Taking Charge of Your Health

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I’m a cancer survivor. When I was first diagnosed in 2004, I was given 6 months to live. The type of cancer I had was inflammatory breast disease. At the time, 85% of those diagnosed were dead within 18 months.

What do you do when you are given a diagnosis of death?

You make a choice. I chose to live.

This seems like a simple act of will, but it’s not. It’s hard work, or at least it was in my case. I did a lot of research. It was harder back then since the internet was not as comprehensive. I actually had to go to the library sometimes to access journal articles.

I read the science. I asked questions. I changed my lifestyle.

I butted heads with doctors at times. They knew what I should do, after all. However, blindly following their advice did not empower me. Making my own choices did.

I must have been doing something right because I am still alive.

Recently, I’ve been fighting off metastatic lung, brain, and liver cancer. I think I can beat it again. In the interim, I am trying to fit joy into my life. Let’s be real, my prognosis is factually not great. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t beat the odds. I’ve tried to prepare for the worst without giving in to despair.

Part of what makes this difficult is the pandemic.

Many of the things that used to give me joy and emotional support have been cancelled. Friends and I had planned a celebration for my mother’s 80th birthday, for example. It never happened because we couldn’t risk exposing her or people we loved.

COVID has caused disruptions, pain and grief.

Now we are hearing conflicting advice. Do we quarantine for 5 days now? Or stick with 10–14 days? Do we double mask? Or are only N95 masks good enough?

Since the start of this pandemic, I’ve done my own research and I’ve followed some of the advice given but not all of it. However, I want to make something very clear — it is never OK to put other people in danger.

For example, due to lung cancer, I have a hard time being masked. My oxygen saturation levels fall to dangerous levels if I wear a mask for more than a few minutes. This was tested and proven at my oncologist’s office. When I go to the hospital, I ask for an oxygen tank so I can wear a mask safely, and I avoid public places.

I do get together with friends but make sure they know about my issues with masks.

This allows them to make the choices that are best for them. If they need to avoid physical contact in order to protect themselves — I applaud them for making the decision they think best keeps them safe.

I have friends who have made different decisions — I live in a red state so there are people who have chosen not to get vaccinated or wear masks. I also know people who are scrupulous about these things. I have friends who got the booster as soon as it was available and who never meet friends unless it is outdoors, socially distanced and masked.

If you are concerned about COVID — good. It is serious and people have died. However, panic is not productive.

It’s important to think for yourself and do your own research. It’s also important to filter out the hype, whatever side of the political spectrum it comes from.

For example, there are people who believe Ivermectin is the panacea to cure COVID. However, if you actually look up research that has been done — there is no clinical evidence to support this. However, it is also not fair to call a drug that has been used for decades to fight parasites in human beings merely a horse de-wormer.

Ivermectin is a useful medication that has been successfully prescribed to many people — to treat parasites.

If someone has COVID and takes a normal human-sized dose of the human-grade pharmaceutical, it’s unlikely to have bad side effects, but there is no credible research to suggest it would help. At least, this is what I’ve found based on my own reading. But I’m not a doctor.

The best thing to do if you want good medical advice — talk to an actual medical professional! When did this become controversial?

Another thing I’ve found bizarre through the pandemic — people are asked to mask, yet, for example, they will take off their masks indoors in a restaurant while eating. Yet they need to put the mask back on when they get up to use the bathroom. They will talk to their server without a mask, yet will put it on to enter or leave the premises. I am not sure this makes any rational sense?

So what should you do if you want to fight off a disease, whether it’s cancer or COVID?

Don’t panic. Avoid the hype and fear-porn.

Do talk to your doctor. Ask questions. If your doctor is not willing to engage, find a better one. Respect your physician’s expertise while insisting on understanding for yourself.

Realize that medical recommendations can change as research brings new knowledge to light.

Be open to new therapies but verify carefully before trying. Don’t assume what is best for you is necessarily best for others. Allow friends to disagree while protecting yourself and others. Try to model calm and compassion no matter how crazy things get.




Cancer survivor, artist, writer, engineer. Grew up in NYC, living in Austin. Love animals, books, hikes, art, travel, D&D and fireworks.

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Shefali O'Hara

Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, artist, writer, engineer. Grew up in NYC, living in Austin. Love animals, books, hikes, art, travel, D&D and fireworks.

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