At one point toward the end of my treatment for Stage 2A breast cancer, someone told me, “One day you are going to look back at all this and realize your were given a gift.”
“Some gift, I thought to myself: cancer, chemo brain, hair loss, exhaustion, fear. Really!”
What my friend meant but did not manage to express accurately is that my cancer diagnosis was a wake up call to take back my life. The “gift’ was learning how to take better care of myself.
The Individual Journey
There are many roads that lead to a cancer diagnosis, and it is an individual journey for each patient. That said, it has been documented over and over that certain factors can contribute to cancer and, for cancer patients, a potential reoccurrence. These are: diet, weight, exercise, smoking and stress- all lifestyle choices we make and can learn to manage.
Some, like smoking, you just need to give up. Others, like diet and exercise you need to ramp up. Stress and weight need to be monitored and managed since those can be variables that can change as life throws you curveballs.
My cancer diagnosis just after my 50th birthday, like millions of others, came as a sharp punch in the chest that took my breath away. I asked myself, “How did this happen to me?” I blamed it on too much stress, my peri-menopausal weight gain, not having children, taking birth control pills for over three decades. I immediately went into “fighter mode’ determined to beat the disease and beat down any potential recurrence. No time to feel sorry for myself. When cancer kicks in, every day matters more than you ever realize, and there is no time for a pity party.
The first thing I did was prep my body for what I knew would be a surgical and drug induced invasion. I consulted a nutritionist to prepare for my bilateral mastectomy. I met with my internist to have a complete physical workup to check my heart and blood. I met with my dentist to check my teeth and gums. I had a colonoscopy and a bone density test. I joined a gym and vowed to exercise daily when I could mixing up cardio, weight lifting and core work to strengthen my body. This was both my defense and my offense.
I truly believe that being vigilant about my diet and exercise helped me through what ended up being four surgeries, five months of chemotherapy and a year of breast reconstruction. Even at my most tired, a little bit of movement, walking, reclining stationary bike or just stretching, kept my energy level up, my anxiety level down and my mind focused.
The diet was pretty simple and one we should embrace every day of our lives: Greens, grains, fresh fruit, lean protein. Small portions and no skipping meals. No fatty food, no sugar, no processed food. A cancer patient’s palate and constitution will change during treatment. At each stage and for each new drug, I spoke with my nutritionist at Memorial Sloan Kettering and asked her what foods needed to be avoided. One medication meant no soy or green tea. Another meant no pomegranates. I developed a distinct dislike- sight and smell- for certain animal products: pork, beef- any red meat. To this day I still cannot eat red meat. The sight and taste of cranberry juice which so resembled the red drug Adriamycin, turned my stomach and tasted metallic. I craved fresh fruit and steamed spinach. These days I maintain a diet that I call, “no meat, less wheat, less sweet.” I have kept the weight off which is important for the cancer survivor.
The great thing about maintaining a good diet and daily physical movement is that it helps the stress hormones whirling around your system calm down. The more I exercised the calmer I felt. To this day, three years after my diagnosis, if a flicker of stress starts heating up my anxiety I get up and take a walk, do jumping jacks or start doing ballet plies. It can look kind of funny to observers but, hey, it works!
I think it is important to keep a cancer journal documenting each step of treatment, how you feel, what you can or cannot eat and what you do. Looking back at my cancer journal I am glad I documented my “year of living chemically and surgically.” It is a gift in a sense because it reminds me how fragile life is and how important taking care of yourself matters at every stage of it.