Episode 21: The power of lifestyle changes and the combination of distraction + mindfulness to surpass median survival stats from a 22-year indolent cancer patient

Our guest this week has lived with a slow growing, incurable cancer for the past two decades. She tells us about how she has modified her lifestyle using nutrition as well as a combination of distraction and mindfulness to grapple with the mental challenges of uncertainty. She talks about the idea of “median survival statistics” and how a powerful essay by Stephen J. Gould helped her see those stats in a different light. She also discusses the evolution of treatment and imaging over her 22 years as a patient, and the powerful scientific progress that has been made during that time.

  • Getting treated for 20+ years.

    The unique nature of indolent (slow growing) cancer and living as a patient for +20 years and the evolution of treatment and imaging in her cancer over the past 21 years

  • Uncertainty and median survival rates.

    Examining median survival stats and Stephen Gould’s paper “The Median Isn’t the Message.” Grappling with uncertainty using Distraction + Mindfulness.

  • Nutrition as a too.

    Nutrition modifications and the shift to a plant-based diet. Staying on course for over 20 years.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

About our guest

Rowan Carlson is an aquatic ecologist who was diagnosed in 2001 with an incurable form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that requires repeated treatment. Thanks to her doctors who carefully timed her treatments and family and friends who supported her in a myriad of different ways, she continued teaching at the college level and conducting research abroad through 2019. Now retired from teaching, she gardens episodically, hikes daily, demonstrates monthly for climate action, and habitually writes scientific papers.

Watch the video of our episode: Conversation with a 22-year indolent cancer patient on the power of lifestyle changes and the combination of distraction + mindfulness to surpass median survival stats

  • 7 minutes 50 seconds

    I heard a nutritionist speaking to a group of cancer patients at a local wellness center. And I found that what she was recommending was so different from the way I ate that I thought it was radical. So I made appointments with two other nutritionists specializing in cancer patients, and all three of them were advocating the same healthful diet. They were advocating a plant-based diet avoiding red meat and processed meat and filling your plate with vegetables.

  • 15 minutes 35 seconds

    There’s a very powerful essay written by a famous biologist, Stephen J. Gould, and the title of that essay is “The Median Isn’t the Message.” He was prompted to write this essay because he had just been diagnosed with a very rare form of GI cancer, and he quickly dug up a medical paper and learned that the median survivorship of this cancer was 8 months. The essay describes how he dealt with this. He convinced himself  that he would live longer than that, and most people do live longer than the median. He lived for another 20 years and died from a different type of cancer.

  • 17 minutes 24 seconds

    What has really helped me since that first year after my diagnosis are two things. One is distraction. I distract myself by keeping very busy on projects that are larger than myself, for instance writing scientific papers and more recently working with three climate action groups. I find this work very fulfilling, and it does distract me, but you can keep yourself too busy and that can rob you of time with family and friends, which is also important, so I try to balance distraction with something called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the idea of living in the moment, and it’s been very helpful for me.


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