Surviving Breast Cancer: when will the good times roll?
You focus on getting better, on fighting the cancer. At last, the treatment is over. Great, you think, life can get back to normal. But as many cancer survivors know, its not so simple.
With over 45,000 women diagnosed annually and 15,000 women completing the Moonwalk this weekend to raise funds for Breast Cancer research, treatment and care, don’t forget to spare a thought for those who are surviving cancer.
The diagnosis is traumatic, the treatment gruelling and at the end of it many women find they don’t have the feeling of exhilaration they were expecting. Meanwhile, the support of the early days dries up. ‘I’m going to scream at the next person who tells me to think positive’ one survivor said.
This is when the next stage starts; the emotional work of surviving cancer. It’s a difficult journey and often a lonely one. Some wonder why it’s taking so long to recover their life. Others give themself a hard time for not being able to snap back to the person they once were, or the person they promised they’d be if they survived.
These reactions are more normal than you think. Here are some of the things I have learnt from working with women and their families after breast cancer.
You and your body
The discovery that your body has developed and harboured a malignancy can deeply disturb your sense of security and trust in your body. Many feel that their body has let them down or turned against them. The effects of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy can make your body feel more like a battle ground than a temple.
This is the perfect time to reclaim your body, to soothe its battle scars and turn it back into a place you can trust and love. Nurture the mastectomy scar or the new reconstructed breast. Treat yourself to a special body lotion and massage your breasts daily. Gradually you will get used to the changes. Your body has been through so much, has healed and recovered and now it’s time to care not neglect.
If you have gained weight through treatment, concentrate on the parts of your body you’ve always liked. Go and meet with a personal shopper. All good department stores have them, you’re not obliged to buy anything and they can advise you on how to make the most of your new figure. Don’t underestimate anything that makes you feel better about yourself such as a home facial
This is the time to listen to your body and give it what it needs, whether it’s good food, rest or walks in the park. Or maybe this is an opportunity to discover a new exercise regime – many people swear by yoga or pilates for feeling good inside and out.
Diagnosis and treatment can also have a disastrous effect on your sexual relationships. You may feel that being lucky enough to survive cancer means you can’t expect to be a sexual person afterwards. But you deserve to have this part of your life back too. If you are in a relationship try going back to the beginning, go on dates, get close in non-sexual ways and slowly reignite the chemistry. There are lots of people that can help you in this field, so it’s a good idea to seek help sooner rather than later. If you are single, feeling good about your body is the foundation to feeling ready to start dating again.
Loss of Control
The disease and the treatment can make you feel like you no longer have any control over your life, and the memory of that experience can have a lasting effect. Every woman has her own way of going through the experience, all of those ways, unique to you, show that you did take control of navigating the cancer journey. Perhaps you did lots of research, or maybe you limited how much information you had to deal with. You will have decided who to tell and how much to tell. All of these decisions were important. In the face of cancer, all of these decisions are small victories. These are the principles that got you through and will get you through the next stage.
Living with uncertainty
After so long monitoring every ache or pain you may have had, it’s easy to become hyper-sensitive to physical symptoms. Suddenly you fear the worst when you have a headache and every twinge fills you with dread. This is natural. Your Breast-Care Nurse and GP are there to check out persistent symptoms, and gradually you will be able to trust your body again. Be patient with yourself.
The meaning of Life
For many women, a brush with a life-threatening condition will help them to focus on what really matters. Relationships with those you love become even more important. You find yourself less concerned about small things. You feel an urge to get on with life. This is the silver lining, make the most of it. Keep a journal to remind yourself of these feelings. Set small simple goals so that you can feel that something positive has come from the cancer experience.
If you are used to juggling many things at once and take pride in never sitting down for more than five minutes, you will struggle to accept any limitations. It is important that you don’t underestimate what you have been through and allow your body to recover in its own time.
If you have limited energy, it is important that you prioritise how you spend it.
For some women this will have been the most traumatic event of their lives, for others it will be one among many difficult experiences. Counselling can help you make sense and process these experiences so that you can live your life fully again, or approach life with a new sense of purpose.
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