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The Importance of Healthy Habits After a Cancer Diagnosis

Learn how to incorporate new habits into your daily routine, to help you meet your goals and approach a cancer diagnosis more healthily.

February 13, 2023

After a cancer diagnosis, it’s easy to focus on the what ifs and what next. It is important to stop and focus on the things we can control vs those we can’t. This taking-control attitude can lead to being more solution-focused and making good choices while avoiding frustration and negativity. Establishing healthy habits is a good approach to help move forward.

Habits are the small decisions or actions that make up most of our day. Many of these are ones we don’t necessarily think about when we do them, such as your morning routine or your route to the grocery store. Other habits require more thought such as planning your schedule for the week or completing some less routine tasks. When considering our personal habits, we can easily identify ones that are more or less healthy or the ones we should or shouldn’t do. Often, we may wonder why it can feel so difficult to change the shouldn’t habits to should habits.

First, it’s important to be aware of the difference between a habit and a goal. Habits are the actions that take us closer or further away from our goals while goals are the outcomes we are targeting. Examples of goals include improving your sleep habits so you aren’t so tired during the day, practicing balance exercises to prevent falls, and wanting to maintain work during treatment. Once we identify these goals, we can figure out which habits we would like to change and start working to implement them to accomplish our goals. To reach the above goals the habits to work on could be having a regular bedtime, finding exercises you can work on for balance and adding them into your daily routine, and having regular communication with your employer during treatment to make sure they know what is going on and how they can help.

Goal setting

Using the word SMART is a common strategy for identifying goals. The goal is the “what” we want to accomplish and the habits are the “how” we reach that goal by making changes in our day-to-day life. Utilize this process to help plan your “how” habits and the tips below will help you follow through in your behavior changes.

  • S = Specific: What will be accomplished? What actions will you take? This is identifying the habit and what you want to change about it. The more specific you are, the easier it is to help determine you have been successful. What are you wanting to change? How will you change it?
  • M = Measurable: What data will measure the goal? (How much? How well?) Examples: How many days a week will I exercise? How many pages do I want to read each day? How many ounces of water will I drink each day?
  • A = Achievable: Is the goal doable? Do you have the necessary skills and resources? If your answer is no, why and how do you make it a yes? This is a great question to ensure you have the right specific goal, your measurement of the goal is appropriate, and you have everything/everyone you need to help you accomplish it.
  • R = Relevant: Does the goal align with broader goals? Why is the result significant? Hopefully, your answer to this question is yes, but if it is no, then you may want to pick a different habit to work on.
  • T = Timing: What is the time frame for accomplishing the goal? Working on a change and maintaining that change is something you hope will continue for a long time, but can you set a time you would like to see the goal accomplished so you can move into maintaining it.

Strategies for success

These simple strategies will help you on your way to changing your habits for the better and maintaining those changes.

1. One at a time

Trying to change everything at once can be overwhelming. It is easy to want to take on everything and get the changes over with. However, this may result in reverting to previous habits or not making the best possible change. Both these scenarios are very frustrating. Focusing on one change at a time and solidifying that healthy habit is easy to maintain as you start the next habit. This is where it is important to prioritize the changes most important to you and start there.

2. Schedule / reminders / tracking

Finding time in your daily routine to prepare for your change or making the change is essential, but sometimes we have the best intentions and forget. Creating a schedule and reminders is a great way to ensure the change happens. This could be a physical calendar/to-do list or one on your phone. Consider adding things like prep lunch for tomorrow, time to exercise, 5-minute deep breathing, etc., as a notification to prepare or implement your change. Using technology is a really great way to help with this. Calendar apps can add events, tasks, or reminders that give you notifications, or try a habit tracker for building habits and tracking progress with friends. Not only can your calendar/to-do list/app help you remember to make the change, but these are also great options for tracking your change to ensure you follow through.

3. Environment

Settings, surroundings, replacement. We think of the environment solely as where we are, but it also includes what and who is around us. When considering your environment in relation to your habits, is there something that promotes your habit you want to work on? Can you move away from this/find a new place, or add/remove something to help improve this habit? For example:

  • If you will not exercise at home, then where will you exercise?
  • If you have junk food for snacks, what snacks should you replace these with to make healthier choices?
  • How do you better eat at meal times to not be hungry between meals?
  • What can you do if you have a friend who always invites you to smoke during a work break? Instead, go for a walk, listen to a podcast, call a friend.

Being aware of the where, what, and who of your environment is a helpful strategy for improving your habits.

4. Accountability

  • Internal: along with tracking, using a journal to write down your habits, goals, and feelings about how things are going is a great way to track your change and hold yourself accountable. Individuals sometimes forget how far they have come when working to change their habits. Having a written record of the difference and your thoughts can be very motivating and empowering as you continue your behavior change.
  • External: we have already learned about being aware of who is in your environment. Now it is time to call upon those who can support you. Find a friend who checks in or joins you in your behavior change journey. This person may go to the gym with you before work, or you meet up weekly for a chat about life. Making sure to have a solid support system is highly beneficial when making changes in your life.

5. Reinforcement

Many understand this strategy as rewards or punishments. It is well known that rewards are almost always more effective in changing behaviors than punishments. Many utilize food as a reward because we associate it with winning, the end of a competition, or happy occasions. However, there may be better strategies depending on your working behaviors. Think about using other things such as new exercise equipment, a fun outing with family/friends, or a new book. These are things that can support the change rather than hinder it or result in a less healthy choice.

A great tip when you are trying to change your habits is to break them down into small steps. According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, start with the two-minute rule. Any new habit should be scaled down to be completed in two minutes or less. While this may not seem like a big step, making it more manageable will help you be more successful. As an example, what if your goal is to increase your hydration? Consider small habits such as drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning, place a glass or water bottle in an area you are in regularly such as your bathroom or kitchen. Make sure it’s full and even consider putting it out the night before. Once this is a consistent habit, add a second glass of water such as when you eat lunch or in the afternoon.

Any time is a great time to set goals for yourself and identify the habits you would like to work on to reach your goals. Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, further promotes the practice of turning your goals into habits. He feels the more you focus on those daily changes, the less you need to focus on the goal. When you firmly establish a habit, you don’t really have to focus on it as much and over time you will inherently accomplish your goals.

At Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health, our cancer support team is a resource that can help you identify strategies and resources to help you with healthy habits and goals.

February 13, 2023

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