Cancer survivors are no strangers to worry.
I’ve dedicated a lot of time to the topic on the blog this month because anxiety and worry are essentially a universal part of the survivor experience. Anxiety should be acknowledged, treated, and monitored carefully. You, cancer survivor, deserve at least that.
But in this post, I’d like to take a different approach to worry and anxiety because sometimes, I wish you would let your cancer care team worry about your cancer recurrence risk so you can worry about something far more important.
In my daily work, I see cancer survivors in active cancer surveillance, the period after treatment where we watch closely with fingers crossed. I comb your labs, scans, and symptoms for any sign of recurrence. I use pathology and staging to understand how vigilant I must be. My job is to worry about your recurrence risk and trust me, I lose sleep over it too.
Cancer survivors in my office can be ravaged by by anxiety, worrying endlessly about what MIGHT happen, “What if the cancer comes back?” Wringing their hands, getting no sleep. Their lives are eclipsed by this worry. They’re petrified and I don’t blame them.
But - this is hard for me to say because I don’t want to give the impression I don’t have empathy, because I do.
The thing is, these anxious cancer survivors are so worried about recurrence, but they don’t do what they can and should do to move the needle and make a real difference in their recurrence risk.
In these visits I acknowledge and treat their anxiety, but I also give them tools and advice that, if used well, should substantially decrease their recurrence risk.
But they make no change.
They continue to eat sugar constantly. They’re obese. They don’t exercise. They smoke.
They make no change despite the power to live in a way that should remedy the anxiety they’re imprisoned by.
It’s incredibly complicated psychology, the motivation to make real health change and the treatment of anxiety, and a thorough discussion is certainly beyond the scope if this blog post, let alone a 15 minute office visit.
The point is, it makes me feel ineffective and frustrated. I want so much more for you, and I know you want more for yourself. But how do we get there?
We’ll leave a full discussion for another time, and in the end it’s your choice and I respect it.
But, perhaps I can at least propose you think about things a little differently:
If you’re going to worry, consider worrying about what you can control that will prevent cancer recurrence.
There are mountains of data to point us to specific lifestyle modifications that can decrease your risk of recurrence, things you can do to feel better in your life and remain as happy and productive as possible.
I know you want it, but I can’t do for you. You must do it.
So let your cancer care team do their job. If they’re worth their salt, they’ve got you covered in the worry department.
Worry about the stuff below instead.
Because if you worry about the stuff below, you’ll feel better. You can take action today to put yourself in control of your health, vitality, and well being.
And maybe one day, you won’t have to worry anymore.
If you’re a smoker, I imagine you’ve heard about the risk of smoking for cancer survivors.
If not, no judgement, but you should know the facts:
The latest data from 2017 shows 11 percent of cancer survivors smoke.
Cancer treatment outcomes are worse in smokers, cancer recurrence rates are higher in smokers, and second cancer diagnoses are higher in smokers.
Data also shows that many cancer survivors who smoke want to quit, but just haven’t done it yet.
If that describes you, ask for help from your doctor Because you deserve to worry about smoking, not recurrence.
Please worry about your diet if you eat a lot of junk food. Worry hard, my friend, about adopting an anti-cancer diet.
Anti-cancer diet - What does that mean, exactly?
Low fat, low sugar, low processed food, high veggie and fruit, high fiber, and plant based diets are associated with a lower cancer risk.
Diets high in sugar and fat, fast and junk food, and processed foods are associated with a higher risk of cancer.
You can make a difference for your health if you channel your worry into taking action around food.
Shop at farmer’s markets, skip the middle aisles in the grocery store that contain much of the processed food and head to the produce department. Learn to meal prep to make healthy meals fast. Bring your lunch instead of eating out.
Worrying about eating real food will pay off, big time.
There is no debate. Obesity is a significant risk factor for cancer and cancer recurrence. If you’re overweight, you must worry about losing a few pounds.
This isn’t easy to do, I know, especially if you’re just completing treatment and you’re plain worn out.
Something that may help motivate you:
Despite being overweight, many obese cancer survivors are at risk of being malnourished which contributes to fatigue. Many of the foods that cause obesity are quite low in nutritive value but high in sugar or fat.
So if you improve your diet, you may actually feel better by addressing the malnutrition that leads to fatigue. The ultimate result will be weight loss and greater energy.
Additionally, increasing activity can have the same effect of encouraging weight loss and energy. Read below for more on that.
So yes, you should definitely worry about your weight.
Living a Sedentary Lifestyle
Please worry about moving your body.
The data about exercise is also incredibly clear - higher levels of physical activity are associated with a decreased cancer recurrence risk. And it’ll make you feel more energetic, have less pain, less anxiety, and help you lose weight.
Having higher levels of physical activity doesn’t have to mean spending hours at the gym per week.
How about a yoga class or two over the week, and a ten to twenty minute walk a few times a week?
It’s doable. It really is.
So worry about moving your body. The worry will improve almost every measure possible after cancer.
Neglecting Your Brain
Worry long and hard about your brain health.
Your brain is your greatest asset. If you have a healthy brain, your body is more likely to be healthy, too.
Chemo brain is real. If you’re experiencing memory problems and cognitive slowness after treatment, you must make your brain health a priority.
You can’t undertake the project of worrying constructively about any of the stuff I’ve mentioned above if you can’t think straight.
You must take care of your brain by giving it a workout every day with brain strengthening activities. You must teach it to work efficiently, remember well, help you remain calm, and focus with ease by starting a mindfulness practice.
So worry about your brain health so you can embark on a healthy cancer survivor lifestyle, and your worrying mind can worry less!
Being Socially Isolated
Worry about being around people.
Cancer survivors with strong communities have better cancer outcomes and a greater sense of well being.
Find the people in your life who lift you up, who like to live a healthy lifestyle, and who have your best interest at heart.
They will help you worry about the right things, stop worrying about the wrong things, and you’ll be healthier and happier for it.
And maybe worry about others, because helping other people increases well being, too.
Not Making An Effort To Get Healthier Than Ever
And finally, you should worry about not taking action.
You need to do everything possible to take action around getting healthy.
After all, this is what you can control, and what a great feeling taking control after cancer will be.
You can start small, but you have to start somewhere. Make a small commitment at first, maybe by cutting sodas from your diet. Or avoid fast food for a week. Take a ten minute walk twice a week. Try it and see how you feel.
Worry about doing nothing. And please, please do something.
If you’re inspired by the idea of channeling your worry into what you can do to improve your cancer recurrence risk, I’m excited to announce that I’ve opened enrollment for Survivor Fatigue Solution once again!
This time, I’ve created a Summer Independent Study version of the program at a lower price point for all of you who want a affordable, more independent, self-paced experience. Read all about it by clicking the yellow button below.
Take care, Survivor, and worry well. I really hope to see you inside the program.