Medical advances have led to an increase in the number of cancer survivors. But our emotional state is just as important in the fight against cancer, shares Dr Chia Yin Nin with the KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).
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Look on the bright side
A happier patient appears to be better able to tolerate treatment such as chemotherapy. A pessimist, or someone who has experienced a serious personal setback, tends to suffer more side effects from treatment, and anecdotally seems more likely to suffer a relapse.
I believe there is a real connection between being happy and our chances of surviving cancer. The power of mind over body is incredible. To me, it is the best measure for preventing any major illness.
What we know for sure is this: Our emotional state can affect the immune system, which is important in the fight against cancer.
The immune system is very complex. Research shows that diet, genetics, stress and environmental factors can affect it positively or negatively. For example, stress increases inflammatory markers in our bodies.
So, if you’re stressed and can’t fall asleep, you tend to fall sick more easily. And some of these inflammatory markers are known to play a role in cancer causation.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
This is what I always tell my patients, whether their cancer is at an early or advanced stage. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your priorities in life have to change. It isn’t about work, money or how many branded goods you can buy any more.
It’s the simple things in life that can make you happy, like spending time with family and friends, visiting your favourite places, enjoying delicious food, meditating and doing gentle exercises like going for walks or yoga. If you can, take a holiday, but not a city break, which can be very stressful. Instead, visit places of natural beauty.
Learn to accept your condition and move forward. Once you’ve changed your perspective, the hunger for fame or fortune diminishes or even disappears, and you realise you can be happy with much less.
It seems to me that cancer patients who live the longest have learnt how to be content. They have few wants and needs. They lead simple lives, eat simply and have zero stress.
Don’t think of cancer as a death sentence. It’s not the end. There are many treatment options available today. Rather, treat it like a chronic illness. If you suffer a relapse, trust your doctor to keep it under control through surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
As a doctor, my first priority is to prescribe a proven medical treatment based on evidence. It’s only after they have received evidence-based help that patients can try alternative treatments. I would never “prescribe” happiness alone as a treatment. It is part and parcel of a larger, holistic healing process.
Of course, the process isn’t easy. It takes time to accept a cancer diagnosis, usually about six months after treatment. In the meantime, cancer patients should not put things off. They should lead happy, fulfilling lives, so that when the time comes – whether it is today, tomorrow, five or 10 years from now – they will pass on from this existence with no regrets.
*To protect patients’ privacy, their real names have not been used.