Physicians Focus: Living with cancer? You're not alone

Dr. Thomas P. O'Connor Jr.

For people with breast cancer or any other type of cancer, whether you have been recently diagnosed or you are a long-time survivor, there is one thing to remember: You are not alone.

Naturally, you'll want top-quality medical care, but you also need care that focuses on you as a whole person, with particular concern for your emotional, psychological and social needs.

Although your main team of caregivers includes doctors and nurses, many other professionals and volunteers may be involved in your treatment as well. Just remember that the most important person on your team is you, and it's important for you to be proactive in your quest to live life to the fullest. You can empower yourself by gathering information through a wealth of resources: literature, websites and numerous support services.

Where should you start? Review your specific situation and options with your healthcare professionals. Then you can explore on your own and with the help of family, friends and other cancer survivors. Yes, a daunting amount of resources exists, but don't feel overwhelmed. Simply set your own timeframe and proceed one step at a time.

Based on your needs, you should find support services that cater specifically to you. Support groups are offered in a variety of settings including local cancer centers, physician groups, hospitals, senior citizen service organizations, hospices and the Visiting Nurse Associations of America.

Groups may be formal or informal, open or closed and they may be organized by cancer type or stage. They may meet in person, online or on the telephone, and they may focus on therapy, peer support, education, coping skills, grieving or care giving. Excellent clearinghouses for information include the American Cancer Society ( and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is another way you can empower yourself. Of course, many reasons exist why you should lose weight, eat well and stay active. Recent medical reports have reinforced the connection between cancer and wellness as it relates to reducing the risk of recurrence.

Before you start a wellness program, it's a good idea to discuss a strategy with your physician if you're taking medicine, including such things as dietary supplements and intensity of exercise.

The following guidelines, which apply to breast cancer and many other types of cancer, will help you feel better, look better and may help prevent cancer in the future:

  • Watch your weight and diet.If you're overweight, consider that even a 5 to 10 percent weight loss can make a difference. Discuss your ideal body mass index with your doctor. BMI is a number based on a person's weight and height that provides an indication of body fat for most people. It's used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems.
  • Adopt a high-fiber diet.Fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, carrots and blueberries, contain higher levels of nutrients and are natural cancer fighters.
  • Limit your intake of red meat.Try not to exceed three to four ounces of red meat a few times a week. Eat more fish, poultry and legumes, such as soybeans, chickpeas and lentils.
  • Reduce your salt intake.Too much salt can increase blood pressure and the risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • Try to avoid fast food.Most of it has high amounts of salt and unhealthy fats.
  • Exercise.Regular exercise will reduce your risk of breast and colon cancer, and possibly other cancers as well. Try to be physically active for at least 30 minutes a day.

Remember that programs for financial assistance may be available. Fighting cancer shouldn't include fighting financial battles, and you may find help in navigating the complicated system of health care reimbursement.

Serving the Health Information Needs of Elders provides free health insurance counseling to seniors and disabled adults. Prescription Advantage offers prescription drug coverage so seniors can afford their medication.

Visit for information on both programs. Also, see if your medical group has a patient advocate to advise you.

You have much to gain by taking control. Find the right avenues for support and make a commitment to ongoing wellness. And remember, you don't need to tackle this by yourself. As the American Cancer Society says, "Having cancer is hard; finding help shouldn't be."

Thomas P. O'Connor Jr., M.D., is an oncologist at the Weymouth office of Commonwealth Hematology-Oncology and the Commonwealth Atrius Cancer Center, a collaboration between CHO and Atrius Health. Readers should use their personal judgment when seeking medical care and should consult with their personal physician for treatment. Physician Focus is a public service of the Massachusetts Medical Society. You are welcome to e-mail comments to