The language surrounding cancer recovery often includes the concept of fight. But for some cancer survivors, victory — and healing — has come in the form of retreat.
Knight’s Cabin offers free weekend retreats for Albertans with any form of cancer, at any stage in their treatment, as long as they’re medically stable. Its goal is to promote behavioural changes that improve cancer survivorship.
Dr. Lisa Belanger, founder and director of research at Knight’s Cabin, is a certified exercise physiologist and has a PhD in behavioural medicine. She says the retreats help cancer survivors and their caregivers transition to their “new normal” after a cancer diagnosis.
“This is a complex challenge, and we don’t tend to arm people for that,” says Belanger, adding that patients struggle with a lot of personal questions throughout their cancer journey. “[They ask], ‘What do I do now? Can I go back to my job? Am I the same person within my family? What can I control? What does my new life look like?’”
The retreats offer formal sessions on physical activity, nutrition, stress and sleep management. Belanger says attendees also benefit from informal interactions with volunteers, caregivers and fellow survivors with whom they can share their story.
“Decreasing the isolation of the disease can tremendously help the mental health aspect of it,” she says.
A cancer diagnosis can exacerbate preexisting conditions such as anxiety and depression. It can also create many new mental health challenges — fear of recurrence, strain in relationships, stress due to finances, and grief. According to Belanger, promoting psychological self-care to cope with these challenges, whatever their stage or pronouncement, is an essential part of cancer recovery.
“As you have your oncologist, so should you have your therapist,” she says.
Psychological distress is considered one of several modifiable risk factors in developing and surviving certain cancers, but pinpointing its statistical significance in cancer survivorship is difficult. Belanger cites a retrospective study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that examined survivors of stages I-III colorectal cancer and the levels of post-diagnosis physical activity. According to the study, moderate physical activity was significantly associated with reduced recurrence and improved mortality. While this study examined physical activity, Belanger says it’s impossible to separate physical health behaviours from mental health.
“We do know how much our stress level affects our inflammation, we do know how much our immune system can impact our mental health,” Belanger says. “Can we say it’s one and not the other? No. But we know it helps.”