News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Healthier after cancer: intention and tools

2014 was the year I got the news.

”You’ve got cancer,” are words no doctor wants to say and no patient wants to hear. My mind flooded with images of my father, grandparents, uncle, cousin and brother-in-law. They all died from the disease. I saw them go through treatment. I was terrified. Ready to do battle… not with the disease but the people in charge of healing me. I was more afraid of the treatments than cancer.

Eventually, I came to terms with my fears. I acknowledged that the treatments family members endured had come a long way. Techniques were more precise and doses adjusted. Additional practices to promote wellness and peace-of-mind would be part of my treatment plan.

I did surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. My St. Charles Health System team of doctors were exemplary. I trusted them. When I told my oncologist I wanted to work with a Naturopath Oncologist too, his initial reaction wasn’t supportive. But my nurse navigator was there to listen to my concerns and convey them to my doctor when I didn’t have the strength to do it myself. He came around and my team was complete.

As I’m writing this piece, I’m mentally knocking on wood. There’s no sure way to stay healthy after a cancer diagnosis. I know that. But I also know from research, smart doctors, and innovative practitioners that there are ways I can live a healthier life and hopefully remain cancer-free. I identified several health categories I needed to work on: emotional; physical; nutritional; and mindfulness.

• Emotional health required a deep dive into my past, beginning with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that were still affecting my life. I knew, to remain healthy, I had to overcome the resentment, hypervigilance, and anger stored deep in my body. That took reading old journals, writing down current triggers and doing writing meditations where I could access and release emotions and explanations long forgotten but still unhealed.

Then there was my job. As much as I loved aspects of it, I was also extremely stressed. I knew deep in my soul, my job was causing dis-ease on a regular basis. But I kept going because I was too afraid to quit. That being said, if I had to choose a group of coworkers to go through cancer with, I couldn’t ask for a more supportive, understanding, and loving team. They were truly a blessing. Two years after treatment, I quit my job to pursue my lifelong love of writing.

• Physical health was something I’d let slip. I made excuses about my job taking up too much time or that I was too tired and over-obligated with family responsibilities. I know when I’m active, I feel better. After treatment, my body was different. Surgery left scars and repositioned tissue that made moving harder. I was afraid I might break. Moving my new body has been full of challenges and setbacks. But, with help from physical and massage therapists, a fitness coach at Sisters Athletic Club and patient friends who didn’t get bored by how slow I had to walk on hikes, eventually I learned how to use my new body.

• Nutrition plays a big role in feeling healthy. I learned that food is fuel. I had to admit, I often used sweet and starchy foods to escape emotions. When I was stressed, I ate. When I was sad, I ate. When I was celebrating, I ate.

Food wasn’t my fuel, it was my crutch. After treatment, I promised myself I would eat healthier and more mindfully. I learned that one-third of all cancers are caused by poor diet. I knew I could do better. I began by eliminating most meats, starches and sugar from my diet. With a practitioner’s guidance and my oncologists’ blessings, I began experimenting with what foods made me feel good and which ones left me feeling tired, bloated, and grumpy.

I felt so much better and wanted to do more. That’s when my family decided to become vegetarians. We did it for our health and the planet’s, not to mention the animals we wouldn’t be eating. My husband and I went completely plant-based a year ago when we stopped eating dairy. Family meals are just as delicious but we feel better when we’re done, kind of like the difference between eating sushi vs. steak. I take supplements to boost my immune system and keep my body humming.

It’s incredibly easy to eat vegan. Just buy a vegan cookbook or search online and all kinds of meals will pop up. I’m a much better cook since we made the switch and I feel more confident that my food is helping me stay healthy.

• Mindfulness isn’t just about meditating, yoga and prayer. It’s also about being aware of what I’m thinking and doing. Before cancer, I wasn’t thinking about how I spent my

time and whether my choices were making me happy and content. We began spending more time outside on hikes and paddling kayaks on rivers and lakes. I began to feel joy again.

I took a class through the St. Charles post-cancer support network. We read Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong.” Her suggestion to get curious about your thoughts and then take the time to explore their origins opened all kinds of doors to understanding myself better. I began to stop and think before obeying my impulses. I began to recognize thoughts that were holdovers from childhood and no longer relevant to me.

Even with all those changes, sometimes I still feel anxiety about cancer coming back. Sometimes, it’s because someone comes up to me and asks, “How’s your health?” I look at their eyes and know what they’re really asking, “Do you have cancer again?” Thinking about that grabs my chest and squeezes. I have to take a moment, breathe and answer without the emotion I feel welling up.

It’s those kinds of interactions that used to cut me down. But now, I can remind myself I’m doing a lot to keep myself well in both mind and body. There are no guarantees, but changing my life and not living in the same way I was when I was diagnosed makes me feel better. In the end, my life has improved since I had cancer. I have learned a lot. I appreciate time with family and being in beauty.

I don’t take my health for granted.


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