I found the first few months after receiving my breast cancer diagnosis the worst. Looking back now, I remember being so terrified. So scared that my life was over, that my little boy would never know me, that my parents would have to bury me. I was so full of anxiety and despair. My days were filled with sadness, even happy moments like watching my baby boy felt tinged with sadness. I wondered if I’d ever be happy again. I so desperately wanted to be happy again.
I also felt really alone. I felt like the only woman in Ireland going through breast cancer. I felt like the only young woman in the chemo ward. I felt like the only woman with triple negative breast cancer. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, how to get through all of this. That I would be ok. But I was too afraid to join an online support forum or even to go to a support centre in case I met other women who were in even scarier situations than mine.
If this is you. If this is where you are right now. Here are the strategies that helped me get through my treatment and to where I am now. I hope that they might help you too, or even just show you that you aren’t alone on your journey.
1. Talk about it
In those first few months I talked endlessly about my diagnosis with my husband and my mom and dad. I talked out everything that was in my head with the people that mean everything to me. We spent hours talking about all the ‘what ifs’, ‘why me’s’, ‘why now’s’ and ‘what caused this’. This was my therapy. This is not for everyone, I understand that. I know that I put immense strain on my loved ones by talking about all of this. But somehow we made it through like this. Talking helped. If I’d kept it all bottled up, if we all kept it all bottled up, I don’t think we would have been better for it. If you can talk to someone, whether that’s your family, a friend or a counsellor, I think you should do it – talk it all out, that way you can empty it out of your head and say ‘I’ve dealt with that’.
2. Ask for help
We asked people to make us some dinners that we could put in the freezer and use on chemo days when we arrived home too exhausted to think about cooking. We asked people to stay away from us if they were sick or if their families were sick. We asked people to help us with laundry, with changing beds, with housework, with collecting certs from the doctor’s, with babysitting. So many friends and family helped us during chemo and it was this practical help that also helped us get through it. Don’t be afraid to ask for the support you need – your family and friends want to help but they may not know what you need. Don’t forget too that those who are looking after you (your primary carers) need support too. The meals people brought us fed my husband too when he was also mentally and physically exhausted from a day spent in the hospital with me.
3. Protect yourself
I worried about it before I did it, but I did it – I put a tiny typed note on my front door, near the doorbell, that asked any visitors to wash their hands when they came into our house. I washed my hands diligently throughout the day and I kept my hands away from my mouth and nose. I asked my husband to tighten up his own hand hygiene too (I know, I know) and we were super cautious about hand hygiene in the hospital and whenever we were out and about. In the end, I think it was all worth it. We didn’t get sick. None of us, my baby son included, caught a cold or infection of any kind during the 20 weeks I was on chemo. Do whatever you need to do to stay away from anyone that is sick with anything contagious while you’re on chemo – protect yourself. A cold or infection will compromise your already-compromised system and set you back, it may even delay your chemo schedule. This is a time to be selfish.
4. Be kind to yourself
Getting through your treatment is tough. It’s not going to be easy. There will be many hospital appointments, early mornings, sleepless nights, tired days, anxiety and stress. You need to be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the pressure you are under. Accept it. It’s not forever. It’s just for now. Put your head down and get through it. Treat yourself at each milestone – when chemo is over, when radiotherapy is over, when surgery is over. After each chemo I bought myself a little something to say ‘well done, I did it’. It sounds small but it helped. At the end of chemo, my husband and I treated ourselves to a beautiful meal at Shanahan’s On The Green. So buy yourself those new pyjamas. Change your bedclothes (or ask someone to do it for you) every week so you can slip into clean sheets at bedtime – you deserve it. Plan that end-of-treatment holiday or special purchase.
5. Drink lots of water
If you’re a regular reader of Happy Magazine you’ll know that I tend to go on about this one a fair bit. Your hospital will tell you the same when you start chemo – drink lots of water. It will flush out toxins, it will keep your energy levels stable, it will keep you hydrated and feeling as well as you can. Buy yourself a glass water bottle, or a BPA-free plastic one, and keep it with you throughout the day – bring it with you from room to room if you’re at home and take it with you when you go out. Sip from it all day and it’ll become routine for you. I can’t be without my water bottle even now – it comes everywhere with me and it’s not a chore to drink from it all day – I really believe it helps me to feel as well as I do.
6. Eat well
This is a tough one during chemo – you’re in and out of hospital for appointments and you also don’t have the energy to prepare and cook complicated meals. This is where asking others to make home-cooked meals for you comes in. Try, as much as you can without totally exhausting yourself, to eat whole foods, cooked at home, and lots of veg. Stay away from ready meals that are full of salt and sugar, no matter how ‘clean’ the ingredients may sound. Go back to basics – simple, real food – eggs, lean meat and veg, fish and rice, salads, soups, stews, etc. Knock the sweets, cakes, biscuits, ice cream on the head for now – they won’t serve you. Eating well will support your body through chemo and help you to feel well both physically and mentally.
7. Get lots of sleep
Sleep can be a place of relief. Relief from the worry in your head and the tiredness in your body. Make your bedroom a wonderful place of rest and get those z’s. Clear all the technology from your bedroom. Buy a salt lamp. Buy some new books. Buy some new bedding. Develop a bedtime routine that works for you – maybe it’s a bath with a few drops of lavender essential oil or a cup of herbal tea. I love breathing ten big breaths from my Po-Ho inhaler and settling into bed with a hot water bottle and a good book – I started this during the time I was going through chemo as a way to clear my head from pre-bedtime anxiety and I’m still doing it. If you feel like sleeping during the day – do – do whatever your body tells you.
8. Don’t strain yourself
This is about listening to what you need and doing it, or not doing it, as the case may be. Commitments in the diary? Grocery shopping on a Saturday? Hanging the laundry on the line? If you don’t feel like doing it while you’re going through treatment – it’s simple, don’t. Remember, this is not forever, it’s just for now. You’ll get through treatment and then it will be over. Then you can get back to your normal. For now, just do what you have to do to get through – don’t strain yourself.
9. Just be in the ‘now’
Going through chemo and radiotherapy treatment can have a big impact on you mentally and emotionally. We all have an idea in our heads of what it’s going to be like, that may prepare you for the reality or it may not. You may be frightened of the idea that you’re actually receiving chemotherapy when before you’d only heard terrible stories about it or seen it portrayed in the movies. You may keep thinking about your diagnosis and wishing to go back, before you knew, to your old life. You may keep worrying about the future, what it will bring, will you be ok, what will happen. This is all looking back and looking forward. If you’re finding this too painful to do right now, just stop. Just be in the ‘now’. Just deal with right now, this hour, then the next hour. Deal with today. Don’t look back into the past and try not worry about the future. Just do now.
10. Find a project
For me, it was Happy Magazine! The idea came to me during my time getting through chemotherapy. From there the idea grew and it became something positive for me to think about, and then do. Writing a new post every day helped me look for the positives in life after you’ve heard the words, ‘you’ve got cancer’. It has helped me work through so many questions, issues and worries I’ve had along the way. Use this time you have at home, with your family, on the couch after chemo, to work on a project. What have you always wanted to do? Can you do it now? Maybe you’ve always wanted to paint. Or make that wedding photo album or baby scrapbook. What about flower-arranging or photography? Now you have the time and opportunity, why not go for it? Get your mind off your cancer diagnosis and onto a new, positive project.
11. Try to exercise
You might find this very difficult while you’re going through chemo, and that’s ok. Just do what you can. Maybe it’s a ten minute walk in the fresh morning air after your breakfast. Maybe you can manage a ‘shuffle-run’ like Domini Kemp. Maybe you can handle a half an hour session of yoga on your living room floor. Exercise will give you an amazing boost of feel-good energy. If you can do it, do.
12. See friends who make you feel good
Seeing my friends while I was going through treatment really helped me. I had friends who came over and just made my day so much brighter with their presence. We joked and laughed, we had some really raw conversations, we talked about things that had nothing to do with cancer, or sometimes we talked about cancer. Some of my friends made me feel like I could move mountains if I wanted to – they believed I could. Others made me feel like, hey, this is just a phase, you’re going to get through it. And everything seemed more manageable then. Make sure you see those friends that make you feel good, that can help you through this – if you can’t make it out of the house, ask them to come to you.
I hope these 12 things may help you with your own cancer journey. I’d love to know in the comments what you think – would any of these strategies help you too? Or what are your own strategies?
By Happy Magazine Editor, Holly Kennedy.