43 Life-Changing Lessons Since My Cancer Diagnosis

I’ve learned a few things over the 30 years since being diagnosed with cancer. These personal lessons, combined with what I’ve gleaned from 19 years as a cancer coach, greatly shapes my ever-growing understanding of cancer—and its prevention and control.

This list is intended to expedite sorting through challenges, and to dispel  misinformation you may encounter from negligible sources. It also provides actionable insight and opportunities to take more control of critical medical and wellness decisions.

Purposely organized, it begins with the most foundational material—universal insights—for those newly diagnosed, and for those wanting to broaden their perspective. Dive deeper into any particular ‘lesson’ by clicking its link.

  1. In life, in health—we are each an n of 1. You have no exact biological match in this world; nor is anyone else on the planet living with your exact diagnosis.
  1. You are unique therefore the environment within you is one that you can inform, alter, and even create. Because of that, the goal for anyone wanting to avoid a cancer diagnosis, or to be positioned to have the most favorable outcome as a survivor, is to become a horrible host to cancer. Period.
  1. We live in an age where cancer is seemingly everywhere—a true challenge of the human condition. We must never give cancer a chance.
  1. Not all cancer-causing or cancer-linked environmental impacts can be avoided. But you can start here.
  1. Integrative oncology focuses on the host environment (you!). Strengthening immunity and increasing resiliency can reduce the deleterious side effects of conventional therapy, improve efficacy of treatment, elevate quality of life… and may extend survivorship. For breast cancer, too.
  1. You cannot help but be defined by cancer, at least partially—it forever changes your perspective on life, including the way priorities are organized.
  2. Statistics are just numbers. You’re not a number; you’re an n of 1. You do not have an expiration date. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
  3. With a few exceptions, you do not need to start cancer treatment within days or even weeks after being diagnosed. You may have been hosting cancer for months, or years—sometimes, many years. Don’t let the providing physician or clinic dictate the urgency of treatment. Take a step back to fully understand all proposed treatments options and take the necessary time to make the most informed decisions.
  1. We live in the age of the empowered patient: there’s never been better access to high quality peer-reviewed information, clinical support, and wellness approaches for managing a challenging diagnosis. But we must take control.
  1. Cancer is complex. Most who are managing a cancer diagnosis should seek multiple expert opinions from those professionals who live, sleep and breathe the specific cancer type. Expert academic clinician-researchers should be identified and engaged as an important part of your A Team.
  1. Temper your expectations for what your oncologist brings to the table. Be realistic. In a perfect world, all oncologists would be trained on the core lifestyle factors necessary to prevent cancer, support comprehensive treatment, and help ensure deep and durable remissions. It is likely that your oncologist will not know much about nutrition, exercise, diet, stress reduction, or supplements. We live in the here and now—let your oncologist focus on the underlying disease. Over time, with the help of other clinicians, you can become your own best health expert.
  1. Take the cancer conspiracy stories with a grain of salt. Look at published research, not hearsay, when making medical and health decisions. Most physicians, scientists, and yes, even industry are truly committed to the cause—still, ensure you are vetting where your information is coming from.

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  1. Like much of everything else, consistency in habits—good habits—is the key to success. You don’t need to be over the top, but you want to be on guard and well- positioned for what lies ahead.
  1. Not all FDA-approved anticancer drugs should have received approval… and some get taken off the market AFTER the approval process. Carefully consider recommendations made by your oncologist.
  2. You can utilize lifestyle factors—and control how you respond to the noise around you to knock back the fear of cancer. Or better yet, turn fear on its head.
  1. Following a regimented healthy lifestyle approach is no guarantee against a cancer diagnosis. But it sure won’t hurt your odds! That goes for overall survival, and getting an edge on more effective treatment outcomes, too.
  1. The human brain is the least understood organ. It contains a natural pharmacopeia of helpful (or harmful) chemicals, and can be leveraged to influence physical outcomes. Yes, the use of placebos says it can, over and over again. It’s critical to position one’s mind to aid in the pursuit of healing.
  1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing stress—that’s because we’re each an n of 1. It’s critical to determine what works best for you—and can be repeated daily as part of your routine.
  1. Financial stress as a cancer survivor is real; it can be intense and toxic for way too many. So, you should know about Nancy’s List.
  1. Sleep hygiene is a medical term for obtaining quality, restorative sleep. Healing is much more difficult without proper rest. That’s why it’s imperative to understand about, sleep science and cancer… and anti-insomnia hacks.
  1. Put simply: the impact of exercise on cancer (and your body and mind) is incalculable.
  1. Cancer nutrition science is rapidly advancing. Should we all be eating exactly the same way? Probably not. We are all different, as are the diseases we may be hosting. However, at baseline, it’s hard to go wrong with a foundational Mediterranean diet. (This is exactly what I eat … for the last 30 years.)
  1. Though a ‘food first’ approach to nutrition is always better than an over-reliance on dietary supplements—high quality supplementation can accurately address deficiencies and support a smart therapeutic regimen. But they are best when informed by science, through comprehensive and regular lab testing, and managed by a highly trained clinician with oncology experience and expertise.
  1. A healthy gut microbiome is imperative to maintain and likely increases the efficacy of conventional cancer treatment.

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  1. Intermittent or mimicking fasting (even during active treatment), as well as a keto diet, can be a smart consideration for certain types of cancer. There are also ‘healthier’ forms of keto with a lot less animal protein.
  1. The causal connection between eating red meat and cancer is nuanced. But it is largely deleterious as a regular staple. Be aware of the difference between conventionally grown, versus organic and wild red meat.
  1. When it comes to cancer, not all plant-based diets are created equal.
  1. Cancer support groups can be helpful only if you are surrounded with enough positivity and like-minded folks looking to improve their outlooks and overall health. I’ve had a hard time finding such tribes which is why I created a private Facebook Group called Anticancer Thrivers.
  1. The goal for those living with cancer should be to heal, not necessarily to be cured because, sadly, cure is not always possible… but healing, in important ways, is.
  1. There’s no such thing as spontaneous remission of cancer. If and when it happens, it’s a biological process—a process to which you likely contributed some level of influence based on your actions… this is why exceptional cancer responders should be closely studied, not written off as outliers or anecdotes. And, the mindset of an exceptional responder is important to understand.
  1. When faced with an advanced stage and relapsed cancer, we must look beyond standard of care approaches.
  1. Cancer is commerce—a thriving business sector. Make sure to keep this in mind at every bend in your journey. Become a pragmatic health consumer.
  1. Hospitals, health systems, and private clinics alike are financially incentivized to infuse drugs intravenously. Out-of-pocket costs for consumers can be significantly more than oral medications, and not any better … or even similar in efficacy.
  1. If you’re not digging your oncologist… just break up. It happens.
  1. You must own and control your medical records. It is essential they be available to you or anyone you wish to share them with, on-demand 24/7, and beyond the reach of hackers and malware.
  1. I never thought cannabis would become mainstream; many folks living with cancer find that it reduces nausea during treatment, increases appetite, and lowers stress and anxiety. The plethora of ‘agents’ and reasonable indications for its medical use have come a long way since my indiscriminate youth of the seventies.

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  1. Alternative cancer care in some cases—note the word alternative—especially when it delays proven, effective treatment when time is of the essence, can be dangerous… or deadly.
  1. Whomever started this whole ‘war against cancer’ (Nixon?) thing… beating, winning, battling got it wrong. Wars cause way too much collateral damage. Try judo instead.
  1. There are situations where cancer treatment is more harmful than helpful. It’s important to weigh quality of life over a treatment regimen that may only serve to hasten death.
  1. Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot is important, but will not have a fraction of the intended impact on the eradication of cancer unless there is a serious emphasis on prevention). The two are not mutually exclusive, it’s just that… if we only did a better job at truly comprehensive prevention.
  1. I don’t care much about ‘what’ works, be it broccoli, radiation therapy, or treatment informed by microscopic organoids… so long as it’s safe and effective, and informed by science… or clinical observation. I am of no particular clique or tribe.
  1. COVID-19 was just the beginning, unfortunately. There will be plenty of harmful pathogens guaranteed to follow. Strengthening immunity and resiliency should be a daily habit.
  1. More research will always be needed, especially as it pertains to natural products. But we live in the here and now, and whatever malignancy we may be hosting needs to be addressed now. If a product is generally regarded as safe, does not impose contraindications to current therapy, and if you can afford it, then it should be considered. Not only that, it’s critical to track data to see if there is any correlation between actions taken and the state of disease.

Join my private Facebook Group Anticancer Thrivers—a community forum for achieving your best life while living with cancer.

Photo credit: Bigstockphoto.com/VectorMacchine