Is there anyone out there who is not afraid of cancer? Doubtful. Even the expert researchers and clinicians who work daily with cancer are human, and like other humans, fear the consequences of a disease that is potentially, or actually, life-threatening, with no guarantee of prevention or cure.
We hope cancer research is seeking a way to stop cancer, and we use the word cure based on what we expect of medicine. But as we learn more about the variations of cancer, cure no longer applies to the behavior of an array of cellular genetic material run amok.
When we see cancer as a singular threat, expecting that it is a simple disease that thus far has evaded our ability to eradicate it indefinitely, we persist in our belief in a promised cure just over the horizon, as if waiting in veneration for the second coming of a non-existent cult figure.
Here’s the underlying question: Other than bowing our heads in prayer and waiting for a miracle from the heavens, how can the average person avoid cancer?
Navigating the C: A Nurse Charts the Course for Cancer Survivorship Care by Alene Nitzky, an oncology nurse who left the hospital setting to work in her community directly with those affected by cancer, responds to such questions posed by a curious, yet underinformed public. The book is a careful unraveling of the complex layers of the healthcare system and how each contributes to a less than optimal experience for the actual and potential patients, caregivers, and families, when it comes to confronting a cancer diagnosis, and all that goes with it through treatment and beyond.
Replete with solutions and innovative ideas, the book scours through the reasons that the lay public has so much misunderstanding and confusion around cancer- the overabundance of information online, the snake oil salesmen and “armchair oncologists” ready to pounce at the mere mention of the C word, the paucity of skills taught around navigating the healthcare system and its surplus of unchecked information.
As with many questions answered in Navigating the C, Nitzky takes a practical, conversational and simple approach. No one can completely avoid cancer, and there is no sure way to prevent ever having cancer. What we do know, is there are many things you can do to lower its likelihood and have a better outcome from treatment if you ever do have cancer. She reminds us that even though qualifiers and disclaimers often find themselves at the bottom of an article in a footnote, the reader would do well to keep the following sentence in mind:
Remember that statistics about cancer risk (likelihood that you’ll ever have cancer) are based on large population studies based on certain characteristics, and may not apply to your individual situation. Simply stated, this means don’t assume that one person’s cancer will behave exactly like anyone else’s.
One of the approaches to cancer in Navigating the C involves steps a layperson can take to build resilience and confidence in case of a personal confrontation with one’s own, or a loved one’s, cancer diagnosis.
- Prevent. Based on current knowledge, we are all made of cells, cells have DNA, and DNA can mutate. What we know about the likelihood of developing cancer is based on large population studies, but you cannot predict an individual’s chance of getting cancer based on those population studies. We do know, based on these studies, is that you can reduce the likelihood of developing cancer if you exercise regularly with enough intensity to derive health benefits, keep your weight at a healthy level, eat a varied, balanced diet of mostly plants with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, protect yourself from excess sun exposure, minimize intake of alcohol, don’t smoke, and stay mentally and socially active in your community. If you have any existing physical or mental health conditions, make sure they are well-controlled so you are functioning optimally.
- Prepare. To maximize the likelihood of having a good outcome in case of a cancer diagnosis, start now. Stay on top of your recommended cancer screenings, because early detection makes it more likely for treatment to succeed. Learn as much as you can about cancer so you have good sources of information to choose from if you need it. Some examples are the National Cancer Institute or the National Institutes of Health, also the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Prepare yourself ahead of time, in case you ever are diagnosed, by designating a few people in your life to be your advocate, helper, errand-runner, support system. Don’t lay all the burden on one person. For example, a trusted neighbor, or someone you know well from the community, or your church can be helpful so that all of the work does not fall on your spouse. You can agree to do the same for them if they ever need it. If you have those contingency plans in place, and some good resources to go to ahead of time, it will make the cancer diagnosis and early treatment process much less of a shock, and less traumatic for you and your family.
- Prehab. Finally, being in as good physical and mental condition as possible will give you an advantage if you ever go through treatment for cancer. Physically fit and active people often tolerate treatment better, and keeping active during treatment is helpful, too. If you have any mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, if those are well-controlled ahead of time, it will make it easier for you to withstand the physical and emotional burden of cancer treatment, which is likely to yield a better outcome.
The Prevent-Prepare- Prehab method of cancer survivorship provides a template for being as prepared as possible, with minimal effort. Navigating the C contains many more resources to best prepare yourself, during, after, but equally important, before, your own or a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
Navigating the C: A Nurse Charts the Course for Cancer Survivorship Care, by Alene Nitzky, Blue Bayou Press, 2018, is available on Amazon U.S. and U.K.