Cancers holistic healer |

Cancers holistic healer

Eben HarrellAspen Times Staff Writer

Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, it is plague’s footsteps that are heard most often. He gallops in with the doctor holding a chart results from a lump, an unexplained illness, a growth. In the moment before diagnosis, his swiftness stills our breath. Usually, these moments are thankfully brief, and release comes quickly Oh thank heavens, its benign. But the insight is always blinding, and vestiges linger, burning an image of our own futility that we can never quite escape. For one woman at Aspen Valley Hospital, the nightmare is always the reality. Tina Staley is the cancer guide at the hospital, the woman charged with providing support for patients undergoing treatment for cancer. She coordinates holistic treatments, support groups and therapy sessions; she is the one who holds the hands of patients ravaged by chemo and radiation, facing the prospect of death.This is our plague, Staley says, I happen to believe that every cancer patient in the world should have an advocate. Its my job to make sure that in Aspen that is the case.On the wall in Staleys office is a small poster with the inscription Miracles do happen. Yet one of the difficulties of Staleys job is that, when it comes to cancer, this is rarely the case. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, half of all patients diagnosed with cancer will die of their disease, and do so within a few years. Consolation comes in small doses a reconciliation with someone who is loved, a softening of defenses, an acceptance of mortality. Its such a powerful event in someones life, Staley says. Theres a total vulnerability and loss of control that sets in. Before I moved here I worked for many years as a therapist in Chicago. Its amazing, but the breakthroughs that would take 10 years in therapy you can get in one week working with a cancer patient.Staley works to get every patient, no matter how optimistic their prognosis, to prepare for the worst. Its not difficult to broach the subject; death is never far away. Staley oversees the hospice room for the cancer clinic, a room where terminal patients are brought to die. Its a modest room, not that different from any hospital room linoleum floors, flimsy curtains, a tightly made bed. Still, theres a presence to it, a warmth, as if the futile fight for life has imbued it with a sad but powerful nobility. Life struggled here.Staley works closely with a team of oncology specialists. Barbara Stirling, the oncology nurse, is a close friend. They work together to offer a holistic approach to treating the disease Staley offering support while Stirling administers the medical treatments. I take care of the body and Tina takes care of the mind, Stirling says. Like almost all departments at AVH, which for years have been functioning at close to capacity, the oncology department is crammed and overcrowded. It shares space with same-day surgery, causing the strange dynamic of knee-scope and chemotherapy patients being treated within a few feet of one another. Still, close coordination among the staff has made the department successful; it consistently ranks highly on patient satisfaction surveys.Staley, whose wide smile and striking blue eyes denote a stubborn optimism, says that there are times when even she needs support. She notes Stirling as an invaluable source, as she does her current boyfriend. Still, the disease has made her jittery.I get full cancer screenings every six months. I mean, the works. Im a healthy person, but the disease is so random, Staley says. We see our fair share of smokers and drinkers. But we also see people who have eaten health food their entire lives and who do the Bells and the Pass in one day.There is something so primal about cancer. At times, the disease can be seen as a biological re-enactment of the human drama itself. Like the other great plague of this era, AIDS, cancer works through the bodys tendency toward self-destruction. Cells mutate and spread. The body becomes divided, like the pysche; it starts corrupting and killing itself. The treatment for the disease is also primitive, startlingly medieval for such a technological age. Chemotherapy works by pouring poison into a patients veins in the hope that the human spirit can survive through tortures that tumors cannot. There is no cure, only remission. For Staleys patients, theres a chance the journey will end with cancer. Along the way, it is remarkable how much misery the human spirit can absorb. The spirit holds on even when life is at its most unbearable, gasping and wheezing, spotted with tumors.Scott, one of Staleys patients who battles a variety of cancers, has been radiated, poisoned, and incised in the last few years, all in the hope of stopping his disease. His face is animated and vibrant, but the disease shows itself in his body fragile and underdeveloped, almost like a young boys. He talks openly and without regret about the possibility of dying. In between mouthfuls of soup (he has difficulty guiding spoon to mouth), Scott explains how AVHs cancer programs have helped him maintain hope in the face of defeat.Im not a touchy-feely guy, he says. But the support groups have been real helpful for me. Its nice to know that you arent swimming by yourself. That there are of people in the sea dealing with this disease, their own mortality.You cant afford to be an island onto yourself. Youll drown.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is