“You have cancer” are three of the most dreaded words a person can hear. With a cancer diagnosis, you become a member of a club that no one wants to join. And whatever your life was about before, a cancer diagnosis hurls you headlong into a “battle” against cancer. Or at least, that’s what I thought before I chose to stop fighting my cancer and make peace with it instead.
Twenty years ago, when I was a 45-year-old mom of three, my doctor told me I had Stage III breast cancer. Since then, though I’ve enjoyed long remissions, I have had two recurrences of disease. With the best of intentions, my friends and family have tried to prop me up with peppy phrases like, “Don’t worry, you’ll fight this thing!” and “You’re gonna win this battle!” But somehow the war analogy never sat right with me.
What exactly was I at war with? My own body? Cancer is not a foreign invader attacking my healthy cells; it is my own cells gone awry. And our own bodies are not exactly “ours”—they are more of a host to the bacterial, viral, and other DNA that inhabit us. We each have a symbiotic relationship with a multitude of essential microorganisms. We even have more bacterial DNA in our bodies than our own!
Our bodies are therefore complex ecosystems, more like gardens than battlegrounds. It made more sense to accept my cancer as a part of the complex ecosystem that is me. I didn’t need to wage war against my cancer. As much as anyone wants to be cancer free, I am not fighting with my own body. More to the point, it’s better to leave the battle, such as it is, to my oncologist, who is fully armed with sophisticated weapons, training, and the skills to fight cancer.
I realized that my own efforts would be better directed to the areas where I have influence on my health outcomes. I was affected by the approach and information presented in the book Anticancer: A New Way of Life, by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber. In the book, Dr. Servan-Schreiber clearly explains the evidence supporting the critical importance of healthy lifestyle choices, and gave me the tools I needed to create and maintain a healthy internal “terrain.” I learned to nourish my immune system with the fertilizer of healthy food; to pull the weeds of inflammation with regular exercise; and to provide the warming sunlight of some calm and equanimity. The book makes clear that our daily habits can create an environment that is either hospitable or inhospitable to cancer. In other words, the way we tend to the garden of our body will either encourage or discourage cancer growth.
This change in perspective—beating my sword into pruning shears—has made me feel better and has transformed my career as well. I now work full-time promoting the online Anticancer Lifestyle Program, with the hope of reaching as many survivors as we can, as well as those interested in prevention of chronic illness. The Anticancer Lifestyle Program is trusted by medical providers, who refer their patients to the program to receive the tools and information they need to make and sustain a healthy lifestyle.
Implicit in the gardening metaphor is an acceptance that I will never have full control over my disease, just like I could never fully control every natural threat to a garden. In our course, we explain to participants that they can do everything we recommend and still get cancer, or they can smoke, drink, and eat only fast food, and still never get cancer. There are no guarantees, but the evidence is strong that in general, a healthier lifestyle will reduce your odds of getting cancer.
I have found peace with my cancer by taking control of my health in the ways that I’m able to. It’s possible to take back some power in a situation where so many feel a toxic sense of helplessness. I’m certainly not perfect at living a healthy lifestyle—I fall off the wagon all the time—but over the years I have come to feel healthier and happier than I thought was possible.
About the Author
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is a breast cancer survivor and the co-founder of the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, an online lifestyle transformation course for cancer survivors and those interested in disease prevention. For most of her career, she was a freelance writer for magazines, and for six years wrote a column for Inc. magazine about the intersection of family and business. Her award-winning book, For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families, was cited by Entrepreneur magazine as one of the year’s best business books of 2012.