After Breast Cancer: The Comparison Trap

I think it goes without saying that comparisons are bad news. When we cross the line and measure the merits of our achievements against someone else’s, it undermines our sense of accomplishment. The fact is that there will always be someone who is prettier than we are, more successful, and in what we perceive as an overall better position. Yep, there will always be someone who has achieved more. Does it really matter where we fall in the success spectrum? Can we be happy with our abilities even when they pale in comparison with others?

Like me, I know you guys struggle with the after-effects of cancer. I know, at times, you want to throw your hands up and throw the towel in. That’s why I try to keep it real here. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have any of the feelings that you do, so I’m going to tell you my recent tangle with impatience and disgust post-cancer.

Recently, I embarked on my second season of bodybuilding. For those of you just joining me on this blog, it took me a good three years after treatment ended to even get back into the gym full-time and attempt this transformation from cancer survivor to bikini competitor. Last fall, after a year of intense training, I actually made it to the stage to celebrate my 4th anniversary of remission. I shed the weight, built some muscle, and even though I didn’t completely look like all the other experienced competitors, I didn’t care. I was there to celebrate MY milestone – MY success – and I was perfectly happy to let everyone else celebrate where they were on their own journeys. It was empowering.

Fast forward 8 months to one week ago when I competed for the first time during my second season. After a solid off-season of fueling my body with plant-based nutrition and really lifting hard, I felt energized. While leaning out for competition day, I felt genuinely excited about my progress. The week before the show I felt fantastic. “Wow,” I thought, “I’ve made so many gains! I have more muscle. I’m leaner. Look how much I’ve improved!” I was flying high – pushing my physical limits and proving that I could live a more normal life post-cancer than I thought – and then after hanging out backstage in a sea of beautiful people, I got a peek at the other competitors. Suddenly I didn’t have much muscle, wasn’t lean enough, and wasn’t a serious competitor. What happened?

Those sneaky comparisons. And I momentarily lost my focus. Pre-judging ended that morning, and after all my hard work, can you believe I felt disappointed in myself? It wasn’t until the night show when they read my bio that I was jolted back to reality – my reality – and it choked me up. They read my story, my road back from cancer, and I remembered why I was here. It was not to win a medal. Although, yes, that would be a nice bonus, my mission was to prove that we are not “washed up” after cancer. We can go on to achieve more after a diagnosis. Maybe not as fast as we’d like to, and maybe not in the sense we think we should, but we can be the “peak” us, given our set of circumstances. And that’s everything to me.

That was a good lesson. I even laughed and took it as a sign that I must be pretty much psychologically back to normal post-diagnosis since I’m once again experiencing pre-cancer stupidity. And that brings me to my point today. My story is not yours. Your story is not someone else’s. We all deal with different cancer aftermath, and we all move ahead accordingly.

I am inspired by many of my survivor sisters who’ve gone on to do important work in the breast cancer community. They are making differences that I could never have even imagined. And that’s great. It does not minimize my own progress or cancel out my efforts. I celebrate their successes, and I am not here to compare myself to them or anyone else for that matter. I am doing my own thing, and the lesson here is that I am a winner when I compare my current self to my starting point. Am I better than I was pre-cancer? I’ve learned that is not something I should ever ask myself. But am I better than I was on March 9, 2012, the day I walked out of treatment? Yes, I am. I am stronger, both mentally and physically, and my priorities have changed. Amen to my personal growth!

After-breast-cancer

So what can you do to transition back after diagnosis? Start today and assess where you are right now. Your job is to compare your progress to your starting point, not to someone else’s current accomplishments and not to your former self. It takes a long time to “bounce back” post-diagnosis. We want everything back the way it was overnight, too, don’t we? It took months, possibly years, to reach our lows, yet somehow we expect to get over our chronic illness like it’s the flu. We act as though we’re supposed to wrap up the surgeries, chemo, radiation and/or hormone blockers and run a marathon next week. What?

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? And I’ll be the first to admit that I sure thought it’d go that way for me too. At the end of treatment, those trumpets I’d envisioned never sounded. The big finish I thought I’d experience was a total bust. I’m not exactly sure what I had in mind, but I experienced the biggest letdown ever when things didn’t magically go back to the way they used to be. I looked around and saw other women keeping up, taking care of their families, and managing their careers. And here I was taking a nap. Can you relate? That’s why I’ve compiled a short list of practical things you can do as you recover:

Set goals. What is it that you want to achieve? For some it’s just doing laundry once a week or meeting up with friends. Pace yourself. Instead of spending an entire day doing those big piles of neglected clothes, do one load and save the next one for another day. Don’t commit to a night of social activity. Meet a friend for an hour and go home. Be realistic. Maybe this means one activity per day. Or maybe you need a day where you don’t do anything at all and you give yourself permission to let it slide. You will not stay here forever, but it’s okay to hang out here for as long as needed.

Track your physical activity. Often we don’t realize the strides we’re making because all we see is our inability to do the things we once did pre-cancer. If you’re walking, for example, record your frequency and distance in a recovery journal. Over time, you will actually see your progress. It’s very easy to throw up our hands because we can’t do the things we used to and actually miss the legitimate gains that we ARE making. Just remember, we have a tendency to push ourselves beyond our limits because we’re impatient, and often times, as a result we set ourselves back further.

Find a support group. Maybe it’s in-person, or if you don’t have one available nearby, check online. Facebook has a lot of community pages and private groups. You’re always welcome to drop by mine. Search “Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders.” There are some amazing people who regularly post and contribute, and they are very supportive.

Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay that you’re still not 100%. I’m still not 100% either. I encourage you to take your time in your pursuits of health and happiness. Like I said, it took me three years to even get to the point where I could work out and start seeing improvements. I think I’m proof that slow and steady wins the race. I’m coming up on five years of remission this October when I will do my next competition. And I’ve come a long way from crying on the gym floor during the very first workout because, once strong, I was physically weaker than I’d ever been. I still have limitations, but barring my temporary lapse of sanity last week with these toxic comparisons, I gently remind myself that I’ve come a long way from March 9, 2012.

Hang in there. I’m rooting for you!

Victorious Val

3 replies
  1. Cheryl Hart
    Cheryl Hart says:

    Thanks Val … that was a timely reminder. I was Superwoman prior to surgery, multitasking and working several jobs while maintaining a ministry. But now I get all charged up to accomplish something substantial only to lose out to a nap or sitting in a cool house in front of a fan (gotta live Tamoxifen hot flashes). Thanks for redirect ting me to more productive thinking.

    Reply
  2. Pam Brumfield-Uriarte
    Pam Brumfield-Uriarte says:

    You were amazing at your show, and are for sure a winner-trophy or no.
    Thanks for this, Val. It is hard to remind myself to be patient with myself, and to not feel guilty for not being active and feeling tired all the time. 2 1/2 more years of these hormone blockers, and then I can see how the new me will be. I’m very much looking forward to that!

    Reply
  3. Ariel Markuson
    Ariel Markuson says:

    Thank you Val for sharing your story. It is so wonderful to know that I am not alone in the whole ‘post cancer struggle!.’ I was diagnosed January 30th 2014. Stage 2 with posture progesterone and estrogen markers. There are so many stories that I could share but to make a seemingly long story short, I had a double masectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction at the same time. 16 hour surgery. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through emotionally and physically. Then chemo for 8 rounds of “poison running through my veins” to kill the little cancer bases inside me… tamoxifen after that. Short lived (8mo or so) then I had trouble…carotid artery disection and Horners syndrome…terrible infection in my upper right sinus which lead to another surgery to release the infection and it still flames up requiring more antibiotics….all of this has required me to do very light exercise like walking, stretching ect. All due to the fear of having a stroke if I “over do it”. I can’t lift or do the Zumba I so love to do! Frustrating…YES!!!!! I want my body back…my sanity back and to not have to go see another specialist…get poked for blood work, MRI’S ect. I can’t take the Tamoxifen for the fear of my blood clotting ect. So now I’m in the process of having to possibly take shots every month to ‘shut my system down’ because surgery is to risky right now. I have also been diagnosed with fybromanalgia. No wonder i hurt so much rveryday. I share all this to find support and to remember what you shared Val, that it is a slow and steady process. Thank you for your positive sharing Val and your site on FB that really helps. I will keep on keeping on! I will not give up, throw in the towel or crawl in a hole to hide! Thanks for reading this and for the support! Val you ROCK and it is encouraging to see you progress!
    Sincerely Ariel

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