Surviving cancer was a life-changing experience for these top cancer experts, even though they'd spent their careers helping patients fight the illness — and thought they knew everything they needed to know to beat the disease. "When you're the patient, you learn a lot about what it really takes to keep yourself healthy," admits Carolyn Runowicz, MD, director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut. "Things like eating well and exercising regularly suddenly seem like a matter of life and death." Here, she and two other cancer survivors reveal how they coped with treatment, how they stay well, and what we all should be doing to protect ourselves now.
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“You know your body better than anyone.”
— Julie Silver, MD
Co-founder of Oncology Rehab Partners and assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, physiatrist Julie Silver, MD, 44, was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2003.
"It's nothing. Stop worrying." That was the message Silver got from her doctor in 2001, when both a mammogram and ultrasound looked clear. "I was relieved, yet I couldn't shake this uneasy feeling," she says. "I know my breasts, and some tissue in the left one felt subtly different than it used to feel." To allay her nagging worry, she saw a breast surgeon a few months later. Again the tests turned up normal.
"I should have been totally relieved, but there was this small part of me that continued to worry," she says. "I don't worry excessively about my health, so this was very unusual." Still, she was embarrassed to call the breast surgeon again. "But I had three kids under the age of 12, so I knew I had to risk humiliation and get this looked at one more time," she says.
After the third mammogram, the empathetic surgeon returned to the exam room with tears in her eyes. "She said, 'I'm so sorry. You were right.' It was the most awful moment. I was consumed with emotions — sadness, grief, fear."
Because the diagnosis took 2 years, the cancer was no longer in the earliest stage. "But my oncologist said I had an 'overwhelmingly positive prognosis' because the cancer wasn't terribly aggressive. That phrase became my mantra." Silver was also armed with hopeful statistics. "There are 11 million cancer survivors in this country — and lots of them were diagnosed after the cancer had spread beyond the breast," she says. "Even with fairly advanced cancer, you can still live a long, reasonably healthy life."
Her stay-healthy advice
Treat yourself like a cherished friend. "That means giving yourself a break when you need it. Your physical health and emotional health are intertwined — it's important to pay attention to both."
Aim to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. "There is lots of evidence that antioxidants and phytochemicals can keep you healthier overall and may help prevent certain cancers."
“Share your experience with your family.”
— David Johnson, MD
Deputy director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, David Johnson, MD, 61, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1989.
When Johnson discovered lumpy nodes in his groin, he didn't bring it to his doctor's attention for 3 months. "The idea of lymphoma crossed my mind, but I dismissed it. I was 41 and otherwise very healthy."
Not surprisingly, he was shocked when his doctor told him the results of his biopsy. "My first thought was that I wouldn't live to see my 10-year-old daughter grow up. Then I started worrying about how she and my wife would survive financially." He didn't share these fears with his family, though — a lapse he regrets. "I told my wife I was going to be okay, and after that I didn't talk much about my illness at home. I thought discussing the what-ifs would make her and my daughter anxious, but I think my silence actually made them more nervous," he says. "Now I warn patients that it's important for the family to keep the lines of communication open."
If Johnson was mum at home, he didn't have that option at work. "I got lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues, which was nice but often conflicting and confusing," he says. Feeling overwhelmed, he decided not to take too much control of his treatment. "Medical oncologists study for 12 years before they can practice, so it makes sense to trust their judgment," he says. "I told my doctor that I wanted to get through the treatment as quickly as possible, but aside from that I left the medical choices up to him."
Now 20 years cancer free, Johnson is pragmatic about his risk of recurrence: "I take good care of myself, and I try to enjoy everything I can about life."
His stay-healthy advice
Have unusual symptoms checked out ASAP. "If you convey concern when you call your doctor — saying something like 'I'm really worried about this' — then you can usually get an appointment fairly quickly, which can ease your mind."
Sneak in exercise whenever you can. "I always try to use the stairs rather than the elevator, and I walk several mornings a week."
“Embrace your new normal.”
— Carolyn Runowicz, MD
Farmington, CT-based oncologist and past president of the American Cancer Society, Carolyn Runowicz, MD, 57, was diagnosed in 1992 with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
Hearing the words "You have cancer" is terrifying, says Runowicz. Hearing that the cancer has spread outside the breast makes you feel doomed. "At first I thought, I'm dead," she says. But knowing how important it was to have hope, Runowicz reminded herself of how effective cancer treatments could be: "I told myself that you didn't have to die from breast cancer."
Her faith in medicine was well founded: After 8 months of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation, and 5 years of tamoxifen, she's been cancer free for 16 years. Although her treatment was grueling — "harder than I expected" — the biggest surprise came after it was over. "It was like the umbilical cord was cut," she says. "During treatment, you're seeing your doctor every week. Then suddenly you're on your own. You're better, but you're not well. It's hard to know what you're supposed to do next."
To help figure that out, Runowicz jotted down her thoughts, which eventually became a book, "To Be Alive: A Woman's Guide to a Full Life after Cancer." "Writing about my experience helped me regain my footing," she says. Runowicz also made a radical shift in her health-related habits. "Before cancer, I subsisted on coffee, nervous energy, and whatever looked good in the hospital's snack machines — and I almost never exercised," she says. "After treatment, I became religious about my weight, diet, and working out — now I'm addicted to the extra energy it gives me. Having cancer forced me to completely rethink the way I approach my own health. I no longer take it for granted."
Her stay-healthy advice
Create a journal. There, you can grieve for the life you had before a major illness or emotional or physical stress.
Maintain a healthy weight. "I've always been slim, but I wanted to stay that way. Excess body fat produces estrogen and may increase the risk of breast cancer."
Eat a Mediterranean diet. Many studies show a strong link between eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil and living longer.
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