Joanna Stimmel was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 46. She was devastated by the news. However, as she progressed along her journey she realized a few things. She listened to what her cancer was telling her and it became one of her best teachers.
Joanna has graciously agreed to tell her story and what she learned from cancer here on Pink Ribbon Runner. Using her skills as a researcher and college professor, she started Oko-Logic to help others live healthy, clean and blissful lives. Be sure to check out her blog. She is such a positive spirit and amazing person. I hope you enjoy Joanna’s guest article.
I wasn’t supposed to wake up in the colonoscopy procedure room, but I did and took a brief glance at the huge monitor displaying my insides. I thought, “How weird to see my own gut, I’m all pink inside!” It’s a color I never really liked, but I took it as a sign that my intestines were in top shape, and I dozed off again.
I woke up for real in the recovery room and saw the attending nurse rush to get the doctor. I still did not think much of it, until I noticed the solemn look on the doctor’s face. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but we found a large mass in your mid rectum. We biopsied and send it for a pathology report. Your GI doctor will contact you tomorrow with the results.”
I Was Healthy, Or So I Thought
When the call came the next day, I was still hoping for reassurance that the mass was benign. But it wasn’t. It was colorectal adenocarcinoma, the most “typical” form of colon cancer. I was 46. I had been a vegan for the past two years. Several years back, I quit smoking. I was an avid indoor spin-bike rider and I led a healthy lifestyle focused on wellness and staying in great shape. I never got sick. How could I have cancer?
Two Years of Hell
2015 and 2016 were by far the worst years of my life. One full month of daily radiation of the pelvic area (sending me into immediate menopause and uncontrollable diarrhea for weeks on end), two abdominal surgeries, 12 rounds of chemo, a few months of reprieve, recurrence in the lung— officially metastatic now—lung wedge surgery, and another 9 months of chemo.
Throughout all this I was stressing about my job prospects (only my job gave us benefits including health insurance to treat my cancer so I had to work through all of this aside from the earliest four months); I was obviously worrying about the future of my young children if I were to not stick around to see them grow-up, and I was generally starring into the abyss of the worst depression imaginable. Having an oncologist who never failed to remind me that my odds of dying within 5 years were about 9 to 1 did not help.
I am a cancer survivor. It’s 2020 now and I have been NED (no evidence of disease) for 3 years and 8 months. I’m out of treatment but I’m not out of the woods yet. (More on this here)
I would never say that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me (actually whenever I hear that statement I wince in agitation). But it certainly was a major wake-up call that taught me a few lessons I carry with me every day.
My entire focus for the past several years has been on how to stay healthy after cancer and how to prevent cancer from recurring or showing up in the first place. I believe that anyone, not only cancer patients and survivors, can live by these key principles.
“Cancer was not the best thing that happened to me. But it became one of my best teachers nonetheless.”
Listen To Your Body
Always, always listen to the signals your body is sending. If you have any unusual symptom that lasts for over two weeks, get it checked.
I had rectal bleeding for over a year before being diagnosed. Because it was only a few months after giving birth to my second child, I thought I had simple hemorrhoids – and so did my doctor – and I tried to treat them.
Get Screened If Something Isn’t Right
The doctor mentioned I should get a colonoscopy, but my insurance at the time was not willing to pay for it. (Until very recently, most insurance companies would only pay for screening people over the age of 50.)
I should have been screened at the age of 44 when the symptoms first appeared, but the insurance denied it and I had no means to pay for the procedure out of pocket. Had I really listened to my body, I would have found the money to pay for it and maybe if my cancer had been discovered one or two years earlier, at least it would not have metastasized.
Practice Good Nutrition
This principle of listening to your body has also been crucial in my long struggle to find the “right” way to eat. At first, I was overwhelmed with the varied, often contradictory, advice about nutrition for cancer patients and cancer prevention.
I tried to continue on the vegan diet, but my body needed something else.
I tried the keto approach – it is supposed to “starve” the cancer by drastically limiting sugars – but I wound up malnourished as my body just could not tolerate it.
Find The Right Way To Eat
It was only by trial and error that I found a nutritional approach that was optimal for my body: the common sense, Mediterranean way of eating.
Not long after the switch, all the digestive problems I was struggling with for three years since the diagnosis cleared up, and I regained my weight and felt much better overall. This was all discovered by simply listening to my body rather than the advice from Google.
According to this Healthline article, intuitive eating lets you reconnect with your body, hear the internal signals of real hunger and forget “dieting” once and for all.
I wrote more about my struggle to find the optimal way to eat here.
Get Picky About Who You Surround Yourself With
Find A Good Medical Team
At the beginning of my illness, I was overwhelmed by the speed of diagnosis and the decisions regarding treatment. I had no time to breathe, let alone to sit down and really think about what I wanted to happen. My medical team was pretty much decided upon by chance and for the most part I was happy with it.
But then my first oncologist went into retirement, about one year into my journey, and I had to find a replacement for him. I went with a nice new doctor, someone recommended by others especially for his scientific expertise and vast knowledge. Since I value research and expertise, I said yes and continued saying yes even when it became obvious that every bi-weekly visit made me sink deeper and deeper into depression.
Too Much Information Isn’t Necessarily Good
See, the problem was, the new doctor had no idea how to filter his vast knowledge. Every time I saw him, I would hear about how bad the next round of the treatments would most likely be, and how potentially little effect they might have anyhow. The worst was his insistence on citing the scariest possible statistics (they are never good for a stage 4 cancer patient) without any mitigating words of encouragement and/or a call to action on how to improve my chances.
I’m not delusional, I know the odds, but do I need to be reminded of them all the time? Definitely no! Also, statistics are only that. I am not a statistic, nobody is.
Find The Right Doctor
After five visits – the last one of which ended with me hyperventilating in panic and needing a triple dose of anti-anxiety Ativan from the nurse – I said enough is enough! I knew I had to find another doctor, or else, if this cancer did not kill me, my growing depression would.
As this article from Oncology Letters states, “Depression leads to a poorer quality of life and compromises patient outcomes, with depression resulting in higher rates of mortality in cancer.”
And so, I fired my oncologist and never looked back.
My current doctor is amazing. She motivates me to stick to my 7 Pillars of Health. If she ever brings up statistics, it’s only the good ones, like that my type of cancer is one of the rare ones that actually can be cured even from stage 4.
Find The Right People, in General
Let’s say it. Some people have toxic personalities. Nay-sayers, party-poopers, eternal pessimists. While I might have found it funny in grad school years to be surrounded by the under-washed, chain-smoking, existentialist-influenced downers, I really have no need for so much “cool” nowadays.
There is enough terrible news in the world and scary perspectives for a cancer patient/survivor anyhow; I don’t need to be overburdened by those who like to dwell only on the negative. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to any people who ooze negativity, but I might choose to spend a bit less time with them. And it does my psychological well-being good.
Re-evaluate and Prioritize Life
Being Busy Shouldn’t Preclude Self-Care
When I look back at the last year before diagnosis, I’m struck by how crazy busy I was. All. The. Time.
My freelancing husband worked out of town for most of that year, and I worked my usual job, 9 AM to 3 PM teaching.
At that time, my kids were 12 and 3. Both had to be driven to and from school and daycare. On my own, my day was filled with work and chores from early morning to midnight when I was finally able to collapse into bed.
Still, I was eager to succeed at work, and I took on too many responsibilities. I signed up for a bunch of conferences and presentations. I had to do research, write papers, and grade and prepare ongoing classes and upcoming courses.
But, I don’t want to whine. Everybody is busy, I get it. But this particular year I really overdid it. I was an emotional wreck, losing patience with my 3-year old and lashing out at my 12-year old way too often, and throughout all this, being dissatisfied with myself for doing a half-assed job on all these duties most of the time.
Learn To Say “No!”
What cancer taught me is that I have to measure my will and ambition to my abilities and real availability. There are only so many hours in a day and I know now to prioritize my health, my well-being, and my truly meaningful time with my family.
I learned to say “no” to a committee that maybe would help with career goals but would take every single minute of my precious free time. I learned to pick only one conference per year so that rather than stuffing my resumé with a number of mediocre presentations written and given at the expense of my sanity, I can now write one quality paper and be truly happy with it.
Find Meaningful Activities
I also learned to spend my limited free time doing what I really like doing in the form of meaningful hobbies and activities. I discovered my passion for writing the blog about my life with and after cancer with the hope of finding a community of like-minded people with the mission to help others – just like Patricia at Pink Ribbon Runner!
To optimize my nutrition, I started gardening. Living in Southern California, I have an amazing opportunity to get organic produce right outside my kitchen door. How could I not take such an amazing opportunity?
While time consuming the first few months, once irrigation and organic fertilizing were in place, it pretty much runs on autopilot. Checking on my plants, occasionally weeding and then finally harvesting the bounty of tomatoes, peppers, beans, greens, and so on is such a rewarding activity to me.
Benefits of Gardening
The true meaning of killing two (or more) birds with one stone is inherent to gardening. I optimize our food supply, spend time outdoors and get some much-needed Vitamin D, and I am surrounded by the positivity of the plants, which relaxes me and gets me into a meditative state.
All these benefits are scientifically proven, by the way, as you can read in this article in Clinical Medicine: “There is increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space, and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health.“ Cool, right?
Don’t be Ashamed of Self-Love
Find the Time for Self-Care and Own It
It might be an old platitude that women always place themselves last. There are the kids, the partner, the parents, the neighbors, the co-workers, and so on, before women get to spend some time and/or money on doing something for themselves. It is a platitude but there is some truth to it.
Prior to me getting sick, the bulk of the house-chores and child-rearing was on me. Maybe because I worked shorter hours than my husband, but maybe because of these old conventions. Don’t get me wrong, my husband is an amazing father and partner, picking up the chores whenever he could back then, but he had to be asked to do it, if you catch my drift.
Share Family Chores Equally
Since my illness, it became more of a norm that he is the go-to guy for dropping the kids off school, going to the store, taking care of the bills, etc. Our daughter is also of an age now (17) where she can help around the house much more than a few years back.
And even though I am completely recovered now and feel better than ever, I like this status quo because it leaves me some valuable time to do what I strongly believe I have to be doing for my health and sanity.
This includes going to my spinning classes three or four times a week, getting a massage a couple times a month, checking out a Korean spa once in a while, and taking long, hot baths to wind down after the day of work. I see these rituals of self-love as a good investment not only in my physical and mental health but also in the health of our relationship and our family life.
Happier mommy makes for a happier family for sure!
Detoxify Your Life
Another part of my self-love routine has been learning to formulate my own skincare. Since one of the main pillars of health I want to live by is to detoxify my lifestyle, I stopped buying any skin-, body- or hair-care products, and instead learned to make simple but effective organic serums, lotions, and the like. It saves us money, and it saves the planet with less nasty chemicals and packaging out there.
You can read more about my switch to safe, organic, hand-made products for myself, my family and the household, and get some natural skin care tips and DIY recipes here.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Live in the Now
How do I look? Too fat or too skinny? Do I have dark circles under my eyes? A pimple! What will people say if I do or say this or that? I used to worry about stuff like that. Now I know how silly I was.
“Happiness is nothing more than good health and bad memory. “
– Albert Schweitzer –
What cancer taught me is that not much else than your health matters in life. Not the money, nor the looks. Not the number of friends on Facebook or followers on Instagram.
What is important is health and the people that matter, your loved ones and your true friends. What matters is what’s happening now. Not what happened five years ago or what will potentially happen five years from now.
Meditate and Be Mindful
When I first visited a naturopath upon the diagnosis, he wrote me a prescription for meditation.
At that time, I laughed it off. Even when I tried to meditate, I was so entrenched in my thoughts and fears, I could not even conceive of quieting my mind enough to observe my breath going in and out.
I know now that this is exactly why the naturopath wrote this prescription.
There are lots of scientific research to back up the claim of benefits of meditation for a variety of health conditions and disorders. According to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the NIH, for example, “research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia” among other health issues.
With time, I learned to meditate, and I do it religiously now before bedtime. I also write in a gratitude journal once in a while, always with the idea of grounding myself in the present moment and appreciating what is, not what was or will be.
Keeping a gracious attitude has proven health benefits as well, as this article in Psychology Today clearly states. The bottom line is this: maybe I have only a few years left, but I want them to be lived to the fullest. Making memories beats dwelling on memories any day in my book.
Lessons Learned, Lessons Kept
It took me five years since getting cancer to arrive at this point of “wisdom”. The lessons I learned on that journey are easily applicable to everyone. I certainly wish I had lived by them before. I would have been much less stressed, with a healthier mind and body, and more meaningful relationships.