How I Keep My Cancer at Bay


I’m playing the cancer cards dealt to me as best I can, and am trying to stay healthy.

No one understands why one person beats the odds while yet another doesn’t. I liken this to Poker. Each of us is dealt our cards by the cosmos. Some of us get dealt a winning hand while others aren’t.

I like what Randy Pausch wrote in “The Last Lecture.” “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

He, like me, got the news no one can imagine: that he had pancreatic cancer, a disease that, for most, is a death sentence. But unlike him, I have somehow survived almost nine years. With few seeing two years and most not seeing five, I am a statistical outlier.

Most cancer survivors, myself especially, dread our cancer’s return. Our follow-ups produce a terror like no other. We hope to hear, “Your scan and bloodwork look great! See you next time.” But we brace ourselves for the words, “I’m so sorry we see something unusual on your scan.” (Code for your cancer is back.)

Much like no one understands why one person beats the odds while another doesn’t, I don’t think we need to let our cancer call the shots. I believe we can and should take both preventive and preemptive measures to keep it at bay.

Here is what I do to stay healthy and hopefully keep cancer at bay.

Get some exercise.

I am not a gym rat by any means, but I do try to get there three times a week, if not more. (I should note I so much appreciate all the rats who gave their all to help develop different therapies.)

While there, I don’t do anything superhuman. I ride a recumbent bike for 30 minutes and use about a half dozen weight machines to maintain what’s left of my muscle tone. I wish I could do more, but due to my abdominal radiation I have developed osteoporosis in my back, so any type of free-weight lifting is out of the question for me.

If going to a gym isn’t an option, go for walks. If walking isn’t an option, there are numerous exercises one can do at home that require no special equipment. Finally, an obligatory caution. Check-in with your doctor before starting any exercise routine. Once you have the go-ahead, get some exercise.

Eat well.

Like many, I have always struggled to eat right. Before cancer, I devoured pizzas and tacos, along with scoops of vanilla ice cream piled high. One of the reasons I think I was stricken with pancreatic cancer is I was overweight.

After cancer, I dropped a third of my weight. Now at less than 200 pounds, and due to the digestive issues related to a brutal surgery called a Whipple procedure to remove my pancreatic tumor, I now have trouble gaining weight. Nonetheless, I would not recommend my diet plan to anyone. Instead of eating processed and high-fat foods, I like to eat more fruits and vegetables, chicken or fish with limited red meat.

Avoid alcohol.

Having parents who struggled with alcohol, I have always been wary of its effect on me. Also being a former sailor, I’ve seen firsthand what a few too many can do to a person. Now with a third of my pancreas missing, I am unable to handle alcohol. Hence, it is off-limits for me.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), “There is a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer.” They go on to enumerate the various types of cancers it can cause.

Go to my follow-up appointments.

One of my least favorite things to do is to go to my follow-up appointemtns. For me, these are both terrifying and depressing — terrifying in that I dread hearing my cancer is back, and depressing in that I see countless ashen people who are weeks, if not days, away from it being over. This always breaks my heart.

However, if my cancer should take another shot at me, my only hope to survive is to detect it early and get back into treatment. Restarting treatment isn’t something I look forward to but something I may have to do one day.

Reflecting on what Randy Pausch wrote, I think we can play our hand better by getting some exercise, eating as well as we can, quitting smoking, using alcohol in moderation and most of all getting to our follow-ups.

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Dr. Karyn A. Goodman