It’s certainly true that great medical strides have been made in recent years in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but there has been less focus on addressing issues uniquely associated with the patient’s experiences.
These patient issues and attitudes can have a significant impact, positive or negative, on your ultimate success in the fight for survival.
I have been fortunate to not have a cancer diagnosis myself, but many of my loved ones have not been so fortunate. My mom and her 4 sisters all succumbed to breast cancer between the early 1950s through the early 1980s. My father had throat cancer, which led to his passing in 1995. My brother and sister-in-law have both battled lung cancer caused by high levels of radon in their home, our daughter-in-law was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2012 and has MRIs at regular intervals, and several other people in our extended family have also fought cancer.
As horrible as that history has been, the experience that had the most critical impact on our immediate family unit has been my wife Cleda’s diagnoses and treatments for 3 different types of breast cancer over the past 26 years, in addition to multiple instances of questionable test results that required biopsies or “watchful waiting.” Cleda has most recently been diagnosed with a “preleukemia” condition, which we are told could have been caused by her previous breast cancer treatments.
Cancer has therefore not just “touched” our lives. It has been a deadly and merciless enemy, kicking us to the ground, sapping our strength, creating anxiety and stress, and has in many ways negatively affected our hopes and our dreams.
As a result of my involvement in these experiences with loved ones, we hope our experiences and lessons learned can assist others who find themselves in these battles. Some may be intuitive, and others are not readily addressed between doctors and patients, or, in fact, may not be fully understood by either.
11 Strategies for Surviving Cancer
1. Surviving the waiting game. There will be many instances when you have to wait before you can proceed with your diagnosis and treatment. It may be waiting to get in to see your oncologist, waiting for a treatment to start, waiting to see other specialists or get your blood test results, or many other “waits.” This can dramatically increase your stress levels (see #10). In those instances, the best you can do is to try to focus on other things in your life—another family member’s need, a planned vacation, or doing something special just for yourself. It’s not easily accomplished, but it’s worth the effort: in this case, distractions are your friend.
2. Be your own general. The medical profession has improved by providing a dedicated team to assist you in your battle with cancer. However, the primary advocate for your health and your survival is you. Be the general that is directing the field attack, or designate someone who will help you keep track of your many medical records, bills, and appointments.
3. Ask away. Don’t be shy about asking questions to your medical team, and ensure that you understand what your specific diagnosis is, what the treatment involves, and what you should expect. Educate yourself on your particular cancer type by reading resources through reputable organizations or websites (such as the American Cancer Society or the National Cancer Institute) so that you can ask pertinent questions. Be sure to take a friend or a family member with you on your appointments to ensure that you retain everything that is being said.
4. Get a second opinion. Seek a second opinion for your diagnosis and treatment options. A good doctor will encourage this, so don’t feel you are conveying that you distrust your doctor. This is your life! A second opinion kept Cleda from having to go through chemotherapy in one instance when the pathologist identified a wrong tumor type.
5. Push for full disclosure. When presented with a treatment plan, be sure you investigate the full potential impacts of this treatment on your health (in the short-term and the long-term). We have learned recently that chemotherapy and radiation from previous breast cancer treatment can cause leukemia in the future—why did we never hear of this possibility before? We’ve also found that even though survival rates for breast cancer treatment with lumpectomy/radiation versus mastectomy are similar, the lumpectomy/radiation can leave you open to constant scares from benign lumps, and you still risk new or metastasized malignancies in the breasts. You are left with a constant fear of when the next hammer will drop.
6. Be aware of the risks after a mastectomy. A mastectomy can dramatically reduce your risk of breast cancer recurrence, but it will not eliminate it completely, so stay vigilant.
7. Is breast reconstruction for you? Breast reconstruction after a mastectomy is right for some women, but an alarmingly high percentage of patients report that they are not happy with their reconstructed breasts. This is not related to the surgery, but is likely because the reconstructed breast is not the same as the original in shape, size, or feeling. If you plan to proceed with reconstruction, investigate the process thoroughly. Consider the risk versus the benefits.
8. Find a confidant. Cancer causes an emotional rollercoaster for the patient, and a calming, caring, and understanding confidant is critical to maintaining your mental and physical health. It could be a spouse, an adult child, a friend, or anyone you feel a connection with. In fact, more than 1 confidant would be even better, to provide different perspectives.
9. Find out if it’s genetic. If several family members have experienced multiple cancers, consider having a genetic test to see if you carry genes that make you more susceptible to certain cancers. Such tests could provide much needed information to protect your health and the health of your children. Cleda had a genetic test, but she didn’t have any of the genetic markers for cancer (at least none that has been identified to date).
10. Chill out. Stress may not currently be scientifically linked as a cause of cancer, but in my family’s experience there is strong evidence that it is. Try your best to reduce your stress level and the chaos of your everyday life.
11. What’s in your toolbox? Above all else, a strong faith, a positive attitude, a fighting spirit, a sense of humor, and an appreciation of the small miracles around you, are your most critical tools for successfully defeating this enemy.
Although these suggestions are from 1 set of experiences by 1 family that has been through many cancer crises, I encourage you to consider them in your own quest for life after cancer. Stay strong, my friends.