Five Important Things Breast Cancer Survivors Can Do Today to Immediately Improve Mental Health
When I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in August 2016, I was already struggling. I had a high-pressure, full-time job. I had five kids ranging in ages and stages from 3 to 25. My marriage was going through a tough time. I was overweight, over-stressed and felt like I was taking care of everything and nothing at the same time. I certainly wasn’t prioritizing me or my health in any meaningful way. All of that, every bit of it, came to a screeching halt on August 22nd when my gynecologist, who was the first doctor I reached out to when I felt the lump in my right breast, called me to confirm what I already knew in my heart: my breast biopsy came back positive for cancer.
Did I mention I was a bit stressed out? If my lack of healthy coping skills at the time of my diagnosis were any indicator, cancer treatment and recovery were going to be a rough ride. Although I didn’t know it then, the American Psychological Association reports that a breast cancer diagnosis can severely impair a woman's psychological functioning, which in turn can jeopardize her physical health. Women who are already experiencing anxiety and depression when cancer shows up in their lives may find coping with the diagnosis and ensuing treatment even more challenging.
What to do? I’m not a mental health professional, but I am a breast cancer survivor. (Still working on the thriving piece, sisters.) I didn’t see a therapist or counselor during treatment, but I did see someone immediately after I finished. She was wonderful and helped me take the first post-treatment baby steps towards a new “normal.” Here are five things I did during the 9 months from diagnosis to my final treatment that helped me during my breast cancer journey:
1. Shook my fist and felt the feels. Many well intentioned friends and loved ones offered advice and encouragement after my diagnosis. “Stay positive!” “You can beat this!” “You have to fight!” I mostly nodded and smiled in response. But in private, for almost all of those first few weeks after I got the results of my biopsy, I bounced from angry, to devastated, to calm and back to angry. I had a three year old son at the time. I shook my fist at the heavens at least once a day screamed at God, hurling questions like, “Really? Seriously, God? WTF? Why me? What’s going to happen to my kids? To my baby?” At some point, I stopped being polite when folks offered encouragement or told me not to “be negative.” Instead, I’d say “Don’t tell me how to feel or what to say!” Or something equally obnoxious. I (finally) gave myself the space and permission to let all the fear, worry, anger and sadness OUT. Expressing those emotions and feeling them, rather than avoiding them, helped me cope and feel more in control of an experience that I had almost zero control over.
2. Treatment plan. I found my oncologist and made an appointment to see her within a month of my diagnosis. I wanted to know everything. What kind of breast cancer did I have? Had it spread? What treatment is recommended for my cancer? How soon could I start? For me, knowing and facing the facts was scary, but necessary. My dad used to say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” While I didn’t dive too deeply into worst case scenarios with my oncologist, knowing the prognosis, treatment plan and timeline gave me comfort. I am action oriented. I realize that’s a trick I play on my mind to make me feel more in control – see a pattern here? -- having all the information helped ground me. Knowing my treatment plan, I could hand that worry over to my medical team, and ask myself: How do I want to experience cancer?
3. Community. I have a good friend who is a breast cancer survivor. She is one of the first people I called after I was diagnosed. She encouraged me and held a safe space for me where I could go to cry, scream and laugh. All of which I did with great regularity during the 9 months of treatment. While all are welcome in my circle, during treatment I was choosy about the kind of energy I exposed myself to. Another survivor I spoke to right before my bilateral mastectomy told me how awful the whole experience had been for her and how helpless she was for weeks after surgery. Cue panic and anxiety here. If you know anything about me, you know how much I pride myself on being independent and in control. Especially of my own body. So beware of who you interact with when you’re battling the BC. About two months into treatment I got involved with a fantastic organization called “Day of Caring for Breast Cancer Awareness.” From the website, “it’s a day when those concerned about breast cancer can come together for an educational experience where researchers, doctors and other experts lead workshops on nutrition, alternative therapies, the latest innovations in chemotherapy and surgical treatments.” Not only did volunteering with Day of Caring give me a renewed sense of purpose and peace, it also introduced me to a community of bad-ass breast cancer survivors of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors and stages. We loved on and listened to and supported each other while we prepared to stage this amazing educational, empowering breast cancer awareness event that culminated with a lunch and survivor fashion show. I got to model in the fashion show that year! I could be at my breast cancer best or worst in this group, without judgment or pressure. And I had a blast during a time when I could have rightfully spent several months in the fetal position.
4. Exercised. I write the next sentence without a smidge of self-righteousness or superiority: I hired, and regularly exercised with, a personal trainer during chemo, radiation and post-surgery. Years ago, when my dad battled lung cancer, he took daily walks and even lifted some light weights. It made him feel better and less fatigued, despite harsh chemo treatments. I told myself then that someday I was going to help other cancer patients know the benefits of exercise. But my dad passed away less than a year after his diagnosis and I didn’t think about it again. Until August 2016. And in that serendipitous way that the universe works, I found Stephanie. Her daughter and my youngest are in the same class at school. She’s an exercise physiologist, wife, mom of two and, at the time, was offering personal training sessions from her home. She lived within walking distance of my house and, remembering my dad’s positive experience, I signed up! She read up on exercise-during-cancer and found several encouraging articles that helped her personalize my sessions. I couldn’t have made it through all my treatment, including surgery, without her support and encouragement. I also signed up for and ran a half marathon three weeks after I had my last round of chemo and a few days before my bilateral mastectomy. Working with a trainer and running (ok, crawling) a half marathon helped me feel stronger and more positive about my treatment outcome.
5. Asked for help. This step was the hardest. Even harder than being diagnosed and getting treated. I HATE asking for help, including from members of my immediate family. But from the get go my kids, sisters, mom, all the in laws, friends and my community rallied around me and my husband. My sisters threw me a prayer party, emphasis on the word party. My brothers in law took turns covering my high school carpool shifts. There were meal trains and prayer groups and inspirational texts. My sisters in law helped with the kids, visited, checked in on my husband. There were also times when I was home alone, not feeling well, but not wanting to “bother” anyone to come keep me company. I eventually got over it and called on family and friends to just sit with me during those times. I learned how to bead thanks to another good friend who spent an afternoon with me. Knowing that my family and I weren’t in this alone was the greatest gift. And learning to reach out and ask for help with meals, kids’ homework and housekeeping was humbling and instructive. I am not an island. Nor do I need to be. People want to help. Your friends and family often feel helpless in the face of your diagnosis, too. Helping you gives them the chance to contribute to your well-being and recovery. Ask and allow became my motto.
These are my five. Your five may be quite different and that is ok! The point is to make time and space on your cancer journey to ask yourself how you want to experience cancer. Do the things that give you energy and bring you peace. Surround yourself with people who want the best for you and express those things freely and positively. Allow yourself to feel ALL the feelings. Reach out for help, whether from family, friends, community and/or a mental health professional. Give yourself a fighting chance.