Cindy M. Howard, DC, DABCI, FIAMA, is a chiropractic internist, nutritionist, national speaker on a host of health topics, and cancer survivor. She is also the author of her memoir, Positively Altered: Finding Happiness at the Bottom of a Chemo Bag. View Dr. Howard’s disclosures.
I was in between seeing my own patients when I found out that I had cancer. It is an odd predicament when you’re a doctor reading the results of your own computed tomography (CT) scan.
When I learned that the test results would be coming that morning, I wanted to know right away so that I wouldn’t obsess over the unknown all day. But when I read them, I had about 30 seconds to process the results. Then I thought, “Oh no. There’s a patient in the other room who needs my attention. I just learned I have cancer, but this moment can’t be all about me.”
As physicians, we often think we can be as objective and professional about our own health as we are with our patients’. But the reality is that we’re human and feel just as vulnerable when we get the news of a cancer diagnosis, and we can immediately think about all the possible treatments and outcomes.
Having walked through cancer has motivated me to empower other people with cancer by sharing tools for embracing informed decision-making, just like I had when I went through my cancer journey. Here are 3 ways you can empower yourself when it comes to navigating your health choices during cancer.
1: Build a great team of superheroes.
Make sure the people around you are supporting and guiding you, not just telling you what to do. Friends, colleagues, and medical professionals should be listening to you and providing you with options, not directives. You get to hire and fire your teammates if you don’t like how it’s going. Also, keep in mind that part of your support team’s job is to challenge you and ask questions. I found that it is important to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you; you want superheroes in your corner.
Remember, too, that your body is a complex system, and it is unlikely that one single doctor will have all the training and answers you need. That is why it is crucial to build a team of providers you trust who will answer your questions without patronizing you, empower you with information, and give you the time you need to process your options. You can also seek second and third opinions, compare the information you’ve received, and evaluate the risks and benefits of your options. Most importantly, identify health care professionals who will admit when they don’t know the answers and who will do the necessary homework to make helpful referrals when necessary.
Here are some factors to consider when choosing your support team include:
Relational fit. A doctor-patient relationship is as important as any personal relationship in your life—maybe even more important when you have cancer. Trust your gut and choose a doctor who makes a great partner, not director. A doctor who treats you with respect is someone who will be a better advocate when you need it most.
Experience and reviews. How much experience does the doctor have, and what do other patients say about them? Seek referrals from friends and family members. If your referral isn’t taking new patients, ask that referral to give you someone they recommend.
Credentials and coverage. Is the person licensed and accredited to practice medicine in your country or region? Do they specialize in your specific area of need? Does your insurance plan cover many or most of their treatments? These are all important questions to ask when seeking members for your support team.
2: Make yourself the team captain.
You have the most direct access and firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in your body and how you feel. As the captain of your team, I encourage you to lead by example: know your poop and learn what it could be telling you about your gut health, drink plenty of water, eat whole foods, meditate, exercise, and find enjoyment in something. Trust yourself, and make sure that what you choose to do feels like the right decision for you. Remember, you can always pivot or make a change.
3: Know that you get to decide.
When you are faced with treatment options, be curious and ask questions to gain a better understanding of those options. Keep in mind that there are often many different paths to the same goal. It’s also important to advocate for yourself like you would for a loved one. Educate yourself, keep medical records, and start a notebook so you can remember dates and conversations with your medical team and key points from every appointment.
Remember that it’s your body and your health; prioritize what is most important to you, not to others. Feel free to ask your health care team questions when they arise. It’s also OK to question even your own choices and to lean on your support team for guidance. You may also find it helpful to meet with other like-minded people for support and encouragement, including through support groups. After all, discovering the right path isn’t always a quick, straight line; it can often take time and may be crooked.
Finally, it is important to keep at it and to not let anyone tell you that there is nothing that can be done. There is almost always something you can do. If you build a great team, make yourself the captain, and put yourself in the driver’s seat when it is time to make decisions, you’ll experience greater resilience in the face of adversity when your mind and body need it most.