Transitioning from breast cancer patient to survivor can be challenging, but here are some practical tips to help make it easier.
If you're like me, you never thought treatment would end. For months you've done everything the doctors told you to do. Continually, you've had one appointment after the other as doctors have watched you carefully since your initial diagnosis. Now things are slowing down and you're finally approaching the time when breast cancer and/or treatment won't be the center of your life any longer.
You're probably wondering how to transition back into life before cancer. There are no practical guides to help you through it. Most of the knowledge you'll obtain will be done on your own or gleaned from fellow survivors who share what the've learned through their own experiences. It's a tricky situation, but it can be done! In this article, I'm going to share some things I've learned and what's worked for me. Hopefully, you'll find something here that will prove helpful to you as well.
1. Cut yourself some slack! Remember, you've been through a harrowing experience. Breast cancer is traumatic and you've experienced a very stressful time in your life. Even as you prepare to move forward, you need to realize you've probably suffered a bit of post traumatic stress. Anxiety is part of the breast cancer experience and comes from not knowing what the future holds. Acknowledge your feelings and realize it's normal to be fearful. Moving from a time of constant treatment to calmer waters is different and can be scary. It's normal to feel concerned at not having the safety net of constant doctors' appointments and lab tests. Don't fret! You haven't been forgotten! Just because you aren't having to go see the doctor every few months doesn't mean you're not being watched. Your doctors will constantly confer and share information. They are keeping a close eye on you!
2. At the end of treatment, if you can afford it, go on a little vacation. It's good to distance yourself from your daily routine. Do something fun to celebrate. Relax and use it as a time to realize your life is becoming your own again. Time away will help you learn to refocus. Going through breast cancer often helps us re-prioritize our lives. We can learn to focus on what's really important and let the other things fall away.
3. Realize you're not the center of attention any more. This can be hard! For months, you've probably had people calling and checking on you. It's been good to have those loved ones share their concerns in practical ways. Now, you may find those calls, cards, or visits becoming fewer and fewer. It doesn't mean people don't care about you. It merely means they realize you're shifting from a period of constant, intensive treatment into a more normal time in your life. They want to give you space. They want to respect your time. They know you're doing well enough to work through some things alone. They still love you and value you.
4. Learn to find new ways to cope. Cancer teaches us the valuable lesson of learning to evaluate our lives. Now that treatment is over, it's easier to take a look at what worked and what didn't. This is the perfect time to learn to set healthy boundaries in your life. It's a perfect time to eliminate as much stress as possible. Use this time to manuever yourself into a better protective bubble. Don't be afraid to allow others in, but be more careful about making sure your own needs are met in a healthy, responsible way.
5. Don't panic about recurrence. Remember you have no control over the future. There's no need to live in fear. If you ever experience a recurrence, new treatments will be available. Your doctors will move on your behalf rapidly. You're a step ahead of everyone else because you already know the rigors of breast cancer and what is involved. You are equipped to handle it should it ever happen again, but don't live your life assuming it will.
6. Don't let breast cancer define you! Even though you've been through treatment and if feels like you know all there is to know about breast cancer, you don't have to let it label you. Before breast cancer, you were a beautiful, vital person. You may have been someone's dearest friend, someone's wife, someone's mother, etc. Yes, you HAD cancer but you don't HAVE it now. You're moving forward! Remember all those wonderful qualities you possessed before cancer and focus on bringing those back into who you are now.
7. Do what you can to remain healthy. There's a lot of data out there regarding what to avoid if you've ever had cancer. Among that data are processed foods and sugar. Learning to eat a more healthy diet will certainly be more beneficial for your overall health. Try to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into your daily meal plan and if possible, make those organic choices. Exercise as much as possible. It will not only make your look better, it will make you feel better. Exercise releases endorphins which are proven to stimulate the happy place in your brain and is a great way to relieve stress.
8. Accept your limitations. Since your experience with breast cancer, you may have more physical or mental limitations than B.C. (before cancer). If you work outside the home, you may find you need to talk with your employer and make your limitations known. Once again, learn to set healthy boundaries on what you can and cannot do. It's okay! Breast cancer has changed your body and may have caused you to accept some limits.
9. Move from being the breast cancer patient to the breast cancer survivor! Being a patient means you're still in treatment. Being a survivor means you've moved through that part of your journey and you're moving on.
10. When you're ready, learn to transition from a breast cancer survivor into a breast cancer thriver. You can live a beautiful, healthy, productive life after cancer. Yes, many things have changed and will never be the same again but your life is not over. Set goals! Make plans! Look to the future! Celebrate milestones and cherish memories. Look at all you've accomplished.
Breast cancer is a very emotionally and physically draining experience. Everyone's experience is different. It can be hard to move forward after going through such a traumatic experience, but it can be done. It takes time and it takes diligence. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it while you transition back into life.
This article is written from my own personal experience. I was diagnosed in June 2014. It's been almost two years since my diagnosis. My treatment ended in November of 2015. I've been working hard to transition back into life and I've found all of the steps above to be very helpful.
Each person will have to find his/her way to work through their breast cancer experience. Some will find it easier to accomplish than others. Some will have the support of friends and loved ones and others will have to go through it alone. The main thing I'd like to share is never give up hope. With hope, all things are possible.
Breast cancer is devastating but it doesn't have the power to destroy you completely unless you give it that power. Keep fighting! Keep hoping! Keep moving foward!