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Power of Four: My Tools for Dealing With Breast Cancer

Exercise, protein, belief and visualization are my not-so-secret weapons in my life with metastatic breast cancer.
PUBLISHED January 27, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Not long ago, after switching chemotherapy to once every three weeks, my husband and kids gave me an unusual gift: Fly to Savannah, visit with my father-in-law, get his car repaired and take my time driving back to Illinois. Admittedly, it isn’t the gift a lot of people would want, but they know me well and it was exactly right.

So a solo cross-country — OK, cross-half-country — trip made it onto the calendar.

My first unscheduled stop involved walking about a quarter mile out into the low country marsh of South Carolina. There, in seeming solitude, it was easy to consider the many gifts I’ve been given. But as I headed back to my car, a man and woman stopped me.

"Do you have cancer?" they asked.

I told them I did but that chemotherapy was going well. They then shared that the woman had breast cancer and would be starting treatment in a week. As I stood there in the sun, with the marsh below and beside us, I was reminded of how many questions confront a patient. What will I feel like? Will I lose my hair? Will I want to eat? Will I live?

Only later, when I had recovered from the shocking beauty of the place and the pleasure of knowing that my own appearance of good health possibly gave someone else hope, did I think about the concrete things I’d done to help myself with this tremendous change in my life.

Exercise: Within a day or two of my diagnosis, I was online looking at the data. It was depressing and overwhelming. It could have stopped me cold. It almost did. Then, I happened upon the research of a scientist who had studied mice injected with breast cancer cells and found that those who used the exercise wheel had better results from the chemotherapy drugs. Well, I didn’t have a wheel, but I did have a treadmill. I resolved that day to get on it six days a week. More than a year later, I am still on it: 41 minutes a day for close to 2.5 miles of serious walking.Protein: The truth is that I really did not want to eat. I not only didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t really remember when I last ate. But the material from my physician dwelled on the importance of a healthy diet with a focus on protein. Although I don’t remember exactly how I settled on the number, I decided that I needed to consume as close as I could get to 100 grams of protein a day. If I was going to eat, I wasn’t going to waste it on a bagel. Much better to have a handful of nuts, a bowl of chili or a chicken cutlet. Add to that some broccoli and a banana, and I had a diet that helped me maintain my strength.

Belief: My husband, a research scientist, told me very early on that if I didn’t believe the drugs I was being given would work, they absolutely would not. Though there was no guarantee they would work, thinking they would not was not an option. He stressed to me that the placebo effect is remarkable and sometimes discounted — he said I needed to believe in what I was doing.

Visualization: Years ago I used visualization when swimming. Although I had long forgotten about it, when that word popped up as a method to deal with what I’d been handed, I knew it was something to grasp. Each week, as the drugs poured into my system, I visualized them reaching my breast, my lymph nodes, my lungs and stopping the cancer cells. I suppose it sounds a little silly, but it made me feel like I had some control in a very powerless situation.

I know it’s not much but, alongside love, these four things are getting me through and I will cling to them as long as I can.
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