October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign that brings attention to a disease that affects the lives of many women. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, excluding skin cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, there are currently 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Even if you haven’t experienced a breast cancer diagnosis personally, chances are you know someone who has — your mother, your aunt, your sister, your daughter, your friend. As a survivor of cancer, it’s important to me to honor the journeys of women battling breast cancer.
In 2013 I was told that I had stage 4 cancer and even with treatment, likely had “a year, maybe less” to live. I underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, a physically and psychologically brutal process. There were moments I thought I would die. There were moments I thought death would be easier.
As hard as it was, having cancer gave me the invaluable gift of learning to separate my feelings from my essence. “I feel tired, and I am strong. I feel scared, and I am fierce. I feel sad, and I am blessed.” I learned that my feelings come and go, but the essence of who I am is unshakable.
Surviving cancer also showed me there are resources out there that can make the difference between surviving and thriving post-cancer. In recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’d like to share some valuable things I’ve learned on my journey.
Find Your People
A breast cancer diagnosis is scary, and treatment can be harrowing. But you don’t have to go through it alone. Even if you’re not usually the type of person to ask for or accept help, now is the time to lean on your loved ones. If someone offers to do something for you, let them.
Looking beyond your immediate circle, you may find great comfort in sharing experiences with people — even strangers — who are in the same boat. Seek out a support group of women who are also surviving and thriving with breast cancer. You can commiserate, cheer each other on, swap breast cancer success stories, and share resources. It can be useful to hear what has or hasn’t worked for someone else in the group. You can search for support programs and services, including free or low-cost resources, in your area here.
Do Some Reading
I love to read and found books to be immensely helpful while going through cancer treatment. A book I turned to again and again was Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, medical director of the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment in Evanston, Illinois. It describes what you can do to support yourself while going through treatment and, perhaps more importantly, how to care for yourself when treatment is done.
I found This Is Cancer: Everything You Need to Know from the Waiting Room to the Bedroom by Laura Haddad to be a wonderfully approachable book. Haddad shares practical advice interwoven with humor and realistic conversations about what life often looks like after the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. She discusses many of the things I wished somebody, anybody, would have talked to me about.
I love The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen 2nd Ed. by renowned chef and friend, Rebecca Katz. It contains a “toolkit” to help you through treatment when eating can be hard because you either feel sick to your stomach, food isn’t going down well, you have mouth sores, or you simply don’t have an appetite. Katz also offers recipes that address treatment side-effects such as fatigue and low blood counts. I’ve given it as a gift to many friends (too many, unfortunately) who are either undergoing treatment or have a family member undergoing cancer treatment.
And finally, I have to mention Pema Chodron and how much her books helped me get through and beyond treatment. My top two favorites are The Places that Scare You and When Things Fall Apart. No question, cancer treatment was scary and it did feel like things were falling apart. These books brought tremendous comfort and allowed me to reframe my thoughts and feelings. They make great gifts for anyone who is going through difficult times.
Consider Complementary Therapy
If you are fortunate enough to have access to integrative practitioners or oncologists, make use of them. They often have a broader way of thinking about treatment and beyond. Be willing to explore other practitioners and practices.
To prepare for radiation and chemo, I made my own music therapy by creating playlists. I practiced breathwork and guided meditation. I had weekly acupuncture sessions when I was going through chemo and radiation. I found that not only did acupuncture ease some of the side effects I was experiencing, it was also incredibly energizing. I also had weekly reiki and massage sessions. My husband always commented on how radiant I looked after receiving my treatments.
Be open to trying things that might help. Look around to see what is available in your area and find what works for you. Seek out these services, and take advantage of them when you can.
Journaling and Gratitude
I know, I know. It’s hard to be grateful when you can’t keep food down and your hair is falling out. I went completely bald and yes, I wore a wig for about a year until it had grown back some. But I’ve been journaling for years because I learned long ago that taking time before bed to write down one positive thing from the day was good for my mental health. Whether it was the kindness of the radiology tech, the smile from a stranger as I waited for chemo, my husband holding my hand in the car, my Shepherds greeting me gently as if they knew I was more fragile; a love note from my son or daughter, or just not throwing up that day – journaling helped me get through the hard times by reminding me to look for the beautiful. The cover of my journal says, “All Good Things are Wild and Free.” It sets a tone for me. Pick up a journal that sings to you and give it a try.
Find Your Inner Warrior
To all my sisters who are dealing with (or watching a loved one deal with) breast cancer, other cancer, or severe illness — I see you, and I honor your journey. I hope these tips, gathered from my own experience surviving and thriving with cancer, will serve as guideposts on your path. You are warrior goddesses, every one of you.