Prior to learning about my mutation at the age of 19, I feared that colon cancer would kill me. I had no medical evidence telling me that I was right, and yet I believed colon cancer would be my demise. Despite feeling this way, I did not follow any recommendations that might help prevent colon cancer -- I did not change my diet or fitness habits. Before knowing that I had a mutation, I acted as if there was nothing I could do and constantly felt as if I had no control. The idea of doing things within my power that could be extremely helpful in prevention was non-existent.
As a teenager, I did not think about fitness because it was second nature. I was an athlete, and thus exercise was a part of my daily life. When I got to college just after learning about my mutation, I quit soccer and track (two teams I had planned to be on), and did not replace them with another form of exercise. Simultaneously, I lost control of myself with regard to food. Not that I had been a model eater to date, but I took it to another level -- eating not because I was hungry but because I was feeding an emotional emptiness that I felt. I did not realize what I was doing at the time, but in eating excessively I was exhibiting how out of control my life felt. It was a really hard time for me -- I had just lost my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt -- reducing my mommy's immediate family to one person. Compounding that loss, I learned that I, in fact, had a genetic mutation that causes cancer -- the same mutation that had taken most of my mommy's family from me. Instead of trying to take control of the situation, I let things get out of hand.
In the first few years after learning about my mutation, I felt less in control than I did before, and I did not listen to the recommendations made by my doctors. I seemingly did the opposite of everything I was told to do (except for screening) -- I did not eat fruits and vegetables, my diet was high in fat, and I did not exercise. I did not feel that changing my diet and exercising more could play a role in preventing my DNA from turning on me.
I did not feel compelled to take any action because I felt like my life was dictated by a statistical inevitability. The most obvious and easy thing to do was to eat healthy. According to most experts in the field, a diet high in fiber, low in fat, and consisting of fruits and vegetables can help prevent colon cancer. (See: Mayo Clinic staff, "Colon cancer: Prevention," Mayo Clinic; and Hopkins Colon Cancer Center, "Nutrition and Colon Cancer," Johns Hopkins Medicine.)
When I finally decided to deal with the issues I had been facing for years -- loss, grief, and the fear of having a genetic mutation, I began to see that I could take control. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent colon cancer -- a simple fact, but something I refused to acknowledge until college graduation was upon me. Graduation represented the end of one chapter of my life and the beginning of the rest. I was unhappy and knew that I needed to make a major change in my life in order to enable me to have the bright future I desired. Suddenly, I began exercising regularly and eating healthy, as well as therapy focused on loss and grief. For the first time in my life, I did what my dad had been urging me to do for many years -- live healthy to prevent colon cancer. No matter how many times my parents tried to introduce me to vegetables as I child, I was just not interested. At the age of 22, I was finally ready to do what I could to prevent colon cancer. Screening is one tool to save me from any cancers caused by my mutation, but there are various things I can do on my own to prevent cancer -- diet and exercise are among the easiest.
While there are many recommendations as to ways I can try to prevent colon cancer, it is important to balance them against living a normal life. When you know you have a mutation, it is often hard to remember that just because you are extremely likely to develop cancer, it does not mean that you definitely will. Having a genetic mutation is not the only thing in my life and I am mindful of that when deciding which recommendations to follow. For instance, there is a study that shows that taking an aspirin a day prevents colon cancer. I tried taking one aspirin per day, and found that I bruise too easily to take it daily. Also, while aspirin may prevent colon cancer, it may cause internal bleeding if taken daily. While I wish to prevent colon cancer, I must always weigh that goal with the desire to live a balanced and healthy life. To that extent, I instead take fiber supplements daily, so that I do not have to spend my days evaluating each and every thing I eat to insure that I have a sufficient amount. I have developed a lifestyle that works for me -- balancing my desires to do whatever I can to prevent my mutation from causing cancer with the reality that it may not, and thus I must also do what I can do be healthy overall.
When I look back at the four most unhealthy years of my life, I realize that they were also the four unhappiest years of my life. I have learned that treating my body well has an enormous impact on my mental and emotional well-being. I have learned from the mistakes I have made, and know now that eating healthy and exercising are important, whether one has a genetic mutation or not.
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