After I was diagnosed with cancer, I was unable to work for many months, during which time I became increasingly ill. At the end of that period, although I was delighted at the prospect of going back to work, I worried about how I would manage physically. I knew I didn't have the stamina to work the way I did before my diagnosis. While I admittedly fretted, I also felt optimistic because I had worked out a plan to heal faster, better, and stronger. I knew what it would take, and I knew I could do it.
One of the first things I did was to address my wardrobe. When I was off work and actively getting treatment, I had some casual clothes that I wore regularly. Because I wanted to move forward, I ceremonially gave those garments to charity and bought myself some new clothes. This, I hoped, would signify the beginning of my "after cancer" life—a visual reminder to both my children and myself that I was healing. Next, I examined the contents of my closet as though they belonged to someone else. Whose work clothes were these? It had been months since I had worn them and they seemed foreign to me. I literally had to dust off my shoes before I could wear them. A trip to the local department store was also necessary, as most of my makeup had congealed or dried up. After pressing the clothes I had worn to work before cancer, purchasing new casual clothes, and buying new makeup, I was ready to tackle the hard job of physically healing.
But stylish clothes and new makeup did little to hide my illness, which was still with me. I was bald and gaunt in the face with dark circles under my eyes. I had nearly constant pain from neuropathy in my hands and feet—one of the side effects I developed from chemotherapy. Any shoes except sneakers made me uncomfortable. Even if I could have worn other shoes, I couldn't walk very far—my endurance was shot. To make matters worse, I was sleeping poorly and my appetite and eating habits were out of whack. What to do?
My professional expertise in oncology rehabilitation had never involved thoroughly considering the full spectrum of post-cancer care. Instead, I would deal with each problem as it arose: what doctors call a "problem-oriented approach." For example, if a woman had had a mastectomy and came in with shoulder pain and a limited range of motion, I would recommend treatments that would help her with that specific problem. Another patient might be having difficulty with walking after a tumor close to his spinal cord was removed. Problem-oriented care is precisely what people need when they have musculoskeletal conditions that are not related to an underlying, more serious illness.
I realized, however, that if I was going to heal myself, I needed to employ a much more comprehensive therapeutic approach. I would have to focus on what I was eating, how I was sleeping, what types of exercise I was doing, and controlling my pain. This kind of approach is the one rehabilitation specialists use for people who have been seriously injured in a car accident or who have had a stroke or a spinal-cord injury. Many cancer survivors need a similar treatment plan. If you have finished cancer treatment, or if you are in the middle of treatment but want to begin to work on physically healing, then you will probably benefit from a comprehensive approach that takes into account factors such as your current level of endurance and strength, your diet, how well you are able to exercise, how much sleep you are getting, and so on.
What I am suggesting is a holistic approach to healing, one that employs the best of modern medicine and focuses on how you are able to function from day to day, with the goal of improving your quality of life. Although the point of this book is to help you to physically heal, reading it does not replace your doctor's sage advice. As you go through each chapter, consider jotting down questions you want to ask your physician—he or she knows your health needs and can offer specific advice about how you should proceed. Armed with the information provided here, you can work with your doctor on a plan that will help you to heal as quickly and completely as possible.
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