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Putting Yourself First
March 19, 2019 – Martha Carlson

Putting Yourself First

How to build good self-care habits for a better life with cancer.
PUBLISHED March 19, 2019
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.

Self-care. Even today, in the midst of years of living with metastatic cancer, I hear those words and I think, "Ugh. What am I supposed to be doing now to make my life better?"

Pre-cancer, I thought of self-care in the simplest of terms: eat well and exercise. I could do those two things but, with cancer, those two things and so much more just to live life require my focused attention. Self-care burn-out? I've felt it.

So, when a self-care Bingo card started making the rounds on social media sites last week, I didn't immediately take a look. I already know self-care too often falls to the bottom of a to-do list that inexplicably grows longer while I sleep and shrinks at an imperceptible pace.

I have so much to do for everyone else.

And I'm tired.

What possible help could a Bingo card provide?

It turns out that it can help a lot. By including daily activities that I sometimes do without much thought— "Took Shower" and "Ate Food" for example— reading over the card reminded me that if I acknowledge and am mindful of the small things I do to take care of myself each day, I am more likely to feel like I am looking out for my physical and emotional health.

For me, as a person living with cancer, there are days when I can live a completely normal life and there are days when I just can't. Brushing my teeth and doing one or two other activities can push me to my limit. It's this kind of terrible tiredness that doesn't come from lack of sleep or healthy food that is, for me, the hallmark of years of cancer treatments. Fortunately, those days don't happen often. I've learned to watch for the signs of fatigue, such as a bad mood or short temper, and move in quickly to readjust, realign, and rest.

I missed a lot of those signs recently. I have a pretty full calendar. There is always somewhere to go and something to do and I don't want to miss any of it, which is another hallmark of living with metastatic cancer. I guess you could say that self-care Bingo card showed up at exactly the right time.

I admit, the first squares on the card that jumped out at me were all the ones that I could check off without too much effort: shower, food, brush teeth. I felt accomplished with those activities checked off and was brought quickly back to the period in my life when even doing one of those could take all day. This happened just before my diagnosis with metastatic cancer, when I didn't believe there was a physical reason for my fatigue. Thinking about that period reminds me that I am doing better now than I was several years ago.

Still, self-care isn't only about the physical. I like these cards because they remind us to take care of our emotional needs as well. Some activities on most cards you can find with a simple Google search are pretty straightforward, such as "Looked at the stars," while other squares require efforts at mindfulness and encourage deeper thought about what makes your life meaningful.

Both easy and more-difficult activities are needed for good self-care. This is the ultimate lesson of this Bingo card and other such cards—they exist for resiliency, self-esteem, healthy habits, etc.— that look to make it easier for us to live better. A full life is one that includes awareness and gratitude for both the so-called small things and the events and activities that take more time and effort.

I'm not going to pretend that this Bingo card has cured me of my self-care struggles. After all, ignoring my own needs is a lifelong habit that I share with a lot of people. We could all stand to take better care of ourselves. I'm glad I found a fun way to remind myself to do just that.

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