Healthy Living How to Cope - Survivor Change Your Lifestyle, Change Your Life

5 Steps for Creating Successful, Sustainable Change after a Cancer Diagnosis

man with crossed armsHearing the words, “You have cancer,” marks a moment where everything changes in an instant. But diagnosis is just the beginning of an extended cycle of constant and uninvited change. 

It’s common for people to believe that change is hard. We often resist change with every fiber of our being. Yet, so many of the recommendations for cancer survivors on how to improve quality of life, treatment outcomes, and overall well-being come in the form of having to make changes – to create new, healthier habits. Articles in healthcare magazines like this one point out the importance of regular physical activity. Healthcare professionals hand out information sheets on making better nutritional choices. Phone apps offer mindfulness and meditation training to reduce stress. There’s no denying that access to information on healthy habits is readily available, yet many survivors struggle to implement these lifestyle changes even though they understand the inherent benefits. 

So, why don’t I do what I know is good for me?

Let me tell you a story. In 2011, I attended my first survivorship conference as a lifestyle coach. At one point, I found myself in a room with leading oncology experts who were lamenting the fact that so few of their patients were implementing their recommendations for improved health and well-being. This made me curious. Why, I wondered, do we not do things we know can benefit our health and well-being? What stops us from taking action when, intellectually and logically, we know that it’s in our best interest?

Often, people will blame themselves for not being able to follow “doctor’s orders” and, sometimes, may even be chided by their providers. To answer the question of why this happens, we must first gain a better understanding of the behavior change process.
When people are under a high degree of stress, especially the kind of chronic stress cancer survivors face, their ability to access the executive function part of their brain – you know, the part that helps us change our behaviors – is limited.What if behavior change isn’t about willpower?

Did you know that there’s a specific part of the brain that is involved in the process of behavior change? It’s called executive function. One of its main jobs is to help us observe and change our behaviors. 

A common limiting belief people have is that willpower is the defining factor that determines whether someone will create a new, healthy habit. People often cite a lack of willpower if they’re unable to follow through on their healthy lifestyle goals. However, the real perpetrator may just be stress. When people are under a high degree of stress, especially the kind of chronic stress cancer survivors face, their ability to access the executive function part of their brain – you know, the part that helps us change our behaviors – is limited. And, to make matters worse, most people have never been taught how to make behavior changes that will stick over time. 

I have a proven formula for creating successful, sustainable change that I use with my clients, and in my own life as well. Let me fill you in.

Creating Successful, Sustainable Change – A Five-Step Formula 

1. Focus first on reducing stress. Pay attention to noticing when your stress is increasing. And be ready with one action you can take to reduce it. 

2. Take it one habit – and one week – at a time. Choose one healthy change you’d like to make, and commit to adding it to your routine for the next seven days.

3. Use your calendar. Make a date with your health. If you’re adding in more physical activity, schedule it. If you’re choosing to eat one healthy meal per day, make a note of which meal it will be each day, and plan out your menu so you can be sure you have the ingredients you need.

4. Find a buddy. When we’re beginning to build new behavior muscles, having someone else to hold us accountable increases our ability to stick to our plan. Positive social support also reduces stress and helps people feel more connected and less isolated.

5. Evaluate your results. At the end of the week, check in with yourself and take note of how often you were able to stick to your plan. Don’t judge yourself if you got off track. Instead, think about what may have contributed to you not following through. Then, think of some ways you can break through that obstacle next time. Notice how you felt during the times you were successful. Perhaps you felt more energized, or more confident of your ability to make changes.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

Tweak your plan from week one as needed, and do it again for week two. Keep at it until you’re consistently seeing success. Celebrate how well you did, and acknowledge that you were able to make changes. Then, you can work on another new habit.

When you have a plan and a process, you’ll be much better equipped to embrace the changes you’re trying to make and to self-manage your care and well-being. Being successful with adding in healthy behaviors and reducing stress is empowering. It builds resiliency and self-confidence.

Which path will you choose?

When everything changes, you have two pathways in front of you. You can choose to give in and give up. However, you should know that doing so can lead to isolation, sadness, depression, and other unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

Or, you can ask yourself, Given the circumstances, where am I able to make changes that will improve my quality of life and my health? And then you can start doing those things. 

Be patient with yourself – tackle one change at a time. Be loving toward yourself – observe and learn; don’t judge yourself too harshly on those days when you don’t reach your goal. Be curious – about what’s possible if you’re willing to make changes to create greater well-being in your life, even with all you’ve been through. No one chooses a cancer diagnosis, but you can choose who you will become after one.


Tambre LeighnTambre Leighn is a certified professional coach and behavior change expert. Through her coaching and training company, Well Beyond Ordinary, she helps healthcare organizations improve not only patient adherence but also the well-being of healthcare professionals. Her programs focus on stress reduction, building resiliency, high performance through well-being, and innovative approaches to patient education that improve quality of life. She regularly blogs at WellBeyondOrdinary.com and is a contributing writer for the grief recovery website OpenToHope.com. You can follow Tambre on Twitter at @tambreleighn.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2018.