With more than two million new cases of cancer expected in 2024, a Florida physician who survived the disease wants to help others navigate the terrain of a life-changing diagnosis.
Dr. Chris Scuderi, who practices at Millennium Physician Group in Jacksonville, was diagnosed with bladder cancer in Nov. 2020 — at the end of a challenging year amid the COVID pandemic.
“My diagnosis came as a great surprise because I was in my mid-40s, had no family history, worked out almost every day and overall ate a very healthy diet,” Scuderi told Fox News Digital in an interview.
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Scuderi had none of the risk factors or typical symptoms normally associated with bladder cancer.
“I thought I had food poisoning,” he said.
He underwent surgery a week after the diagnosis and then completed a year’s worth of chemotherapy specifically targeted for bladder cancer.
Today, Scuderi is healthy and cancer-free. He’s made some lifestyle changes, including putting a greater emphasis on eating more plant-based foods and getting regular exercise.
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“Stress, overwork and irregular sleep were areas of my life I had to address as a physician, husband and father,” he said.
“Over the past two years, I have been using a fitness tracker to closely monitor my sleep, stress levels and recovery each day, and use this objective data to prioritize my rest.”
Each patient’s emotional reaction will be different, Scuderi noted.
“The first few weeks can bring up a lot of emotions, and the unknown is extremely scary,” he said.
“You don’t know what treatment options you will have or how this will affect your life or your family members’ lives. You don’t know how this will affect your work or future plans.”
“There’s a lot to process, and it feels like your life is stopping while the rest of the world is moving forward.”
Some patients may feel grief over the loss of their health, and the abandonment of plans that must be put on hold, the doctor noted. This can also cause feelings of anger.
Denial is also a common response, as many patients resist the reality of their lives changing.
“The first few weeks can bring up a lot of emotions, and the unknown is extremely scary.”
Anxiety and fear are also typical emotions, Scuderi said, as any cancer diagnosis sparks feelings of uncertainty and unease.
“Talking with your health care team about the diagnosis, including how you feel about it and the plan for treatment and any next steps, is helpful in relieving some of that anxiety,” he said.
“It’s also common to wonder, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ or ‘Did I do something to cause this?’” the doctor added.
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“Patients may have conflicting emotions — like shock, sadness, peace, hope and fear — all at the same time. Knowing you have people on your side and a plan in place makes all the difference.”
Erin Gratsch, an Ohio mother and fitness instructor who received two breast cancer diagnoses — first in 2016, then again in 2022 — also experienced a wide range of emotions, she told Fox News Digital.
The first was shock. “How did this happen to me?”
Next was guilt. “What did I do? Could I have done something to cause or prevent this?”
Anger was another prevalent emotion, especially when Gratsch’s second diagnosis arrived.
“I remember throwing my end table across the family room and it broke into pieces,” she said.
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Gratsch also experienced worry and depression, thinking things like, “Will I die? I don’t want to go through radiation or chemo. How will I pay my bills and work? I don’t want to be a burden to my family. I want to live to become a grandparent.”
Then came survival mode and hope — when Gratsch shifted her outlook to, “OK, what do I have to do to beat this?”
A big shift in perspective
Gratitude plays a big role in Scuderi’s daily routine, he said.
“Before I fall asleep, I identify three things I am grateful for specifically from that day, as I have realized now more than ever that each day is a gift,” he said.
“Many studies show how powerful gratitude is for our health, and it is easy at our current pace to miss many of the great moments and connections we had during our day if we don’t take time to reflect on them.”
Scuderi has spent more time with his family and friends since his diagnosis, prioritizing travel and experiences.
To celebrate the end of his cancer treatments, he hiked the last 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago with a group of good friends.
“I identify three things I am grateful for specifically from that day.”
“Cancer changes your perspective,” he said. “Getting through a diagnosis and treatment really helps you see what is truly important. It also helped to renew the power of choice in my life.”
Scuderi’s triumph over cancer has also strengthened his belief in the importance of encouragement.
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“There were many people who kept me up during my diagnosis, surgery and treatments,” he told Fox News Digital. “It has since become a mission of mine to encourage others.”
He also emphasized that growth even post-cancer is not linear. “It is sometimes two steps forward and one step back.”
Tips for dealing with post-diagnosis emotions
For those who have just received a diagnosis, Scuderi and Gratsch offer tips for navigating those first days and weeks.
Communicate with your care team
“Talking with your family physician, oncologist and other members of your treatment team will be helpful in managing any anxiety and uncertainty around the diagnosis and fear of what’s next,” said Scuderi.
“Many patients notice their stress lessens when they know what they need to do, and how to take back control of their health.”
In Scuderi’s case, the urologist who led his care has been “a huge part” of this journey.
“It is important to have a team that you can communicate well with and trust,” he added.
Getting a professional second opinion can also help patients feel they’re making the most informed decisions in their care, Gratsch said.
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“This gives the patient confidence that they are making the right decisions knowing both doctors are recommending the same plan,” she said. “Also, you may get additional advice or information from the second doctor that you didn’t get from the first.”
Build a non-medical support team
In addition to talking with your treatment team, Scuderi said it’s essential to have a support team of loved ones who can help you along the path from diagnosis to treatment and recovery.
“Don’t be afraid to lean on them when you need extra support,” he said. “It’s OK to be honest — a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming no matter what, and sharing your fears with others can lighten the mental toll so you can put all your energy toward your recovery.”
Gratsch echoed the advice to allow others to take care of you.
“Take advantage of local resources,” she said. “Social workers, hospitals and oncology offices can refer patients for help with financial support, emotional support groups, rides to treatment and meals.”
Keep up with physical exercise as much as possible
“You may not be able to exercise as intensely as you did previously, but a 20- to 30-minute walk is a great way to relieve stress and feel better,” Scuderi said.
“Being outside when possible may also have benefits to improve our immune systems. Talk with your team about which exercises are best for you.”
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Over the course of her cancer journey — through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation — Gratsch, an avid runner, maintained about five marathons per year.
“Cancer takes a lot from you — but running and exercising was one thing I could do to feel good about myself,” she said.
Continue doing things you enjoy
Pursuing enjoyable hobbies and activities will help to maintain a sense of routine and keep your spirits up, Scuderi said.
“Sometimes patients with serious illnesses can become depressed due to the emotional toll of cancer, chemotherapy and being in hospital settings, so staying close to your hobbies and loved ones will help reduce these feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” he said.
Focus on the present day
“It’s so important to stay in each day and not get caught up in worrying too much about tomorrow or living in the regret of yesterday,” Scuderi said.
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“Cancer recovery takes a lot of energy — and my patients who do their best to be present in each day seem to do better.”
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