A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment can have significant, lasting impacts on a person’s mental and emotional wellbeing as they work through what may be one of life’s most challenging experiences.
At the New York Proton Center, we take a holistic approach to patient care, focusing on healing not just a patient’s body, but also their mind and spirit.
As National Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we wanted to highlight the journey of one of our patients and how they found spiritual and emotional healing here at NYPC.
Stefani Nolde of Long Island was referred to NYPC for treatment after receiving what she refers to as a “devastating” cancer diagnosis. Before she even arrived at the center, she received a call from Chrissy Rubin, LCSW, one of NYPC’s social workers.
Chrissy is one of the social workers who provide supportive counseling every day for patients as they grapple with the impact that cancer has on their mental and emotional health.
What is supportive counseling? Chrissy describes it as processing through challenges that come up around treatment – from the physical symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, or loss of appetite, to emotional exhaustion or frustration – and focusing on identifying solutions, rather than fixating on the problems themselves.
For Stefani, she dealt with feelings around losing her day-to-day identity of being a second-grade teacher, exhaustion, and an emotional toll from treatment and the disruption to her normal routine.
Chrissy told her to think of the treatment as her new job or “a college semester” – giving her the language to channel all of her energy and focus into getting better and taking care of herself. Each week, Stefani and Chrissy spent a concentrated 30 minutes talking by phone or in person about things that came up the week before. Chrissy assigned homework, which Stefani described as “crucial to me moving through this journey.”
Stefani said there is no way she could have gotten through her treatment without Chrissy and her supportive counseling; that these discussions were essential parts of the healing process in addition to the proton therapy that physically treated her cancer.
Stefani describes NYPC as her “center of healing,” in that she looked forward to coming in because she understood it was her respite; her chance not only to heal her body but also to heal her mind and spirit.
After treatment, she had follow-up phone counseling sessions with Chrissy to continue to focus on her self-care and to monitor her progress. Just because treatment is successfully completed does not mean the healing journey ends.
Stefani will continue to have follow-up scans and has experienced some anxiety in advance of them – sometimes described as “scanxiety” – that Chrissy helps her process by listening to her concerns, validating her fears, and focusing on the concrete tools that will help her move through that anxiety.
Chrissy tells us that providing supportive social work counseling is different from being a family member or loved one in that social workers are not meant to simply “cheer” for you; they’re here to listen, to bear witness, and to validate and help with the struggles and challenges one experiences, no matter how difficult the process might be.
Sometimes that means you have a bad day or experience frustrating moments, and that’s okay. A social worker’s job when providing supportive counseling is to let you feel what you’re feeling and express it without shame, judgment, or guilt.
On the best advice she received at NYPC, Stefani reflected on a suggestion Chrissy made as she was struggling with setting boundaries and learning how to say no while recovering from treatment. Chrissy told Stefani to think of herself as “an armadillo,” a helpful metaphor that allowed her to visualize having a protective armor to assist her with setting healthy boundaries. This metaphor helped Stefani continue to practice self-care, while also remembering that she is loved, protected, and safe in the knowledge that she can continue moving forward with tools that allow her to carve out a healthier more balanced path.
We are so proud of Stefani for sharing her story this National Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re grateful to Chrissy and social workers everywhere for their tireless work to ensure cancer survivors are able to thrive.