If you've been diagnosed with cancer, your oncologists will do everything they can to eradicate it from your body, but they may not be able to advise you on the fine points of recovery.
For advice on how to navigate the terrain between illness and health, and achieve optimal health, I'd recommend the new book You Can Heal Yourself: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Recovery After Injury or Illness, by Julie Silver, MD. In addition to being an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, Silver is herself a breast cancer survivor.
Here is a sampling of her advice on optimal cancer recovery (of course, you should check with your own doctor before trying any of the specifics):
Don't worry about being worried. Silver points out that a positive mindset is an important part of recovery—but don't stress out if you don't feel optimistic. "Don't worry about being worried," she says. "You're going to be stressed when you're undergoing cancer treatment, that's a given. Adding 'worry about being worried' is just no help at all. So accept that you'll be worried and implement specific strategies to decrease stress." A few of the strategies she recommends: Meditation, yoga, time in nature, listening to music, spending time with friends.
Make everything you can easier. Taking care of yourself should be priority number one during cancer treatment and recovery, but finding time for it can be a challenge if you have to juggle work and family responsibilities. Silver recommends you allow yourself to do less whenever possible. "When I was undergoing cancer treatment I started ordering groceries online, which alleviated a lot of stress, plus I hired someone to shovel snow from my walkway, and when people asked what they could do to help, I tried to give them specific suggestions," she says. "Say 'I could really use somebody to rake my yard'—that ensures you won't get too many lasagnas." If you're not comfortable asking for help yourself, Silver suggests you appoint a friend to be your "captain of kindnesses," who helps to organize the well wishers. (There are even websites that can help—like TakeThemaMeal.com, which allows friends to sign up to bring you food without creating hassle for you).
Find the balance between activity and rest. Hard as it may be, you should try to get exercise, even during chemo or radiation (though check with your doctor, of course). "Research supports staying as active as possible during treatment," says Silver. Of course, you need lots of rest too—how to find the right middle ground? "Pay attention to what your body is telling you, and don't overdo it," says Silver. "Try increasing your activity in the morning when you feel more fresh and rested, that's when you'll be able to build your endurance." As with everything during your recovery, don't stress out about it. "Finding the balance between activity and rest is an ongoing process during healing—accept that there might be times when you overdo it, and some times when you aren't as active as you can be."
Choose the right kind of activity. Even though you should stay active, Silver says to skip the house and yard work. "Household chores can be exhausting without giving you much health benefit in terms of strength and endurance," she says. "Instead, use your energy on exercise aimed at building those things."
Wear a pedometer. To make sure that you're staying active, Silver recommends you wear a simple pedometer to track your steps each day, and try to build toward 10,000 steps per day, which is considered the goal for healthy people. Even if you don't get anywhere close to that at first, if you are able to gradually increase your number of steps it will benefit both your physical and mental recovery. "It really empowers people, to set a goal and see that they're progressing toward it," says Silver.
Finally, I asked Silver how somebody who's finished with cancer treatment can stop themselves from worrying about recurrence. I had a borderline cancerous condition a number of years ago and I know how had it was for me not to obsess over the worst, so I can only imagine how much harder it is for somebody with cancer. Here's what she had to say: "There's no way to completely alleviate worry about cancer recurrence, but whether you're in remission, living with cancer as a chronic condition or deemed cured, you can utilize healing strategies that make your body stronger, give you more energy and help you gain confidence that your body is working the way it should. The better you feel physically the better you'll feel emotionally. Time helps too, but you can't make time go faster, so you might as well focus on your recovery."
Silver's book is chock full of such strategies, as well as nutrition tips, specific exercises and more, drawn from both her work as a rehabilitative medicine doctor and her personal experience with breast cancer, and is a must read for anybody in recovery from a serious illness.
More advice on coping with cancer: