In his State of the Union address on Wednesday evening, President Obama officially announced that Vice President Joe Biden would be spearheading an initiative to cure cancer. That’s right, CURE cancer. (View Biden’s commentary here.) For the first time since cancer appeared on the scene, we are poised to make huge leaps forward because research is advancing more quickly than ever before. How excited we all will be when that day finally arrives! Vice President Biden has two goals in this initiative: 1) increase spending on research and 2) increase collaboration by physicians, researchers, patients, and drug makers alike. What that means to patients is that there will be more rapid advances in research, more clinical trials available to participate in, and better information sharing between physicians so that ALL patients can take advantage of the latest advancements in treatment.
While the Moonshot initiative is exciting and epic, we don’t just have to rely on the Vice President Biden to lead the way for us. There are many simple, meaningful things we can do to protect ourselves or to enhance our recovery that have a big impact when it comes to getting the most out of treatment and maintaining a high quality of life.
Don’t smoke. OK, this one is obvious and something we’ve heard a million times before. But yet, it remains important. And, if you have teenagers in your life, talk to them about what smoking can do to their healthy bodies and encourage them to avoid it at all costs.
Eat right. We’re not talking about restricting yourself to 900 calories a day, eating only carrots for the rest of your life, or slugging lemonade mixed with cayenne pepper. Those fad diets are insane and unhealthy. Instead of restriction, focus on addition: veggies, veggies and more veggies, that is. Particularly the really colorful ones. (Side note: Broccoli and Tomatoes are superstars when it comes to fighting cancer; more on that in a later post.) Avoid processed foods, which are well known to contain high amounts of sugar, salt and fat. Even those products which say they’re ‘healthy’ can actually be quite UNhealthy. Stick to the fresh foods that live around the perimeter of the grocery store, but when you do wander into the middle section, get into the habit of reading the label. Choose options that have lower sugar, salt and fat per serving. And, if your wallet allows it, go organic whenever possible.
Move your body. Exercising regularly is important, but you don’t have run a marathon everyday to make it count. Make a point to do something that gets your heart rate up everyday such as going for a bike ride, a walk, dancing to your favorite music, taking the stairs, parking a little farther from the building, playing soccer with the kids, anything that gets you up and moving.
Protect your skin. Avoid getting a sunburn by using a daily sunscreen. Be careful to check the ingredient list though, as some companies use chemicals that are actually linked to cancer or other harmful conditions in their products. Eek! An easy way to find a good, safe sunscreen is to check the Skin Deep Database and search by product type. All products are given an overall safety rating, and all ingredients used in each product are rated for safety as well. They do the research for you, so you can find a safe sunscreen quickly and easily.
Get a good night’s sleep. This can be achieved by avoiding a big meal right before bedtime, turning cell phone ringers off, meditating, listening to soothing music, and turning down the thermostat slightly during sleeping hours.
Keep a positive attitude. Be grateful for the wonderful things you have in your life already, even during times of distress. It helps to remember that no matter how bad life seems to be at the moment, it could always be worse. Taking the time to feel gratitude for what’s going right in your life (even the small things) has a calming effect and helps put things into perspective.
Maximize Treatment Efficacy & Quality of Life
Go easy on yourself. All of the above pointers for cancer prevention are still helpful when you’re living with cancer, but you do have to keep your sanity in mind. If you’re having a hard time with nausea and low appetite for example, eat whatever your stomach will allow whenever it will allow it.
Enlist friends and family for help. It’s great if you can have a loved one by your side for moral support. And even better if that loved one can give you gentle, soothing hand massage. Studies show that human touch has a host of physical and emotional benefits for people of all ages, such as reduced pain (and thus reduced use of pain medication), improved pulmonary function, lowered blood pressure, reduction of stress hormones, improved immune function and lowered blood-glucose levels, to name a few. All of these benefits can be realized in simple ways: hugs, cuddles, holding hands and gentle massages.
Let the dogs in on the action. Recent studies on cancer patients have found that interaction with dogs improved feelings of depression, decreased pain and the need for pain medication, decreased psychological distress, decreased fatigue, and improved how patients perceived their overall health. Getting in some extra quality time with your own pet at home is a great place to start, but if you don’t have one, many hospitals work with therapy pet organizations to bring this type of complementary healing method to their patients. These animals are highly trained so that they can interact safely with patients in a hospital or clinic setting. Ask your care team about participating in a therapy pet program.
Get into nature. Taking the time to get outside (making sure to protect your skin from the sun, of course) and hear the birds singing, feel the breeze and the warmth of the sun, and breath in the fresh air can have a positive impact on mood and stress levels. Which in turn can boost your immune system.
Enjoy the arts. De-stress by listening to soothing music, singing your favorite songs (even just to yourself), playing an instrument, or by learning how to draw or paint.
Stay connected with your tribe. Make a point to stay connected with friends and family. If you’re not feeling up to going out, ask them to come to you. Socializing with positive people who love you is good for the soul.
Together we can fight this terrible disease. The ‘Moonshot’ initiative along with our own efforts will ultimately allow us to win the war on cancer.