Getting Fit for Cancer Treatment: Why It Matters

July 25, 2018
Loriana Hernandez-Aldama

Loriana Hernandez-Aldama is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and former news anchor and medical reporter turned cancer survivor, advocate, and speaker. After being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, she launched ArmorUp for LIFE,  a nonprofit organization that encourages people to change their lives through diet, exercise, and lifestyle before a life-threatening illness like cancer hits and inspiring people to stay healthy during and after treatment.

I’m a mother, wife, and Emmy Award-winning journalist who spent all of 2014 facing a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. In the midst of in vitro fertilization to have a second child, my fertility doctor delivered this news: “You can’t have a baby. You have cancer.”

My world shattered. It didn’t add up, I thought. They must have the wrong person. I was a clean-eating, green-drinking, yoga enthusiast. I was on top of my game. After more than 20 years of crisscrossing the country to work for various networks like CNN and NBC, I had my dream job at FOX in Austin, TX, as main anchor and national fitness/health and medical reporter. My son was just 20 months old.

Hard news was the core of my job, but my true passion was transformational health. I had spent my entire career as a health advocate, showing viewers how to change their lives through diet and exercise to avoid diseases like cancer. Then there I was, staring right at it.

I questioned whether all that healthy eating and exercise had been worth it and whether I’d misled viewers all those years. So I put on my investigative hat and pushed for answers. I was baffled when my oncologist sat me down and explained that my hard work to take care of my health hadn’t been a waste of time. In fact, it may very well help save me. What?

It was my own cancer diagnosis that brought me to the biggest story of my career. I called my news director and said, “I need my voice back.” I wanted to educate viewers on what a cancer diagnosis is really like—and how they could prepare in case they had to walk the same path.

Meeting the treatment halfway

I learned from the doctors who I spoke with that how healthy you are today can determine how much you can handle tomorrow.share on twitter  My doctor explained that it requires strength to cope with the challenges of different cancer treatments and their side effects. For instance, having more energy can help you cope with fatigue and a stronger body can help you recover from surgery or other treatments.

I wanted to shout it from the mountain top: “It’s all about the preparation!”

Believe it or not, this is something that experts call “prehabilitation.” It’s like rehabilitation, but it takes place before the cancer treatment begins. There are health care professionals out there who deliver this kind of care to people with cancer. Prehabilitation focuses on preparing the patient for the treatment they will receive.

I decided to meet the treatment halfway and become an equal partner in my cancer care. So I created a “survival plan,” so I could give my doctors the best version of me. I wanted to give the cancer treatment its best chance of working. Through this process, I learned to focus on 5 areas before, during, and after treatment. Here are some suggestions for creating your own plan:

  1. Exercise. Create a fitness schedule with guidance from your health care team, so you can hold yourself accountable to physical activity. Share that schedule with friends or caregivers so they can make sure you’re moving. Physical activity during and after treatment, especially walking, improved my depression as well as gave me strength and a sense of control and empowerment.

  2. Diet. Clean up your diet and eat nutritious foods. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can prepare you for the challenges ahead. I found the right combination of healthy foods for me to help curb nausea and other treatment side effects. Ask your health care team if there is a dietitian who can help you make an eating plan that is right for you.

  3. Lifestyle. Lower your stress level. Some ideas to try: Download a yoga app, walk, read, scrapbook, or write in a journal. Focus on making memories with loved ones.

  4. Spirituality. Consider integrating spirituality in your life and treatment plan. Spirituality doesn’t have to mean religion. It could simply mean believing in something higher than yourself. Or it could mean taking time to meditate. You can also talk to the chaplain in your hospital or to the leader of your religious community.

  5. Legal and financial fitness. Make sure that you have a will in place and that you’ve put your health care wishes in writing. Also, make sure you understand the costs of cancer care and have a plan to manage those costs.

Getting fit in these 5 areas can help us take an active role in the treatment plan. I realize reaching new goals is hard when you’re physically and emotionally exhausted from the diagnosis and treatment. I know it. I stared at 4 sterile hospital walls for a full year. I was in pain, nauseated, and exhausted, with tears nearly constantly running down my face. But I knew I had to do something to help change my story and my outcome. I had to meet the medicine halfway and become my own hero.

Cancer treatment is a team effort. One that starts with preparation, before the fight ever begins. I call it “ArmoringUp for life.” If you are in active cancer treatment or about to start treatment, ask your health care team about prehabilitation options that are right for you.