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.
After a cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to find what “normal” means, but by looking at the answers to the basic goals you want to achieve you can find the “normal” that works best for you.
Five-plus years of cancer treatment has left its mark on my physical self. When I think about “returning to normal” while living with cancer, I try not to compare myself to my former self or to those around me.
My “normal” with cancer is what works for me today and could be very different tomorrow.
So, ask yourself, what do you want your normal to be? Here’s how I answered that question:
I want to exercise daily: For me, there’s no question that movement makes a difference. Though I had a treadmill pre-cancer, I stopped using it because of enormous fatigue. Very early on in my diagnosis, within a week, I read a study exploring exercise and cancer drug effectiveness. Despite being a mouse study, the results were enough to make me exercise even through six months of a taxane-based cancer therapy and then long-term targeted treatment.
Not everyone can do what I did. I know that, and everyone, but especially those at increased risk of fractures, falls or other dangers, needs to speak with their doctor about how to make exercise a part of daily life no matter how minimal it may seem.
I want to eat right: My best diet has been one that is traditionally considered healthy, with an abundance of vegetables, some fruit, limited processed food, fish, some dairy and little to no red meat. Other people will thrive on other diets. If you aren’t sure about what a healthy diet is, reach out to your cancer center specialists who can refer you to a knowledgeable dietician that will specialize in diets for patients with cancer.
I want to stress less: I am an abject failure when it comes to reducing stress. I try, fail, and stress about that too. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it control you.
I set goals: In terms of exercise, I wanted to be able to get out of a kayak with more grace than I’d been able to muster. This meant I needed to work on both my strength and my balance. Perhaps not so coincidentally, strength and balance had been seriously impacted by ongoing chemotherapy-induced neuropathy. Pain and less ease with walking sent me to a physical therapist, where I learned exercises to help with both of strength and balance, while my daughters encouraged me to slowly increase my use of hand weights and resistance bands.
I am open to change: I took part in a study of metastatic breast cancer patients that included changes to my diet. There were no off-limit foods, yet the focus on increasing the amount of vegetables and whole-grains meant that overall my diet became healthier. At first, I was resistant to this plan since I felt I was already eating well but, even though the study has finished, I am more aware of the food choices I make.
I’ll try it once: Part of returning to a “normal” life is not being afraid, or at least being less afraid, of taking risks. I have tried--and am set to try again--acupuncture for my neuropathy. I have sought out small adventures, like a mostly sedate river rafting day, that could seem risky but with precautions are no more dangerous than other choices I make.
I try to reset stress: I have always gravitated toward activities that are bound to increase my anxiety. I do make an effort to take breaks from stress-creating situations. I get up and walk around while anxious, I go outside for fresh air or just shut down the computer and turn on music.
I have also learned techniques to calm my nerves--mostly through qi gong, but also through very modified meditation. For me, cancer is a constant low-level stressor that builds during certain times, such as at scans and on treatment days. I try to acknowledge the stress and not just deny it since I can try to do something that helps if I just admit that I feel it.
Figuring out your basic needs for a return to “normal” can you help you find the right path for a healthy lifestyle after a cancer diagnosis.