Articles for Our Patients ~ Yen Ingrid Lai, M.D.

Facing Life-defining Illnesses: Courage and Discernment

Author: Yen Ingrid Lai, M.D. • Language: ENG

Many of us have personal experience with people who face life-defining illnesses: cancer, pain and suffering associated with a chronic condition, disability due to deteriorating health. These conditions require enormous attention, and can alter the pace and pursuits of our lives. However, they also represent an opportunity to cultivate one’s resilience, causing and building a reservoir of strength.
As you face life-defining illnesses, seek to maintain a healthy tension among the demands that pull you in different directions. Remain balanced. Conserve strength to tend to your priorities.

We admire individuals who exhibit exceptional courage when confronted with a debilitating circumstance. Introspectively we ask, “If the same thing happened to me, would I endure with such courage and grace?”
Courage is not “heroic,” yet it is as natural as wings for a bird to fly and an eagle to soar. Its sustenance is not defined by the outcome, but by something deeper. As a physician, I have seen “courage” demonstrated by individuals who are not naturally courageous. They rise up to the occasion, in spite of initial fear.
Exceptional courage often remains dormant until it is summoned by uncertainty. That’s part of the mystery of being human. During medical school at Baylor, I enjoyed attending “Compassion and the Art of Medicine,” an inspiring lecture series promoted by various hospitals and schools within Texas Medical Center in Houston. The series made me aware of the interplay between courage, hope, and beauty, and how physicians have a responsibility to help patients navigate various “mysteries” that science does not yet have tools to explain.
Inspiration fuels courage. Soldiers in the battlefield draw strength from the hope of seeing cherished ones again. Mothers persevere through excruciating labor, anticipating that first moment of joyfully beholding a precious newborn. Courage is not mustered up in a vacuum. In contrary, it is fanned by the innermost treasures of one’s heart, the core essence of one’s life: a unique identity, faith, passions, values and loved ones.
The sustenance of strength in the face of trial is not defined by the outcome, but by something deeper. As you or your loved one face life-defining illnesses, continue to cherish those precious things in life. Let them inspire you. Engage in pursuits that maintain a sense of normalcy, because it is easy to re-define yourself through the lens of disease or disability. Never let go of your heart’s capacity to be awed by beauty and wonder.

Carefully weigh your health care decisions
Patients face great uncertainty regarding health care decisions. Some might find alternative healing methods and try them without engaging their doctors. As a physician trained in Integrative Holistic Medicine, I often get asked about the limitations and potential benefits of various Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies.Specific CAM therapies vary in their efficacy when applied to different conditions. A few also have potential interactions with conventional therapy. Moreover, the intended effect varies greatly depending on the practitioner’s training and experience.
My advice is for patients to encourage their CAM providers to dialogue with their physicians. Patients benefit most when a comprehensive approach to treatment is empowered by true patient-provider collaboration. Such patient-centered health care addresses unique interactions among medical, genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors influencing your total functioning and complex disease progression.
CAM appears to have a broader application for non-cancer conditions. In the context of cancer treatment, consider the following precautions:

1. I believe that patients should not use CAM therapies to replace well-established, conventional, Western medical therapies. Do not delay treatment recommended by your physicians while seeing if an alternative therapy will work. Though offering some promise, most CAM therapies are meant to play a parallel, supportive role, not to replace conventional therapy vis-à-vis cancer.
2. Alternative therapies: specific herbs, and even some vitamins, can interact with your chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Always tell your doctors what you are taking. The potential for interaction also applies to other treatments of non-cancer conditions, such as cardiovascular and auto-immune disorders.
When used to complement one’s conventional medical care, some CAM therapies can help to:
1. alleviate pain and swelling
2. enhance tolerance of conventional therapy, and help reduce side-effects of chemo/radiation, such as nausea and vomiting
3. promote relaxation, improve sleep, and reduce stress 4. improve immune function

If your goal is cancer risk reduction, consider focusing on lifestyle issues: maintaining a healthy body weight, engaging in aerobic and resistance exercise, adjusting your eating habits etc. Accountability from friends can help your smoking cessation efforts. Smoking cessation can also be helped by a combination of acupuncture and prescription medication. Minimize environmental exposure to toxins that have a direct influence on the rise in chronic diseases. If you take supplements to boost your body’s innate immunity, carefully select from reputable sources, know the desired therapeutic dose, and be aware of potential interactions.

Closing thoughts
Walking through life-defining illnesses requires a deliberate balancing act. As you celebrate the legacy of 2009 and welcome a new year, hold tight to the precious treasures in your life that are important to you.
Guard that well-spring of inspiration, even in the midst of contemplating significant action plans. Draw upon the expertise of your doctors. Seek wise counsel as you consider which treatment modalities would be most suited for you.
Healing is always possible even when curing is not.
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