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Patient tips Five pieces of advice from a young cancer survivor
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Five pieces of advice from a young cancer survivor

In early 2017, Nathan S. was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He was in his 20s. His diagnosis came after months of constantly feeling sick and dealing with an unbearable rash on the lower half of his body. With his wife and family by his side, Nathan underwent chemotherapy, radiation therapy and a stem cell transplant as part of his treatment plan. His experience as a young cancer survivor influences and inspires his work as a Clinical Oncology Dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). Here, Nathan shares the five things he wishes he could tell himself at the start of his diagnosis.

  1. Find a support system. I was in my 20s when I was diagnosed, which made finding other cancer survivors my age difficult. I was always the youngest in my age group in waiting rooms, and my concerns were different from other, older survivors. For example, my wife and I dreamed of starting a family, but it was tough to find someone my age to ask about fertility issues from treatment. However, reaching out to groups like the Livestrong Foundation, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society® and my social work team helped me connect with other young people who had navigated a cancer diagnosis.
  2. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Before I was diagnosed, a lot of my focus was on my wife and work. After my diagnosis, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just put my head down and work my way through treatment. It was a struggle to make it through my usual work day and also be strong for my wife and family. As someone who is a high performer, I feel anxiety when a problem needs to be solved and I can’t solve it. My cancer diagnosis was a perfect example of that. I struggled with thoughts of mortality, worries over how I would support my family if I cannot work, concerns over whether we could have children in the future, etc. I went through a long period of insomnia, torturing myself with these types of racing thoughts. If I had to go back in time to my early-diagnosis self, I’d encourage myself to use the mental health support available to me earlier—and more often.
  3. Focus on staying in the “flow.” There’s a concept in martial arts about flow: the idea being that when you’re in flow, you’re not focusing on the good, the bad, etc. You’re focused on what’s happening right now in the moment versus the bigger picture. When I found out I had relapsed, I knew I’d need to have a stem cell transplant as part of my treatment to survive. I had a panic attack in the doctor’s office. It was a devastating blow mentally and emotionally. With the help of the wonderful mind and body team and pastoral care team at CTCA, I was able to calm down. The relapse news made me lose my flow and, along with it, my heart of thankfulness. I got stuck on the barrier in my way and the anxiety that accompanied it. I wasn’t focusing on my next step, but the next 10 steps. This is easier said than done, but if I could go back in time, I would remind myself to stay in the flow, take each moment as it comes and not try to use today's energy to solve tomorrow's problems. It isn’t tomorrow, and I don’t have tomorrow's energy yet.

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  4. Find a motto or perspective that motivates you to keep going. For me, I rediscovered a Bible scripture (John 13:34) and read "The Book of Joy" by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Those two pieces of literature created a paradigm shift for me. I found that I felt more like myself when I focused less on worrying and more on showing love to anyone who I came in contact with. There was so much to be thankful for in the people around me, the medical teams helping me and God. The more I focused on thanking others (especially those who supported me through my journey), acts of service, and being kind and patient with others, the less I focused on my own challenges.
  5. Remember you’re running your own race. Prior to my Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis, I was an avid gym rat and runner. It wasn’t unusual for me to run six miles (for fun!) most weekends. The cancer treatments made it difficult to walk for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I was in my 20s! I was supposed to be at the prime of my physical function. Instead, I was finding new limits of my body and backsliding. I lost a lot of weight and some of my strength while going through treatment. My professional specialty is designing exercise and nutrition plans for cancer patients, so when they struggle with these types of “new norms,” I really do empathize. Even now into survivorship, moving my body looks different. Give yourself time and a big dose of patience. It’s your race—and no one else’s—to run.
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