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What Are You Doing to Beat the Odds?

by Morry Edwards, PhD

Wellness image

It’s good to have an ace in the hole. Here are some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor when it comes to living a full life after a cancer diagnosis.

In the 35 years I have been involved in cancer care, I have seen many people make liars out of statistics – outliving their prognoses or going into complete remission. I always wonder what factors enabled that person to be an outlier and successfully beat the odds. Shouldn’t we study them more closely?

However, until that happens (and considering there are no guarantees), what can a person diagnosed with cancer do to “stack the deck” in his or her favor?

For starters, take a deep breath and quickly become as informed as possible about your disease and treatment options.
This can help reduce fear and panic – neither of which helps in decision making. Information helps you partner with your medical team, and people who actively participate in treatment decisions may do better in treatment with fewer complications. Perhaps they feel more in control or have more confidence in their team. Once you’ve decided on a course of treatment, unless there are adverse effects, try to comply fully to get the complete therapeutic effects. Create your own healing path.

Recognize what you can take responsibility for and what you cannot control.
This is the Serenity Prayer in action. Stay focused on what you can or want to do. Don’t change just because you should. Make positive changes because they help you feel better, give you more strength or energy, and encourage you to enjoy and get the most out of life. Focus on your real priorities. Spend more time doing more of what brings you joy.

Evaluate your lifestyle to assess areas of change.
It may seem as though cancer diagnosis is not an opportune time to change, but it may be quite the contrary, as cancer often makes people uncomfortable and motivated enough to change. Changing your diet is a good example. You may not want to become a vegetarian or vegan, but you may be willing to cut down on “bad” fats, salt, sugar, and junk food. You also may not want to train for a marathon, but you may be willing to start walking, doing some stretching, or strength training. Likewise, you might want to reduce toxic ingestion of alcohol (or other substances) or toxic exposure to hazardous materials in the environment.

Don’t change just because you should. Make positive changes because they help you feel better.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Morry Edwards

Learn stress management techniques or find other sources of psychological and emotional resolve.
While evidence of the extent of psychological effects on physical functioning is controversial, there is evidence that decreasing depression and stress may help immune function. Improved psychological functioning, such as appropriate assertiveness and emotional discharge, may redirect energy to increase motivation to enjoy life’s activities.

Another way to improve your outcome is to garner social support.
This is more than joining a cancer support group, although it may be helpful to hear how others are coping. It is also inspirational to see others who have been through the fire and are years beyond treatment. Not all people want to join support groups or think about cancer all the time. There are many other interest groups around. You may not even have to look outside your family. Your focus may be to improve these relationships.

Lastly, explore a spiritual connection – whatever form that takes for you.
It may be returning to church, synagogue, or mosque. It may be turning to nature or science. Often, people with cancer wrestle with questions of How this could happen; What does it mean; or Why me? You may not get all the answers, but you may find some answers that bring you inner peace and that turn your focus from why this happened to how best to live.

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Dr. Morry Edwards is a licensed psychologist and certified biofeedback practitioner who specializes in treating people with cancer and other chronic illnesses. He currently practices at Neuropsychology Associates and is director of Psychological Services at the West Michigan Cancer Center in Kalamazoo, MI. His book MindBody Cancer Wellness: A Self-Help Stress Management Manual is available through

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.