Tessa Guy from Marlow on helping people with a serious illness train their minds to fight back
PUBLISHED: 13:00 23 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:15 23 March 2015
Tessa Guy knows all about dark thoughts when you have a serious illness, but now she's helping people to train their minds to fight back
What are you thinking right now? Hopefully, positive thoughts that will increase as you read this story… but it’s quite likely that a few lurking worries are just waiting to surface. You know, the ones that come back several times a day and seem guaranteed to visit tomorrow and beyond for another nagging session.
Our health, whether ‘niggles’ or more chronic conditions, tricky family issues which seem impossible to solve, professional concerns and anxieties about the world in general can all influence what jumps into our heads. Even when life is ticking along fairly well we find ourselves in stressful situations, so try imagining what it must have been like for personal trainer Tessa Guy of Marlow when told she had cancer.
This is much more than the tale of one woman’s survival, but it’s worth starting back in May 2010 when she received the dreaded diagnosis. Tessa had every reason to consider herself fit and healthy, so having a life-threatening disease was far from her mind: “I never smoked in my life, there was no family history of early breast cancer, I eat well, enjoy exercise and drank only moderately, at the weekends.”
But, like around 55,000 people in the UK each year, she had developed breast cancer. “Whilst I was out running one day, I noticed that one breast felt slightly heavier, but I didn’t think too much of it,” she recalls. Eventually a girlfriend ‘bullied’ her into making a doctor’s appointment and her world was swiftly turned upside down.
A month later she had a right mastectomy which revealed triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), a rare, aggressive breast cancer which often returns, and a tumour that had spread over 8.6cm with lymph node engagement. “Originally I thought I might get away with a mastectomy and radiotherapy, but a day after my mastectomy the breast cancer nurses informed me that chemotherapy was necessary too. I dissolved into tears on the spot – I’d heard about all the hideous side effects of chemotherapy, the sickness, hair loss, exhaustion – this on top of what I was already facing in my personal life.
“However I was in a ward, surrounded by five other people who had recently undergone surgery for cancer and I realised I was luckier than many and we all agreed we would face the challenges that lay ahead together. Six individuals thrown together, united together to help one another face another day. I was not alone.”
The debilitating treatments were relentless and exhausting, so she would often recuperate in bed and read, often drawn to ways to improve her outlook. A particular book by Bruce Lipton, ‘Biology of Belief’, left a lasting impact: “It opened my eyes to a scientifically proven life of endless possibilities.”
It soon became apparent that more than drugs were needed to take on the challenge of fighting the cancer. She needed to heal her attitude to life and help an immune system already heavily compromised by stress, including that of a failing marriage.
“What I found are the stone cold facts that we produce over 70,000 thoughts a day, and even more shocking, that 70% of those are negative and we repeat 90% of our thoughts the next day. Every thought we have has a physical and chemical reaction in our body so if we constantly have stressful or negative thoughts then our bodies can be thrown off course, physically and mentally including affecting our immune system.”
Stop right there for a moment… how many times a day do those unwanted dark thoughts flash into our minds? We push them away, get on with our busy lives, but back they come, often when we least expect it. Tessa has a point.
“Into my fourth chemotherapy treatment, with no hair, minus a breast, lacking a number of my toe and finger nails, a boil on my head, a septic Hickman line in my chest and aching from limb to limb, I chose to believe I could create a brighter future, not only for myself but for others too.”
People living with cancer and other serious illnesses are often advised and encouraged to ‘rest up’ rather than undertake physical activity. But there is emerging evidence that physical activity can in fact reduce the impact of some debilitating side effects such as swelling around the arms, anxiety, depression, fatigue, impaired mobility and weight changes. In June 2011, Macmillian cancer support published the ‘Move More’ report which referred to ’Physical Activity – the underrated Wonder Drug’ for people living with cancer. There are two million cancer survivors in the UK and Macmillan estimates that a possible 1.6 million are not physically active enough.
Research indicates that sufferers from certain types of prostate, breast and bowel cancer could reduce their chances of recurrence by up to 50% if they participated in the weekly 150 minutes moderate intensity exercise recommended by the Department of Health. But in reality there are times during treatment when people are too tired and debilitated to even contemplate exercise.
One morning the concept of visualisation unexpectedly sprang to Tessa’s mind: “The power of our minds is quite literally limitless. A crucial component of visualisation is the ability to release those negative thoughts that are holding us down and to replace them with positive ones. Guided visualisation is not like a drug, it has no hideous side effects, it can only be beneficial. In relaxing the mind and body, stressful everyday thoughts can be circumvented, to improve quality of life, boost the immune system and activate our own innate healing powers.”
Making it happen
She decided to channel this into setting up a business, In Mind in Body, which provides visualisations of all sorts to ease and support the lives of people living with cancer and other serious illnesses. Visualisation is widely accepted in the sports world so her first challenge was to film a number of celebrity visualisers, to inspire others to give it a go. Golfer Luke Donald led the way, and there’s also been support from sporting stars including cricketer Jimmy Anderson, Olympian Sally Gunnell, Paralympic Judo medallist Ian Rose and rower Greg Searle.
While meditation involves emptying the mind, visualisation uses a person’s voice to guide the listener into a deep state of relaxation, where an imaginary multi sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and emotions) experience takes place. The idea is to ‘train’ the body to perceive it as an actual health-boosting positive experience. As Tessa says, it’s putting the imagination to good use!
As Tessa’s concept began to broaden, she found herself with an invitation to present her ideas to Professor Angus Dalgleish, head of oncology research at St. George’s Hospital. This opportunity catapulted her concept even further to reach a wider audience of medical professionals, some of whom make up the In Mind In Body team today.
In Mind In Body offers free guided visualisation MP3s on its website (see www.inmindinbody.com) to try – you can ‘take a walk’ or try the more exhilarating ‘downhill ski’. A fee of under £20 a year opens up a world of visualisations, including ones specifically aimed at those with cancer, plus a host of extras such as extensive expert advice in the Virtual Wellness Club.
There is a poignant – but ultimately positive – side to how In Mind In Body was made possible. Tessa’s mother battled lung cancer for right years before dying at Christmas 2013, leaving her daughter the sum needed to proceed with the project.
Tessa says: “Cancer gave me the opportunity to address my life. My sincere hope is that In Mind In Body illustrates to people how powerful our minds can be and by visualising, you are activating the power to heal in conjunction with light exercise and conventional cancer treatments. We also offer hope, support and information for cancer sufferers. If you had told me in June 2010 that I would start up a company and foundation, create and trademark a logo, design a website, engage accountants, social media, marketing/PR and business support, I would have said you’d got the wrong person!”
In January 2012 Tess underwent breast reconstruction surgery and this year she had nipple tattooing with renowned medical tattooist Caron Vetter of Stoke Mandeville-based featuresforlife.co.uk.
She’s the proud mother of three sons aged 15 to 24 and lives in a cottage near to Marlow Common, so she can go out and enjoy the woodland scenery. The shops in Marlow town centre always lift her spirits and she’s a big fan of Turners in the High Street with its extensive selection of ski, fashion and fitness wear.
When it comes to wining and dining, she recommends The Royal Oak at Bovingdon: “It’s a lovely place to relax with friends and family.”
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