There is a great deal we can do for ourselves in our everyday lives, both to avoid the disease and to support medical treatment in helping our bodies to fight it.
Eat a healthy diet
We really are what we eat. Our diet has a major impact on our body chemistry which, in turn, affects everything from major bodily functions like digestion to more subtle aspects such as our mood. Alongside all this is the potential involvement of ‘epigenetics’. Although research in this area is in its infancy there is increasing evidence that diet can directly affect the expression levels of our genes, including cancer genes. For example, eating raw spinach has been shown to suppress those genes driving the invasiveness in colon cancer.
Maintain a healthy weight
Obesity is a risk factor for many types of cancer. However, some cancer patients have the opposite problem – having lost a lot of weight when they were ill, they now need to gain it. Beat Cancer explains the essentials of what you need to do to maintain a healthy weight but you may also need the help and support of a qualified dietitian. Nevertheless, always question the advice you are given and remain critical. Also remember that being skinny does not necessarily mean you are unhealthy. There is strong evidence that calorie restriction prolongs life.
Being active is important both in protecting against cancer and in helping your recovery. The good news is that it is never too late to start. Even people who start exercising late in life gain many of the same health benefits as those who have exercised all their lives. It can be hard to get going, especially if you feel tired and low after treatment, but once you get moving you will find that exercise has significant psychological as well as physical benefits. It can lift your mood, boost your energy levels and really help in your journey back to ‘normal life’. You can start small, with a short walk every day, and gradually build up or if that is not possible do some simple stretching and toning exercises at home. If your physiotherapist has given you exercises to help build up muscle mass, do them religiously. It will not be long before you feel the benefits.
Getting back to work
Going back to work after cancer treatment can feel daunting for all sorts of reasons – while financial pressures might mean you need to return as early as possible.
Although most employers are supportive, there are always some who are less co-operative. The good news is that under the 2010 Equality Act,* anyone with a cancer diagnosis has a right to what are called ‘reasonable adjustments’. These might include time off for medical appointments, a gradual, phased return to work, being flexible about working hours or offering the opportunity to work from home some of the time. The new Act also protects you against discrimination, victimisation or harassment. For instance, employers can no longer ask questions about your health at job interviews (although it is lawful to do so for monitoring purposes). Importantly, the new Act now protects carers against discrimination, although it does not require the employer to offer ‘reasonable adjustments’.
If you feel you are not being treated fairly at work, talk to the human resources department if there is one, your trade union, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or one of the patient-support organisations (see page 242 of Beat Cancer). Concerns about money can also be a major headache for cancer patients and their families. If you are employed you should be covered by your organisation’s sick-pay scheme.
Ask for help when you need it
Having cancer is a life-changing experience! This is the time when you may feel in most need of support. Medical support is often not enough. Although your family and friends will be supportive, it can sometimes be difficult for those closest to you to know how to help. Everyone is different but finding the support of a counsellor, a cancer ‘buddy’ or a support group can all help. If you feel anxious find ways to relax and deal with stress and strain – mindfulness training, meditation and other complementary therapies can be particularly helpful. There are many groups and patient organisations that offer genuinely helpful support. Your doctor may know of such local groups, or you could search online. You may also need to access welfare benefits and, if you need advice, your trade union or local Citizens’ Advice Bureau should be able to help. Macmillan Cancer Support’s helpline will be able to put you in touch with one of their welfare rights advisers.
Live your life!
When you have completed your treatment, you have the chance to take stock of your life and decide how to move forward in the best way. For many people the experience of cancer leads to very positive changes. As hard as it is to go through cancer, many survivors say it has enabled them to grow – to appreciate life, to value their families and friends more, even to take up new interests or perhaps find a new career. Wherever you are on this journey, you have our very best wishes. Enjoy your life.
From Beat Cancer ©2014 by Professors Mustafa Djamgoz and Jane Plant, published by Vermilion
* This replaced the old Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in England, Scotland and Wales. If you live in Northern Ireland, the DDA still applies.