A cancer diagnosis is probably the most devastating news any of us will ever get. In fact, medical parlance describes typical reaction to it as the “Five Ds”: fears about dying, dysfunction, discomfort, disability, and dependence.
As the population ages and grows, and survival rates improve, more people are living beyond their cancer diagnosis. Today, 13.7 million Americans have a history of cancer, with 18 million expected in 2022, the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute estimate.
In response to this growing number of people, some in medicine have begun focusing on the quality of life survivors have, not just when cancer treatment ends but at the start of the journey — at diagnosis. This is a critical time when patients can be overwhelmed with information about their cancer and treatment, and have countless questions about what to expect and whether they will survive.
This also is the time when many patients ask: What can I do now to beat this thing? And how can my loved ones help?
With those questions in mind, Stewart Fleishman, M.D., founding director of Cancer Supportive Services at Continuum Cancer Centers of New York, wrote "Learn to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do." In it, he details the LEARN — Living, Education, Activity, Nutrition — System, which spells out what people with cancer can do to not just survive treatment but to promote their own healing.
“The LEARN System gives you a plan instead of staying up late on the Internet and finding information which may or may not apply to you,” he tells Newsmax Health. “The message is: Control what you can and in the long term you’ll be better off. This puts the power and the tools in the hands of people who want to be able to do something.”SPECIAL: This Small Group of Doctors is Quietly Curing Cancer — Find Out How
The common-sense system is rooted in basic healthy-living tenets: live a meaningful life, educate yourself, stay as physically active as you can, get adequate rest, and eat whole foods. But applying them during cancer treatment is actually innovative, Dr. Fleishman says, because most people simply lie low when they are fatigued and wait to feel better.
There is more than common sense behind each part of the LEARN System, he notes. Each piece of the plan is supported by the medical literature, from papers backing physical activity during cancer treatment to studies underscoring the importance or restorative sleep, Dr. Fleishman says.
Here’s a summary of the LEARN System:Living
Living means setting aside time every day or at least once a week to do something that is important and life affirming to you. Living tops the list because it is the most important part of the system, Dr. Fleishman says, even though engaging in what you love to do can hurt because it is a reminder of what you may lose. But doing something that is joyful and reminds you of the time before you got cancer can reinforce why you want to survive. It might be calling a dear friend or keeping in touch with the world beyond cancer by reading the newspaper (and skipping the stories about cancer), he says.Education
Decide what questions you have and prioritize a list, he advises. Some will likely be answered during an initial consultation with your practitioner and others on follow-up visits. Decide how much information you need and want to know. Beyond your practitioner, seek information from reliable sources such as the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.Activity
As you’ve likely heard before, physical activity helps maintain flexibility, strength, heart function, energy level, and positive weight and body image. During cancer treatment this is particularly important for promoting a higher quality of life. What’s more, exercise minimizes the side effects of treatment and reduces the chance of cancer recurrence or secondary cancers. Small studies also suggest evidence of improved survival from exercise, Dr. Fleishman notes. Start out slow by walking or rolling if you’re in a wheelchair. Get a referral to a physical therapist for specifics for what you can do. Certified cancer centers have relationships with physical, occupational, and other therapists.Rest
Sleep and restorative rest help promote healing. (Restorative rest is a period of resting that gives us a feeling of being refreshed when we awaken.) But many medications routinely used during cancer treatment, such as pain and anti-nausea drugs, disrupt the normal sleep cycle by promoting sleepiness. Naps can fight fatigue, but keep them less than an hour so nighttime sleep is not disrupted, Dr. Fleishman advises. Avoid any sleeping aids, some of which can interfere with cancer medications like anti-nausea drugs. Instead, try deep breathing exercises to relax and avoid reading and television before bed which can keep you awake. Nutrition
Eating a diet of whole foods, healthy proteins and fats, and deeply colored fruits and vegetables is critical in helping you maintain your ideal body weight and muscle mass. Many people fighting cancer want to indulge in high-fat comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, and burgers and fries, Dr. Fleishman says. But that will add fat, not lean muscle mass, which the body needs for strength. Because cancer treatments can lower disease resistance, make sure fresh fruits and vegetables have been scrubbed clean of any bacteria with a white vinegar and water solution followed by a cold water rinse.
“People need to keep in mind that if the treatment works, there is life after cancer,” Dr. Fleishman says. “You can get back to a good quality of life. But you can’t wait to recover. You sort of have to work in stereo,” fighting the cancer and promoting good health.SPECIAL: These 4 Things Happen Right Before a Heart Attack — Read More.