Expert Advice I Gave Myself After Cancer

I’m not a breast cancer authority. I muddled through my diagnosis in 2011 just as haphazardly as anyone else, but in the last 7 years of my survivorship, I’ve learned a few things. This month I’ve decided to write about getting back on track after cancer, the discovery that things weren’t going back to normal immediately and the unrealistic expectations with which I was forced to grapple. Take it with a grain of salt, however, because like I said, I’m not an official authority. I am an expert at my OWN experience, however, because, well, I’ve lived it. So here are a few of my top personal cancer epiphanies. And maybe they’ll help you too.

Straight out of the gate, I learned to cut myself some slack and adopt a new pace. After treatment, our bodies are recovering. We’ve pumped a lot of drugs into them and we’ve undergone multiple surgeries. I’d never experienced such an intense medical ordeal, so why would recovery be a piece of cake for me? Wait, it wasn’t going to be like that time I had an outpatient procedure?!?! Huh? My notion of a hunky-dory, happy post-cancer existence was naive at best. I had no idea what it’d be like, and I was genuinely surprised that it wasn’t just a couple of days of “taking it easy.” Looking back, I see how absurd that was, and I was forced to re-examine my expectations and adjust them. That was a real whopper of a realization. I had no idea that my recovery would translate into months – and then years – as new developments unfolded.

It wasn’t long before I was also forced to re-prioritize. If you like to keep a nice house, make sure everyone is taken care of, and really find some fulfilment in how well you do it, I’m sure you can relate. You’re probably going to have to let that go too. Yes, I know the dishes are piling up, the laundry is mounting, and the floors need vacuuming. Trust, those dishes aren’t going anywhere, the laundry will still be there tomorrow, and the dust on the floor doesn’t mind if you get to it later. Furthermore, if anyone in your home is REALLY that bothered by it, they’ll pitch in. If you still find it in disarray the next morning, I think it’s fair to say that nobody else in your house really cares all that much after all. I made healing my body my main priority. This experience took a toll on me, and I realized that if I exhausted myself more, I’d never catch up.

Eventually, after the Tamoxifen took full effect, I had to lose my negative self-talk. When I looked into the mirror, I saw the extra pounds that treatment piled on. I didn’t want to take photos or look into the mirror, and when I did, I was disgusted. Listen, it’s a catch-22. I didn’t feel like exercising because I was tired. And I was tired because I wasn’t getting exercise. When I finally did get to the point where I could actually work out, I realized that the weight wasn’t going to come off like it did pre-cancer. That was a huge slap in the face. Welcome to cancer and its side effects! The weight gain was a hard pill to swallow, and I failed to mention that it took me 3 years to even get to the point where I had the stamina to address it. Let that sink in. And that brings us right back to number one – you might consider cutting yourself some slack and adopting a new pace. I had to start off small and work my way up. I wasn’t able to pick up where I left off. I finally got the weight off after 15 months of 5 days a week in the gym – after I paced myself, built some strength and hired a personal trainer. It was not easy, and you shouldn’t expect an overnight “bounce back.”

And probably most importantly, I had to let go of the negative people in my life. I’ve touched on this one before in a blog post. And like I’ve mentioned before, this one can be both easy and difficult. It’s easy to cut out friends and acquaintances when they are dragging us down, but it’s much harder to draw the line in the sand with family. The stress of strained and/or drama-filled relationships wasn’t doing much for my psyche or my cancer predisposition, so I just separated from the friend circle who didn’t support me. And now, I routinely cut off interaction with new people who eventually reveal their negative true selves. And with family, well, I’ve had to create boundaries. While I may not completely cut them out, I do take a break when I feel they are not behaving in a positive, appropriate manner. Pre-cancer, I allowed a lot of poison in my life because I thought I had to endure it. Nonsense. Today, I am much happier emotionally because I take good care of myself without hesitation.

There are additional things I’ve adopted as my survivorship has unfolded, but I do want to save some of it for a later blog post. If I had to sum it up with one real nugget of non-qualified advice for anyone recovering from a critical disease, it would be this. If you don’t figure out how to take good care of yourself, nothing else matters. Quite frankly, you won’t be able to take care of the other people in your life. I don’t have to be a breast cancer authority to tell you this. And I think, deep down, we all know this to be true. We either have to realize we’re not invincible or relinquish our control. Or both.

Regardless, give yourself a break and be kind to yourself.

Victorious Val.

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