By Cynthia Greb
It’s such a shock when we get this news. It brings up so many questions–of mortality, of whether we’ll lose a breast or our hair, of what will happen with our jobs and our children. It can be completely overwhelming. I know because I’ve been there. And so, as a veteran of this fight, I’d like to pass along some tips–not just regarding treatment, but about the need for radical self-care, about changes we can make in our environment and lifestyle, and not least of all, the spiritual ramifications of finding out we have what could potentially be a life-threatening disease.
So here you are, Lisa. And anyone else out there who has just received the news that they have breast cancer.
Give yourself the time and space to feel your feelings. It is normal to freak out emotionally when you get this news. You may look normal to the outsider, but on the inside, there will certainly be some panic going on. Even if you seem strangely calm, do not be deceived; you are likely in shock. You may notice, for instance, that your normally assertive and intelligent self fails to ask for definitions of the many new terms being thrown at you by the clinicians you suddenly have appointments with. You may notice that when asked if you have any questions, your mind draws a blank. Don’t worry. The questions are likely to come later—probably when you’re trying to sleep.
If you don’t give yourself time to feel your feelings and begin to process them, you may find yourself a bit vulnerable to accidents (hopefully minor) or unexpected outbursts. Like the time I was getting ready to go for a consultation with the breast specialist, for instance. I found myself bumping into furniture, stubbing my toes, and dropping things. I was a wreck. I finally realized that if I didn’t take the time to sit down and really breathe—or cry, as I found out—I was probably going to really hurt myself! If you allow time and space for emotional outbursts, you are also less likely to break down in a less-than-ideal situation–like at work or in the middle of a grocery store or with your children. If you actually schedule time to be alone—at home, at a park, or with a dear friend (which I know is a bit oxymoronic, but you know what I mean), you can allow yourself to scream, to cry, to rant, or to curl up in a fetal position. It’s really essential to give space for all your feelings.
Make sure you’re comfortable with your doctors, surgeons, radiologists, etc. There is a good chance you are going to be seeing each of your clinicians several times and it is imperative that you trust them and that they show you respect. If you have a good working relationship with them, it makes the whole process ever so much easier. The very last thing you need right now is someone who is overbearing, rude, abrupt, or untrustworthy. If you have any doubts whatsoever, get a second opinion. I changed doctors early on and it made a world of difference.
Take time to make the decisions regarding treatment that are right for you. This was the most helpful advice I ever got. My dear friend, Julia, who was the first friend of mine to be diagnosed, reminded me that the vast majority of cancers grow slowly over a long period of time. If you need a week or two or three to sort through the many options, do it! This is your body and you must feel comfortable with your course of treatment. Do not let doctors or clinicians pressure you to do something unless or until you have decided that it is an appropriate course of action for you. Take the time to do research. Look online, read books, talk to other breast cancer patients and survivors. My advice is: use your brain, but in the end, trust your gut.
Change your diet right now. Chances are there is room for improvement. If you eat meat and dairy, greatly reduce consumption of both or make sure you are using hormone-free products–preferably also organic and/or locally raised. (Locally raised livestock are less likely to be filled with all the chemicals and toxins that agribusiness routinely uses in their “food production.”) Double, triple, quadruple the number of vegetables and fruits you consume. Most veggies and fruits are not only extremely nutritious and supportive of your immune system, but many actually fight cancer. They fight free radicals, they slow tumor growth, they neutralize nitrosamines and toxins, they balance out hormones, and they even help make changes at the DNA level. You can’t afford NOT to eat lots of produce. (Again, please try to make it organic if at all possible, or from local farms and gardens.) Consume lots of salads and soups and smoothies. And throw things like chopped kale, onions, carrots, and ground flaxseed into almost everything you consume.
Make your environment as pure as possible. Drink pure, filtered water whenever possible. Use natural cleaning products and detergents. Don’t use air fresheners, hair sprays, and certainly no weedkillers on your lawn or pesticides around your home. Consider not using nail polish or hair gel or perms or harsh dyes. Don’t drink out of plastic drink containers that have been left in a hot, sunny car and definitely don’t microwave in plastic containers. (The plastics leach into the water or food.)
Cut way back on alcohol consumption and try to quit smoking cigarettes.
Exercise. Being overweight is one of several risk factors for breast cancer. If possible, try to find ways to move more. Personally, I find walking outside good for my spirit as well as my body.
Try to get as much sleep as you can and make your bedroom dark at night. (Except for moonlight. Moonlight is very good for you.)
Under your doctor’s guidance, make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D. Those lacking sufficient Vitamin D are more prone to cancer. Consider also the possibility of adding other medicinal herbs or supplements to your health regime.
STOP DOING THOSE THINGS THAT STRESS YOU OUT! If you hate your job, now might be an excellent time to leave it. If the company of certain people makes you anxious, stop spending time with them. If you are over-committed and overwhelmed, let go of as many commitments as possible. This is major TAKE-CARE-OF-YOURSELF TIME!!! Everyone and everything else must take a lower priority right now. Even if you have children, you must place your needs at the top of the list right now. After all, if you don’t do all that you can to get well, they could lose their mother. YOU are the priority! YOU!!!
Enlist and/or accept the support you need right now. If someone offers to take care of your kids, if they are a responsible person, by all means, say yes. If someone offers to accompany you to an appointment or to drive you, and if that would be comforting and helpful, say yes. If someone offers to make you dinner, say yes! Now is not the time to be a martyr and do it all yourself. Allow yourself to be supported.
If you are uninsured or do not have the funds to pay for your treatment, ask the doctor’s office to put you in touch with a social worker. All hospitals have social workers and they can navigate the system and help you get the care you need. I learned that in Pennsylvania, for instance, if you have breast or ovarian cancer, they will expedite your medical assistance.
Give yourself time to work on your emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues. Oftentimes unexplored or unresolved old issues or habits can be contributing factors to your illness. For instance, many women are trained from a very young age to take care of everyone else first. If this describes you, you may need to learn the lesson that you are important and worthy of care. For others, they may have had a lifelong dream to do something exciting or meaningful. It may be time to dust off that dream. For others, they may have a deep spiritual yearning for greater connection with the divine. This may be time to deepen your spiritual practices. Find friends that you trust or a good counselor or spiritual advisor and give yourself permission to get healthier on many levels–not simply at the physical level.
Above all, now is the time for MAXIMUM SELF-CARE! Now is the time for flowers on your table, delicious healthy food, movies, books, time in nature–whatever represents nurturing to you. And now may be the time for massages, facials, Reiki, or acupuncture. (Check with your doctor about any contraindications.) Treat yourself the way you would treat an especially beloved friend or family member. You deserve to be treated well!!!
May you be healthy and well. This is a scary time, but it can also be a powerful, life-changing time. Take it one day at a time. And take care of you.