Thriving, not just surviving: choosing to live well with cancer

thriving Sep 01, 2018

What do you do when you’ve been told you have cancer? Have you ever wondered what it feels like? Perhaps you already know? Or perhaps you have experienced it second hand through a family member, friend, or through patients you’ve encountered.

Those three little words – “you’ve got cancer” – can evoke a whole range of emotions, from fear and shock, confusion and anger, to sadness and disappointment. It can be devastating.

My story

Just over 10 years ago, I went for an MRI scan to determine whether or not I had a pituitary tumor (I do, but it’s benign and doesn’t cause me any problems now – something I thank God for!). I still remember the feelings I had when disappearing into the MRI tunnel and the “thunk, thunk, thunk” noise that the machine makes. It was unnerving to say the least! But it was painfully waiting for results that caused me most anxiety.

At that time, I remember receiving a vase of tulips from an anonymous friend – the card simply read, “The jolly nice thing about receiving anonymous flowers is that every person you can think of who might have sent them is another person who cares.” As you might imagine, this lifted my spirits no end.

To this day, I don’t know who sent them, and it almost doesn’t matter. That simple gesture gave me such a boost, it propelled me forwards with a fighting spirit. So, when the scan came back positive, I wasn’t scared.

Now as it happens, the tumor was benign and over the years it hasn’t grown any, so really, I had nothing to fear! But that’s kinda not the point here…you see, it was a time of crisis for me.

Whether a patient is diagnosed with a stage I or a stage IV tumor, it’s a crisis point. And as with any other crisis in life, it’s important that they look after themselves well, remember to eat regularly, take naps when they feel tired, and take time off work to give themselves some space.

Let’s take a look at why it’s so important to try and live as healthily as possible whilst being sick….

Eating well

We all know we should eat a healthy, balanced diet, but sometimes there is a temptation to “treat ourselves” to a biscuit or two with that morning cuppa, or a chocolate bar to perk us up after lunch, or a glass or two (or more!) of wine in the evening. Sometimes it’s convenience that’s like the wolf in sheep’s clothing: it’s quick and easy to have the just-add-hot-water-noodles at lunch, or bung a pizza in the oven for dinner. Now, I personally believe in the old mantra, “everything in moderation”, but when this becomes our daily reality, we are doing ourselves a disservice: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Studies have shown that eating a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet that is rich in fiber, leafy greens, fruits and vegetables, not only reduces our risk of numerous cancers and cardiovascular disease, also makes us happier, with improved mental and physical wellbeing. We even perform better in our daily tasks, whether that be at work or around the home: we pay greater attention to detail, we are more responsive, we are more productive, and we even get along better with those we interact with.

This idea that our diet is important to our health is not a new idea either. Some may think of it as a recent political drive from our world leaders in a bid to reduce the burden on our healthcare services, but in fact the concept has been around for a long while.

At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison reportedly claimed:

“The Doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” - Thomas Edison

Even earlier than this, however, comes the famous quote from Hippocrates who said more than 2000 years ago:

“prevention is preferable to cure.” - Hippocrates

If you would like more information and advice on what nutritional recommendations you can safely offer your patients, I can recommend Jo Gamble – Nutritional Therapist and Functional Medicine practitioner at Embracing Nutrition who has a particular specialism working with cancer patients to support them in achieving wellness.

Moving more

In the same way that we all know we ought to eat healthily, we also know we ought to be physically active. For many, this is a natural part of their everyday life, but for some it can seem like a daunting task, a constant source of guilt and frustration, and another thing to squeeze into their already busy days.

For many cancer patients, it can be physically very difficult to move more. This can be for many different reasons, such as the side effects of chemo and radiotherapy causing swelling (lymphedema), or the fatigue that often accompanies the disease, or it could be the mental and emotional barriers facing them.

Just as keeping fit and active can prevent cardiovascular disease and keep our hearts healthy, it can also prevent the development and progression of many cancers, including breast, colon, endometrial and ovarian cancer.

However, many cancer patients are afraid to exercise, fearful that they’ll put unnecessary stress and strain on the body. Many understand that exercise can be beneficial, but want to be sure they do it safely.

The difficulty facing researchers in this area is that we don’t actually know how physical activity and exercise prevents cancer initiation and spread. We have a few ideas, but it’s hard to unpick the effects of exercise from the effects of other factors that may be playing a role in disease prevention. In addition, there is a lot of confusion in the field as to how much exercise is enough, and what type of exercise is best.

The current recommendation is for 150 minutes of medium- to high-intensity exercise each week, which is basically the same for healthy individuals. Reading this statement actually sparked in me a new-found enthusiasm for running last November! I remember reading the paper and thinking, “Goodness, I’m lucky if I get two 30-minute exercise sessions in each week, never mind five!” And so, I donned my trainers and pounded the pavements that evening.

Some studies indicate that low intensity exercise is sufficient, including housework and gardening. Other studies suggest that exercise may actually increase the risk of certain cancers, namely skin cancer (melanoma). However, I should caveat that with the following statement: if you’re out running or cycling in the sunshine, you are naturally going to increase your risk of skin cancer because you’re exposing yourself to UV rays from the sun. This nicely highlights the need to read the studies carefully and think beyond the scientific data being presented.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) has recently commissioned a project called “Moving Medicine” to develop primary prevention resource to support healthcare professionals in offering brief physical activity advice to patients. As soon as it’s published, I’ll update this post to include the link, but for now, if you’re interested, you can follow the progress on Twitter: @moving_medicine.

Further afield, I would like to signpost you to my friend and colleague, Marian Barnick. Marian is a registered kinesiologist (which basically means she knows about how the mechanics of how the body moves in health and disease) and a cancer exercise professional who founded WELLFIT Cancer Services in Ontario, Canada. Marian specialises in evaluating function and treating movement deficiencies in cancer patients, offering pre-operative, pre-exercise and prehab assessments. She also has a really useful guide outlining 5 things every cancer patient should know before exercising, which you can get here.

Positive thinking

Our brains are incredibly powerful machines, quite aside from the fact that they do multiple functions every minute of every day without us even thinking about it: breathing, keeping our heart beating, that absent-minded motion towards your forehead to scratch an itch that just appeared….you just did it, didn’t you? You see? Our subconscious brain is unbelievably powerful.

I recently went on a training workshop called “The Art of Brilliance”, which was led by Dr Andy Cope – an academic who specializes in positive psychology. Yep, he is literally “Dr Happy”. And boy, was he! Anyway, one of the exercises he had the attendees do involved a Polo mint and a piece of thread…

Each participant had to thread a Polo mint on about half a meter of thread (for our global audience who may not be familiar with the Polo, here’s a picture of the famous “mint with a hole”). We then held the top of the thread in one hand, dangling the Polo about an inch or two above the palm of our other hand.

He then started to repeat, “Left, right, left, right, left right….north, south, north, south, north south…around and around and around and around….back, forth, back, forth, back, forth…stop!”. As the exercise progressed, there were audible collective gasps and giggles reverberating around the room. The exercise didn’t work for everyone, but for me and many others, as he said, “Left, right, left, right”, my Polo mint began to swing left and right, and as he changed to, “north, south, north, south”, my Polo mint started to swing back and forth, and so on.

It was uncanny.

And it was apparently all down to our subconscious brain hearing and faithfully following the “instructions” he was giving. The whole point of me telling you this story is that whether you believe in the power of the mind or not, it really is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal.

About 30 years ago, there was a ground-breaking study in the field of psychoneuroimmunology. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?! Apart from being generally difficult to pronounce, spell and type out without making a billion mistakes, psychoneuroimmunology is essentially a combination of psychology, neurobiology and immunology – that is, the study of our cognitive brains, the cellular make-up of our brains (and nervous systems), and our immune systems, and crucially, how they all work together.

In this landmark study, researchers took a bunch of cancer patients and divided them into two groups: the first group were given their standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy as normal; but the second group participated in positive guided imagery. This involved patients imagining their immune cells “snuggling up” to their cancer cells and secreting toxic chemicals to kill them. Remarkably, this latter group of patients had a more positive response to their chemotherapy, despite having no additional drug or radiation when compared with the first group. Now, yes, I understand this is one study with a limited number of patients, but it is undeniably a radical and exciting suggestion as to the power of our thinking and how it can mobilise our immune systems to do their worst and eliminate tumors!

So, in a nutshell, it’s important to encourage your patients to remain positive – what we think about, we create more of. There’s even a Proverb that warns us to be careful what we think about because our lives are shaped by our thoughts (Proverbs 4:23).

The bottom line

You can’t promise to cure your patients of cancer, but you can give them hope to live as happy and fulfilling a life as possible whilst they still can. Ultimately, this stems from healthy lifestyle choices which can prolong their days free from secondary metastases.

In the free guide that accompanies this blog post, The Incredibly Simple 3-Step System to Living Well With Cancer, I break down three things that you, the healthcare professional, can use to help your patients to be as healthy as possible whilst being sick. You can download your copy of the guide here.

It may sound like a paradox, but it is possible, and in fact necessary, to live healthily despite being sick. By helping your patients adopt healthy behaviors, such as being more active and eating more healthily, you are in fact helping reduce their risk of secondary metastases.

What patient wouldn’t want that?!

One more thing!

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