My Cancer Story + 5 Tips for Self-Care

Learn about nutrition expert Sharon Palmer’s cancer journey, as well as her top 5 tips for practicing self-care when faced with a new health diagnosis.

One month ago, I joined the ranks of the 18 million people worldwide who will be diagnosed with cancer this year. It all started on a typical morning on March 1, 2021. I was applying moisturizer to my neck as part of my daily routine, when I felt a hard lump under my jaw. More than 6 months later, after numerous scans, tests, and probes, I finally received the diagnosis. And so, yes, I am part of a great big family, even though my particular cancer—a type of lymphoma—is quite rare, with only 450 new cases diagnosed each year in the US. And just like everyone who hears the dreaded word “cancer,” I’ve been on my own private journey, which I’ve decided to make public this week. Certainly, it gives me pause to be open about something that causes so much discomfort, both to the individual fighting cancer and to those surrounding them. But as a dietitian in the public, I hope I can provide a forum for discussion on how to fight this disease, as there are just so many of us out there dealing with it, and I just happen to have 35+ years of professional nutrition experience to share.

My first appointment at City of Hope, a cancer center in Los Angeles which has been rated among the best in the country.

The good news is that the cancer battle has changed; survival rates have improved dramatically. The majority of people now diagnosed with cancer are still hanging in there at the five-year mark, thanks to earlier detection and improved treatments. But life forever changes, and the journey is fraught with many challenges, from dealing with the anxiety of the unknown and the side effects of treatment, to access to good care. For me, as it is with so many others, the fight started with wondering how it came to be in the first place. “How could this happen to me? I’m eating and living the cancer-fighting lifestyle.” Indeed! Yet, I have moved past this, reflecting that my lifestyle is probably what staved off cancer all these years, as lymphomas commonly afflict even the young.

I’m making an antioxidant smoothie each morning, filled with kale from my garden, berries, flax seeds, mushroom powder, and matcha tea.

While I have taken great care to reduce my exposure to pollutants in my daily lifestyle, I am reminded that we live in a polluted world (90% of streams sampled had five or more pesticides in water that exceeded at least one aquatic-life federal standard), where the impacts of environmental risks on cancer—in particular lymphomas—have been documented; pesticides, herbicides, and other work-related chemical exposures have been linked with increased risk. It’s important to note that we don’t have enough research on the risks of environmental pollutants on cancer development. And I’m sure many of my colleagues might scoff at the potential for such pollutants, like pesticides, to raise cancer risk. However, this concept is recognized among many well known health organizations, such as the NIH, Department of Health & Human Services, and American Cancer Society. Here’s a shocking report on the 25-year water clean-up project in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County (where I lived for 30 years), after they discovered in 1979 that contaminants had spread freely throughout the water basin aquifer. See what I mean?

Ojai Cover Shoot
A plant-based picnic in Ojai, California.

While there is so much about cancer that seems out of one’s control, I do know that healthy eating and lifestyle can significantly increase your chances of surviving cancer, as well as decrease your risk of developing another cancer or heart disease—a common side effect of this disease. A diet rich in whole plant foods—packed with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds can boost the immune system. In addition, numerous foods and plant compounds have displayed unique benefits for cancer protection, from berries and leafy greens to mushrooms and cruciferous vegetables. Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be sharing tidbits from my own personal and professional experiences on my cancer journey, from my daily antioxidant smoothies (shown above) to my stress reduction routine, as I focus on wellness and disease protection on my blog, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Practicing self-care, such as getting out in nature, is a valuable strategy in disease protection.

First up, I want to share my firsthand observations and tips on how to practice self-care if you’ve been faced with a health diagnosis, whether it’s cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or beyond.

5 Tips for Practicing Self Care During a Health Diagnosis

1. Listen to your body
You know your body better than anyone else! You know how it feels when things are going smoothly, and when it’s not. When you’re about to catch a cold, or when stress is getting the better of you, you recognize those signs. This is essential, not only for managing a disease, but for early detection. During my six-month journey to my cancer diagnosis, I could have given up along the way and said “I’m probably fine,” as so many people told me to do (“you’re worrying about nothing”), but I knew in my gut something was wrong. Stay true to yourself and persevere until you get answers. And once you have a diagnosis, keep listening to your body. That doesn’t mean you have to get panicky with every little ache and pain, but it does mean that if your body is stressed, exhausted, and painful, acknowledge that and care for your body.

I’ve been practicing daily meditation before my day starts to reduce anxiety.

2. Recognize the impact of stress
When you are given a scary health diagnosis, your body typically goes into a flight-or-fight syndrome (acute stress response). This is a physiological response in your body when you are facing a terrifying event, both mental or physical. A flood of hormones prepares your body to either stay and deal with the threat, or run away from it. It is part of our human evolution, as it helped us run away from predators and gave us the strength to fight them off. Naturally, when you are facing a threatening health diagnosis, that same age-old response can occur. You may have a racing heart rate, trouble breathing, or even a panic attack. Even after the initial days of the diagnosis pass, those stressors can linger, as you wait for test results, deal with balancing work and medical appointments, arrange for uncomfortable procedures, and change your life to accommodate fighting the disease. By being fully aware of the stress, and acknowledging that it is real—not trying to bury it or pretend it’s not there—you can start finding ways to manage it. Meditation, yoga, walking, gardening, music, reading can be soothing activities. Create more time for self-care in your day, whether it’s running a bath, laying down for a cat nap, or taking the dog for a walk in the middle of the day. Be kind to yourself.

Daily walks with Teddy reduce my stress.

3. Get out in Nature
One peaceful way to relieve stress is to find some bit of nature to immerse yourself in. It could be a walking path lined with trees in your community, local nature trail, beach or lake front, or mountain hike. It can also be working with your hands in the soil in your garden. Research has documented the soothing benefits of being in nature—it can reduce anger, fear, and stress and increase feelings of happiness. Plan ways in which you can include a piece of nature in your life every day, if possible.

4. Eat Well
Now is the time to eat a wholesome, disease-protective, organic (if your budget allows) diet rich in whole plant foods to nourish your mind, body, and soul. These foods can provide nutrients that help heal the cells, tissues, and organs. They can boost immune response and reduce inflammation in the body. A healthy diet can make you feel happier even. And a healthy, plant-based diet doesn’t have to be boring and a sacrifice—it can be a delicious, flavorful, satisfying way to live and eat! Just check out my plant-based recipes here to see for yourself! If you’re thinking of trying a plant-based diet, check out my Go Vegan challenge to get started—or eat a more plant-based diet with tips in my book The Plant-Powered Diet.

5. Don’t Go Overboard
Sure, a healthful lifestyle—eating a plant-based diet, fitting in exercise, not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol—is essential for fighting disease. However, it’s easy to go crazy with your goals during a health scare. In my career, I have seen many people turn to fad diets and unproven supplements during a diagnosis. While healthy diet patterns, particular foods and some supplements might have documented, clinical benefits, others do not. In addition, by making your new healthy lifestyle so rigid and “pure” you can be piling even more stress upon your own anxiety-ridden life. Sure, I highly recommend significantly trimming sugar and highly refined foods from your disease-fighting regimen, but a small sweet treat or a glass of wine (if your treatment allows it and it’s part of your lifestyle) once a week is probably going to be fine. And you don’t have to line yourself up with so many self-care activities that you are exhausted at the end of the day. While yoga, meditation classes, and support groups are documented to provide benefits in disease treatment, go easy on your scheduling.

I want to hear from you about your own health journey. How has your lifestyle impacted disease management and treatment? What works for you and what doesn’t? What challenges do you face on your road to recovery? Drop a comment on my blog below!

Check out Sharon’s Live Chats on disease management here:

Live Chat: Fight Cancer with Your Fork with Karen Collins
Fight Breast Cancer with Plants, with Dr. Kristi Funk
Eating for IBS on a Plant-Based Diet with Kate Scarlata

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