Why I’m Not Fighting My Cancer
By Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, President and co-founder, the Anticancer Lifestyle Program

My husband likes to joke that the three words your spouse most wants to hear are not “I love you”, but “You were right”.

But there are three words that are significantly more powerful: “You have cancer”.  Twenty years ago, I was a 45-year old mom of three when I first heard those words, and so became a member of the club no one wants to join.  Friends, family, and my kind-hearted providers all tried to pump me up by reassuring me that I would be able to “fight this thing”; that because I was basically strong I stood a good chance of winning this “battle”; and that ultimately, I would emerge victorious from this “war”.  It was me versus the cancer, two boxers circling one other in the ring.

Even then, in the throes of my disorientation, confusion, and fear, this war metaphor did not sit right with me.  I kept wondering, what exactly am I at war with? My own body?  This wasn’t some alien invader threatening to kill me.  These were my own cells gone awry.  The more I thought about it, I realized that our bodies are not exactly ours in some fundamental way:  we are host not only to aberrant cells but also to many other life forms.  Most people are surprised to learn that humans have more bacterial DNA than they do their own!  In general, most of us live in a healthy symbiosis with our microorganisms, and in fact we could not survive without them.

So the reality is that our bodies are complex ecosystems, rather like gardens.  My ecosystem also includes cancer cells.  Seen from this perspective, what made sense to me was that my job was not to wage war against my cancer-- that’s the job my oncologist is well-trained to do.  He’s the one who needs to don battle gear and lob whatever missiles at my disease that we agree will be most effective.  My job, on the other hand, is to be the very best gardener of my ecosystem that I can be:  to nourish my immune system with the fertilizer of healthy food; and to pull the weeds of inflammation with regular exercise and a cultivated sense of calm.

This change in perspective--beating swords into pruning shears-- had profound consequences for my life, my well-being, and even my work.  I read Anticancer:  A New Way of Life, by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, and learned about ways to nourish my internal “terrain” that, according to scientific evidence, would very likely lower my odds of cancer recurrence. Together with experts at a local cancer center, I created the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, an online lifestyle transformation course for cancer survivors and those interested in prevention.  We have been running an in-person version of the course for almost ten years, and last year we converted it to an online format.  We have been thrilled to welcome the support of medical providers, who trust us to deliver evidence-based information to their patients who seek to reduce their risk of cancer and chronic illness.

Personally, the lifestyle changes I’ve made have not only made me feel better, they’ve given me a sense of control over what otherwise feels like such an uncontrollable and scary disease.  None of us knows our fate, but it is within our power to make wise choices about how to live.  As in the garden, whatever we choose to “water” and nourish in our bodies is what will flourish.  Every day, we make choices that influence our wellbeing.  I certainly don’t live a perfect “anticancer lifestyle”, but I make a consistent effort to eat well, to have at least some physical activity, to choose products for my home and body that don’t contain chemicals of concern, and to find at least some joy and peace whenever I can.

In the twenty years since my diagnosis, I have had two cancer recurrences, and am currently contending with a small tumor, so I am by no means free of this disease.  In our program, we tell participants that they can do everything we recommend in the course and still get cancer, and conversely they can chain-smoke, drink excessively, and eat fast food daily and never get cancer.  So there are no guarantees.  But the evidence is strong that in general, a healthier lifestyle will in fact reduce the odds of getting cancer.  So I do what I can. The net result is that instead of feeling at war, I feel at peace.

Author Bio: 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.


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