A cancer diagnosis can have a life-changing impact on not only the patient but everyone in their circle. Yet what we don't hear a lot about is life after cancer.
A cancer diagnosis can have a traumatic, life-changing impact not only for the patient but for everyone in their circle. Family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers—everyone feels it. Chances are you’ve felt it.
What we don’t hear a lot about is the way life can change after cancer. For those who’ve been through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and remission, it can have a lasting transformation in lifestyle, as well as profound emotional and psychological effects.
With cancer survival rates improving, the Canadian Cancer Society and other organizations have begun devoting more resources to the subject of survivorship. While they compile research and information for the future, alive spoke to three cancer survivors to get their side of this oft-neglected issue.
Diagnosis and disruption
Cancer is indiscriminate, shocking, and cruel, a fact hammered home by the following stories.
Elaine McLaughlin, 53, lives in Beamsville, Ontario, with her fianc?Andrew, and is currently completing her training as a personal support worker. She had always been religious about getting mammograms, and it was a routine mammogram that revealed Stage III breast cancer nearly three years ago.
After an unsuccessful lumpectomy, McLaughlin underwent a mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 24 radiation treatments. “I had all the usual side effects,” she says of her experience, “including losing my hair, which I think was the hardest part.” She has been in remission since the conclusion of her treatment.
Dr. Jennifer Yao, 38, is a clinical assistant professor at Vancouver’s GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. Like McLaughlin, Yao faced a breast cancer diagnosis, but hers came at age 28, in her first year of marriage to husband Bon and her second year of residency.
An excision biopsy revealed cancer, and she made the difficult decision to have the breast removed. Yao did not require chemo or radiation but took Tamoxifen for five years. She has been living cancer free for nearly a decade.
Wilson Padmos is 31 and works as a musician, music teacher, and ESL instructor in Vancouver. He and his wife, Usha, have a young son, Storm. Padmos was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour after experiencing grand mal seizures, pain, and numbness in his left side.
With his doctor’s blessing, he postponed removal of the tumour until after his son’s birth. But on a family holiday several months later, his health took a turn and he was soon in surgery to remove and biopsy the tumour.
“Up to that point, my number-one fear had been getting my head cut open, but that turned out to be the least of my worries,” he says. The biopsy revealed the tumour had become malignant. Six weeks of simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation followed, along with another surgery and the installation of a shunt. Padmos has since had follow-up MRIs that show no tumour growth.
New priorities for a new life
With cancer comes urgency. With their health an all-consuming concern, both McLaughlin and Padmos knew they had to make some lifestyle changes.
McLaughlin takes more supplements now, especially B vitamins and omega oils, and tries to get more rest, despite long hours at work and school. She’s also planning to start a regular fitness program this spring. “I’m mostly sedentary, and I know I need to change that and get more exercise.”
Padmos has made his diet a priority. Already a healthy eater, he cut back on sugar, alcohol, and coffee, and increased fruits and vegetables. “Having a healthy diet is good for you, but it also gives you a feeling that you’re taking some control in a situation where you don’t have a lot of control.” He also consulted with a naturopath to establish a regimen of supplements.
Self-help and strength
Attitude can play a huge role in cancer treatment and recovery. Padmos, McLaughlin, and Yao all found tremendous support from their families, friends, and social circles. But ultimately, the battle was theirs alone to fight, and they found themselves drawing strength from deep reserves.
“People would say to me that I’m so brave, but what choice did I have?” says Padmos. “I want to live and I have a son and I want to be his father. My son, my wife, and my mother—I wanted to be there for them.”
As a young man who suddenly became part of the health-care machinery, his reflections sound like those of a man decades older.
“I used to just float through life, but I don’t now. In some ways, this has made me feel more alive—the idea that this could be my last day. You live your whole life thinking you’re going to live till your nineties and then you find out how fragile it is and you’re lucky to have made it this far.”
McLaughlin wanted to stay positive and upbeat about life after cancer, and for her that meant getting back to work. She says that it was difficult because she “didn’t know how to be sick.”
“I think I was in a kind of denial,” she says. “Working in palliative care, you see what sick people look like and I couldn’t see myself like that. Then I’d look in the mirror.”
For Yao, worrying about her family overshadowed concerns about her own health. “I was just married and my parents were in Asia at the time. As soon as the word got out, I knew there’d be panic.”
While her family, friends, and colleagues were there for the tough times, she says, “I tried not to let it consume my life or anyone else’s. I just looked at this as something I had to deal with.”
Getting back to normal
Ten years later, Yao says she doesn’t worry too much about the cancer returning. “You definitely think about it, though; it lives with you in a little corner in the back of your head. Now I think about how fortunate I was.”
As a health care practitioner, it’s given her a better understanding of what her patients go through. “You realize that as a doctor, you’re thinking about the cancer, on treatments and management plans. Then, as the patient, you’re thinking about your family, your life, your kids. It’s a whole different set of priorities.”
McLaughlin says that family is her main priority since being diagnosed with cancer, especially her younger siblings and their children. “I feel I have a responsibility to keep some of those memories [of her late mother and father] alive. Good family connections mean a lot to me.”
But normal life hasn’t been without challenges. “I have my little pity parties sometimes, and I usually deal with them by working more hours.”
She compares her own cancer experience to that of her mother’s. “I spent a lot of time with her near the end and knew how much she was hurting. She told me she didn’t want to complain about it because she didn’t want to scare us. And I get it, because I do those things too.”
Padmos says he doesn’t think of it as life after cancer since he lives with the possibility that it could return. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you beat it!’ But it doesn’t really feel like that. I don’t feel quite as carefree as I used to.”
With the ordeal still fresh in his mind, it’s hard to see beyond the next checkup. “When that scan is coming up, I try not to think about it, but it’s impossible. I do what I can and live day by day, but it’s hard to make plans for the future when I really don’t know what it holds.
“I’m still really at the beginning. This is my life now.”
Resources for cancer survivors across Canada
Young Adult Cancer: youngadultcancer.ca
This website offers an online list of resources for survivors and hosts an annual survivor conference.
Canadian Partnership Against Cancer: partnershipagainstcancer.ca
This site has a wealth of online resources, including downloadable PDFs from the workshops that took place during the 2008 National Invitational Workshop: Towards an Agenda for Cancer Survivorship.
Caring Voices: caringvoices.ca
Caring Voices offers Canadians a chance to connect online with those who’ve had similar cancer experiences. Once registered, users can access forums and open chats. There are also frequent scheduled and moderated group chats on a variety of topics, including Building a Survivorship Plan.
Ovarian Cancer Canada: ovariancanada.org
Cancer View: cancerview.ca
This is an online portal that brings together resources for cancer prevention, screening, and treatment and supportive, palliative, and end-of-life care.
International Cancer Survivors Day: internationalcancersurvivorsday.com
The Canadian Cancer Society has excellent resources for survivors. In addition to their online resources, they also offer information and support services by telephone or email.
Picking Up the Pieces: Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer (Raincoast Books, 2006), by Sherri Magee and Kathy Scalzo
Immune-boosting nutrients with cancer-fighting properties
Whatever professional advice you followed throughout your cancer journey, it’s important to consider your health postcancer.
Many practitioners of natural medicine, and more Western doctors, are recommending courses of supplements that boost immunity and fight the growth of cancerous cells. These can include vitamins and minerals, as well as extracts of plants and mushrooms, the juices of berries and exotic fruits, and ocean-based supplements.
When consulting with multiple health professionals, it’s essential to discuss these supplements—to determine which ones are right for you and to ensure none are contraindicated with other treatments.
But one thing that experts agree on is the importance of a healthy diet in your continued health. “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” said Hippocrates. Think of the kitchen as your personal medicine cabinet, filled with nutrients that can help you show cancer who’s boss.
Here are some of the basics of healthy, cancer-fighting eating.
Fruits and vegetables
A plant-based diet is one of the biggest cancer-fighters we have, and every day new compounds are discovered inside these nutritional powerhouses that keep good cells functioning and stop the baddies from growing.
Eat as many varieties and colours as you can, both raw and lightly cooked. Berries, dark leafy greens, and cruciferous veggies (such as broccoli) are especially recommended.
Don’t be fooled by the whole grains sticker on the Sugar Blobs cereal—we’re talking about actual grains, close to their natural state.
Cooked grains such as bulgur, quinoa, brown rice, and oats are excellent sources of fibre, which helps sweep carcinogens from the body. Whole grains also contain many other nutrients normally stripped out of processed grain foods.
Many of us are deficient in healthy fats and overload our bodies with saturated and trans fats—including those found in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and many store-bought foods such as cookies and crackers.
Replace these fat sources with oils from nuts and seeds, such as flax and olive (don’t overheat them and destroy their active compounds), and with foods rich in essential fatty acids, such as avocados and almonds. Essential fats work at the cellular level to combat inflammation, a condition that many believe leads to the growth of cancerous cells.
Spice it up
Fresh seasonings, such as garlic and ginger, as well as herbs and spices, such as cinnamon and turmeric, offer a potent array of antioxidants that can help repair and protect cells. Enjoy them in hot and cold dishes and consider supplementation—some have been shown to have a powerful anticancer effect in larger doses.
Drink it down
Many delicious herbs, dried flowers, and plants can also be enjoyed in the form of teas. Other good choices include antioxidant-rich juices and smoothies, especially green drinks containing alfalfa, chlorella, and wheatgrass.
Say goodbye to soda pop and hello to another green superstar—green tea. Most importantly, get yourself a good-quality purifier and drink plenty of life-giving water every day.