Contributor: Nathan Pennell, MD, PhD
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Being diagnosed with lung cancer (or any cancer) is a life-altering experience – one that can leave you feeling helpless and powerless. Yes, your doctor met with you and recommended a course of treatment, but for most people, that particular visit is a blur that leaves many questions unanswered.
One question I often hear is, “What can I do to help myself fight this cancer?”
This question, this essential human need to take control and not simply let cancer do what it pleases to your body, is rarely addressed by physicians. What’s even worse is it may be dismissed as irrelevant.
I believe this desire to do something is critical to patients, and they often turn to the internet for answers – exactly like you’re doing now as you read this story. You can find good, evidence-based advice online, but you can also find bad and even harmful advice as opportunists and charlatans try to take advantage of patients’ hopes and fears.
When patients ask me what they can do, I share the following advice.
1. If you continue to smoke cigarettes, you should stop
Studies show that continuing to smoke after a lung cancer diagnosis significantly reduces your chances of being cured and increases the risk of both your current cancer returning and of developing a second new cancer.
Even patients with advanced, incurable cancer have been proven to live longer if they quit. If you struggle to quit, as many people do, ask your doctor for help with medications and counseling.
2. Keep living your normal life
Many patients, when confronted with a new cancer diagnosis, start to redefine themselves as a “cancer patient” instead of the individual they once were, who happens to have cancer.
They spend much of their free time dwelling on their diagnosis and searching for every possible treatment, reasonable or unreasonable, sometimes flying from place to place getting different opinions (one second opinion is often a good idea; more than two is typically not).
Although it’s easier said than done, in my experience, the patients who have the best quality of life while living with cancer remain the person they were before the diagnosis. They approach cancer as just one more thing to deal with.
That vacation you always wanted or regular visits with your grandchildren are more important than making every chemo visit right on schedule.
Evidence clearly shows that regular exercise improves quality of life, tolerance of treatment side effects and mood, and can even help some cancer patients live longer.
You don’t have to train for a marathon, but some form of physical activity most days of the week can make a big impact: walking, biking, swimming or whatever you enjoy. This is the best single thing you can do to improve your life with cancer!
What to avoid
I can boil my advice on diets, herbal supplements, vitamins and most other “alternative medicines” into one sentence: No reliable study has ever shown a vitamin, diet or supplement to be effective in helping cancer patients live longer.
So what’s the harm in trying? These interventions can be expensive and even potentially detrimental. For example, studies show that high doses of vitamins A or E, given to help prevent lung cancer in patients at high risk, actually caused higher rates of lung cancer.
If you do choose to try something new, learn about it from a reliable source, like a reputable cancer center’s website, and be sure to tell your doctor.
This post is one of a series of articles produced by US News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.