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How To Make the Most of Living With Cancer

Living with cancer

After individuals get a diagnosis of cancer, they must then begin the task of living with the disease. Learning how to make the most of living with cancer can be a daunting challenge, and fortunately there are people, programs, and other steps you can take that can help.

Living with cancer has changed

At one time, a diagnosis of cancer was largely a death sentence, but thanks to advances in conventional and complementary medicines, that has changed. More and more people are living with cancer for decades as a chronic condition or as cancer survivors, and with this new health status comes a new way of living.

In mid-August 2013, Omega Institute for Holistic Health Studies, a nonprofit that provides information on wellness, is offering a conference entitled “Living Well With Cancer.” The announcement for the conference promises it will “help those who have been diagnosed navigate the myriad choices they face on the cancer journey.”

According to Carla Goldstein, chief external affairs officer at Omega, “While illness is difficult to face, there are ways to optimize resiliency at every stage of life.” Understandably, the vast majority of people who have cancer will not be attending this conference, but that does not mean everyone who is facing cancer—and their family and other loved ones--should not understand that there are options they can consider to help them live their life with cancer.

For example, the conference plans to include, in part, information on yoga, holistic healing, and journaling for cancer patients. Why these topics?

Because they have been shown to provide support and comfort and enhance the quality of life (QOL) of cancer patients and their families. Could these and other ideas help enhance your life with cancer? The only way to know the answer to that question is to try them.

Tips on how to live well with cancer
Buddy up: Bring along a trusted friend or family member when you visit the doctor or treatment, go to cancer-related events, or when you need an ear. Although it’s good to have time alone for yourself, it’s essential to reach out and accept encouragement and support from others who may offer new perspectives and ideas and ask questions that may not have occurred to you.

Check out cancer support groups: Consider attending cancer support groups, which typically are available at area hospitals and other health care facilities, but which also may meet in churches, community centers, libraries, or other venues. Meeting other cancer patients and survivors and their loved ones face to face can provide great opportunities to listen, share, and learn.

To find live cancer support groups in your area, you can contact the American Cancer Society, the national or local chapter of a group that focuses on a specific type of cancer (e.g., lung cancer, leukemia), your local hospitals, or talk to your oncologist or a social worker.

Explore online support: There are countless number of support forums and chat rooms for cancer patients and their loved ones, including those that focus on certain types of cancer. One place to start looking for such online support is with a national organization for a specific cancer, such as leukemia, breast cancer, or lymphoma.

Check the legitimacy of the websites you chose by reading the “About Us” section and information about the people who run the site. Also peruse the site thoroughly before contributing and sharing to be sure you feel comfortable. Ask a trusted friend or relative to check out the website as well for a second opinion.

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Try writing or journaling: Expressing yourself through the written word can be a tremendous source of comfort and help you deal with your feelings and emotions. A recent study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing looked at the impact of expressive writing in early breast cancer survivors.

A total of 120 women were randomly assigned to one of four groups: no writing or writing related to either breast cancer trauma, any self-selected trauma, or facts related to breast cancer. The women wrote for 20 minutes daily for four consecutive days.

Evaluations were conducted before the study started, at one month, and at 6 months. Women in all three writing groups showed significant improvement in quality of life outcome, which prompted the authors to note that “Expressive writing…is recommended for early breast cancer survivors as a feasible and easily implemented treatment approach to improve quality-of-life.”

Try complementary therapies: Research has shown that some complementary therapies can help improve quality of life of cancer patients and cancer survivors. A new report in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, for example, reviewed 13 articles on complementary interventions used by cancer patients, including yoga, mindfulness meditation, energy healing, medical qigong, and others.

The authors reported that the “studies had mixed results either showing a significantly greater improvement in QOL in the intervention group compared to the control group, or no significant difference between groups.” One example of positive results is reported in the same journal, in which 102 women with breast cancer were randomly assigned to attend meditation groups or no meditation while undergoing radiation therapy.

The women who practiced meditation had improvements in anxiety, fatigue, and overall quality of life when compared with women who did not practice meditation. Other studies have shown that yoga, tai chi (which can improve cognition in chemotherapy patients), guided visualization, and other complementary practices can improve quality of life for individuals with cancer.

Consider helping others: Some people who have cancer, especially cancer survivors, choose to help others who are facing challenges similar to those they are currently dealing with or have dealt with in the past. People with cancer can find it much easier to talk to someone who is also living with the disease or who is a cancer survivor, and you may be a great source of comfort and understanding for others—and the act of sharing can make you feel good as well.

Ask about clinical trials: Some people facing cancer elect to enter a clinical trial. Clinical trials differ greatly in how they are conducted, what their goals are, and how they can impact your quality of life.

You can investigate the available trials through the clinical trials website. However, you should discuss the possibility of entering a trial with your healthcare provider and with trusted friends as well.

Embrace life: Some people who have been diagnosed with cancer find they begin to have a new perspective on life in all its aspects: physically, socially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. A cancer diagnosis causes many people to readjust their priorities, become closer to family and friends, do things they always wanted to do but didn’t make time for, and make changes that add meaning to their lives rather than take away from it.

Hearing that you or a loved one has cancer is never easy to hear. Once the shock has subsided, then it may be time to think about how to make the most of living life with cancer.

Craft MA et al. Expressive writing in early breast cancer survivors. Journal of Advanced Nursing 2013 Feb; 69(2): 305-15
Kim YH et al. Effects of meditation on anxiety, depression, fatigue, and quality of life of women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2013 Aug; 21(4): 379-87
Omega Institute for Holistic Health Studies
Shneerson C et al. The effect of complementary and alternative medicine on the quality of life of cancer survivors: A systematic review and meta-analyses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2013 Aug; 21(4): 417-29

Image: Morguefile