There have been tremendous improvements in cancer diagnosis and treatment in the last half-century. Unfortunately, the treatment of patients has lagged behind the treatment of disease. All cancer patients have to cope with fear and uncertainty—emotional challenges that the medical system overlooks, even though they play a critical role in recovery.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer 35 years ago-but the doctor didn't tell me directly. He called over a resident and told him, "Feel this calcification. That's cancer." I fired this doctor and chose to work with the head of the department, who was very good about informing me of the research on which he was basing his treatment decisions. Armed with the names of the medical journals, I read the studies at a medical library and came back with lots of questions. Then I asked my oncologist what my chances of survival were. He told me that since my cancer had spread to my left lung--and there was no known effective chemotherapy at that time-I had a 10% chance of surviving one year.
I decided then that I would do everything possible to fully participate in my own care. What I discovered…
My doctor wanted to do an eight-hour operation to remove my lymph nodes, even though the lymph nodes appeared cancer-free in tests. He believed that it would still increase my odds of survival. Luckily, I had done my homework. I argued that the cancer in my lungs was evidence that my lungs were doing their job of filtering the bloodstream and holding on to cancer cells. I needed a treatment that cleared my bloodstream of cancer. I wanted chemotherapy, even though it was experimental. After consulting a second oncologist, I got the chemotherapy-and I believe that it saved my life.
I am not suggesting that you become your own doctor. But I do suggest that you maintain some control over your medical decisions, ask questions of your doctor and seek second and third opinions if necessary.
Let It Out
With some cancers, such as melanomas, the research shows that patients who express their emotions-especially anger and depression—have significantly more immune cells at the tumor site than those who keep their emotions bottled up. They also tend to have smaller tumors.
Helpful: If you aren't comfortable talking about emotions, write about them. Every day, take 10 minutes to write down whatever you're feeling--the fear of death, concerns about pain, worries about loved ones, etc.
When I decided to stop chemotherapy (after 18 months of treatment), I wrote down every possible worry, risk, benefit and criticism I would face if my decision to stop proved to be a mistake. Answering all those "what if" voices helped me feel confident about my decision.
Push Aside Stress
Deep, controlled breathing is one of the most effective ways to reduce the stress of cancer.
How to do it: Inhale deeply, hold your breath for a moment, then exhale slowly. Do this three times. Then close your eyes, and imagine that muscle tension is leaving your body. Imagine that you're surrounded by a giant protective bubble that will give you all the time that you need to push aside unwanted stress.
Allow yourself to try to stay in this meditative state for 15 to 30 minutes, and repeat it once or twice a day. Cancer patients who have used this technique consistently report that they recovered more quickly from surgery and treatments and experienced less pain. I did this despite the fact that one doctor told me that meditation wouldn't help, when, of course, it did help.
Fight Doctor Negativity
Doctors tend to say things such as, "You have only a 10% chance of living one year," or "This is a highly toxic chemotherapy that you'll be taking."
Doctors are obligated to tell patients the odds and side effects. This doesn't mean that they should barrage you with negatives. A more compassionate doctor might say, "You're a fighter... give this your best shot," or "Most of my patients recover quickly from this treatment."
If you feel overwhelmed by negative information, tell your doctor. Explain that you're struggling to stay confident and would appreciate more positive reinforcement.
My doctor didn't want to offer me "false hope." To stop his negative predictions, I told him that I promised I wouldn't haunt him if I died of cancer after he gave me hope that I might survive it. This helped him relax. He knew he had a patient who was taking responsibility for his life.