Getting any cancer diagnosis can be traumatic, but it is especially disturbing when it is stage 4. Here’s what has helped me manage.
When I experienced a recurrence of my breast cancer 2 years ago, it took me 1 year to fully process it and become educated on treatments, possible clinical trials, and how to interpret the results of all the scans needed. I needed a whole new vocabulary and a whole new mindset.
I was asked to write an article about some of the resources available to women with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). I decided to focus on how to live life as normally as possible, as that is what I have chosen to do.
Below are some tips and hints about what has made it semi-manageable for me.
I still work full-time and have chosen not to share my new diagnosis of stage 4 with my colleagues, except for a chosen few. It makes work a true “safe zone” area where I don’t have to think about cancer, and it makes it easier for others who may not know what to say to me. Many colleagues are aware I did have cancer many years ago. However, they don’t know about my new diagnosis.
I do plan to retire in a few years, but to determine exactly when is a difficult decision. I will cross that bridge when I come to it, though I am learning in bits and pieces all the financial matters and other elements to consider.
I believe it is true that mental energy affects your entire physical body. Therefore, using the mantra “mind over matter” can work very well. I believe there is even research about how positive energy can support your body as it goes through treatment, and many books have been written on the subject, such as:
Developing a good relationship with your main oncologist is especially important. I rely on my doctor to advocate on my behalf, and I know he is on my side.
I have a team of doctors — breast cancer experts in different areas, some world-renowned — whom I can rely on for answers and direction. This gives me confidence that I have an encyclopedia of knowledge at my fingertips when I need it.
When I need it, I have a nonprofit cancer center just 10 minutes away that offers classes on nutrition, diet, recipes, exercise, and more. I have benefited very much from in-person and Zoom plant-based vegan cooking classes, visits by expert doctors giving talks on the most current treatment for MBC, exercise classes, and a support group for women experiencing MBC.
The support group is usually helpful, and I learn tips from the participants. However, it is important to stay away from toxic people who sometimes can dominate an otherwise helpful group.
I am a member of a closed group for MBC on Facebook, and it is wonderful! At first, I thought it would be depressing, but these women give fantastic information about their journeys. Many are an inspiration and can be models or mentors for my own journey. Their amazing stories really improve my mood and can lift me up on an otherwise dreary day.
Breastcancer.org and BezzyBC have discussion forums where you can share your story with others who have gone through the same thing.
My husband is the most wonderful, optimistic, supportive, and beautiful human being I can imagine. He has supported me every step of the way on this journey, and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
However, I don’t want to rely too much on my husband. That’s where my two sisters come in to help. They live in other states, but we usually have a “Sisters Zoom” every 2 weeks or so. They have helped me research online and have been there to talk with me when I need to make difficult decisions. Their love and willingness to help have been a lifeline for me throughout the chaos.
Stay clear of negative thoughts! I know this is easy to say. Negative thoughts can be common, but they shouldn’t overtake your life. They usually come to me at night, as I am lying down to go to sleep. I fight these by getting up and doing something: the dishes, reading, petting my cats, etc. This helps to distract me and lets me forget my negative thoughts so I can resume sleep again.
This may be one of the most important, at least psychologically. If you don’t have a sense of purpose, it’s easy to just wither away. Mine is my writing. I am a poet and have written several books. I am always attending workshops, seminars, or open mics to share and critique my work and mingle with like-minded poets and friends. Their energy sustains me.
Remember, don’t define yourself solely by your cancer. It is only one part of who you are. You are made up of many “tracks.” For me, my tracks are wife/partner, friend, sister, counselor (job), poet, walker, musician (with my husband), and more. Yours might include being a mother or aunt or some other track.
I like to explain that each track stands by itself but can be influenced by the others. If your work track is going badly, that can affect your other life. If your work track is going well, that can affect everything positively. Realize your cancer track, if managed properly, doesn’t have to influence everything negatively. Separate cancer from your other life.
Realize you have been through trauma. Nurture yourself as you try to wrap your head around your diagnosis and treatment. Most of all, remember cancer is only one part of your life. It is within your power NOT to make it the most important part. Play. Be passionate about what you care about most. Stay hopeful. There are new treatments coming out every day as we speak. Participate in a clinical trial if you believe it could be helpful. I have participated in several.
Appreciate each moment. Live in the moment. This is what my husband is always trying to teach me whenever my head is in the clouds. Now I think: Why live in the future when the present is so rich? Like a jeweled garden, it keeps giving. Draw helpful, warm people to you. Remember, gratitude is the silver lining of cancer. And a sense of humor doesn’t hurt. As Stephen Colbert says, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time. Of anything.”
Medically reviewed on November 02, 2023
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