Leslie Girard recently celebrated the first year after her breast cancer diagnosis, if “celebrate” is the word for it.
“I’ve had to step back these last several months to regroup in life,” she wrote to her private Facebook group, “Fear Not The Storm,” in August. “Where do I take my journey from here?”
Like many other patients, she’s realizing that the breast cancer journey doesn’t end when treatment does.
That’s where the idea of survivorship comes in: People who have been through this traumatic event can use it as inspiration to make their lives even better than before.
Dr. Magdolna Solti is the director of Compass Oncology’s survivorship program, which launched in 2009. She saw her patients depleted by chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
“Survivorship is really about building health again,” Solti said. “I love educating people, giving them tools and resources, and then cheering when they actually make the changes and see how much fitter and better they live.”
The program includes one-on-one visits with a physician assistant, support groups, a smoking-cessation course if needed, and help getting up to date with any health care appointments patients may have delayed before they were diagnosed with cancer.
The program also helps patients with the lasting effects of their treatment — fatigue, nerve disfunction, sexual problems, sleep disturbance and “chemo brain.”
“It’s actually ‘stress brain,’ ” Solti said. Even patients who don’t undergo chemotherapy can feel like their brains are foggy because of the stress of cancer diagnosis and treatment, Solti said.
Patients may also develop metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure and blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels — because treatment disturbs the endocrine system and makes it easier to gain weight, Solti said.
She sometimes sees patients undergo big, abrupt changes — like divorce, if they found their partner wasn’t supportive during treatment — but more often, they take baby steps into the next phase.
“Real change is little by little,” Solti said. “They realize, ‘I did not take good care of my body.’ ”
They improve their nutrition, start exercising — efforts they might have set aside before but are ready to undertake with newfound clarity. “Exercise as if your life depended on it,” is how one patient described her new philosophy to Solti.
Girard, who has a demanding job as branch manager for Evergreen Home Loans, now makes time for daily 30-minute walks first thing in the morning. She’s also avoiding meat and dairy, aiming for a plant-based whole-foods diet.
“I’m in that survival mode,” said Girard, 56. “I’ve got a chance this (cancer) will recur, so what am I going to do to help myself? I used to look at food for whether it tastes good. Now I look at it as: I need to put something in my body that’s good for me.”
Some patients may choose strict diet regimens, but research shows even the more moderate, Mediterranean approach to eating is enough to decrease cancer risk, Solti said.
The Mediterranean diet eschews processed foods, with little meat and dairy and lots of vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains and fruit. Fiber is especially important, Solti said, so she urges patients who want to try juicing to instead blend whole vegetables and fruits into smoothies. And alcohol is best avoided, because studies show even moderate drinking (one alcoholic beverage per day for women) increases breast cancer risk by 10 percent, Solti said.
Patients often look for a magic pill to keep cancer from returning, Solti said. “The magic pill is in you. If you really change your lifestyle with a good diet, exercise, and quit smoking and alcohol, you can decrease cancer recurrence by 20 to 30 percent.”
The survivorship program coaches breast cancer patients through these diet and lifestyle changes, but also connects them with social support as they adjust to life on the other side of treatment.
“There’s this posttraumatic growth I like to see in every survivor,” Solti said, “this feeling, ‘I came out stronger.’ “