I was about 13 years old. I heard that she had cancer and I went to the hospital to visit her. Her name was Sister Pat, and she was my former principal and my favorite teacher from elementary school. I don’t think she had reached her fortieth birthday. I was too young and uninformed to ask about any of the details. However what stuck with me and I remember so many years later is that on her dying bed her lament was she wished she had more time. There was so much more she wanted to do.
That encounter cemented my career choice. I was going to be a medical doctor, a career I felt drawn to since the age of 7 but wavered a bit during my early adolescent years. I like so many others before wanted to find a cure for cancer, so Sister Pat and others like her would have more time and not have their life span amputated by this deadly disease.
In the past few years, I have become aware of an area of medicine that could do just that, give people more time. Thanks to medical advances there are procedures and medication that can, but this one is different. This treatment is safe and is essentially risk-free. It is lifestyle medicine. Its message is simple, improve your health by your lifestyle choices such as eating healthily, (increasing fruits and vegetables and other plant based food and reducing animal fat), exercising regularly, not smoking or abusing alcohol, building healthy relationships, actively taking steps to reduce stress and ensuring that you get adequate sleep.
This may sometimes mean making choices that seem difficult at first. For example, foregoing food that you initially enjoyed and finding healthy substitutes, spending a little time in the mornings or evenings to take a walk or climbing some extra steps in your day, deferring a TV show to get to bed earlier or spending an extra 10 to 15 minutes per day in meditation or prayer.
I had a conversation with someone regarding making healthy choices, and the person remarked that they would die anyway. The question is this: D you want to cheat yourself of any of the extra time you may have had? If not yourself, how about your loved ones? Another question, how do you want your years to be? If you had a choice would you not choose to be healthy in as many of those living years as possible?
A few years ago a patient came to see me. I always enjoyed her office visits and her vibrant personality. This time she was down and under a great deal of stress because her father was losing his battle with cancer. He was only in his 70s. She felt cheated because throughout his life her father had adhered to a healthy lifestyle. He exercised. He didn’t smoke. He was a vegetarian. How come he and not others who had smoked and abused alcohol?
However, she revealed something else about her father. On more than one occasion the doctors told the family to say their goodbyes. He had a surgery with only a 20 percent chance of survival. He pulled through. He became gravely ill after chemo, but he survived. He was able to live to see another birthday. She remarked that he had a strong fighting spirit. I realized something else as she shared with me. The reason that her father had outlived the expectations was likely because he took such good care of his body. Yes, it is unfortunate that he was not spared this terrible disease and I am not pretending that a healthy lifestyle will guard against all medical ills. But his lifestyle gave his family a tremendous gift, perhaps the most valuable gift that any child can receive from a parent: more time.
Monique Rainford is an obstetrician-gynecologist.
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