Cancer Treatment

Setting Effective Goals During Cancer Treatment

How goals can empower and motivate you during treatment and beyond.

By Jessica Lawlor

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Next October, 57-year-old Gloria Gayle plans to run the Chicago Marathon.

Completing a marathon is a feat in itself, but what makes Gloria’s goal even more impressive is that just two years ago, she underwent surgery for lung cancer.

Hector Nunez (64) continues to pursue a passion for singing, despite surgery and treatment for tongue cancer.

Gloria and Hector both faced a tremendous hurdle in their lives — and both set their sights on a specific goal to motivate them through the roadblocks.

Racing to the Finish Line

Gloria Gayle, a former smoker, says she “literally got the smoke scared out of her” after a doctor’s office visit where a spot was discovered on her lungs. She stopped smoking.

She waited a few years to take action, but in 2014, a new CT scan revealed the spot had doubled in size. “My doctors gave me the description of a surgery with a 12-week recovery,” Gloria explains. “I was devastated.”

Wanting a second opinion, Gloria landed on Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) at Midwestern Regional Medical Center (Midwestern) in Zion, Illinois. She visited CTCA® on a Wednesday, and the following Monday, underwent surgery there.

“Surgery at CTCA was microscopic, entering through the side of my breast under my arm, rather than my back,” Gloria explains. “I was back to work in less than a week.” Gloria did not need further treatment, and returns to CTCA every six months for scans.

On a follow-up visit, Gloria’s medical oncologist Bruce Gershenhorn, DO, jokingly told her, “You won’t necessarily be running a marathon, but your lungs are in good shape.”

However, Gloria had something else in mind. “I said to him, ‘But I do want to run a marathon!’”

Dr. Gershenhorn responded with encouragement, urging Gloria to train slowly and properly, but affirmed her goal letting her know he believed she could do it.

A military veteran and former runner, Gloria was no stranger to putting in hard work when it came to fitness, but her body was different post-surgery.  “That first year of training was a challenge,” Gloria admits. “My endurance wasn’t the same, but I slowly built myself back up.”

In October Gloria will run the Chicago Marathon with her 14-year-old grandson.

“2018 is my year to do it!” explains Gloria. “It’s a bucket list item for me to signify that even though I went through what I did, it doesn’t have to stop me from doing what I want to do.”

How Setting Goals Can Empower Patients

Carolyn Lammersfeld, MBA, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Vice President of Integrative Medicine at CTCA says there are many reasons for cancer patients to set goals, but at the top of that list is empowerment.

“It’s empowering for patients to participate in their treatment and share their expectations,” explains Lammersfeld. “It can help with motivation from a standpoint of participating in care and help with quality of life and long-term health goals.”

Lammersfeld explains there are many different types of goals, including a patient and care team working together to develop shared goals like minimizing symptoms or continuing to work. Other goals may be set during treatment and into survivorship, implementing lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of recurrence or chronic illnesses. She says patients may also set a personal goal for themselves to reach some type of milestone.

A Desire to Sing Again

Hector Nunez, who comes from a long line of musicians and singers, loves to sing and perform, so when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer in September 2015, in addition to the thoughts of his own mortality, he was concerned whether or not he’d be able sing again.

Following the advice of his primary care physician, Hector and his wife Evelyn consulted with a local surgeon. Having never been in this position before, Hector and Evelyn listened to the surgeon intently and also sought out other resources to become fully informed before making a decision.

Evelyn recalled seeing a CTCA commercial on television, which triggered her to go online to gather more information and eventually call for an appointment. Hector, who is from Chicago, made the short trip to CTCA at Midwestern to meet with oncologists, surgeons and other care team members. Together, he and his team came up with a treatment plan that began with surgery to remove the tumor from his tongue, followed immediately by reconstructive surgery, which would enable him to return to eating, talking and singing.

The 13-hour surgery, which was performed by CTCA otolaryngologist, Carol Bier-Laning, MD, FACS and reconstructive microsurgeon, Daniel Liu, MD was a well-coordinated effort.

“After Dr. Bier-Laning removed the tumor from Hector’s tongue, I was able to transfer a patch of skin from Hector’s left forearm, including tiny blood vessels, to complete the tongue reconstruction,” shared Dr. Liu.

Following the surgery, Dr. Bier-Laning came to visit Hector in the intensive care unit; Hector was awake and alert. “Much to my delight, I was able to speak with her right then and there. She had a huge smile on her face,” says Hector.

After making a full recovery from the surgery, and also undergoing radiation therapy and chemotherapy, in October 2016, Hector received news from his medical oncologist, Evan Pisick, MD, that he showed no evidence of disease.

“I told my goal to all of my doctors at CTCA,” Hector says. “No one ever told me no. They gave me the will to actually get up and do it.” Although Hector’s voice has changed a bit, he has learned to adapt, and considers his abilities a gift from God.

Last year on Mother’s Day, Hector went to church with a secret mission. “No one knew I was going to sing, but I went up to the podium and sang,” he recalls. “It didn’t sound like there was anything wrong with me!”

Hector looks forward to a long life of singing and performing — and reuniting with his old band for their 30th anniversary next year.

Working with Your Care Team

“At CTCA, pretty much everybody on the care team speaks with a patient about their goals,” says Lammersfeld.

Lammersfeld explains that it’s part of the care team’s role to offer a patient accountability and to remind them of why they set a certain goal. She says that goals are re-evaluated at subsequent visits to see how a patient has made progress, supporting them through any struggles or roadblocks and celebrating if they’ve achieved their goal and helping them to set new goals.

Now is the Time to Set Your Own Goals

Goal setting has been key for both Hector and Gloria. “It means you’re not giving up,” Gloria explains.

As you think about your goals for the coming year, consider using these practical strategies to help you find success:

  1. Make sure your goal is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound). For example, instead of setting a goal to eat healthier, make your goal specific by saying, “I want to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day within one month.” Similarly, quantify your goals — for example, shifting “I want to move more” to “I will walk outside three times per week.”
  2. Set short and medium-term goals to achieve long-term goals. Break your big goals into smaller steps to make them more do-able and to create mini-milestones and points for celebration.
  3. Share your goals. It may be beneficial to share your goals with the people in your life to feel more supported. Also feel welcome to share your goals with your care team, as it’s part of their role to help with accountability.

Gloria urges others facing cancer to start setting and working toward goals now. “If there are things you want to do, you need to start planning to do it. Tomorrow is not promised,” she says.

“As long as it is something you can do, then try to do it!”