While I am not quite all the way through this breast cancer journey, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it has got me thinking a lot about how I have coped over the last ten months since I heard those dreaded words – “you have breast cancer”!
Many people over the last few months have praised me or commented on how well I look and how well I’ve bounced back from each of my surgeries. While I hesitate to use the word, my cancer journey seems to have been “easy”, particularly when compared to the experience many other people have.
Before I was diagnosed, I hadn’t had close contact with anyone with breast cancer. All I knew about the process was what I had seen in the media. I imagined it would mean months of treatment, often with that making me much sicker than the disease had made me to date.
My early detection meant I did not require chemo or radiation, but I did still have a bilateral mastectomy. Often I preface that with the word “only”, but I need to remind myself that this is still a fairly major surgery, with repercussions that can last a lifetime, both physically and mentally.
I don’t know exactly why I have had a much easier time of this than others, but here I am sharing some of the things I have done that I believe have helped. Maybe they had a placebo effect, but hey, if it works, who am I to complain! Perhaps they are things you can incorporate into your own journey to make things easier.
(Note – I am not a health professional, I have no actual science behind any of this, it’s just what I did. Check with your own doctors before making any drastic changes for yourself)
I had a fairly good diet even before breast cancer. I had just spend a few months losing a little weight before I was diagnosed. But once I knew I had cancer, I decided to change three things.
- No more meat! – I was not too far from being a vegetarian anyway, but this finally made me stop eating red meat altogether. I had learned that red meat was a category 3 carcinogen, meaning that scientists believe it possibly contributes to cancer. Even if it doesn’t, then I knew there were other health benefits to giving it up. So far I rarely miss it. The only things that I really miss are processed meats, like bacon, salami and smoked salmon. Even if I do choose to start eating meat again, these things are forever off the menu. They are a class 1 carcinogen – on par with smoking.
- No more alcohol! – talking about class 1 carcinogens, did you know alcohol is in that category too? We always associate smoking with cancer, but I was shocked to learn that by drinking we are putting ourselves at the same risk! Alcohol is the thing I miss the most, but it’s the social aspect of it I think I miss. I get around it by taking non-alcoholic wine with me whenever we socialise, so I still have a drink in my hand that I can pretend is alcohol! I expect that I will start drinking again soon. I did say at the beginning that I would abstain until all my treatments were over. My last surgery is booked in, so that isn’t far away. Maybe I’ll celebrate one year since diagnosis with a glass of bubbly. I don’t think I will ever drink as much as I used to (not that I drank a lot, maybe 3-5 glasses of wine a week), just the occasional glass here and there. Many people who are taking Tamoxifen say it makes the side effects worse, and I don’t want to go there.
- No more coffee! – don’t worry, coffee isn’t a carcinogen. I just added it to this list of things on the basis that I was trying to rid my body of toxins to allow it to heal from the surgeries as best as it could.
While I’m by no means a gym junkie or fitness fanatic, I have had a routine over the last few years that has kept me reasonably active. I walk 6km (4miles) every morning I am home, and when we travel I like to hike and climb and do as much active stuff as I can fit in.
I kept this up as much as I could. After both my lumpectomy and exchange surgery I came home from hospital and went for a walk the same day. After my bilateral mastectomy I waited a few days before walking, but by two weeks after my surgery, I was walking the whole 6km each day again.
I firmly believe that the exercise really helped me to recover. It gets the blood pumping through my body to help with healing and to remove the toxins from the anaesthetic. It’s also really good mentally. It means getting outside for some fresh air and sunlight. I usually listen to podcasts while I walk, so it gives me time to think about something other than cancer. It also helps just because I am “doing something”. Laying on the lounge for too long makes me restless and fatigued, and walking seems to give me more energy.
While 6km might sound completely overwhelming to you, remember I was already doing that before my diagnosis. If you were not a regular walking, start by doing what you can manage, even if that’s just going to the letterbox or around the block. Make it a regular thing, and I believe you will only have good results.
I have never been one for motivational speeches, I don’t have sayings on my walls or mantras I repeat, but I am a glass half full person. I always try to find the good in any situation.
In terms of my cancer, the first thing I decided was not to indulge myself in the blame game. I don’t allow myself to think about what caused my cancer. Some people can get really caught up on that, but I think it’s a combination of so many variables and I will never know the answer. So no good can come out of worrying about it or thinking about all the “what if I didn’t…” scenarios. If I find myself thinking like that, I consciously change my thoughts. This has become easier over time, and now it barely crosses my mind.
The other decision I made was to think to the future. There is no point being upset about what has happened, my focus needs to be on what I am going to do about it. I’ve probably shared one of my favourite quotes before, but I will share if again…
“You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you react”
So rather than fall apart, I worked on a plan. I learned everything I needed to know to understand my diagnosis and what sort of treatments were available – google was definitely my friend when it came to the medical jargon! The hardest part for me was the waiting for test results at the beginning, but once I had a plan of action and knew exactly what I was dealing with, things became a lot easier.
I quite regularly mention how thankful I am for various aspects of my journey. I am incredibly thankful for my GP who kept going with my testing even when they seemed to show inconclusive results. I’m thankful my cancer was found very early. I’m thankful I was allowed the treatment option that I wanted, when I wanted it and I didn’t have to worry about waiting lists or insurance issues.
I even joke that I am thankful for cancer, full stop! If it wasn’t for my breast cancer, I would have had two or three international trips lined up and would likely have been a lot poorer thanks to cancelled plans due to Covid! See, a positive can be found in everything!
This one will likely be controversial and I’ve only realised how it has helped me as I have read the stories of others who have not done the same thing.
When I was diagnosed, I told my immediate family, then put a post on Facebook announcing I had breast cancer. Yes, the very same day I found out! I knew straight away I didn’t want to waste energy hiding this or trying to remember who knew and who didn’t. I didn’t want that moment of telling people and seeing their expression to happen over and over.
So many people choose to hide their cancer after diagnosis, perhaps only telling close family members. While it’s definitely a personal choice, I believe hiding it makes you feel shameful and causes more stress. It can also cause issues in relationships if a partner/trusted friend/family member then goes and tells someone else without checking first. It also means your support is limited to only those you tell, you may never find that unexpected angel lurking somewhere in the background.
I have had nothing but an outpouring of support from everyone around me. I’m told that it’s because of my positive attitude that everyone else around me is positive too, but I can reply to that saying those positive responses help my positive attitude. It’s self perpetuating, and a great way to choose to react to breast cancer.
I have found that since my cancer is out in the open, it’s easy for people to approach me and talk about it in real terms too. I have not once felt like I have been pitied. I think it’s fantastic to openly discuss cancer. I don’t feel ashamed, so why should I act like it and hide it?
It’s actually led to some great conversations with unexpected people. It has also allowed me to educate many of the people around me too. I have lost count of how many other women have said they’ve gone out and had a mammogram since my diagnosis. And I love the random “how’re your boobs?” questions from people (usually guys) that then cringe and can’t believe they’ve asked that 🙂
So there you are, the four things I think helped me a lot over the last ten months. I hope you can put some of this to good use yourself. Our mindset plays such a huge role in how we cope with cancer, and I think all of these things help with that.
What have you done that you think has helped? Comment below so other readers can see your suggestions too.
What to learn more about my experiences? Try these posts
- My Bilateral Mastectomy with Tissue Expanders
- What to Take to Hospital for Breast Surgery
- Taking Tamoxifen