Is it really possible to thrive in the midst of horrific chemotherapy and mutilating surgeries? I believe it is, but it depends on how you treat yourself during your cancer journey.
When I told people I was on chemo or just had a mastectomy, they were startled and blown away. Invariably they would say things like, “You’re amazing,” “I would have never guessed,” “You’re such an example,” “You glow!” and many more flattering comments. After a while, I started to believe it, and asked myself, “How did this happen?” I was in shock for a while because, as I explained before, being diagnosed with breast cancer plus the BRCA gene mutation was an abundance of lemons I had not requested. However, I learned to make delicious lemonade when I purposed to thrive. I also felt really vital too, so I knew that my journey toward becoming more than a Breast Cancer Survivor, but also a Breast Cancer Thrivor was, in fact, happening. What’s more, this journey was taking place on the inside as well as the outside.
In retrospect, I took impeccable care of myself during my year of cancer treatment. This means both my inner and physical health. As a result, I tolerated very strong chemo, three big surgeries and two smaller ones (a total of fifteen hours of grueling anesthesia!) without a single bad reaction. In other words, my doctors could do what they needed to treat the cancer, and my body held up to the rigorous medical “itinerary.” The result is that, together, we beat the scary statistics and the horrible cancer! My initial not-so-good prognosis now holds a very, very rosy chance for a complete cure!
The side benefit of “The Breast Cancer Year,” as I like to call it, is that I went from an emotional train wreck that was teary, fragile and fearful, to a vital and tranquil woman in the midst of a very dramatic year. I developed powerful self-care habits, and I learned things about myself that serve me as I move into my “Post Breast Cancer” life too. I have more tranquility and vitality than before I was hit with this all too common disease, which astounds me. How is this possible?
Self-Care Lesson #1: Learn to Pace Yourself
First and foremost, I paid attention to my limits of energy and did not exceed them. I’ve never done this before. I’ve always put goals first, and my body and psyche had to “toe the line” in service to the goals. People would best describe me as a nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic, and I was my worst task master. I never needed a boss to keep me from stopping to smell the roses, and unfortunately, I think many of us are like this. Whether it was adding another stop to a list of errands, another patient at the end of a day’s schedule or getting into medical school by getting all A’s throughout college, my life has been lived around a theme of “goals first, rest second.”
Even though I tell patients to do otherwise, I’ve always pushed through stress and fatigue. I’m sure many of you can identify because our society seems to flourish on ambitious holiday gift lists, perfect kids’ birthday parties, an immaculate house in case friends drop in, and the list goes on and on. Sound familiar?
Frankly, I wish I’d learned this self-care skill earlier in life, but at least I’ve learned it now. During chemo or after surgeries, my limits and needs were pretty obvious. At other times though, they aren’t so obvious. What’s really wonderful is that this self-care habit has been practiced enough that I think it’s a new life skill for me now. This lesson made a refreshing glass of lemonade for me, and I continue to thrive because of it.
Self-Care Lesson #2: Make Healthy Choices to Restore and Replenish Vitality
I used my energy and focus for restorative activities to help my body endure the treatments and heal. I exercised regularly as my survivorship physician recommended. I studied and lived by a diet that discouraged the growth of cancer. Because of its impact, I prefer to call it a lifestyle instead of a diet. It’s a Mediterranean Alkaline lifestyle that includes a lot of fresh organic vegetables and whole foods. I wholeheartedly believe this lifestyle can truly influence a person’s health for the better, and I recently published a guide about it that includes a fourteen-day recipe model to get started. A person can’t help but thrive by eating this way!
I also did yoga and made sure that I slept at least eight hours each night. We all know these activities are good for us, yet we don’t take the time to do them. I regularly spent time with friends and outdoors in nature as well.
Self-Care Lesson #3: Understand the Need for Inner Healing
Apart from the physical steps I took, I also dedicated the same focus to my inner being. I meditated to help quiet the cycle of worry that could get going in my mind. When I did this, I would do some positive visual imagery of healing. I spent a lot of time praying too.
Writing and keeping a journal is another area that helped my inner being and allowed me to better process what I was going through. This enabled me to let go of scary thoughts that my mind could ruminate on. I’d write them down in order to let them go. For me, being so ill and facing death also got me to take stock of my life, and there were so many rich insights I wanted to capture just in case I survived. My journal is filled with treasures with which I can look back on and refresh myself.
I protected my inner world too and limited what I allowed in there. This means I limited my activities to things that de-stressed me instead of ones that made me anxious. For example, I read for pleasure, but I was careful about my choice of books. I did not read books or watch movies or television that had too much trauma or drama. In my situation, I felt unusually sensitive, often a little tearful, so I felt the need to protect myself. I noticed that even some of the TV dramas that I used to watch like The Good Wife would make me cry. When they killed off Will Gardner, I felt heavyhearted for far too many days, so I got really careful about TV.
Obviously, my emotional resilience was low and honoring this helped keep me okay and actually gave me the energy to start turning the corner emotionally. It supported my transition from surviving to thriving in the midst of treatment. My husband and family were very supportive of my new perspective, which became the new normal. It’s a kinder and gentler choice of what I give my attention to, and I’ve actually kept it up. As a result, I’m more likely to watch shows like Call the Midwife and nature documentaries, and that’s okay. I’m still healing.
When you are sick, taking good care of yourself is important. But when you are well, it’s important too. Life feels very different when lived at a healthy pace with priority given to activities that replenish and restore you and with limits placed on things that deplete you. It took an avalanche of bad cancer news to get me to finally develop a sensitivity to my limits and needs, including a new openness to being with and sharing with the people in my life. The tempo of my new “Post Breast Cancer” life produces much less adrenaline. I’m also able to live with a deeper sense of what I need to restore and balance the needs of my body and mind. I’m a not just a Breast Cancer Survivor, I’m a Breast Cancer Thrivor.