Over the past several years, we have been inundated with books and articles on how we can magically turn our lives around simply by thinking happy thoughts. But those of us who have either survived or are currently experiencing any sort of life-altering or chronic illness or event, be it cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis or even menopause, are not exactly jumping for joy. Indeed, any brief surges of bliss are rapidly replaced by fears of recurrence or feelings of hopelessness, uncertainty, isolation, fatigue and even guilt.
As a beauty and health columnist and author of a book on sports nutrition, I knew the positive effects of targeted treatments and a well-balanced diet. But I wanted to extend the concept from therapeutic to quality of life. If I could help people dealing with health challenges overcome the physical, emotional, spiritual, social and psychological traumas they confronted on a daily basis, I reasoned, it would make it easier for them to move forward.
Finding solutions became my passion. I began with cancer survivors because they were an exploding new population thanks to encouraging medical breakthroughs. While it was an unusual endeavor for me, a confirmed hypochondriac who consults a disease-of- the-day calendar (for the curious, today it’s Hives), my goal was to offer survivors an easy-to-follow, comprehensive program that encompassed a variety of lifestyle techniques that addressed their complaints and concerns.
I interviewed doctors and lifestyle specialists—along with survivors themselves—and discovered that the majority wanted to get off that emotional roller coaster and reclaim their lives. Yet a surprisingly large number didn’t know where or how to begin. “What do I do now?” they often asked. And this quandary was certainly not limited to cancer survivors.
Noted internist and oncologist Dr. Rodney Sherman confirms that, whatever their illness, more and more of his patients are living longer with a greater potential for returning to a normal life and that there is a wealth of important information available to them. “However,” he adds, “to truly feel better than before, they must incorporate specific lifestyle changes into their daily routines. “
I soon came to understand that patients had to take a more active role in their own recovery. Yet between magazines, books, and the Internet, the information was at times overwhelming and frequently conflicting. The challenge was to make everything they learned easier to access, organize and process.
To that end, with the help of Dr. Sherman and R.S. Wright, a colleague, life coach and 23-year, three-time stage IV cancer survivor, I created Better Than Before. The program features a unique delivery system—a visualization technique, the highlight of which is a symbolic 12-rung ladder that helps resolve the issues that hold survivors back from achieving the quality of life they so desire but never thought possible. Each “rung” represents a key area that will help survivors effect real lifestyle changes via simple, actionable suggestions.
The following is our start-up, quality of life ladder, an introduction to the program. As you take the suggestion from each of the 12 rungs, envision yourself climbing out of uncertainty, and making each day —and in some cases, each hour—a little better than it was before.
Healthy habits are the best medicine. Dr. Sherman asserts that incorporating lifestyle changes—along with avoiding smoking, excessive drinking, overeating, too much sun and environmental pollutants —will make you look and feel better and the quality of your life will quickly improve.
Dance with your demons.Fear of recurrence or a setback of any kind is perfectly normal—until those worries become consuming or even obsessive. Accept that these thoughts are there, but brush them aside with, “Look, I know what you’re up to; we’ve done this dance before. Get lost.”
One bite at a time.You don’t have to do a complete diet overhaul. Today, make just one small change. Add a piece of fresh fruit or substitute a slice of whole-grain bread for white. The goal is to slowly achieve a healthy diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables, fiber, fish, lean meat and whole grains.
Work out your worries. Spry fitness coach and two-time cancer survivor Petra Kober advises, “Movement allows you to reconnect with your own power. Walking, preferably outside, is the best exercise, even if it’s only for 10 minutes each morning.” If your condition makes walking impossible, talk with your doctor or a physical therapist about what you can do, and do it regularly.
Look good to feel better. Look into the mirror each morning and say just one thing you like about yourself. And then repeat this mantra: I am beautiful inside and out.
Make a mind/body connection. Says Laura Norman, author of Feet First, “For instant calmness, sit Indian-style on your bed, and breathe deeply. Using your thumb, press and hold right under the ball of your foot, between the second and third toes—the spot corresponding to your solar plexus—and feel your body let go.”
Spread the cheer. Do small acts of kindness—you can’t keep that good feeling unless you give it away. Start by holding the door open for the next person, relinquishing your seat on the bus, or simply smiling and saying, “Have a nice day” to a stranger.
Harness your higher power. The Reverend Skye Taylor, who specializes in healing childhood, adolescent and adult trauma, explains, “When you find yourself still alive against all odds, you know that you have a life to live, a path to follow and a teaching to share. Now is the time to trust your inner strength to carry you forward.”
Follow your dreams. Re-create in your mind a moment when you felt healthy and happy. As you savor that special time, say to yourself, I willfeel this way again. I willbe better than before.
Create a soothing environment. Make a small corner of your home your private refuge, where you can sit comfortably and relax, suggests Ann Harriet Buck of the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, Cal. “Focus on your breathing. Breathe normally, and count, starting with ‘One’ on each exhale. Then, think ‘and’ on the inhale. After four breaths, begin again with ‘One.’” Repeat for three minutes. Remember that meditation quiets the part of the brain associated with anxiety and depression and stimulates the area associated with happiness and health.
Don’t fear failure. Don’t worry that you have failed the first time you deviate from a healthy regime. Know, for example, that it’s OK to take a day off, lay around the house, eat whatever you want, avoid your mirror, forget to meditate, vent to an equally negative friend and feel extremely sorry for yourself for all that you have been through.
Care for your caregiver. Insist that your caregiver has some personal time. This allows you to begin to express the overwhelming gratitude you have and ease any guilt you may carry for being a burden.