Marisa Acocella Marchetto wasn’t about to let a breast-cancer diagnosis interrupt her wedding plans. The illustrator found out about the disease three weeks before her big day, managing to conceal the bandages from her lumpectomy underneath her form-fitting dream dress.
However, the author of the colourful 2006 memoir, Cancer Vixen: A True Story (Knopf Canada, 2006), admits that treatment slowed her down.
“I firmly believe that you should live your life no matter what’s going on, that you should go on living and fighting,” Marchetto tells alive magazine in a phone interview. “But it took me a while to get back on my feet after chemo and radiation. My immune system was compromised, and I experienced weight gain. It took me a long time to get back in shape.
“Still, I was so relieved to be finished all of my treatment that it [afterward] was a really happy time,” she adds. “It was a period when I could really clear my head.”
As Marchetto learned first-hand, going through cancer is an all-encompassing experience that affects every facet of a person’s well-being, from their physical health to their emotional wellness to their sex life.
Theresa Clarke, a medical doctor who works at Vancouver’s InspireHealth, which offers integrated cancer treatment, explains that there’s much people can do to reach optimal health and come back from cancer even stronger than before.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘This is the healthiest I’ve ever been,’” Clarke says. “It’s about focusing on self-care and addressing the whole person, looking at all the different areas of a person’s life and pulling them all together so they can improve their chances and come back to a place of vitality.
“People can do that,” she adds, “by tapping into their own healing power.”
For Marchetto, getting back on her feet—literally—involved the basics: cutting out alcohol, eating a wholesome diet, and committing to regular exercise. She invested in an elliptical machine, which she keeps tucked behind her drawing board, and strives to eat a mostly plant-based diet with plenty of fish.
“I’m in better shape now than when I was 30,” Marchetto says. “And I’m 50.”
So-called superfoods, which are abundant in nutrients and immune-boosting phytochemicals, are an important part of a healthy meal plan, according to Clarke. Salmon, for instance, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain function, and reduce the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancer. Blueberries too have been shown to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells. (See sidebar below for more.)
It’s not enough just to pick healthy foods; crucial too is avoiding toxic substances such as food additives, pesticides, preservatives, and artificial flavouring and colouring. Opt for organic produce, meat, and poultry over conventional products, and avoid processed, refined, and fast foods.
Some types of cancer are associated with exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Repeated exposure to such toxic substances can cause serious and chronic health effects.
Exercise can do wonders for people in physical discomfort: it releases endorphins, neurochemicals that act as the body’s own natural painkillers. Aside from improving circulation and helping people maintain or lose weight, regular cardiovascular activity also boosts energy and lifts mood.
Sleep can never be emphasized enough. During sleep, melatonin is released; this hormone supports healing and optimal immune function.
“Getting good rest is important because it helps reduce stress, which can suppress the immune system,” Clarke adds.
Be sure to keep the bedroom very dark. Research suggests that light in the room during sleep decreases melatonin production.
Taking supplements helps bolster the immune system too.
“Vitamins support our diet and support healing … and enhance full recovery,” Clarke explains.
Exactly which supplements to choose depends on an individual’s specific situation. It’s helpful to consult a health care professional, given the overwhelming number of vitamins and minerals available, and Clarke advises using supplements that have solid scientific evidence to back up their health claims.
Take vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin. A growing body of research shows that it appears to reduce the risk of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers.
Listen to your body
Then there is the simple but often overlooked rule of listening to your body and honouring what it’s telling you. Fatigue, which is common among cancer patients and survivors, is the body’s way of saying it’s time to slow down.
Quitting smoking is essential. Smoking cigarettes can increase the risk of acquiring cancer of the bladder, cervix, colon, rectum, esophagus, kidney, larynx, mouth, throat, pancreas, stomach, nasal cavity, liver, and ovaries.
“A common psychological challenge for people who’ve been through cancer is the fear of recurrence,” Clarke says. “People can be beset by fear and not be able to live life at all.”
Anxiety, depression, and after-effects similar to the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as sleep problems, irritability, anger, and social avoidance: all can accompany a cancer diagnosis and last well past the treatment stage.
Connect mind and body
Aside from exercise, which helps beat the blues, techniques such as meditation, guided visualization, and mindfulness—focusing on being in the present moment—can all help alleviate emotional distress.
“Learning about the mind-body connection can help reduce emotional stress,” Clarke says, adding that for many, cancer proves to be an opportunity to shed anything in their lives that’s not affecting them positively.
Cut out toxins
Marchetto puts it this way: “I really found it important to cut out anything toxic, and that includes relationships,” she says. “Whether that’s things that you feel are a chore, that are tedious to do, or people who bug you: cut it out.”
Social connections can boost mental health. Having a sense of community and taking part in activities with loved ones create a foundation for recovery.
Spirituality has been shown to play an important role in mental well-being too, whether it’s through a religious devotion or a connection to nature. Many people turn to prayer as an important daily ritual or find that being outdoors enhances inner calm. In fact, research has found that prayer can activate the immune system.
“Many are inadequately prepared for the sexual side effects of treatment,” Brotto says.
Clinical psychologist Lori Brotto, director of the University of British Columbia Sexual Health Laboratory, who has conducted several peer-reviewed studies into sex and cancer, says that one of the most overlooked aspects of cancer care is the way the disease and its treatments affect people sexually.
Regardless of the type of cancer involved, the range of side effects resulting from treatment is vast.
- Medications can throw hormones into chaos, bringing on early menopause or infertility.
- Surgery can cause scarring, swelling, and reduced blood flow to the genital organs.
- Treatment can also cause weight gain or loss as well as hair loss.
- The physical and emotional impact of losing a breast or having a hysterectomy can cause many cancer patients to experience reduced sex drive, not to mention reduced self-confidence.
Brotto headed a 2008 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior that was based on the fact that although women report sexual side effects to be the most distressing aspect of their cancer treatment, evidence-based treatments for female sexual arousal disorder don’t exist.
Researchers developed and tested a three-session psycho-educational program to help women with gynecologic cancer having sexual difficulties. It involved cognitive and behavioural therapy along with education and mindfulness training.
After going through the sessions, women reported increased sexual desire, arousal, and satisfaction plus enhanced well-being overall.
“The majority felt that this should be a mandatory part of care,” Brotto says.
“There’s also the psychosocial impact,” Brotto says. “A person’s sense of identity and self-esteem can take a hit, and so can body image.
“A lot of women we’ve spoken to said they wished their doctor had brought up sex and that they weren’t comfortable bringing it up on their own. Possibly it’s because they are facing their mortality, and there’s a notion that sex just isn’t important. But that’s a myth.”
Marchetto can attest to the dearth of information on the way cancer will alter your sex life.
“I took tamoxifen,” Marchetto says, referring to the drug that blocks the effects of estrogen. “They don’t tell you it causes vaginal dryness. It’s just this unspoken thing that I had to find out myself.”
Her solution? Popping in a vitaminE capsule down there (though we ‰ recommend you consult your health care practitioner before trying this yourself).
Being sexually active was as integral to getting past her cancer ordeal as eating well and exercising.
“What are you supposed to do—shut everything down?” Marchetto asks. “Having sex is one way to fight back and not let cancer control you.”
No matter what kind of cancer a person has experienced, the ability to feel pleasure simply by touching usually still exists. Clear, honest communication goes a long way as well; it’s helpful to talk to your partner not only about things such as low libido or feelings of self-consciousness, but also about specifics such as what areas are painful upon being touched and which ones trigger arousal. If your spouse is doing something that doesn’t feel right, let him know. The same goes if he’s making you feel good.
Fruits and vegetables
Eat plenty of these every day, as they’re abundant in nutrients, high in fibre, and low in calories. Especially beneficial are cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts); tomatoes, which contain lycopene that protects against prostate cancer; and citrus fruits, which enhance the anticancer effects of other phytochemical-containing foods.
Replace white rice, white flour, and white pasta with whole grain or brown-rice versions; the white versions have had vital nutrients stripped away.
Beans, lentils, and split peas are a healthy source of protein as well as fibre and are easy to digest.
The resveratrol present in red wine possesses powerful anticancer activity. Of course, any alcohol should only be consumed in moderation.
This tea contains catechins, compounds with many anticancer properties.
Supplements to combat cancer
- Vitamin D: optimal levels have been found to substantially reduce the risk of colon, prostate, and breast cancer.
- Beta carotene is a potent antioxidant that enhances immune response and promotes new cell growth. Find a naturally derived supplement as opposed to a synthetic one.
- Vitamin A can prevent and speed up recovery from infection and also supports immune functioning.
- Vitamin C plays a vital role in tissue healing and immune-system function.
- Vitamin E, another important antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals that harm healthy cells.
- Selenium is a trace mineral that works in conjunction with vitamin E to promote the antibody response and protect cells of the vital organs.
- Zinc is crucial for tissue health and also helps boost immunity by supporting white blood cells.
- Coenzyme Q10, also known as vitamin Q, is essential to the function of mitochondria, which produce the body’s energy.
- B vitamins help produce antibodies and play a role in cell formation and metabolism.