Breast Cancer Resolutions to Live By

December 19, 2017

Why December is a good month to bug myself – and anyone in the Cancer Club – about changing it up.

Carolyn Choate seen kayaking with her older daughter, Sydney. - Photo Credit: Keith R. Stevenson, Pocono Record

If anyone needs a New Year’s resolution — or two – I’m your girl. Some say I’m crazy, at my age, to even bother, or that I should have figured myself out by now and/or stopped meddling in other people’s affairs. They’re probably the same sticks in the mud who thought up the idiom, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I don’t buy it. Not anymore. It’s so BC. Before Cancer.

It’s like saying the status quo is a worthy MO. That it’s OK to be resigned to our flaws and accept the positives as simply good enough. B — O – R – I – N – G. Not to mention, it’s uninspiring and unhealthy, too.

I mean, look what we’ve been through as members of the Cancer Club — that exclusive club nobody wants to join. I figure if we can make it through that initiation, we can make it through just about anything.

So where do I want to take the rest of my life? What do I want it to look like?

These are the questions I have continued to contemplate — just around this time of year – ever since I found out the Grinch was trying to steal all my future Christmases.

Well, I know one thing: win or lose, I never want to go backwards. I don’t want to be that uninformed, out of touch, complacent medical statistic that I used to be, waiting for my number to be called.

I did the couch potato thing, case in point, and look where it got me: Overweight and a target for breast cancer. Did you know 15 extra pounds increases a woman’s chance of ER+ breast cancer? Yup! All the added baggage gives estrogen squatters rights. (I gave it a lot to squat on, particularly in the hip and thigh regions.) Disease is an equal opportunity exploiter. Whether it’s ER+ breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, depression, — I could go on, but you know the drill – weight management and exercise improves health.

Would exercise and Weight Watchers have prevented my cancer diagnosis? I’ll never know, but I regret that it took a near-death experience to give me my life back. And that pest, recurrence? The annoying clattering lid on the simmering pot on the back burner of my mind? Turns out women with ER+ breast cancer can exercise away the ghost of recurrence 50 percent by walking three to five hours a week. The walks must be vigorous enough to break a sweat, which neutralizes estrogen. (Harvard Medical School Newsletter, March 2014)

Now I channel the inner jock I never was in high school into activities that feel less like exercise and more like planned adventures, both solo and with family and friends. Kayaking with my daughters, cycling predetermined routes in my community and stopping at a café for lunch, a brisk walk with my GF and our dogs. I plan them, just like I plan everything else on my calendar — always trying to prioritize the life-sustaining over the life-sapping.

Living in New England has its disadvantages, snow being one that cramps my outdoor workout style. I opted for a treadmill with a TV monitor that I can load with my favorite programs. This is why I was very excited to read recent medical evidence supporting so-called “warrior weekends.” According to an article in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) published in 2017, you can, in fact, cram a week’s worth of moderate to intense exercise into 150 minutes over the weekend and still measurably decrease cardiac and cancer-related illness. Who knew? These days I can happily binge watch Amazon’s many provocative series while staying in shape. (“Mozart in the Jungle” did wonders for my heart rate and my sex life, BTW.)

Staying up-to-date on medical research in general, as well as news and updates specific to your cancer diagnosis is a good thing. Geez, make the most of the scientific brainpower out there doing all the heavy lifting for us that is meant to improve our quality of life and longevity.

Curetoday.com is a fabulous online resource, as are any number of highly regarded medical newsletters available.

Let me give you an example. As a cancer survivor with two daughters and a less-than-stellar family history of several types of cancer (breast, colon and lung) taking the PALB2 genetic test, an expanded analysis of 32 genes for mutations, was both a thoughtful and responsible decision. Understanding the results? I was completely baffled until I read (and reread), “As Genetic Testing for Cancer Expands, Questions Still Remain.” Knowledge truly is power.

Wrapping up my holiday blogging, some of the most meaningful New Year’s resolutions, to me, are actually reaffirmations to which I annually swear allegiance, particularly regarding my health care. I WILL ALWAYS ADVOCATE FOR MYSELF. I beseech you to do the same.

My story of cancer survival is a testament to this all-important tenet.

Despite self-imposed barbs about my weight, lack of exercise motivation and an overall obliviousness about the consequences of my choices, I never let the first day of the month go by without a self-breast exam from the time I was 35 — which is why I’m alive today.

Regular mammograms beginning at age 40 failed to detect the golf ball-sized tumor buried in my chest wall whose wily, octopus-like tentacles sought escape through my areola at 45.

The moment I touched myself that Feb. 1, I knew there would be a reckoning. Having felt my breasts all those months and years, I knew them like the back of my hand. I knew something felt different around my right nipple.

Two mammograms, one ultrasound, one needle biopsy and many migraines later, they said, “Carolyn, all the tests came back negative. Relax and enjoy the holiday weekend.”

“I won’t!” I shot back. “Because I have cancer. You just haven’t found it yet.”

If ever you wanted to be a fly on the wall of awkward medical moments, that would have been it. First, the surgeon and the staff looked at each other in total bewilderment. Then, they looked at me. Then they looked at each other again. No one dared said a word. What could they say? That I needed to be escorted to the psychiatric ward?

Finally, I said, “What test could you possibly give me that you haven’t given me already?”

“A punch biopsy of your right areola,” the doctor replied.

I said, “Give me one now.”

One week later, the woman with symptoms of severe hypochondria was told she needed a radical mastectomy and aggressive treatment to save her life. Don’t be a stick in the mud. If you haven’t already declared, “My New Year’s resolution is to be in charge of my body and advocate for her like a mamma bear with attitude,” make 2018 the year to start.


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