Surviving cancer: my journey to healthy choices

07 January 2019 | Healthy living, Living with cancer

Making healthy choices can be challenging. Here, writer and cancer survivor Lynda Tavakoli shares a very personal perspective on what’s worked for her.

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I didn’t give much thought to my eating or drinking habits, neither of which I’m very proud of. In my defence, there wasn’t the same availability of information there is now, nor easy access to research findings that ‘red flag’ many of the health challenges we presently face as a society. 

Thanks to organisations like World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), there’s now plenty of resources encouraging lifestyle choices that reduce cancer risk. These are important to me, because cancer is a disease I know something about, having been diagnosed with breast cancer 25 years ago, aged 37.

What counsel would I give my younger self, knowing what I do now? I’d definitely place more attention on diet, nutrition and exercise – they play a huge part in our general well-being, along with the prevention of disease.  

Beating the sweet tooth

I’m rather horrified by how much fat and sugar I used to consume.  Subconsciously, I thought no food could be enjoyable unless saturated in oil or oozing sweetness, but gradually I’ve managed to largely wean myself off both, simply by finding viable alternatives. It’s not been easy but it was worth the effort, even if it took time to transition from 'deep fried' to 'oven-baked' or 'full fat' to 'fat-free'. 

My advice is to make a gradual rather than overnight change of habits – the latter can cause resentment over what you suddenly can’t have. Be realistic – if you’re prone to snacking then make sure it’s something with nutritional value and not overly calorific.  An apple to replace a chocolate bar – that sort of thing. I’m afraid this involves discipline, something we all have to learn for ourselves. But I felt much better about my body once I’d applied myself to a healthier diet, although even now I don’t deny myself the occasional treat.

Good nutrition – the key

For me, nutrition comes hand in hand with diet. When my daughter decided to become a vegetarian, it motivated me to evaluate my own eating habits. I eventually gave up red meat, although I’ve never been able to resist fish! It takes a bit of effort, researching the nutritional values of certain foods, but resources like WCRF’s Eat well during cancer booklet are very helpful and user friendly. 

Part of my cancer treatment was having my ovaries removed, so sensible nutrition became a vital consideration.  The sudden lack of oestrogen plunged me into the menopause practically overnight – perhaps the most challenging aspect of my whole cancer experience. I’m still very aware that strong bones are the product of not only a healthy diet but also a sensible exercise routine.

Getting active

Exercise, I know, can be one of the hardest challenges. I’m lucky that I love playing squash, but finding something you enjoy will make regular exercise less of a chore. It’s worth contacting your local leisure centre to see if they offer ‘taster’ classes. The benefits of exercise are well documented and it’s never too late to start, even if it’s just a quiet saunter in the countryside.

If exercise isn’t possible, then doing something creative can promote a feel-good factor when you’re low. For me, it was writing in an honest, heartfelt way about my cancer experience – simply putting the words down on paper was liberating.  Cancer may have been an unwanted interloper in my life, but it unexpectedly led me to living more healthily, and for that I am truly grateful.

Lynda Tavakoli | 07 January 2019