“You have cancer.” No one who sits in their doctor’s office and hears those words will forget that day. My diagnosis came one year ago; stage one testicular cancer. What?! My mind immediately went through the “How could this be?” checklist:
Smoker – no
Good shape – yes
Exercise regularly – yes
Poor health or stress – no
Family history of cancer – no
Poor diet – no
After I got over the initial shock, I eventually came to the realization that cancer, a car accident, or any unfortunate situation sometimes just is. That life, like the bumper sticker says, “happens.”
The how I got to the doctor’s office to begin with will be a story for another time. One year later, after all of the radiation treatment, follow-up visits, and tests, thankfully, I am OK. Looking back over this past year, I am definitely more sensitive to life (and death). On a daily basis, I express appreciation and gratitude. In addition, I have heartfelt empathy for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and for people who have more serious conditions than mine. In sharing these thoughts, I hope to help others going through this difficult time. Here are some things that I learned looking back one year later.
Don’t drown in your education: I did what probably everyone does after leaving the doctor’s office – I went straight to a computer and started looking up all of the information possible on my condition. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with educating yourself. The problem is when the information becomes overwhelming. Survival rates. Treatment options. Personal stories. Livestrong. American Cancer Society. Cancer forums. Books on Cancer. I spent hours on the computer reading all I could. After a certain point, I was exhausted. Promise yourself to learn the basics about your condition, to research treatment options, to rely on two or three solid resources, and maybe even be aware of some statistics…then stop. Refuse to keep digging. It’s a never-ending rabbit hole. Save your energy for more productive activities.
If you have to read, I highly recommend Anticancer written by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., PhD (who is also a cancer survivor). Anticancer provides a tremendous amount of practical information that is easy to read. I relied heavily on this book during my cancer education process.
Laugh: I didn’t care if it was from reading a funny story, seeing a funny You Tube clip, flipping to the comics section in the newspaper, or stopping on a cable channel to catch a scene from “American Pie,” I wanted to laugh. I avoided the news and anything else with the potential to make me sad or depressed. Cancer is heavy enough. Laughter lightens the load.
Get some sun: In addition to getting your Vitamin D, there’s something very calming about the sun on your face. Just being outside made me feel better. Oftentimes, I would take my book and cup of green tea outside for an hour at a time. If I didn’t feel like reading, I would just sit in silence. This quiet time, plus the sun’s warmth, made me feel like everything was going to be all right. When I take our dog outside, I watch him close his eyes as he lifts his head skyward, taking in the sun. Sometimes I swear he’s smiling. Even he gets it.
Re-evaluate: I think anyone who has a major life scare or threatening illness does this. The questions will naturally come: What have I taken for granted? What will I change? What am I going to stop putting off and do as soon as possible? I know, in reading about people with major illnesses, some have said, “This is the best thing that happened to me. It caused me to re-evaluate my life.” I can understand where they’re coming from. I don’t know if I would classify getting cancer as one of the best things that has happened to me; although, it did motivate me to make life decisions and changes that I probably would not have – like starting this blog. So take some time to re-evaluate where you are and where you want to go.
Move: After surgery, my doctor said walking was OK but nothing else too strenuous for a few weeks. For someone used to exercising almost every day, this was one of the most difficult parts of my recovery. I learned to appreciate walking. Now I see why so many people do it. There’s a simple beauty in stepping out of the house, getting some exercise and just thinking. If you can’t get outside to walk, maybe do some light stretching. Anything that gets you to move your body and starts the blood flowing.
Assess your nutrition: Up until my diagnosis, my diet was decent – formed after years of bodybuilding and following Bill Phillips’ “Body for Life” program. After surgery though, my priorities were recovery and prevention. So I went into research mode. I wanted to know not only what foods would help me prevent cancer, but what would kill any straggler cells as well. Instead of trying to get huge or ripped, I wanted to help equip my Natural Killer (NK) cells to crush anything that posed a threat to my body. (I think the term “Natural Killer Cells” is the coolest thing. I kept imagining these elite groups of cells, like Special Operation units, traveling through my body and laying waste on unsuspecting cancer cells). I also read Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. The book is a little over the top, but a very entertaining and informational read. I wouldn’t officially call myself a vegetarian, but I haven’t eaten meat in almost a year since my surgery and I can definitely feel the difference. Anticancer also has a great overview of nutrition. Green tea. Blueberries. Turmeric. Tomatoes. Spinach. Broccoli. Learn about and incorporate cancer-fighting foods into your own diet.
Focus on others: For someone facing a potentially life threatening illness, this may seem like an odd recommendation. But in helping others, whether through volunteer work or just doing something nice for someone, it not only helps keep your mind off your own worries, but it will lift your spirit, too.
Get spiritual: Prayer. Meditation. Quiet time. Worship. Whatever it is that you can do to center yourself and tend to your spirit, do it. Most of the books or articles I read about cancer recovery included a prescription for some type of meditation or prayer. I’m not necessarily talking about organized religion like going to Mass or a church service, but anything that can get your mind and body to help relieve the stress of dealing with cancer. I prayed a lot, went to church and read a lot of spiritual/faith-based writing. If religion isn’t where it’s at for you, there is a ton of resources available on the internet relating to meditation. Find something that works for you.
Spend time with important people: Like a lot of newly diagnosed cancer patients, I just wanted to be alone. Away from people in general. I didn’t want to answer questions or tell the same story over and over again. But after a few days, you realize that the world doesn’t stop just because you were diagnosed with cancer. I love being around my family and friends, so why would this change now? The most important people in your life might include a spouse, sibling, child or friend. Whoever it may be, make time and let them help you sort through this situation. Have lunch or a nice long dinner. Take a walk. Work out. Get some ice cream. Whether it’s a show of support, prayer, or shared laugh, take every interaction and use it as a boost in helping you get better.
What are some things that helped you deal with cancer or another serious illness?