Deep breathing to help cancer patients manage pain

Monday, May 8th, 2023 06:00 | By
Oloo during a session with patient
Oloo during a session with patient

When 25-year-old Meshack Mbugua became sick with an acute headache, he treated it as a normal condition that would eventually go away. However, the illness persisted and upon seeking medical help, he was diagnosed with stage Four brain tumor.

“I was in my final year of university when I started experiencing these sporadic headaches that did not go away even with painkillers. Doctors did not know what the problem was,” says Meshack.

With only painkillers to dull the searing pain, Meshack sat for his exams to emerge the best in his class.

The doctors were finally able to pinpoint what was really ailing him one year later in 2021 when he was in his final year of university. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.  Afterward, he embarked on a rigorous cancer treatment phase involving chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions. “Chemo is unpleasant. It makes you nauseous, and tired- it generally makes you unwell. But I pushed through because I strongly felt I would beat it,”  he narrates.

The system administrator at Nairobi National Museum says that from the time of diagnosis, he had a blooming feeling he would be cured. “I wrote in my diary I have 100 years to live despite the prognosis I was given,” he adds.

Complementary cancer treatment

While going through the 33 sessions of radiotherapy, Meshack came across Faraja Cancer Support Trust, a facility that offers complementary therapies for cancer patients and caregivers. “I had gone there to seek financial aid because NHIF could only cover 18 sessions, with each session charged at Sh3,600 at Kenyatta National Hospital. I was starting to feel the financial strain,” he explains.

It is here where he was introduced to transformational breathwork.

Meshack reveals that every time he went for breathwork before undergoing radiotherapy, the accompanying pain, and discomfort would be more tolerable-detailing that ‘something’ shifted to provide more fortitude.

This desirable impact incentivised him to make his way to the centre every Tuesday afternoon for a session conducted by a breathing specialist. He has continued with the sessions even after he was declared cancer-free last month after nearly a year of treatment.

He says: Now the breathwork helps me to get clarity of thoughts by eliminating negative emotions and anxiety. It is a very good exercise for anyone and not just people who have had cancer or are recovering.

He also passionately adds that the exercise should be introduced in all facilities offering cancer treatment and care options. “To get healed is more mental than it is physical. Breathwork helps you mentally,” he says.

Transformational breath work

Transformational breath senior trainer and life coach Vincent Oloo describes transformational breathing as a conscious breathing technique that involves breathing in deeply through the mouth and into your abdomen. It involves conscious breathing, gentle body mapping, movements, toning (making sounds), and positive affirmations to help cancer patients to wade through the cancer journey with some degree of respite.

He says this form of breathwork technique emphasises diaphragmatic breathing, a technique that helps you focus on your diaphragm, a muscle in your belly and employs a hands on approach, where he applies pressure on different parts of the body as the participant breathes.

There is a range of breathwork techniques, and transformational breathing is one among many.

“The participant lies on their back and takes deep breaths through the nose and exhales through the mouth. I use my hands to gently apply pressure on the chest, abdomen, and other areas to release tension as air moves deeper into the body,” explains Oloo.

Deep abdominal breathing encourages a person to fully absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide according to Harvard Health publication. Deep abdominal breathing is also called abdominal or belly breathing.

Oloo adds that transformational breathing encourages participants to be conscious about their breathing by shutting out their thoughts and focusing solely on drawing in sufficient air into the diaphragm, which helps the body, and mind to function at an optimum.

The breath work, the specialist further says cancer patients have remarked having handled chemotherapy better after going through his sessions.

“This form of breathing helps relieve stress, depression, and anxiety and allows people to connect with themselves. It is not only for cancer patients or ailing people, but for everyone, including children and the elderly,” he says.

He adds that different people get varying results from the breath work session, which can range anywhere between one hour or less. Some effects are instantaneous, others delayed.

Great improvement

Oloo was introduced to breath work some 18 years ago when the practice was peculiar and confined to a small number of people. However, now, he says it has caught on and may soon go mainstream as awareness continues to grow.

Jane Mwihaki a cancer survivor has been having a sensation problem from the waist down since her radiotherapy session some six years ago.

For the first time in a long time, she finally felt a tingling feeling down her waist after recently participating in a breathwork session with Oloo.

“After I was done with radiotherapy, the doctor told me my spine sustained a burn injury. I have tried visiting doctors to address the problem, but it has been futile,” she says.

She reads the tingling sensation as a favourable effect of the exercise and remains upbeat about future sessions.

 Mwihaki, a professional caterer was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2016 after numerous ulcers misdiagnoses. She continues to attend clinics every six months as she awaits a cured report. If you remain in complete remission for five years or more, some doctors may say that you are cured according to National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Further, a cure means that there are no traces of your cancer after treatment and cancer will never come back.

On the other hand, remission means that the signs and symptoms of the cancer are reduced. Remission can be partial or complete. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared.

Elsie Mulindi, CEO of Faraja Cancer Support Trust affirms that complementary therapies are not a substitute for medical treatment, but play a crucial role in promoting wellness and progressive recovery of cancer patients.

“We have different therapies for cancer patients, such as energy therapies, physical, relaxation, and wellness. We also have counselling sessions and support groups for the different kinds of cancers,” said Mulindi.

These therapies promote mental wellness as the treatment journey is distressing and confusing—they provide a better understanding of the disease and equip patients and their caregivers with critical information says Mulindi.

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