For some, living well is a matter of choice. We can choose to nourish ourselves with healthy, nutritious foods. We can choose to move our bodies in some way every day. We can engage in relationships that support and uplift us. We can have rewarding careers and live in healthy, non-toxic environments, and we can enjoy spiritual practices that align with our beliefs. If we are unwell in one or more of these areas, we can examine our behaviors, set positive intentions, and alter our choices to reflect our intentions and support our goals. Sounds easy, right? Wrong!—especially when you throw in a cancer diagnosis.
The problem is that our ability to make good choices is undermined by our habits, and habits are hard to break. Our brains are the most energy-demanding organs in our body, utilizing more than half of our body’s glucose as its primary source of energy. In order to ensure that it has enough energy to carry out its physiological functions, the brain tightly regulates the way it metabolizes glucose. How does it do this? By creating habits.
Habits are our brain’s way of operating on auto-pilot. When faced with news as life-altering as a cancer diagnosis, it is very natural to rely on habit and to shift to auto-pilot. Unfortunately, not all of our habits are healthy or supportive of the body’s needs leading up to, during, and post-cancer treatment.
For example, some people spend their lives using junk food, alcohol, or cigarettes to self-soothe. Others don’t exercise because they are rooted in a story that says they “can’t” for one reason or another. This can make compliance with their doctor’s diet and lifestyle recommendations exponentially more difficult because their brains have formed habits based on past actions and decisions as a way of conserving energy. It doesn’t want to have to think about what to do when you are feeling scared, sad or stressed. It would rather flip to autopilot and steer you to the cookies. In other words, your brain uses a neural pathway to turn on habitual behavior instead of engaging in active, deliberate decision-making.
These habits, or neural pathways, need to be interrupted and new habits need to be established in order for sustainable change to happen. That’s where a Cancer Hope Network survivor Support Volunteer can help. Our volunteers help clients to navigate the confusing (and sometimes contradictory) information they receive on their cancer journey by actively listening to client concerns, sharing their own experiences surrounding cancer, giving them the tools and support they need to learn how to interrupt habits that no longer serve them in their “new normal,” and ensuring that each client contact is supportive and hopeful.
If you are a patient or loved one in need of support, please call our Programs team at 877-HOPENET or vist cancerhopenetwork.org/support to be matched with a survivor or caregiver Support Volunteer who can help.
Beth Blakey is the Associate Director of Development for Cancer Hope Network. She has 20 years of experience as a professional fundraiser and corporate communications consultant. She is also a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, fitness enthusiast, writer, and avid reader. Beth looks forward to sharing her passion for all things wellness-related with the Cancer Hope Network community.