional healer of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation and CEO and president of Holistic Counseling and Consultant Services in Tucson. Expressing a preference for “using our traditional elements” rather than PowerPoint presentations, Flores began with a “Blessing of the Four Directions.” Participants joined hands to form a circle as Flores brought cedar smoke to the east, south, west and north corners of the room using an eagle-feather fan, explaining that the smoke rising to the ceiling represented prayers ascending to a higher power.

After the blessing, Flores spoke on the importance of finding balance and staying grounded in the wake of a life-altering illness such as cancer. Much of the advice he gives his clients, he said, was the same as that given by a Western doctor — for example, the importance of a healthful diet and physical activity — but reframed in a culturally appropriate context and given a spiritual element. Flores emphasized the importance of patients having time with health-care providers to tell their stories so they can feel that they are being treated as a whole person, from their wounds to their spirits.

Flores closed his presentation with a song, which he explained was a reminder that, whatever happens, cancer survivors are not alone, they have their families, friends and communities.

As a co-sponsor, the UA Cancer Center had a sizeable presence at the conference. Nurse navigators were on hand to answer attendees’ questions about cancer treatment and survivorship, and Outreach Coordinator Rene Lozano was there to connect participants with UA Cancer Center resources.

“I think it’s important to connect with the community,” Lozano said. “We’re all here for the same thing – to have a healthier community.”

Attendees could participate in four breakaway presentations by leaders and experts from Arizona’s cancer community on a range of topics, from hair loss to beneficial physical activities. UA Cancer Center researchers whose work focuses on the links between chronic stress, inflammation and cancer discussed the role of stress in disease and recovery.

Leila Ali-Akbarian, MD, MPH (“Dr. Ali”), medical director of the UA Cancer Center’s Supportive Care Clinic, spoke about the “Science of Relaxation,” covering brain anatomy, the role of the nervous system in stress and relaxation, and the effects of stress on gene expression and the biochemical changes the body undergoes during relaxation. Dr. Ali explained that chronic stress can cause wear and tear on the body, but improving the ability to recover from stress also can improve the ability to recover from illness.

Thaddeus “Tad” Pace, PhD, assistant professor with the UA College of Nursing and biopsychologist with the UA Cancer Center, presented “Overcoming Stress Biology to Promote Wellness in Survivorship.” He discussed the connection between the inflammatory response and fatigue in cancer survivors.

“Stress has an important place in understanding how we can promote wellness and survivorship,” said Dr. Pace. He also spoke about curcumin, a component of turmeric, and researchers’ quest to discover if it can benefit people with chemotherapy-related fatigue by putting “the kibosh on the inflammatory process.” Though he described himself as a “trained skeptic,” he noted that, so far, research into this compound is promising.

Deanna Kaplan, a UA doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, led participants in mindfulness meditation, instructing them to redirect their attention to their breath, their feet or ambient sounds, helping them learn how to exert control over anxious thoughts by re-centering themselves in the present moment.

Cancer survivors and their advocates shared their experience and knowledge, including Linda Tarason, a two-time cancer survivor, who spoke about her journey from “Cancer to Dancer” and the role communitywide dance projects played in her healing process. She has organized many group dances, including a flash mob that performed a choreographed dance to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” in Park Place Mall in 2011. After sharing her story, she led participants in a dance.

Carly Klein, president of National Hair Loss, presented “Recovering Your Hair and Confidence.” Inspired to help cancer survivors battle the insecurity that so often comes with hair loss, Klein works with patients to guide them through treatment options for chemo-induced alopecia. She described the process of hair loss and regrowth during and after chemotherapy, comparing the hair after chemotherapy, which grows back patchy and thin, to “a turtle that’s scared,” its head slowly and tentatively poking out of its shell to see if the danger is gone.

“When cancer treatment ends, we have a heightened responsibility to promote long-term well-being and health for our patients, their families and their friends,” Dr. Koithan said. “Supporting them means actively engaging them in conversation and activities that create purpose, meaning and spirit in their lives.”

Summing up the conference, Lozano noted, “It’s important for people who have survived to know that there’s still support after their treatment. They understand their journey better than anybody else.”

The 2017 Beyond Cancer conference was the third in an annual series. Information about next year’s event will be posted to the UA College of Nursing website as it becomes available. For more information, call the college’s Office of Student Support & Community Engagement at 520-626-3808.

Photos: Anna C. Christensen