A cancer diagnosis is life-changing. Here's how you can reclaim yourself.
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A cancer diagnosis brings with it a flood of thoughts and emotions that can be difficult to handle.

None of us are prepared to hear that we or a loved one have a life-altering disease with a potentially tragic outcome, and the uncertainty that follows a cancer diagnosis is scary.

Since 1 in 3 of us will experience a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime according to the American Cancer Society, it's good to know what to expect.


Photo by Gus Moretta on Unsplash

Dr. Jennifer Lee, PhD, a Licensed Psychologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, says that it's normal to feel upset, angry, sad, or numb upon hearing the words “It's cancer." “Many people's initial response to a cancer diagnosis is shock and fear," Lee says. “The shock and fear should gradually decrease, but it takes time. As families get more information about what the diagnosis means and their specific treatment plan, many families begin to shift to a more action-oriented approach to take steps to address the illness and symptoms."

Some of that action includes purposefully engaging in self-care — doing things that can help you feel more connected to yourself as you go through your cancer journey.

Self-care for cancer patients goes beyond seeing doctors and taking medications.

"Self-care" can feel like a loaded term when you're overwhelmed, but that's when caring for yourself is most vital. Many people living with cancer will see a therapist to help them deal with the emotional and psychological toll that cancer can take, but there are other things patients can do along with that to help them feel more like themselves.

Keep living your life.

Photo by Olivia Colacicco/Unsplash

It can be tempting to put your life on hold while you're dealing with cancer, but Dr. Lee says that maintaining as much of a normal life as possible is one of the most important things cancer-affected families can do.

"This may require creating a 'new normal' for yourself after diagnosis," she says, "but be patient with yourself as you make these changes. If your treatment plan allows you to work or go to school, continue to do so as much as you can. This helps to alleviate financial stress, but also can be a good way to remind yourself that you are still living life while being treated for cancer."

Do the things that bring you joy, no matter how small they are.

Little things can make a big difference, especially when you're facing a major health challenge. Dr. Lee suggests regularly scheduling activities that help you relax or make you happy, such as brief exercise(doctor permitting), engaging in spiritual practices, or getting together with friends. Even something as simple as scheduling a spa session or taking regular walks in nature can help you feel more connected to yourself.

For some people living with cancer, finding ways to address how their body is changing can help boost their well-being. That begins with understanding how cancer and cancer treatments can affect you physically and making adjustments. For example, chemo and radiation can cause dry hair, eyebrow loss, dry skin and discoloration, and changes to nails and cuticles. It can also cause side effects that make you feel ill or uncomfortable.

Finding people who can help you manage those side effects and changes is important, which is why Walgreens created their Feel More Like You service. Specially trained beauty consultants and pharmacists work with individuals with cancer to help manage the internal and external changes that they're experiencing, offering individualized guidance and recommendations to help them look and feel their best. The service is available at 3,000 Walgreens locations nationwide —and it's free.

Connect with others — especially others in the cancer community.

Cancer can feel isolating sometimes, but it doesn't have to be. Dr. Lee recommends staying in touch with supportive people and communities while you're going through treatment and recovery. That might include your friends and family, your professional or religious community or local cancer support groups.

Dr. Lee says that others who have cancer can be a great resource as you go through treatment. "Connect with other people with cancer," she says, "especially if they are going through or have been through a similar treatment. Their expert tips and insights can be helpful, validating, and supportive." The Cancer Support Community website has a host of resources for people looking for such connections.

Indulge people's offers to help.

Photo by Emma Frances Logan/Unsplash

Caring for yourself sometimes means letting others care for you. Many people don't know what to do when a friend, family member, or coworker is diagnosed with cancer, but most people truly want to help. Dr. Lee suggests taking people up on their offers.

"If people offer to help, let them help, even if it is something simple like picking up groceries, taking care of your pets or helping to manage childcare," she says. "Not only does it help you, it helps your friends and family feel like they can do something to help you get through this."

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can be physically and emotionally draining, which is why self-care is so important.

There are also millions of people who understand what you're going through and who have the knowledge and skills to help you through your cancer journey. There are loads of people out there who you can call upon all along that journey.

But don't forget to do small things for yourself too. You might be surprised at how a simple thing like a meditation session or a trip to a museum or a new beauty routine can boost your spirits. A person with cancer is a person first and foremost, so as you treat the cancer, make sure you're caring for yourself as well, whatever that means to you.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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