One of the most important things I discovered early on is the importance of taking care of yourself. Sure, there may be people who reach out to help, if you're lucky. But even if you do have a strong network, it's imperative to know how to be alone with yourself and tap into your own private resources.
Here are some of the most important lessons I've learned:
- Schedule time to think. Everyone copes differently. I have a friend who insisted that she didn't want to ever think about breast cancer again—and that was just a few short months after her diagnosis. But what she perhaps did not realize is this: it's nearly impossible to run away from the knowledge that you had or have breast cancer. Thoughts and reminders will always be around. For me, just glancing at someone's ample cleavage was enough to remind me of the lack of my own. (And unless you're walking around with your eyes closed, ample cleavage is all the rage, whether it is in magazines, on television or in person.) Others will be consumed with worrying around the clock. Neither approach is healthy, of course. Stress has been shown to impact immunity among breast cancer patients so it's best to minimize the amount we expose ourselves to. In a large study, Ohio State researchers reported that the stress women experience after their diagnosis and surgery can weaken their immune response. While you may not always be happy—after all, this is tough stuff—other research has demonstrated that general feelings of happiness and optimism can play a protective role against breast cancer. Try this: Allow yourself 15 minutes a day to think about your fears and concerns—and no more. Yes, it requires discipline to stop your thoughts once time is up, but doing so will free you up to enjoy the rest of your day, unencumbered by unpleasant feelings and memories. Don't want to sit and think? Write it down: short sessions of expressive writing have been shown to positively impact a patient's quality of life. (Source: The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center; http://lombardi.georgetown.edu. Press Release, February 21, 2008; Georgetown University Medical Center.)
- Keep exercising—or start (with your doctor's OK, of course). Exercise is a great diversion and a reaffirmation that you're OK. Many studies have touted exercise's health benefits and strong potential for cancer prevention. Exercise also boosts your serotonin levels, helping you overcome depression and fatigue. During my treatments, I continued my regimen of aerobic classes, bike riding and other activities. I'd play a game of catch with my young sons, swim with them at the local pool and stay as active as I could. So what if I wasn't able to be at my peak performance level? At least I was doing something, and it empowered me to feel as "normal" as possible. Scientists have found that exercise is likely to help fatigue, both of body and mind, related to cancer and its treatments. And if you can get outside to exercise, so much the better. When you are exposed to sunlight, your body produces vitamin D. Dr. Andrew Weil's July 2008 newsletter, Self Healing, cites a study that surveyed 107 countries and found that women living closer to the equator (and were therefore exposed to stronger sunlight year-round) had higher blood levels of vitamin D and lower rates of breast cancer. Another study cited showed a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and increased breast cancer risk. (Of course, use caution when exposed to the sun and remember your sunscreen! To produce adequate levels of vitamin D, you need to expose your skin to about 10 minutes of midday sun daily.)
- Eat your best. Fruits and vegetables, fresh juice and lots of water—that's what is important. I know it's common sense, but when you're in recovery mode, you may not pay attention to this detail. Eating well gave me a feeling of mastery—not to mention, pleasure—that I was doing good things for myself both physically and emotionally. A night out at your favorite restaurant, shopping for fresh ingredients and preparing a wholesome meal puts you back in control. And where possible, I tried (and still do) to eat as organically and purely as supplies and finances allow. Cancer experts recommend a basic, healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats (click here for more information). And since we're talking about eating, don't forget the importance of weight control. Many studies point to the connection between excess weight and breast cancer.
- Inspire yourself. When my chemotherapy ended, spring was just beginning. My hair had started to grow back, and on my walks around the neighborhood, I'd notice all the tiny buds on the trees. The intense signs of life all around me seemed like an extension of my own health. Before my diagnosis, my enjoyment of simple things like the sound and smell of the ocean or the taste of a juicy, ripe peach were not as intense. Still today, I wonder if everyone sees the extreme blue of the sky and hears the same melodic intricate chirpings of the birds as I do.
- Look ahead. It helps to give yourself something to look forward to. It took me a while to figure this one out. When my husband, in his effort to break me out of my funk, tried to plan trips and fun weekends, all I could think was, "Will I be here to do that?" Now, I realize that long-term planning gives you a glimpse into the future and inspires hope. Rather than telling yourself that you won't be there to enjoy the future, tell yourself that you've got to get through each day so that you can take that special trip.
- Find support. While support groups might not be for everyone, many women do find comfort and camaraderie in them. Never the "group" type, I attended a few sessions at a local Y so that I could meet other women going through the same thing. There, I ended up meeting another young woman who would become my closest friend. We broke off from the group and turned to one another for more intimate and personal support. Today, online support is a growing trend. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that women who participated in online support groups expressed more positive physical, psychological and social status than the less active participants. The participants also had the advantage of feeling more energetic, having better relationships with their physicians and having higher perceptions of support from their families (Source: www.brightsurf.com/news/headlines/22659/).
I'm confident that you will find your own special ways of coping with breast cancer. Maybe something I've written about will give you a fresh way of looking at things or even reinforce what you already know.