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10 Things That Help Me Thrive While Living With Breast Cancer and Its After-Effects

When my son was 18 months old, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. What followed was two years of grueling and intense treatments that have left me with lingering health issues. I have found certain things over the years since that help me to thrive while still living with illness and its after-effects.

1. Seek and demand answers from your healthcare team and collaborate with them to find your best health. It is their job to advocate for you and part of that advocacy involves ensuring you understand your condition and treatment. If you don’t understand, ask more questions and keep pushing for the answers. If you aren’t getting the help you need, ask for a referral to a specialist. The move toward greater health is a collaborative one.

2. Don’t label yourself as only “ill.” You may have a chronic illness, but you are not “a” chronic illness. You are also a dad, an artist, a sister, a loving part of someone’s family. If you focus only on the illness, that will be all you truly experience.

3. Pace yourself. We know that those who deal with a long-term illness often experience fatigue. It can be extreme some days and minimal on others. If you are able, let go of time-consuming tasks that drain energy, and save some energy for the fun things in life. Be selective in what you make time for.

4. But also push yourself. I found if I let the fatigue do the talking, I would never leave the house or do anything other than the bare necessities. This is no way to live. Sometimes it’s good to push yourself a bit and get out there and do the things that light your fire. This is what life is about, after all. Yes, you may be tired the next day, but you might be happier than if you just stayed home and did nothing.

5. Plan some regular joy in your day. Whether it’s watching  a comedy clip, meditation, or having coffee with a friend, make sure that you build in some daily joy. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to involve lots of energy. If you are sick and in bed, maybe it’s having your favorite scent going in a diffuser, or having the bedroom window open and letting some fresh air in. No matter how low you go, joy can be squeezed out of life, and you owe it to yourself to find it.

6. Ask for help and be specific. Loved ones likely want to help and would love if you accepted that help. Remember you will be doing them a favor to let them in. Let your girlfriend help you clean, or ask for some meals or a ride to an appointment. Letting people in will be mutually beneficial.

7. Give yourself grace. I had a tendency to be really hard on myself when I couldn’t perform with illness the way I did when I was healthy. This doubled my suffering. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the current situation, and start over in the morning.

8. Take care of yourself the best way you can. If you are able to and can afford it, buy the best quality food you can. If you know you need more sleep, guard that bedtime. My sleep is so crucial to my good functioning that I set a bedtime alarm as well as a morning one. Move your body a little bit every day, or a lot if you are able. Whatever leads you to feeling better is what you need to prioritize in your day. I love how exercise makes me feel but I don’t always love it when I’m doing it, so I have resorted to doing activities that are fun for me (e.g. walking or biking my son to and from school) and it makes me more eager to move my body. I enjoy exercise so much more.

9. Body and soul affect health equally. Don’t discount your emotions and thoughts. They have a huge impact on your health, as does your spirituality. Find what soothes your soul and see if you can add a little bit in. For me, it’s having time listening to birds in the back garden. So I take a minute daily to do that. Your body cannot fully heal if the rest of you isn’t along for the journey.

10. If you keep trying to get back to what you were, you will never accept and thrive where you are. For a number of years, I kept saying “I just want to feel normal again.” For me, normal meant having energy and being able to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Today, my energy is radically different and I do need to pace myself and assess what I can do. What I do know is that when I kept trying to be like I was before, it was an impossible and unrealistic goal. It’s like trying to will yourself to be someone else. I couldn’t do it. When I accepted myself as I am now, it made more present and able to thrive.

I’m sharing these because these have worked for me. Some days are better than others. The point is to be kind to yourself and give yourself every opportunity for great daily functioning.

Getty photo by Anna Ismagilova