Infusion of Hope

Small Changes May Make You Happier & Healthier

Most survivors have asked themselves the question, “Could I have prevented this cancer?” Some may mull this question over and over in their minds. But how much should you dwell on the past, and is it worth your time and energy now to have regrets?
February 2016 Vol 2 No 1
Julie Silver, MD
Associate Professor Harvard Medical School
Department of Physical Medicine and
Rehabilitation Boston, MA

One thing that many people don’t realize if they haven’t been diagnosed with cancer is that the constant onslaught of media information about preventing cancer can make them not only worry about the future but also regretful about the past. Most survivors have asked themselves the question, “Could I have prevented this cancer?” Some may mull this question over and over in their minds. But how much should you dwell on the past, and is it worth your time and energy now to have regrets? If you think I’m going to encourage you not to dwell on the past—not so fast. I believe it is worthwhile to examine the past in an effort to identify areas of behavior and health habits that you may want to enhance.

For example, as I’ve mentioned in this column previously, cancer survivors are often bombarded with advice on how to “eat healthy.” Whether it’s from loved ones, friends, or the media, it seems that everyone has suggestions. Past nutrition and its effect on a new cancer diagnosis is one area where nearly everyone may have regrets. After all, even if you generally eat well, it’s impossible to have consumed a “perfect” diet. How much should you worry about what you’ve eaten in the past, or what you are going to eat in the future?

That’s a tough question to answer; an obvious response may be “don’t worry.” But that’s not very helpful, so here’s a suggestion: set aside some time to think about your diet (or other things, such as sleep or exercise, that may help prevent future health problems). Instead of worrying, think about what you’ve done in the past, and the
lessons learned so that you can use them now and in the future.

Getting Started

During the time you set aside (let’s say that it’s an hour), write down the things that you think you could improve on and some strategies to do that. For example, let’s say you write down “I want to eat more vegetables.” Follow this with some strategies that you could incorporate into your daily life, such as:

  1. Eat the vegetables first when I am hungry, because they’ll taste better
  2. Add additional flavor to my vegetables (pumpkin seeds in my salad, or hummus with my carrots)
  3. Drink 1 serving of vegetable juice or soup daily

Survivors’ Advice

In my book, What Helped Get Me Through, survivors offered many healthy suggestions for decreasing stress while simultaneously improving health habits, such as exercise, sleep, and meditation.

For example, Cathi, who is a breast cancer survivor, began walking or running in the woods to reduce stress and improve her overall health.

Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer and said, “I found that being able to use meditation and yoga helped calm the ‘galloping fear’ that comes along with this disease.”

Pearl got a puppy, and this encouraged her to walk a lot after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Matt, a carpenter who was diagnosed with leukemia, reported that he went to physical therapy and then started cross-country skiing.

Eileen, a nurse who had colon cancer, read uplifting books on survivorship at night until she fell asleep.

This issue of CONQUER is devoted to improving your health and prevention. In my book Before and After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger, I offer many suggestions on how to start and follow through with new or enhanced health habits. You can tap into many other resources to get more information, including your healthcare team and organizations such as the American Cancer Society.

The Key to Success

Here’s a really important “takeaway” message: The key to success is—the positive changes you make need to become part of your routine, or a habit. It takes a while to develop a new habit, so be prepared for some inconsistency, and keep aiming for consistency until you have your routine down pat.

It’s amazing how small changes can make a significant difference in how you feel physically and emotionally. In medicine doctors sometimes call this the “sum of small gains.” Try it and see what happens!

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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