Changing My Lifestyle After Cancer Led Me On a New Life Course

Meg Hirshberg; Voices on Cancer
June 9, 2020
Meg Hirshberg

Voices on Cancer is an award-winning Cancer.Net Blog series where advocates share their stories and the lessons they have learned about being a cancer advocate. Meg Hirshberg is the founder and president of the nonprofit Anticancer Lifestyle Foundation, which developed the online Anticancer Lifestyle course. She is a 3-time breast cancer survivor who is dedicated to promoting evidence-based information, tips, and tools that provide ways to reduce the odds of getting cancer or a cancer recurrence. The foundation is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

My advocacy story

“You have cancer.”

In 2001, I became one of millions of people worldwide to hear these shocking words. I was living a full and busy life with my husband and 3 young kids, but with that 1 sentence, I suddenly entered the sorority that no woman wants to join. After my 6-month treatment of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, I moved on. Unfortunately, the breast cancer did not, and in 2008, I was treated for a recurrence to my bone.

My discovery that the disease was metastatic shook me in a way that the original diagnosis did not. I was successfully treated once again, but this time I made it a priority to learn what I could do to help myself. I asked my kind oncologist to offer some guidance and got the response that most of us get when such questions are posed: “Go back to your life as normal. Try to keep your stress level down. I’ll see you in 6 months for your scan.”

Refusing to accept that I was powerless to affect the course of my disease, I did some sleuthing and found that, according to a 2017 study, at least 40% of all cancer diagnoses are linked to modifiable lifestyle factors. Our medical system uses rigorously tested therapies to treat cancer. However, resources and information to lower the risk of cancer or cancer recurrence are scattered and inconsistent. Cancer survivors often seek out advice from trusted friends or online sources. But scientific, evidence-based recommendations can be difficult to tell apart from gimmicks.

Still, the question loomed: what should I do? How could I, as a patient, reduce my odds of recurrence and take a positive role on my own healing? Fortunately, I discovered a book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, a physician who had himself been diagnosed with cancer 15 years earlier. After reading Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book, I no longer thought of myself as being in a “battle” against cancer. After all, what am I fighting against—myself? It’s my oncologist’s job to wage war on my disease, with every reasonable weapon at his disposal. But for me, the task is different. 

I became inspired to think of survivorship and risk reduction as an invitation to manage my internal “terrain,” much as you would manage a garden. I could pull the weeds of a bad diet and inactivity. I could decrease the pest infestation by lowering overall inflammation and enhancing my immune system—growing, in other words, my body’s ability to fight disease and maximizing my own potential to make a difference in the outcome.

After noticing how much better I felt by adopting a healthier lifestyle, I wanted to make the critical information I’d learned easily available to others, especially those coping with a cancer diagnosis. Along with subject matter experts from my local cancer center and community, I designed and launched the Anticancer Lifestyle Program (ACLP), which is a self-paced online lifestyle transformation course.

How I started my program

Never have I been so surprised to hear the word “yes” as when Nancy Kane, the director of the Payson Center for Cancer Care in Concord, New Hampshire (where I had received some of my treatment), agreed to co-create the ACLP with me. While the Payson Center runs many fine programs and support groups for cancer survivors, Nancy, a retired oncology nurse who now directs my nonprofit, understood the need for a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to cancer survivorship. 

Nancy and I gathered local subject matter experts in the areas of diet, mindset, fitness, and environment. A local oncologist agreed to serve as our medical guide. Together, we all spent a year designing a 12-week in-person course, which has now served hundreds of people with cancer at the Payson Center since it was first offered in 2011. We were delighted by the positive feedback from cancer patients and oncology professionals, who were impressed by their patients’ response to the course and trusted us to deliver reliable information.

Nancy and I then spent a couple of years trying to disseminate the in-person course to other cancer centers, wellness centers, and hospitals. While we expected to encounter some resistance to this new cross-discipline approach, we actually found universal recognition that this kind of systematic look at lifestyle was important. Though a few centers did adopt the course, the pushback we got from others was practical in nature. It came from administrators who were already overwhelmed with trying to maintain their current programming and for whom creating and sustaining a 12-week course was too much to take on. 

In the meantime, I’d been receiving requests to enroll in the course from all over the world. I heard from cancer survivors, their friends and family, and those interested in prevention who were desperate to find a place they could go to for guidance about lifestyle choices that would maximize their well-being.

At that point, Nancy and I realized that in order to reach a broader audience, we needed to convert the written curriculum to an online course. After 2 years of work, we launched the online Anticancer Lifestyle course in October 2019, making this critical information easily available to all who were interested.

Lifestyle change can be hard, but it can also be surprisingly easy. The key to making change achievable is the practice of setting goals that are realistic and changing them when necessary. It’s about not punishing or speaking harshly to yourself when you stray from your goals and remembering that tomorrow can always be a fresh start. It’s a process, to be sure, and like most others who’ve picked up these tools, I am still learning and constantly making changes in the ways I cultivate my own health—1 day at a time.

As one of our ACLP course graduates pointed out: “When you get cancer, everything is done to you. This is something I get to do for myself.”

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