Coping with cancer – cancer survivor’s guide

cancer survivor's guide

I was diagnosed in January 2007. I was 28 and had quite an advanced cancer. I have written down a few points which I believe to be important, especially just after diagnosis, when the patient and his family are still in great shock.

I didn’t always know what to do and how to act – I still don’t know what problems and difficulties lay ahead of me. However, from my own experience, I know that the tips listed below are of great help in taking control over your disease.

1. When you’re worried about anything regarding your health – see a doctor as soon as possible. Have all prescribed tests done.

I’m alive only because the moment I found a tumour I immediately signed up for a doctor’s appointment. Despite my quick reaction, the diagnostic procedure took very long – about 1 month. During that time my tumour grew and the cancer cells spread. In the end my treatment began when my cancer had reached stage IIIB out of IV possible levels.

Now, after almost 12 years of treatment, if any worrying symptom occurs for more than two weeks, I tell my doctor about it and often ask for diagnostic imaging tests of the suspicious organ. I also ask for the tests to be as harmless for me as possible.

2. Try to think positive.

When going for diagnostic tests always assume the best possible scenario, but also be prepared for a worse situation. During treatment believe that it will have the best possible effects and then observe your results. No matter what the effects, appreciate the effort of your organism. Try to laugh as often as possible.

One day I realised that some news are not in the least less terrifying if you had been thinking you would hear them. They may actually be even more scary because then the whole wave of fear returns – the wave of fear created during the hypothetical thoughts about the worst possible scenarios.

The most difficult thing I heard, apart from my diagnosis, was the information that despite the intensive treatment I had received, my illness had returned. I even ignored the first signs of relapse – enlarged lymph nodes. I justified them as being caused by infections and strain. After some time, when the amount of lymph nodes seen during ultrasounds kept on increasing, it finally sank in that my cancer had returned.

After a few days of chaotic thoughts, panic and fear I pulled myself together – I tried not to think about what I won’t be able to do, but about what I can still do. I resolved to win another battle – and I did – the cancer dissolved in the chemo and still hasn’t returned.

That’s why I don’t waste my time and nerves thinking “what will happen if”. I also don’t waste my time worrying because no one knows what will happen in the future. Life is happening here and now, passing day by day, so it’s worth to smile at it right now.

Cancer is not a death sentence – a cancer diagnosis is an information about an illness, not about the expected date of death. Even information about disease progression or an ineffective treatment doesn’t mean that nothing more can be done – new types of drugs and treatments are constantly being tested all around the world. You can also try experimental drug therapy during a clinical trial. No one knows their date of death, and your mission is to do everything to live as long as possible.

Your doctor should tell you as much as possible about your test results and the succeeding treatment procedures. Ask him everything you’d like to know, but be prepared for the conversation: list your questions beforehand and note down the answers. You can also search for information on the internet in order to consult it later with your doctor – but be wary and check each fact in several credible sources.

However, if your doctor isn’t able to explain everything, or if anything in your results seems suspicious, go and see a different specialist. If necessary, also go and see a third doctor. Look for oncology specialists, search for opinions about them, choose those, who seem trustworthy. Believe that your treatment will have the best possible outcome and keep that thought. Fight each dark thought and oppose it with a positive one.

3. If you already know you have cancer, try to do everything possible to familiarise it.

Remember that you should be the person who cares about your health the most. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself, but you should get involved in your treatment process.

Familiarise yourself with your diagnosis, check if it’s complete and collect your medical documentation from the very beginning. Ask your loved ones to search for more information regarding your type of cancer.

Cancer is a complicated disease. Both its mechanisms as well as the possible types of treatment differ greatly. Doctors choose various types of treatment, so it’s worth finding out about your disease, what treatment is suggested and what it means for you.

The more you know about your cancer, the greater control you’ll have over it. You’ll be better prepared for therapy, aware of the possible risks, mobilised to go through the coming treatment, and by that much stronger.

4. Always choose conventional medicine as your main treatment.

Only conventional medicine is based on scientifically proven treatment results, tested on large patient groups. Always go to oncologists first and only then consult with them additional therapies, such as bioenergy therapy, herbs, dietary supplements or acupuncture.

At the very beginning, I decided to fight my cancer in all possible ways, but academic medicine was always in the first place. I knew I could rely on it most.

All my friends sent me information about healers, miraculous infusions and juices, bioenergy therapists, healing diets.

Apart from many consultations with doctors in various oncological centres, I went to a Tibetan monk, who prescribed me herbs, recommended a diet and comforted me with words of wise consolation. I was also visited by a bioenergy therapist, who I believed to be an honest man, since he didn’t want any money from me. I remember that at the time preparing my herbs became a ritual, which gave me a sense of peace. My faith in the power of the herbs and bioenergy gave me faith that I would recover.

After some time I limited the number of visits to both representatives of alternative medicine, since I felt that I wanted to use the time differently. In the end, I stopped going at all. However, I know that if you believe that something can cure you, faith itself has very positive effects, yet at the same time cancer is too serious a disease to reject conventional medicine and place your health in the hands of faith alone.

5. When going to a doctor’s appointment, never go alone, and always have something to take notes on.

Very often straight after leaving a doctor’s office I would not remember what we had been talking about and what I was supposed to do. The initial flood of information, complicated hospital procedures, stress and tension often lead to memory gaps. Doctors, on the other hand, don’t have the time to repeat everything to us. That’s why it’s good to take a second listener to doctor’s appointments, as well as a notebook or electronic device for taking notes. When you’re together, it’s easier to recreate the missing pieces of information after a visit.

6. Race against time.

Time is an extremely important factor in treating cancer. The sooner cancer is diagnosed and treated, the easier it is to treat, and with less side effects for the patient. Try to have all tests done possibly quickly, look for medical centres offering the shortest queues for diagnostics, operations, chemotherapy or other types of treatment and do everything to have them performed as soon as possible.

7. Eat consciously and try to be active. Spend as much time as possible in contact with nature.

Cancer is a multi-element disease. Our general physical and mental health have a great impact on its course. That’s why it’s important to take care of yourself during and after treatment. Many studies point to the beneficial, preventive aspects of an appropriate diet, as well as to better treatment results of patients maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

During chemotherapy I took care of my liver – it already had many difficult tasks ahead – I didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t eat fried, fatty or very sweet foods. It’s worth reading about chemotherapy diets, since they can minimize treatment side effects and assist or weaken the effects of drugs we’re taking (ginger, for example, reduces nausea after chemo, while tarragon improves chemotherapy results). There are many possibilities of adjusting a diet to a given patient, so I encourage you to look into the matter. Below I have listed some general rules, which I try to follow:

  • eat many herbs, vegetables and fruits – choose those from organic farms;
  • eat dairy products from grass-fed livestock;
  • drink a lot of green tea with lemon juice;
  • cut down on meat, preferably give it up completely;
  • don’t eat processed, mass-produced foods with chemical additives;
  • cut down on sugar, preferably give it up completely;
  • eat marine fish (small fish are the best, their meat contains the least contaminants);
  • add linseed oil to raw dishes;
  • buy consciously and eat consciously;
  • look for nutritious information backed with clinical research from credible medical centres;
  • spend time outside, be as active as possible, spend time in contact with your loved ones and with nature. This relaxes and oxygenates the body and helps you get better.

8. Don’t be afraid to use the help of your friends and family.

Telling everyone that you have cancer is extremely difficult. But remember that there are many people who care about you and will be happy to help. You will learn how many true friends you have, how warm and good-hearted people can be.

I told about my cancer everyone who I thought would find it important: family, friends, my boss. However, I didn’t want to tell my clients, so I justified my baldness by my eccentric aesthetic needs. I experienced great support and kindness from a wide group of people. My family and friends helped me when I didn’t have any strength left, they looked for solutions to my problems, reached people who could help me. I did also come across fear, lack of understanding and pity, yet in the end there were many more positives than negatives of this decision. It’s not worth being ashamed, it’s not worth being scared, and it’s not worth hiding – it only creates additional stress.

9. Read about psycho-oncology.

Maybe you’ll decide to take part in a Simonton method workshop or another support group. Such events are often a good occasion to share experience and knowledge, and to look at cancer from a different perspective. They also show that people around us live with cancer peacefully and happily.

I took part in a Simonton method cancer workshop. It turned out to be very interesting and helped me organise some of my thoughts and beliefs. However, what turned out to be most valuable for me was meeting people who had been fighting cancer for years, were in different stages of disease, yet seemed happy, cheerful and living the moment. After all these years, the memory of some of these people is still very comforting and it reassures me that happiness is after all a state of mind. 

10. Live your life!

The treatment process is only an element of life, a fragment of a greater whole. You should look at your future, yet at the same time live the moment.

During my treatment I realised some of the plans which I had been always putting off and new ideas sprang up. I travelled, worked, painted and took photos. It turned out that I was able to go to work after chemotherapy, so I did. Later I travelled to another town for chemo, since the decisions concerning treatment were made faster there. Straight after an infusion I would get on a train and travel back home to go to work the next day.

There was only one thing I didn’t manage to do – ride a bike. I almost fainted during an attempt so I put my bike away for some time. However, I did go on a kayaking trip – a day after a chemotherapy. I try not to demand too much of myself, but I also don’t want to give up on many aspects of my life for the sake of crying over my ill fate. So I try to do many things that make me happy and use the time I have as well as possible.

This I wish to everyone,
Agata Polińska

cancer survivor

Written by Agata Polińska
Co-founder and Director of the Alivia Foundation UK

Translated by Małgorzata Korzeniewska

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