The First Steps After a Diagnosis: What Can You Do?

There are certain things that I tell anyone who is dealing with a new diagnosis, struggling with treatment, or post-cancer rehabilitation and reintegration. The first thing is always-

Do not listen to any life expectancies, what to expect, or self-diagnose your issues on an online medical resource. The truth is, these are averages drawn off a large number of patients within a range of ages. These are numbers from people who all have different health issues, lifestyles, stress levels, support systems, diet, genetic predispositions, and other variables. If there is one thing that is for sure in treatment, it is that nothing is for certain. I am yet to talk to anyone who said their treatment went exactly as the doctors expected it would. What I do know is that what you believe will happen is much more likely to happen. The same way we can think ourselves sick or people can heal from taking a placebo sugar pill, we can significantly influence the way our body reacts by the way we think about it. Even if the doctors say you have a 1% chance of survival, why can't you be that exception to the rule? When I hear there is a small chance of survival, all I hear is, "this is possible to beat." I guarantee that 1% who survived believed whole-heartedly and with every fiber of their being that they would beat it.

Once you are comfortable with sharing your diagnosis with others, it is an excellent idea to Organize your support system. This can be tricky and uncomfortable to ask for help. Still, it will significantly increase your ability to focus on what is most important, your health and healing. Things like getting groceries and finding someone to take you to treatment, can cause so much unnecessary stress when there are people who want to help. Here is a form that is an editable PDF.

This document gives you the ability to request things that you need help with, what your diet restrictions are, things you are comfortable talking about, and things you want to avoid. You can email it to anyone who has expressed they want to help. This will keep everyone informed and allow you to talk about these things less frequently. If someone wants to help, they can fill their name into the slot, and then everyone will know that it is being taken care of, and also, people can see if you are not getting the help you need. It caused me so much stress and made me feel like such a burden asking for help. Friends who wanted to help were too uncomfortable to ask, and I felt like I didn't know where to start to ask for simple things to be done. This is a no-pressure way to help with all of this.

Outside of having chores and errands done for you, it's good to get some emotional support. I recommend finding a group of other survivors within the same age and some with a similar diagnosis. Whether they are out of treatment and can give perspective on what they went through or are still in the struggle, it's important to find others with whom you can talk to openly about what you are experiencing. These people can help you to let it out without fearing being judged or without being overly sympathetic. This is incredible therapy. I used to hold back what I was feeling, so I didn't scare or stress out my loved ones. I did this because I didn't think they would understand. I've learned that this isn't something to hold on to.

At treatment with some fellow survivors and my mother

When I first spent time with other young adult survivors, I explained to them why I couldn't do something, and they just kind of laughed and said, "yeah, I know." No questions, no judgment, no confusion. A huge weight was lifted immediately. There are groups on Facebook for this as well. Plus, the office administrator at your oncologist's office should be able to guide you to what support groups are available in your area.

As survivors, we have to do everything in our power to make our bodies as strong as possible so it can handle treatment, fight cancer, and work to recover. This means making changes to your diet. Cutting out foods that are processed, full of sugar, and fried. These are all obvious first things to do. Also, cutting out things like dairy and red meat and adopting a more plant-based diet is very beneficial. The food we eat is what is fueling us. Don't overthink it. Just ask yourself when you are about to eat something, "Is this going to fuel my health or my sickness?"

My doctors told me to eat things like Lean Cuisines, that sugar didn't affect cancer, red meat was fine, and that I could still drink alcohol. Don't think just because they are a doctor that they are going to give the best advice. At one point in time, doctors recommended smoking cigarettes, said cocaine was useful for toothaches, and sugar was promoted as a weight-loss supplement. You have to be the champion of your own health and take this responsibility to figure out what works best for you. Looking at getting a dietician who is familiar with how diet affects cancer would be a great resource if it's within your budget.

Intermittent fasting was a massive benefit to me. I was losing weight very quickly, all while eating very calorie-dense foods trying to keep weight on. Digestion is very laborious on the body. When our bodies are weak from cancer and treatment, it is not able to break down these foods and turn them into the fuel we need as efficiently as usual. I knew the food I was eating was making me feel sluggish, so I began to adopt a more plant-based diet. I started intermittent fasting, trying to keep my eating times between 10 am and 6 pm. I noticed that my food digested was better, I slept better, I was hungry when it was time to eat, and I even began gaining weight!

When I would receive chemo through the port in my chest, I would take it from Wednesday until Friday every other week. I would begin fasting Tuesday evening, and I wouldn't eat again until Friday a couple hours after the chemo was removed. If I didn't eat during treatment, my body was able to use its energy to heal and rest instead of digesting. Also, if you don't put food in, then there is nothing to throw up or have any burning shits. Eating would make me feel so sick and weak during these times too. Even though fasting was hard, the other option seemed so much worse. I have kept up intermittent fasting and still feel the benefits now that my health has improved.

Stand up paddle-boarding with my ostomy concealed

We also need to do things that fuel our spirit. Spending time with friends and family who make you feel loved and supported can boost your mood. Spending time in the sunshine, if it's available and not an issue with your treatment, can be very beneficial too. Light cardio exercise, even if you don't feel like it, can do wonders for your body in recovering between treatments and to return back to health after treatment is finished. A simple walk around the neighborhood, in a park, around a lake, or just around in your back yard, can make you feel better, too.

Getting out of the house did a lot to improve my mood as well. I would get in somewhat of a downward spiral sitting inside the house. As soon as I was out in the sun and moving my body, I would notice my attitude and outlook would change. I started off small and worked my way up to jogging. I really enjoyed riding a bicycle when I wasn't able to jog. If you don't exercise because you aren't feeling good, you will never get out and do it. Feeling better comes through these times of struggle.

When I think of fighting cancer, I think of combating stress. If I had to choose one thing that is the most damaging to treatment and healing, it would be stress. If we are too stressed, we lose sleep, our digestion is complicated, our immune system is weakened, our outlook is negative, our mood is down, our relations are strained, and our mental clarity is clouded. Exercise, sunshine, spending time with positive friends and having hobbies can help to battle stress, but we have to take it a step forward, we must cut out the unnecessary. That means avoiding going to things that drain us of our energy, people who make us feel bad, and breaking habits that are unhealthy. Things like meditation and breathwork can bring us back to the present, relax our minds, and remove anxiety. We have to be aware of what it is we are telling ourselves. Are we saying, "This sucks, I wonder if I'm going to die, I can't do this anymore, it will probably come back" or "I may not like or agree with what's happening to me, but I will do everything in my power to beat this, I am a survivor, I am loved, I will do what's necessary until this is over." Just changing our perspective and our awareness of what we are telling ourselves will make an incredibly powerful impact.

These are not cures to cancer and not to be used in place of treatment. They are all pieces that go together to help solve this puzzle of cancer. A boxer doesn't just hit a heavy bag as hard as they can every day to prepare. They stretch, eat correctly, get enough sleep, run, strength-train, and work on balance, agility, and speed. Fighting cancer is more than chemotherapy. Give yourself the best chance of getting to remission by giving your body, mind, and spirit all the positivity and fuel it needs.

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