Learning you have cancer is a turning point in life that potentially changes everything. Emotions can run rampant – from fear to anger to grief – and it's easy to jump to the worst-case scenario. But cancer experts and survivors tell us it's important to take positive steps to remain as healthy as possible after a cancer diagnosis. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually can give you needed strength and stamina for treatment, decrease depression and anxiety, reduce the fatigue you may feel and, in some cases, even improve your outcome.
The cancer physicians of Sarah Cannon Institute at HCA Midwest Health offer advice gleaned from years of caring for patients with all types of cancers.
Staying well is a triple play – physical, mental, emotional health
It's easy to spiral downward emotionally, lose your appetite and quickly fall into depression when cancer is diagnosed. That's why doctors and other experts advocate a multi-pronged wellness approach – physical, emotional and mental – for those diagnosed with cancer.
“I tell my patients that although cancer is a hard and life-changing diagnosis, try and keep to a normal routine as much as possible,” says Nisreen Haideri, MD, a medical oncologist/hematologist with Sarah Cannon at Overland Park Regional Medical Center. “Listen to your body and do as much as you can tolerate and handle including exercise and social commitments, unless your doctor has advised you otherwise. It's important to coach oneself to feel and be normal.”
Remember you're not alone
Although it may feel uncomfortable, letting friends, family and even co-workers know about your diagnosis can create a much-needed support network.
“We know that cancer patients with good social support live longer,” says Blair Smith, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with Sarah Cannon at Research Medical Center. “I tell patients to think of family and friends as part of your therapy, or as a medication which may require time, effort, and vulnerability. Sometimes you can block out time in your day specifically for them as you would for exercise, napping or taking your medications.”
Additionally, know it is okay to accept help, advises Stephanie Graff, MD, a medical oncologist with Sarah Cannon at Menorah Medical Center. Friends and family want to do something for loved ones with cancer.
“You should never be afraid to ask for help,” Dr. Graff says. “People want to help. Keep a list of things you can ask friends to do handy so that when someone offers, you can give them a concrete action. Have them pick up medicines at the pharmacy, drive to appointments, drop off dinners on certain days, take children out for an hour so you can rest, fold laundry. It all helps.”
Another accessible, important resource is the doctor and his or her team beyond medical care. They are able to connect you to other patients or former patients going through the same experience, counseling, community resources and more.
“The cancer care team has solutions to most problems—so it's important to communicate what problems you are experiencing,” says Dr. Graff. “We're in this together and we all want our patients to feel free to call our team with questions or bring up concerns during visits.”
Chase the blues
Feeling depressed and anxious after a diagnosis, during treatment or recovery is part of the process, experts say. Consequently, it's important to take steps and tap into resources to help alleviate those feelings.
“I see many patients with guilt if they survived and know someone who did not,” says Dr. Smith. And sometimes intimacy with a significant other may be difficult. Seeking help and counseling or even local support groups can be very helpful. Your doctor can help you find those resources.”
Another positive goal during treatment, doctors say, is getting and staying as fit as possible.
“Patients should stay active with a variety of aerobic, stretching and strength exercises if possible,” advises Mohammad Mozayen, MD, a medical oncologist with Sarah Cannon at Centerpoint Medical Center. “In addition to making you stronger, it can reduce the risk of falls and actually help you feel better emotionally.”
Patients who exercise during treatment – if appropriate from the doctor's perspective – tend to have less fatigue, and with some cancer types, have better outcomes. Whether a structured routine or more casual exercising, being active can also help patients feel they're doing something to fight back against cancer and gain a sense of some control over their health.
Eat well, feel well
How and what you eat plays a big role in how you feel and your body's ability to stay as strong and well as possible during cancer treatment, doctors say. Although there's no special diet to follow when undergoing cancer treatments, your diet should follow best nutrition guidelines with a balance of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and fats, and an eye on staying at a healthy weight.
“Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your overall health when you have been diagnosed with cancer, so focus on weight loss if needed,” Dr. Mozayen advocates. “In general, eat a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables and lean proteins and stay hydrated. Your doctor can advise on the best diet.”
Know that cancer doesn't define you
“Life does not STOP just because you have cancer,” stresses Dr. Haideri. “It's important to focus on hobbies, exercise, or even talk to providers for minor adjustments in the schedule to be able to participate in family, friends' celebration events, or travel with family for those memorable experiences. We know these things are important and encourage them.”
Although many patients tend to separate life into “before and after cancer,” doctors advise keeping sight of hobbies, work or other areas of life that give you fulfillment and satisfaction.
“Write down the activities and hobbies that you loved to do before you were diagnosed with cancer,” says Dr. Smith. “This lets you separate the activities into those that require lots of energy and those that do not. Fatigue is a common side effect of therapy and cancer, so on a good day, look at the list of activities that require more energy, and do them. If you are having a bad day, do something that you love that doesn't take as much energy. This will help you enjoy your life and not lose sight of who you were before cancer, and help you continue to be that same person with cancer.”
Walk the road to recovery
Recovery and remission are the goals of treatment, with physicians working to help patients get back to their “normal” environment as emotionally and physically healthy as possible. That takes effort from everyone – including the patient.
Partners in Cancer Care
The doctors and support team at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health are with our patients for every step of a cancer journey, with experience and expertise in all kinds of cancers. Our physicians are board certified in medical oncology, radiation oncology and other specialties supported by experienced nurses, counselors, dietitians, social workers and others to partner with you.
The comprehensive wellness program is here to help you every step of the way. Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer or want to reduce your risk of cancer, are currently in treatment or are in survivorship, or you are supporting a loved one with cancer, we have the expert care you need.
We provide education, support, and referrals in all areas of wellness, including physical function, exercise, nutrition, and emotional well-being. Our services are offered at no charge to the patients of Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health.