Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What Athletes Should Know About Cancer Part 1

Athletes are great examples to others. We take care of our health better than most, we get plenty of physical activity, don’t gain unhealthy amounts of weight, tend to balance our lives, and have more positive attitudes.

We go outdoors, have more energy, and avoid unhealthy habits like sitting in front of the TV eating garbage. We set goals and achieve them, see the country and the world, and know how to have a good time.

When I’m not running, I’m an oncology nurse and cancer recovery coach. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard from a patient diagnosed with cancer, “I don’t understand how I got cancer. I ate organic foods, had a perfect diet, exercised, never smoked, avoided toxins, managed my stress...why did this happen to me?”… all those dollars would do wonders for my race bucket list.

The truth is, based on our current state of scientific understanding, we cannot absolutely prevent most cancers. Certainly there is a ton of evidence that exercise and healthy living can prevent chronic disease and make you more likely to live a healthier life and be more independent into old age.

I’m not saying it’s futile, or you should give up, sit on the couch and eat trash out of bag until you roll onto the floor in a sugar coma. I do want you to understand that being an athlete will not absolutely protect you.

We don’t do a very good job of educating the public about a disease that is likely to strike somewhere between one-third and one-half of us during our lifetimes. There’s a lot of misinformation, and that can lead to completely over-the-top, irrational fear.

What cancer is

Cancer is a wide range of diseases with a common characteristic: something goes wrong in the way the cells regulate growth, and results in uncontrolled cell growth. It happens at the molecular level, in the cell’s genetic material.

Cancer is not one disease, so there is no such thing as a single cure for cancer.

There are hundreds of different varieties of cancer, they all behave differently. That’s why they are all treated differently. What one person gets for cancer treatment can be completely different than what another person gets for cancer, even if their cancers started in the same part of the body.

Many people still equate cancer with death, and our society is in extreme denial when it comes to facing our mortality. Athletes often trick themselves into thinking their sport will give them immunity. Sorry to break the news, but your running shoes won’t protect you.

But the good news is, athletes are gifted with qualities that will often help them get through treatment and recover in a lot better shape than non-athletes. Determination, endurance, positive attitude, willingness to tolerate discomfort, and overall physical fitness are key qualities in achieving good outcomes during and after cancer treatment.

Fear and Judgment

Anyone can develop cancer, and it doesn’t mean you did something wrong. From what we know now, evidence seems to show that other than hereditary risk (mutations passed down in your family), and certain exposures and behaviors we know that are associated with cancer (like asbestos, smoking), it’s unpredictable. The older you get, the more likely it is that you will have it, and you might not even know it. Sometimes you might not even have to do anything about it and it won’t kill you.

Cancer does kill people, but not nearly as often as it used to. Sometimes it’s bad luck- some people’s cancers are undetectable until a very late stage. Don’t assume it’s the person’s fault for not getting screened. It’s important not to judge.

No one is saying you shouldn’t fear something that is potentially life-threatening. But a little knowledge goes a long way- in terms of early detection, managing anxiety, and coping in case it does happen to you or someone you care about.

Cancer concepts and misconceptions

  1. Prevention. People confuse screening and early detection efforts with prevention. You really can’t completely prevent most cancers. Mammograms, pap smears, and colonoscopies don’t prevent cancer. They screen for it in hopes that it will be detected early enough to be treatable. By taking care of yourself, eating right and exercising, what you are really doing is reducing the risk, or likelihood, that you will develop cancer. Risk is based on statistics in the general population.
  2. Early detection and screening. Squeamish is no excuse. Suck it up and get a colonoscopy. Don’t be so vain…believe me, they’ve seen plenty of butts, yours is no big deal. I promise you they won’t remember what yours looked like, even if you run into your doctor on the street.
  3. Know your family history. If anyone in your family has cancer, let your doctor know. This is reason enough to make sure you do your screenings. If several people in your family have cancer, ask your doctor about genetic counseling. Really. It doesn’t hurt one bit and it might save your life or someone else’s in your family. (Counseling first, never jump into testing)
  4. Learn about it- from the right sources. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a good place to start Don’t ask Dr. Google.
  5. Use caution when reading online or ads. Here’s a great place to visit if you have questions about a study or claim you read: Anything that says, “a study” showed… One study is not a body of evidence. Studies need to be repeated, on large numbers of people, put through rigorous trials on humans under strict conditions, study conditions and findings examined for bias by experts, and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

On to Part Two...

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