Keeping in Balance

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Yesterday afternoon, a woman about to begin chemotherapy came into my office and asked, “What advice do you have to help me get through my treatment?” I’ve been asked this question in various forms hundreds of times. I now realize that the answer boils down to this: “Keep things in balance.”

It’s all about being reasonable. I hesitate to make reference to “common sense” because common sense is gained through experience and cancer is new to everyone the first time through.

Here are some examples:

Activity level: I’ve known some patients to remain flat on their backs throughout months of chemotherapy while others push themselves to compete in athletic events the day after treatment. In general, moderate activity is good and either extreme is counter-productive. Too little activity makes fatigue worse, and too much activity drains energy when it’s needed for healing. Walking is often more beneficial than either sitting or running.

Information-seeking: Some people want to know everything about their cancer and its treatment while others want to know as little as possible. Information is almost always helpful, especially when it helps people understand what to expect. You don’t want to be surprised when your hair falls out. But too much information can be as harmful as too little information. I’ve seen people become paralyzed from studying long lists of potential side effects or from getting fifth and sixth medical opinions.

Calling the doctor: Cancer treatment invariably causes side effects. Some side effects are serious and others are more of a nuisance. At one extreme are patients who call the doctor’s office ten times a day. At the other extreme are people who never call, even if experiencing fever, pain or other serious problems. Nurses are great at explaining which side effects are routine and expected, and which ones require attention that day. Take these instructions to heart.

Cancer 24/7: Some patients focus on their cancer 24 hours a day. It’s all they talk and think about. Other patients never discuss their cancer and essentially deny that they have it, even in the midst of treatment. One can acknowledge cancer and deal with it, but also take a break from it from time to time.

Sense of Control: Cancer is unpredictable and we often lose our sense of control. During treatment, patients are reassured that problems will be addressed if and when they occur. That seems reactive rather than proactive and it makes people uneasy. Sometimes, though, patients (and their families) just need to, well, chill. But it’s a mistake to become overly passive and not control what can be controlled. Most patients can control how they spend their time and how they take care of themselves. One man put it like this, “I’m letting my doctors work on the cancer. I’m working on making my body healthier.”

Every situation and every person is different, so there are no hard and fast rules for all of this. But I think the concepts of balance and moderation during cancer treatment are useful. When people are at one extreme or the other, they tend to experience more problems and more stress. Cancer is never easy, but keeping yourself in balance will make it more manageable.

From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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