You’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and you are numb and scared. Your world just turned upside-down. Let me help you set it right. I am a 10-year survivor, diagnosed on August 6, 2009. I was in your shoes, shocked, freaked and a little ashamed that I’d allowed my health to get away from me. I am a control freak in so many parts of my life. Yet, my world now felt out of control.
A few things I want you to know:
A cancer diagnosis is not just about managing a disease. It’s about managing your life better and improving your overall well-being. Consider surviving cancer a life sentence. You have been given another chance to live the best life you can. How you do this is your choice. Choose wisely if you can. You don’t want to make a return trip to Cancer Land once treatment ends, if you can help it!
Never underestimate the importance diet has on your long-term health. I am a food and wine professional; eating, traveling and sharing the pleasures of the palate is my business. When I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, I worried that my chosen profession could have been a contributing factor to my cancer diagnosis. My cancer diagnosis changed my relationship with food. Before cancer, I lived to eat well. Now, as a survivor, I eat to live well. Food became an important form of nourishment – fuel to protect my body throughout treatment.
Investing in good food is far better than incurring the costs of getting sick. Consider a healthy diet as an insurance policy against getting sick. I still eat well, but I choose my foods more carefully and eat more mindfully. It’s not about doing without; it’s about redoing how you approach eating and improving the quality of the ingredients you consume. I edited my diet and reduced my intake foods that I knew were not in the best interest of my health, such as meat, pork, processed foods, full-fat dairy and refined sugars, and I added in more foods that were beneficial such as fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy oils.
Movement and exercise are critical to your health. The benefits of exercise are numerous. During my cancer treatment I took regular walks that helped me stay mentally focused and energetic as I struggled with chemo brain and neuropathy. Besides boosting metabolism and supporting a healthy heart, body strength and flexibility, a regular exercise regimen can also help manage weight. This is essential to staying healthy because being overweight is a contributing factor to many diseases, including cancer.
There may be unexpected emotional triggers after treatment ends. My heart skips a beat and I feel dizzy when I hear someone has had a recurrence or is diagnosed with another cancer or dies from the disease. It’s normal for individuals who experience something traumatic in their lives, but if it becomes something more difficult to manage, seek help. It’s okay to acknowledge when you need help. I didn’t do this and wish I had.
Throughout your life, people will say the strangest things to you about cancer that may seem downright insensitive. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes people have no idea what to say or may feel awkward and blurt out something that just does not resonate. Remember to listen to your inner voice and not someone else’s comments.
The day you were diagnosed will become a milestone marker in your life that you did not expect. This can happen to anyone who experiences something traumatic. Over time, your feelings may change or not. If someone tells you to “move past the experience,” remember: it’s your choice and your story, not theirs. Own up to what you stand for and how you want this day to look for you.
Some survivors may say having cancer was a “gift,” a health reawakening. My response is, “please don’t re-gift that one to me!” I consider cancer a bad bump in the road of life that I managed to navigate and come out relatively intact. There were some “gifts” that came my way that I cherish. One was meeting amazing women throughout the world who have been touched by breast cancer who I may never have known. Many have become friends. Another gift was learning to cook and to enjoy making fresh meals at home for the first time in my life and learning to be more conscious of my self-care.
The biggest gift is time to live my life, preferably on my terms and making a difference. Others don’t have the choice; I never take it for granted.
I am still here. And hopefully you will be, as well – in my shoes as a healthy survivor, 10 years later.