9 Ways to Live Your Best Life During Lung Cancer Treatment
If you’ve been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), you know how tough treatments can be, especially when it seems like the disease is winning. NSCLC accounts for 80% to 85% of all lung cancers, according to the American Cancer Society, but just because it's popular doesn't make it any easier. Still, whether you’re going through chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, or another type of treatment, experts agree—you can live well while focusing on getting better. Here’s how.
When you are experiencing symptoms like chest pain, back pain, and fatigue, which are common and constant for NSCLC, it’s natural to want to lounge in bed and rest as much as possible. However, “exercise can improve quality of life, emotional wellbeing, physical strength and cardiopulmonary endurance,” says Roy Oommen, M.D., a thoracic surgeon at Columbia Surgery in New York City. Don't overdo it: The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute suggests starting with short sessions (5-10 minutes) of cycling, walking, or swimming. As you get stronger, add more and longer sessions throughout the day.
Eat the Rainbow
While there isn’t a specific lung cancer diet to adopt, there are some specific foods that help boost your nutritional quotient and fight cancer. Stock the fridge with colorful fruits and veggies like berries, bell peppers, squash and tomatoes. The brighter the nosh, the more symptom-reducing antioxidants it contains. Try not to rely on supplements to get in your nutrients. You’ll get more bang for your buck—in the form of lung cancer-preventing fiber—by noshing on whole foods.
Give Up Smoking
Smoking is bad for your health, and it’s especially bad for lung health. In fact, merely being exposed to second-hand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer by 20% to 30%. While it won’t be easy, remember that quitting can literally improve your health (less shortness of breath, especially on exertion) within minutes from your last cigarette. Need some cheering on? Consider joining a support group like Nicotine Anonymous, a non-profit 12-step program for people to help each other live nicotine-free.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
You need to be in the right frame of mind when you are trying to beat any kind of cancer, and lung cancer is no different. Consulting a therapist will make it easier for you to deal with the mental health issues that come with NSCLC. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, people with lung cancer benefit from therapy and psychological interventions over the course of their treatment by being able to better cope with issues like social stigma, depression, anxiety, and reduced quality of life.
Stay Busy at Work
Unless your doctor says otherwise, you can keep working. If it’s a job that’s meaningful to you, your work can give you a sense of fulfillment and serve as a healthy and effective distraction from any mental or physical discomfort. This does not mean you should keep your coworkers in the dark about your cancer diagnosis. At the very least, inform your boss about your health so that they can be supportive. On the flip side, if you are unable to work, know that it is perfectly okay to take as much time off as you need.
Why not use this time to do things that make you happy? As challenging as cancer is, you may now have some spare time to pursue long-forgotten hobbies, maybe even explore new interests. This will not only keep you engaged but will also improve your mental and physical health. According to research published in Psychosomatic Medicine, hobbies help lower blood pressure, body mass index, stress, and depression. Since they enable you to relax and improve your wellbeing, you will be better equipped to cope with taxing treatments and procedures.
Self-care looks different for everyone. As long as it helps you de-stress and feel better about yourself, pretty much anything works. Some people find stress relief in daily journaling. “Journaling has been associated with improved mood and reduced anxiety," says Rhonda Mattox, M.D., an integrative health behavioral psychiatrist in Little Rock, AR. "It helps you release pent-up emotions and gain clarity and perspective on your feelings in a safe, judgment-free space.” Need some more ideas? Check out this list of some quintessential ways to practice self-care.
Find a Support Group
No matter how mentally strong you are, studies published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention and Palliative and Support Care show social support to be a major driver in the improvement of the quality and lifespan of cancer patients. Talking to people who have survived or are living with cancer, you'll learn useful tips that will help you cope better. Thanks to the prevalence of online and offline cancer support groups, there’s no reason for you to go through your struggles all by yourself. A few groups to check out include CancerCare, GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, and LUNGevity Foundation.
Be Prepared for the Unexpected
According to a study by the Israel Institute of Technology, being positive helps fight cancer. Unfortunately, even the most upbeat attitude cannot guarantee recovery. This does not mean you should fixate on everything that could go wrong. The smartest thing you can do is to stay hopeful and be mentally prepared for whatever is ahead. While this is easier said than done, practicing mindfulness and gratitude can help you achieve this Zen state of mind. Dr. Mattox recommends keeping a ‘count your blessings’ jar. “Write notes about people and things that you value, which bring you joy,” he says. “On rough days, read some of the notes to refresh your memory and feel instantly grateful.”
Psychosocial Interventions: Lung Cancer. (2017.) “Psychosocial challenges for patients with advanced lung cancer: interventions to improve well-being.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5546827/
Hobbies and Lung Cancer: Psychosomatic Medicine. (2009.) “Association of Enjoyable Leisure Activities With Psychological and Physical Well-Being.” https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2009/09000/Association_of_Enjoyable_Leisure_Activities_With.5.aspx
Social Support: Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. (2012.) “Importance of social support in cancer patient.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23098436/
Mental State and Cancer: Nature Communications. (2018.) “Modulation of anti-tumor immunity by the brain’s reward system.” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05283-5#:~:text=Here%2C%20we%20show%20that%20the,resulted%20in%20reduced%20tumor%20weight