Recently by Bill Baun

There's More to Life Than Cancer

| Comments (2)

I grew up in Baton Rouge, La., where the holidays for our family included my dad, a fanatic LSU fan, counting down to the announcement of the college bowl game schedule. It also meant my birthday, days off from school, nightly work on the live nativity scene at church, two-a-day choir practices and sitting around the kitchen table making homemade Christmas cards.

How important are family holiday traditions? They help define beliefs and customs, and more importantly, determine the extent of the family unit. For kids age 1 to 92, traditions provide a sense of belonging and being loved. Ernest Burgess, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, studied how traditions provide families a heritage of attitudes, sentiments and ideals that he has termed "family culture."  

I remember when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and the whole family was celebrating Christmas in Pennsylvania. We all flew home early and my dad flew back after the holidays and drove the car home alone. But my mother never let her 15-year cancer journey become her or the family's whole life. I can hear her saying, "There is more to my life than my cancer."

Since being diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago, I wake up with her passion for life and the realization that I can make the choice each day to have more than cancer in my life. The holiday season has been a great time for me to engage in those activities that reinforce the family culture. They give me so much love and strength to live each day with more than just cancer.

What holiday traditions are important for you and your connection to love and life? I'm writing this in Burlington, Vt., where we're spending a pre-Christmas vacation with a good friend and his family. Today we drove out to a tree farm and let Sophie the golden lab loose and all the kids from age 7 to 80 run around to pick out the Christmas tree. We drove home singing carols and spent the last few hours decorating the tree. Tonight we are having a dinner party with a group of good friends and will no doubt share memories of past holidays, laugh a lot, and go to sleep tonight with smiles a mile wide and deep.

If you're like our empty nest family, our holidays usually are built around trips where the kids rule and the spirit of the holidays aren't just present, but LOUD. There have been Thanksgivings and Christmases when we stayed in Houston and worked as volunteers helping to feed the hungry, wrap and hand out presents to the needy, or sing carols at senior living centers. Maybe it's a holiday cruise or travel to Mexico. Several Christmases ago, we spent a wonderful two weeks in Hawaii.

My hope is that while you've been reading about some of my holiday traditions and experiences, you've started a mental list of holiday activities that are important to you. Remember that holiday traditions can help you strengthen your connections to family culture, love and life. May your holiday season be full of the traditions that remind you there is more to life than cancer.

Flash back three years to a urology examination room where my wife and I are sitting and my physician has just told us that I have a very aggressive prostate cancer. My wife immediately starts bawling, not crying, but bawling. I'm still not sure what he said after that. What I remember is taking my wife home and trying my best to calm her down. At some point, she fell asleep and I took a long walk outside and finally began to process the news.  

Most of us, at an intellectual level, understand that stress is our reaction to the external environment. We decide, based on many different things, how we react. My wife's parents are alive, while I was raised in a family in which my mother died of cancer when I was just starting college and my dad died of prostate cancer in his late 70s. When I look back at that day in the exam room, I realize that I'd been preparing for the diagnosis all my life.

During my long walk I immediately became angry and then felt a grief I had not felt for a long time. But at some point on that very gray day, my body-mind connection linked up with my spirit -- a spirit forged by my parents' DNA and my life experience with them.

In his book, "Achieving the Mind-Body-Spirit Connection," Luke Seward, Ph.D., suggests that it's the spirit that allows us to find the calming space we all seek. Without the connection to spirit, the body-mind connection acts like a teenager who's always self-absorbed. Immediately, I realized my life path had changed but it was mine, and like my parents I needed to find the strength to live it "well."  

You can't experience that calm space unless you find a way to shut off the head chatter or self-talk that continually runs through our minds. Most of what we say to ourselves we would never say to anyone else. It can be fear-based or at times it's what gives us the necessary motivation to take a step forward.  

How do you quiet it or at least turn the volume down? Or turn it into a positive guide?  

•    Exercise
Maybe it's a walk or a regular exercise routine that helps you focus and turn your self-talk into a positive guide. 

•    Reading
Many read what I call the "little books," like Joan Lunden's "Wake-Up Calls" or Greg Anderson's "Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do." These books help turn our negative self-talk into positive guides. 

•    Music
I have good friends who find it helpful to listen to slow jazz, classical music or good old church hymns. 

•    Mediation/Prayer
Early morning and evening prayers are a form of meditation. If you add some short prayer/meditation sessions to your days, you'll immediately notice a change in the volume and guidance of your head chatter. The Patient/Family Library at M. D. Anderson has many books that can help you set up a regular daily meditation practice.  

It doesn't matter if you're newly diagnosed, in treatment or now call yourself a cancer survivor. Managing your head chatter is critical to a "well" life.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After radical prostatectomy surgery, radiation and two years of hormone therapy, I have learned that "attitude matters."

My mother died of colon cancer when I was just entering college. What I best remember of her 15-year fight was her attitude. When family and friends were trying to pull themselves together after each surgery, my mother was always trying to get back to work, back to her garden, back to living. My dad had a rich life and, at age 78, died of prostate cancer. On his last day, he walked around the block carrying his oxygen bottle and stopped to listen to the cardinals sing.

As a wellness coach I've worked hard to take care of my body, but my cancer journey has taught me that a body disconnected from the mind-spirit connection can easily get lost. One of my favorite body-mind-spirit authors, Brian Luke Seward, has written many books and articles about stress management, resilience, meditation and attitude. In his book "Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water" he suggests that our "attitudes are the paintbrush with which we color the world."  

What paintbrush have you colored your world with today? Some days our self-talk can become so negative or fear-based that our thoughts become what I call "stinking thinking" or "toxic thoughts." This negative thinking not only affects the way we feel, but also how we act and treat ourselves and others.  

How do you stop stinking thinking? The experts say there are several things we can do to shift to a positive mind-set. The one I like the most is GRATITUDE. One of my favorite little books on gratitude is M.J. Ryan's "Attitude of Gratitude." It's 180 pages packed full of stories and affirmations. Remember that gratitude is like a flashlight, lighting up what's already there and then we no longer take it for granted.

FishtanksTry this. Next time you walk around M. D. Anderson, take a look at how the physical environment has been set up to have a positive effect on attitudes. I bet, like me, you have a favorite painting? I love the canyon series that hangs in our Cancer Prevention Building. Then there are the panels in the hallways that tell the stories of patients' cancer journeys and employees' dedication to our mission. Those always inspire me. I also really love the fish tanks, as they provide an instant getaway. They are so big that I often imagine I am scuba diving, which instantly turns my attitude.  

The Place of ... wellness also provides many classes and creative opportunities for patients and families that positively affect attitude.  

As a cancer survivor and wellness coach, my life experience has taught me that attitude is a big part of my cancer journey and how I greet, meet and grow each day. This is a journey we all share with so many others, and M. D. Anderson has an attitude about fighting cancer.

Fighting cancer takes more than good diagnoses and the best treatments. It also takes a staff with an attitude of being the best at what they do and creating an environment in which patients are not just empowered, but are given a cancer-fighting attitude that they share with others as they walk their cancer journeys.

Cancer and Attitude (American Cancer Society)
The Right Attitude for Fighting Breast Cancer (Yahoo Health)

billtrack_post.jpgWhat's so important about daily physical activity?
Physical activity is any body movement produced by the muscle system. Most of us understand that by moving our big muscle systems (legs, hips, etc.) we burn more calories, which helps us maintain healthy body weights, and builds strong muscle and cardiovascular systems.  

As a wellness coach, I believe daily physical activity is important because it energizes your body, mind and spirit. Blood carries the life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients that your body needs to survive. How does blood get back from your big toe to your heart? The heart can't pump it back, but as you move your muscles squeeze the veins and blood slowly travels back to the heart -- energizing your body, mind and spirit.

What kinds of physical activities should you be doing?
New data from the American College of Sports Medicine suggest that you should be doing moderate intensity physical activity five days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. What's moderate activity? A good example is walking faster than you normally walk. You don't have to complete 30 minutes at a time; you can do them in 10-minute bouts. The ASSM y also have found that five days at 30 minutes will help improve health, but 200-300 minutes is necessary for long-term weight loss.  

If all you do is walk, you aren't doing enough. As you age, you also lose muscle power unless you're doing strength-training activities. You don't need to belong to a fitness club to strength train. You can use bands or even your own body weight a couple of days a week to gain or maintain strength in core muscle systems.  

The last type of physical activity is stretching or flexibility. We're going through a "Yoga, Tai Chi, Massage Revolution" and there's a good reason -- stretching out muscle tension feels good. Stretching your muscles throughout the day helps relieve muscle tension and ensures that the cumulative stress collected and stored in your muscles all day long is dumped. As you age, you not only can lose strength but also can lose stretchability. Many older adults can't do some of the daily tasks and fun activities because they've given up their flexibility. Always do slow stretch-and-hold flexibility activities to keep safe.

Ready to be energized?
If it's been awhile since you've done any exercise, start with a visit to your physician and ensure that he or she is OK with what you've planned. The next, and most important, step: start putting physical activity into your schedule every day and get back the energy you thought was just part of the aging process. Remember, you can choose to "be well."

Related article
Measuring Physical Activity Intensity (CDC)


Connect on social media

Sign In


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center