Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Public Engagement on Cancer Care Part Three: On Prevention and Quality of Life

Attending and participating in the public deliberation on sustainable funding for cancer care this year was both a pleasure as well as an eye-opening and educational experience for me. I was able to talk to fellow BC residents alongside experts and scientists about relevant issues regarding our current health and cancer care system. This provided me with a unique opportunity to ask specific questions and share my own views, while I also ended up gleaning relevant and up-to-date information about the issues at hand. Finally, as a group, we made a series of recommendations to the provincial government and let politicians and decision-makers know our thoughts and priorities on the matter.

I have previously posted about the event (Public Engagement on Making Cancer Care Funding Fair andSustainable Day Oneand have briefly discussed treatment options, costs and research (Big Pharma, Innovation and Cancer Care) but here I would like to focus on some of the other themes and issues that stood out and were discussed in detail, namely, prevention and screening as well as treatment and quality of life. Lastly, I shall wrap up with some final thoughts and impressions on cancer and cancer care.

The best news you will hear within your lifetime is that you are fortunate enough not to have had cancer. Many of us – and we should count ourselves very lucky - will go through life without being diagnosed with this dreadful and debilitating disease; nonetheless, we cannot escape the fact that it will be in our vicinity and surroundings affecting our loved ones, friends, and people we care about. Considering its prevalence, it is best to have more knowledge and information about it, and one of the best things to do would be to raise awareness about prevention and screening.

This comes down to advice we have been hearing again and again from doctors as well as health and wellness experts who alongside parents and teachers continuously preach the importance of healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. 

Unfortunately, we are also prone to roll our eyes, let the information go in one ear and out the other, ignore or disregard the given information or erroneously and dangerously believe that we are automatically immune to it. This is a rather unfortunate trait that we have developed since adolescence and that many of us do not grow out of, the belief that we are invincible and that no harm shall fall upon us no matter how we act or what we do in our lives.

As a teenager, this was partly true for me, at least when it applied to nutrition. No matter what or how much I ate, I would be skinny and not gain any weight. However, alas those days are over as I am nowadays precariously hovering between the overweight and obese category, while weight management has become my thorn in the flesh. What this has shown me is that our bodies do not stay young and that there are certain precautions and safeguards that need to be put in place after a given age.

There are different reasons why it is important to take my health seriously. First off, unlike during my youth, I am not alone nor on my own anymore. At this stage of life, I am responsible for my family, particularly my pre-teen son who depends on me and who needs me to be healthy, now and into the distant future. 

If I were not to take care of myself now, I would indeed shorten my life span by a handful of years, at least to the extent that this issue be in my hands. Yet despite the potential threat of serious and uncaused accidents and illnesses, we do have more control and say in our lives than we generally acknowledge, notice or give ourselves credit for.

The first obstacle to overcome is a general laissez-faire attitude. We need to take active control and engagement in our healthy habits, which includes - but is not limited to - healthy and balanced nutrition alongside moderate forms of exercise. This becomes even more important once you have sailed past the shores of young adulthood and are entering a shifting territory more vulnerable to sickness and disease. As soon as the first signs and symptoms of disease appear, swift action needs to take place to avoid consequences and complications further down the road.

Hence, what can you do to keep cancer at bay? In fact, there are specific suggestions and recommendations. One of them is to reduce your intake of junk food. You do not need to avoid it entirely - and some people may actually do themselves more harm than good by trying to completely cut it out - but you should be aware of it and limit it to a certain extent. 

Those potato chips and candy bars may be tempting but they should be merely a guilty pleasure indulged in now and then without necessarily having to feel guilty about the act. Eating out on a regular basis would also not be recommended but doing so for special and specific occasions or at least reducing it to a maximum of once a week ought to be fine.

If you made the mistake of picking up smoking - whether you caved into peer pressure in your impressionable youth and / or wanted to look cool and fell for its supposed charms - right now is the right time to quit. Smoking is one of the few things that will always do harm even if it is done in moderation and those who claim to be social smokers are only conveniently deluding themselves.  

For instance, if you drink too much alcohol, you need to cut down on your consumption, but smoking with its equally harmful modern form of vaping needs to be completely stopped and eliminated. Smoking is the cause of myriad diseases, and it is most strongly correlated with lung cancer, but on the bright side, there are many ways to quit, while there is a lot of support out there for those who are serious about kicking the habit.

Once you have added a healthy dose of exercise to the mix, then you shall be able to reach and maintain that ideal weight, certainly not without persistent and continuous efforts. It is important again not to overdo any of this, be it in the form of excessive dieting, cutting out sugar, fat or any food groups entirely, nor should your exercising turn into an obsession. Wellness means to be and feel well, and one’s mental health plays an important role in it too, something I will briefly touch upon here but will elaborate further on this blog as well as in my upcoming book.

Finally, when it comes to cancer, we also need to ensure to go for regular check-ups. This is especially important if you have a genetic link to this disease. Regular efforts to screen and check for breast, testicular and prostate cancer can help us stay safe and healthy. We need to keep screening ourselves and need to keep in mind that early detection increases our chances for survival.

That prevention and screening are important to all of us was apparent throughout our discussions at the public engagement, and which is why we chose to allocate funding to these areas to ensure that our residents will never have to experience cancer. This would be a win-win situation as the government can also save a lot of money by not having to treat more patients. Not unlike the environment, we need to take immediate action as cancer is considered the new epidemic of modern times. Our actions undertaken now will save many lives in the future as prevention is the best cure and the key to health and wellness.

The second issue revolved around treatment and quality of life. With current treatment options, such as radiation and chemotherapy, cancer patients generally experience a significant number and amount of adverse side effects. This ranges from complete, albeit temporary, loss of hair to strong nausea, vomiting, continuous malaise and fragility. Considering that the treatment may not even be as effective as planned and predicted and taking into the account that one may gain time but is mostly too sick to enjoy any part of it, quality of life is something that needs to be evaluated and considered on a case to case basis.

How one wants to spend the remainder of one’s life with this debilitating illness is an important question to ask and address in each given situation. In the end, it is the patient who would need to make a difficult choice whether they want to accept a treatment that involves pain and sacrifice or whether they would prefer living out the time allotted to them with adequate levels of quality of life. All this, however, applies and is related to the current treatment options available. The silver lining is that there are and shall be other innovative treatments that would be easier to digest and that are accompanied with less severe side effects.

Whatever path one takes, it is important to maintain a holistic view throughout. The problem with doctors and medicine and to a large extent science itself is that they tend to disregard the spiritual and emotional aspects and spectrum. Doctors tend to focus on dealing with and combating the illness itself but often lose sight of the person attached to the body. But the cancer has become part of the body, and it is essential to take the whole person into account when dealing with this or for that matter any other disease.

Yet currently science has begun to acknowledge the role and importance of emotional and spiritual support, and as a result, more and more patients are given a more balanced and holistic care that would benefit them most under the circumstances. In fact, this can and should involve and be extended to the loved ones around them who also suffer from the consequences and repercussions of dealing with cancer.

Finally, a more psychologically robust self can enhance not only one’s lifespan but improve upon the life quality of the remaining course of the disease. Regardless of the circumstances and the suffering and hardship, it is vital to keep up the flames and rays of hope. It is easier said than done but one should not lose hope even in the face of adversity. This is where spirituality and one’s personal beliefs can best come into focus. A person who not only accepts their circumstances but manages to find meaning and purpose in them will be able to resist the disease much better and longer than those who resign and give up hope. 

We should also keep in mind that death will occur to each of us one way or another and that it is a fate no one will or can escape from. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, whether one thinks that we will vanish into the void or re-appear in different forms and guises is a very personal issue indeed, and it is not up for debate here. The paths may be many, but the destination shall be the same.

Regardless of what one believes or does not believe in, it can still be imbued and injected with hope into and for the future, and that is the healthiest outlook to maintain while staring directly into the hideous face of this monstrous illness. In the meantime, the best we can do is to work towards preventing and screening for cancer, to raise awareness about it and to contribute in any way we can towards eventually finding a cure for it. I am hopeful that we are on the right path as long as we keep on treading forward.

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