What are you doing to beat the odds?
In the 35 years I have been involved in cancer care, I have seen many people make liars out of statistics – outliving their prognoses or going into complete remission. I always wonder what factors enabled that person to be an “outlier” and successfully “beat the odds”? Shouldn’t we study them more closely? Indeed, Caryle Hirshberg and her co-author Marc Ian Barasch (a cancer survivor) in Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us about Getting Well and Staying Well have called for the creation of a Remarkable Recovery Registry based on the National Tumor Registry to examine these cases more closely to determine independent factors that contribute to healing.
Until that happens and considering there are no guarantees, what can a person diagnosed with cancer do to “stack the deck” in his or her favor? For starters, take a deep breath and quickly become as informed as possible in regard to the disease and treatment options. This can help reduce fear and panic – neither of which helps in decision-making. Information helps you become partners with your medical team and people who actively participate in treatment decisions may do better in treatment with fewer complications. Perhaps, they feel more in control or they feel more confidence in their team. Once you’ve decided on a course of treatment, unless there are adverse effects try to comply fully to get the whole therapeutic effects and create your own healing path!
Second, realize what you can take responsibility for and recognize what you cannot control. The Serenity Prayer in action! Stay focused on what you can or want to do. Don’t change just because you “should”. Make positive changes because they help you feel better, give you more strength or energy, and encourage you to enjoy and get the most out of life. Focus on your real priorities. Spend more time doing more of what brings you joy.
Third, evaluate your lifestyle to assess areas of change. It may seem as though cancer diagnosis is not an opportune time to change, but it may be quite the contrary as cancer often makes people uncomfortable and motivated enough to change. Diet is a good example. You may not want to become a vegetarian or vegan, but you may be willing to cut down on “bad” fats, salt, sugar, and junk. You also may not want to train for a marathon, but you may be willing to start walking or doing some stretching or start some strength training. Likewise, you might want to reduce toxic ingestion of alcohol (or other substances) or toxic exposure to hazardous materials in the environment.
A fourth area might be learning stress management techniques or other sources of psychological and emotional resolve. While evidence of the extent of psychological effects on physical functioning is controversial, there is evidence that decreasing depression and stress may help immune function. Improved psychological functioning such as appropriate assertiveness and emotional discharge may redirect energy to increase motivation to enjoy life’s activities.
A fifth way to improve our outcome is to garner social support. This is more than joining a cancer support group, although that may be really helpful to hear how others are coping. It is also inspirational to see others who have “been through the fire” and are years beyond treatment. Not all people want support groups or to think about cancer all the time. There are many other interest groups around. You may not have to look outside your family. Your focus may be to improve these relationships.
A sixth area is exploring a spiritual connection – whatever form that takes for the individual. It may be returning to church, synagogue, or mosque. It may be turning to nature or science. Often times cancer patients wrestle with how this could happen or what does it mean or why me? You may not get total answers, but it may be worth coming to some answers that bring you inner peace and turn your focus from why this happened to how best to live. That may help our health more than anything.