How did I transition back into “life” after cancer?

I have been blessed to take over the hosting of Breast Friends Cancer Support Network.  I am going to try to connect blog posts to each episode.  I am a few week behind, but what’s new?  This episode aired on March 10, 2021 if you would like to check it out!

Transitions are a part of life.  It is the grace with which you handle them that truly matters.

“Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation or self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t take.” – William Bridges

I have gone through 3 major transitions in my life.  Two were my choice, one was not.

  • Quitting my secure, well-paying job of 10 years to “find myself,” then moving from California to Oregon for a job in my mid 30’s. I knew one person.
  • Becoming a stay-at-home mom after working full time for 18 years
  • Finding out that I have breast cancer for the second time.

It was the transitions in my life from breast cancer that truly made me look at my life and take a turn into different directions for the better.

Embracing transitions requires acceptance.  Life will always throw things at you which you are unprepared for and my.  It is how you handle them that will show your true character. 

Four key things to help with a transition post breast cancer which really helped me:

  • Embracing your Health
  • Reflecting on your Life
  • Finding Support
  • Volunteering

Embracing Your Health

Cultivating healthy habits is important for breast cancer survivors. This is because you are at higher risk for other health problems as a result of your treatment. Healthy behaviors can also help you get stronger, reduce the severity of side effects and feel better emotionally.

Some of these behaviors include:

  • Adopting a healthy diet – still a work in progress on this one! I love food, especially carbs, but I try to limit them.  Post menopause has not been kind to me.  I have literally changed nothing in the way that I eat or what I eat and have gained over 40 lbs.  It is one of the biggest struggles that I am still dealing with.
  • Limiting alcohol intake – one glass and I am good! I mean, maybe 2 or 3 if we are camping with friends.  🙂
  • Exercising regularly – last year we bought a Peloton home bike, since we couldn’t got to a gym.  I had an 8-day streak recently!  I am at the point where I feel guilty when I don’t get on.  That tells me that I have created the habit which will hopefully help control my weight and be healthier.
  • Managing stress – challenging, especially during a pandemic, but doing my best – this will lead into personal reflection and finding the right support systems. Channel your energy into the right places!

Personal Reflection

Many people report having survivor’s guilt following breast cancer treatment. I did and still do to some extent.  After my first diagnosis, I went to a young survivor’s group.  I had a fairly “easy” go round with a lumpectomy/radiation and I was in meetings with women who went through SO much more and I felt guilty and honestly stopped going. 

After I was diagnosed again, I realized that no matter how little or extensive someone’s cancer journey is, hearing the words “You have cancer” still have the same impact.  One of my very close friends, who is the silver lining of my cancer journey, often says “it doesn’t matter how big the dog shit you step in, you still stepped in dog shit.”  No one else in that room looked down on me for being there because my treatment plan was easier than theirs; we are all there to support each other.  It is SO important to be heard.

I also spent time figuring out what is truly important to me, this will differ for everyone.  First and foremost, my family. I am determined to not miss out on life’s events with them.  This past summer was my 10 year wedding anniversary; the previous October my husband and I booked a vow renewal in Mexico and invited all of our friends and family.   Then came COVID and everything was, well, you know, majorly F’d up!  We went back and forth on whether to go, cancel, postpone.  Finally, we ended up going, renewed our vows on the beach in front of 6 family members, instead of the 50 we had hoped for, but it was still magical.  We have masks which say “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and it will be a trip that we will always remember.  I am so glad we did not let circumstances stop our lives.

But this kind of reflection is normal, a life threatening disease will make you think about EVERYTHING. Some of these approaches helpful to work through these feelings and questions:

  • Re-evaluate old patterns and priorities to see if they are still relevant after your breast cancer
  • Reach out for spiritual support through your local church, the chaplain at your hospital or cancer center, or through local cancer organizations
  • Keep a journal or blog of your thoughts and feelings – I found that I love to write and I am an over-sharer.  Not much is off limits if I think it will help someone else.
  • Find new ways to support emotional well-being, either by trying a new activity or joining a social group.  I discovered that I love writing and public speaking.  I love being on stage and want to help others by sharing my story.  Prior to having cancer, I would have NEVER asked to be on stage.  Life is too short to miss out, do the things that scare you, they will bring you the most joy.­­­

Support Groups – Breast Friends!

Cancer survivors often benefit from speaking and sharing with other survivors. A support group offers the chance to gain emotional support. It is also a great way to gather practical tips and tools. You may discuss treatment-related challenges like pain management or fear of recurrence or what your life after cancer should look like. Other things which also help:

  • Talking with a friend – Yang to my Yin, Yvonne Nydigger – my boss, my mentor and now one of my forever friends has helped me through SO much.
  • Individual counseling or therapy. Been there, very helpful – see my previous post “You Shall Not Pass!”
  • Speaking with your doctor or nurse – my nurse navigator was A HUGE help to me, Jen Steen-Revis, Compass Oncology. She is a angel who helped me through both diagnosis and still supports me now.
  • Speaking with a spiritual or religious figure in your community.  This is not a big part of my life, but very important for others.  FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU!
  • Focusing on other enjoyable activities –  I use reading and coloring to relax and turn my head off at night.

Volunteering

I knew that after my 1st bout with cancer and going to the Komen conference, that I needed to DO something to feel human again. I felt a calling to give back to other, but I also had a toddler at home and life took precedence.  THEN, I was diagnosed again 4 years later and my life completely changed. I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy, oophorectomy/hysterectomy and breast reconstruction.  My body will never be the same, nor will my mind.  Then came the AI meds and menopause which I am still struggling with 4 years later.  At this point, I was not able to go back into my old career as an EA, nor did I want to, but I was not even able to do a very part job at my son’s school due to the physical pain and exhaustion in my body.

That is when I walked into Breast Friends to volunteer, and the rest is history.

Many breast cancer survivors often experience a strong desire to give back after treatment. Many want to repay the kindness that they were shown. Some realize that their experience may be valuable to others who are newly diagnosed or in treatment.  Me, me, me!

Regardless of your reason, volunteering is a great way to build new friendships, expand your network of support and do something that makes you feel good.  I knew that I have value in my computer skills, events background and organizational abilities. Who doesn’t need that?  I walked into Breast Friends, not really knowing what I wanted to do.  I started doing basic data entry, helping with mailings and basic organization in the office.  I moved on to revamping the Hat Program, mailing out hats to women who have lost their hair in treatment and then was hired on as the Patient Programs Assistant.

If you are interested in volunteering, think about your own strengths, interests and expertise. Then determine how you could use these to help an organization further its mission. The most common types of volunteer opportunities are:

  • Service and support – office duties, data entry or working with patients who need support.
  • Awareness and education – talking to outside organizations about what your chosen organization does.
  • Fundraising – it is not my thing, but very important nonetheless.
  • Advocacy – helping to get the word out about early detection, treatment and support options that are available.

I KNOW that these 4 strategies can help with most big transitions in life.  Our health is a huge priority and should never be taken for granted.  Figuring out what matters most in life will lead to a clear path for your future.  Finding your tribe who gets you and supports you no matter what will make your life so much better, hands down.  Finally, being able to give back and help others is one of life’s greatest opportunities and will fill your soul.

All of these helped me get to the good place where I am at today!

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