The Beatles were surely onto something with their 1967 pop rock hit, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” We all need and long for social interaction and when we are lucky enough to be blessed with that in our lives, it makes a lot of things a lot better. In fact, regular social interactions may even lessen some health risks and promote an overall healthy lifestyle. When faced with loneliness and isolation, sadness, depression and other undesirable consequences like disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol are more likely to occur.
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis further exacerbates all this. A recent NIH (National Institutes of Health) News Release reports that “social interaction affects cancer patients’ response to treatment” and their social interactions during cancer treatment affected how they fared afterwards. So it’s imperative that social support is available during this heightened time of need.
When faced with a cancer diagnosis, one’s mind constantly battles so many thoughts and questions including:
- What do I do now?
- What do I eat?
- What am I going to look like?
- Will I lose my hair?
- How am I going to manage?
Anxiety is at an all-time high. Another recent article from HealthDay reported that young cancer survivors had a lot of challenges when trying to integrate back into “normal life.” Although the ages of the participants were 14-39, I do believe these hardships would still apply amongst the gamut of ages. Having cancer forever changes you and when the opportunity presents to connect with other people in a similar predicament, there is that unspoken bond that comes with experiencing the same fears.
Equally as important is having an environment that promotes social relationships and the ability to make real connections. Taking it a step further, positive social relationships also play a role in healthful dietary behaviors which is key for both mental and physical well being. There is also emerging evidence that happier people tend to have healthier diets which includes higher intakes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The field of oncology nutrition is where my true passion lies and my love for this population makes me thrive in my professional and volunteer positions. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’ve always had a desire for helping people with cancer optimize their health and well being. I truly believe good nutrition before, during and after cancer treatment makes a difference in how people feel, how they respond to treatment and in lessening post treatment complications. I engage with clients, either individually or in a group. We discuss symptom management, hot topics in nutrition, food and recipes, or sometimes, just life. People are always curious and interested in learning about all aspects of food and nutrition as it relates to cancer. Social engagement around food is undeniable.
My observation is that food is the equivalent to possessing a golden ticket! When I work with clients, food is always around, whether it’s a donation from a local establishment or something I prepare. A lot of thoughtfulness goes into making things that are healthful, delicious and pretty for our clients to enjoy. Of course taste is key, but how something looks and appeals to all senses is also integral.
Naturally, the food and drinks morph into talking point. The more aesthetically pleasing something is, the more likely it will bring a smile to someone’s face, increase the chances it will be eaten and enhance the social scene of the environment. When I offer a client water with mango and mint or some overnight oats in their own pretty mason jar, I see his/her face instantly light up with the look of excitement.
Spending a morning and afternoon at a Mondays program is an automatic in to a social club. The safe haven at Mondays at Racine and our charter salons provide the necessary unconditional support to those undergoing cancer treatment. It also provides that opportunity to connect with others in similar predicaments. Each week I witness our clients transform, sometimes breaking through their shell to form amazing relationships and forever bonds with us and other cancer clients. In fact, many of them exchange phone numbers and plan to meet up on future service days with their new friends. It is very empowering and provides something to look forward to. Our clients have the opportunity to regain a sense of control in their lives and actively take steps to improve their mental and nutritional outcomes.
My colleagues and I work together to combat the unpleasant effects of cancer treatment for our clients. I can’t really say it’s work, it’s not work for us, it’s a mission. I am honored to be part of the Mondays at Racine team and to be able to help carry out this beautiful mission. This foundation provides various supports that family and friends alone cannot. Mondays at Racine offers free beauty, health and wellness services. We address the whole person by offering not only, hair, wig, scalp, makeup, manicures, pedicures, meditation, reiki, massage and nutrition services, but also by providing and empowering the welcoming, comfortable and social environment necessary when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Food helps serve as a bridge to bond with practitioners and other people going through cancer treatment.
Illness impacts cancer patients on every social and emotional level and affects everyone including family and friends. As practitioners, we able to connect with our clients at an atypical level due to the nature of our non-clinical setting. Practitioner to client interaction plus client to client interaction fosters the necessary connections needed to help someone get through and get beyond a day. This makes life a little less sad and lonely. No one cares if you sing out of tune. We all get by with a little help from our friends. It’s much more than getting a free service. It’s opportunity to thrive in the midst of hardship.
Wendy Kaplan, MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in oncology and weight management in Long Island and in the New York City area. Wendy is the Nutrition Program Director for Mondays at Racine Cancer Care Foundation, a 501c3. Connect with Wendy on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and read more of her blog posts and download recipes at Food4HealthRD.com