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Healthy choices?

Donna Davenport reveals how a cancer diagnosis within her family forced her to reflect on what is important in life, and how this relates to helping patients lead a healthier lifestyle ...

Sometimes in life events make us take stock and reflect on what our beliefs are and what is important to us. As a nurse, I have always strived to encourage patients and their families to live healthy lifestyles based on my own values and principles, as well as knowledge of research and evidence that certain things are “good” for us and other things are “bad”.

We know that by being healthy and making healthy choices we can prevent ill health and increase longevity, and, more importantly, expect improved quality of life in old age.

However, this knowledge and belief was severely challenged recently when two members of my family were diagnosed with cancer. Both these people, women in middle age, have led the healthiest lifestyles I can think of.

They don't smoke, they eat healthy, well-balanced diets and are not overweight, take regular exercise, and drink moderate amounts of alcohol. So what went wrong and how do we explain to our patients that being healthy is the key to preventing ill health in the future?

We know that some people will get cancer and some won't, despite their lifestyles. But how do we motivate people to make lifestyle changes if they cannot see the benefits? A recent newspaper article in the Daily Mail reported the story of a 102-year-old lady who had decided to give up smoking after 95 years. Why hadn't she got cancer?

While she had reached a grand old age, I wondered how many years she had felt “well” and how many years she had suffered ill health as a result of smoking. She had ultimately given up smoking because of the cost and the smoking ban, and not because it was good for her health.

As healthcare professionals we have a responsibility and public health role to encourage healthy lifestyle choices using brief interventions. Evidence demonstrates that brief interventions work, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines provide us with a framework that can be applied to all health education activities.

Even changing the behaviour of one person may result in their life being improved in some way, whether it's being able to participate in an activity with their children for the first time or do something they have previously felt too self-conscious about or embarrassed or even too frightened because of what people might say.

Ill health can have a profound effect upon people and their families, mentally, physically and spiritually. While we often focus on the physical aspects of ill health as healthcare professionals, it is vital that we also consider mental wellbeing. When someone has been fit and healthy, and lived an independent life, to suddenly be incapacitated and restricted can be immensely stressful.

The effects of this upon people who do not have a supportive network of family and friends can be enormous.

As primary care nurses it is important to consider this when asking patients how they feel, particularly the elderly who may live alone and have no close relatives. Isolation, as we know, can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing and result in crisis for the individuals involved.

So next time you ask a patient or their carer how they are feeling, don't just focus on the physical aspects and you may find they really open up to you. Here is where you can make a difference! This blog is dedicated to two amazing women!