Breast Cancer Survivor Eases Anxiety Through a Mind-Body Program

Techniques such as counting and deep breathing helped a cancer survivor through feelings of anxiety related to health and cancer.

In March 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Karen Gartland took it upon herself to lose weight after noticing that she was “extremely overweight.” When she finally hit her weight goal, she believed she would no longer have any health problems — until she was due for her scheduled mammogram in late June of the same year.

Despite being hesitant to step into a hospital setting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gartland’s primary care doctor strongly urged that she attend that appointment.

“(My doctor) said ‘Karen, it’s been three years since you’ve had a mammogram, you need to go, you’re going to put a mask on and go,’” Gartland, 66, of Lowell, Massachusetts, recalled during an interview with CURE®. “So I did. And I was very glad I did, because they did find a lump. And actually, it wasn’t something that you could just feel, it really needed a mammogram to know it was there.”

Thanks to Gartland’s scheduled mammogram, her breast cancer was considered very treatable, as it was between stage 1 and stage 2 cancer.

“It was questionable whether I would need chemo or not, it turned out I didn’t need chemo,” Gartland said. “I did do 33 days of radiation and I can’t say enough about the care I got through all of that.”

When Gartland first found out she had cancer, she was “absolutely petrified” and strongly believed she was “going to die.” Thankfully, her care team at Massachusetts General Hospital Mass General Cancer Center was able to move quickly from arranging appointments to moving on to radiation, she said.

Her mental health, though, has gone through some “ups and downs,” she noted.

Even before cancer, Gartland had always considered herself a hypochondriac, meaning she experiences feelings of fear regarding health conditions. However, she attended a mind-body program at her hospital that taught her helpful techniques: a program specifically for survivors to help them manage their mental health.

Gartland explained that during virtual sessions with a smaller group, she and fellow survivors spoke with a clinical psychologist about what it meant to be a cancer survivor.

“We all got to ask a lot of questions and talk about different kinds of things. … one of the things we ended up talking about was that survivorship means that you no longer have cancer in your body and that you are post-treatment for the most part,” she said. “I do still take a medication that many women do after they’ve had breast cancer, but it was very relieving to me to know that I can call myself a survivor.”

She found that before routine mammograms or colonoscopies, her health anxiety spikes. Yet, the techniques she has incorporated into her life from the mind-body program have helped immensely.

“It doesn’t mean that my anxiety hasn’t spiked, but it also hasn’t incapacitated me the way I felt right when I found out that I had breast cancer,” Gartland said.

Techniques, such as counting and deep breathing, have helped Gartland step away from feelings of anxiousness, she said.

“If I start to feel anxious, I’ll do the counting in the car or the deep breathing in the car, sometimes they’re just things that you can do that whether you’re in the car, at school, in a meeting (and) no one else knows you’re doing them. It’s not like you’re meditating sitting there having to listen to a meditation,” Gartland said.

Now, Gartland is continuing her career as a math specialist after 46 years in math education. During her free time, she relieves stress by completing jigsaw puzzles with her daughter.

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