A breast cancer diagnosis can be frightening. Take encouragement from one who has walked through surgery, chemo, and radiation–and come out the other side cancer free.
Editor’s note: The following is written by special guest author, Sharon Odegaard, a Senior Editorial Specialist at American Specialty Health. Sharon is a seasoned health information writer with many years of experience creating content that encourages people to live a healthy life. Her special interests are nutrition and chronic health conditions. Sharon’s desire to help others achieve better health prompted her to share her own inspirational journey through breast cancer diagnosis and recovery.
Within 3 weeks of retiring, I received the dreaded phone call. A suspicious “shadow” showed up on my mammogram. At the follow-up ultrasound, I could see the little tumor clearly. In hushed tones, the radiologist told me it looked like breast cancer. And treatment should start immediately. The room faded into brown around me as I realized my cozy life had just changed forever.
As I drove home from that appointment, I thought for just a second, “Why me?” Then I decided, “Why not me?” Breast cancer is common. It was my turn to battle it. I decided I would give all my energy to fight the cancer and win. A favorable outcome was by no means guaranteed, but I would work every day to do my part.
My first lesson was to let go of expectations
First, I learned that women are not the only people who can get breast cancer. Men can, too, even though it’s much rarer.
Second, I learned that every person’s journey with breast cancer is different. Some have chemotherapy followed by surgery. Some have only surgery or only radiation. Some, like me, have surgery, then chemo, and then radiation. Patients may have a choice of maintenance drugs after initial treatment, but others don’t have that option.
All these various treatment paths mean that each person can choose to follow his or her oncologist’s recommendations without comparison to others. Different kinds of surgeries, different chemo drugs, different radiation protocols, and different post-treatment medications cover a vast spectrum. The treatment path of your friend, neighbor, or relative may not look like yours. And that’s as it should be, because you are unique.
I made sure to find the right oncologist for me
I knew it would be crucial to find an oncologist I could trust. I needed a doctor who would answer all my questions without being annoyed or brusque. I wanted to know that my doctor was up on the latest developments in the field of breast cancer. I was really blessed because I found someone who checked all these boxes.
I also appreciated my oncologist’s delightful sense of humor. Even when I felt so sick during chemo, he always got me laughing at my appointments. One of my friends told me she doesn’t want an oncologist who laughs—she wants someone serious. That’s OK, too. The point is to find a doctor who is a good fit for you because you will be spending a lot of time with this doctor! And he or she will be crucial to helping guide you along your journey.
Planning ways to cope with down time
Surgery and chemo meant I had to make adjustments to my usual activities. For me, that meant cancelling my book club, my piano students, and my traveling plans. For others, it may mean taking time off work or spending less time with friends and family.
Cancer calls for coping with down time. My doctor nixed outings to the gym, as my immune system would be taking a beating. Sometimes I planned lunch with friends, but some days I felt too sick to go and was stuck on my couch. It helped to know beforehand how I would fill those times if I couldn’t carry on as usual.
Before I even began treatment, I tried to come up with a list of things I knew would help me relax. I loaded up my e-reader with books to read. I lined up movies, podcasts, and documentaries I knew would engage my attention.
Here are some other coping tools I found helpful—and which you might, too:
- Keep a journal. Whether in a book or online, record your thoughts and feelings, whatever they may be. Writing can help you express and release feelings of fear, anger, frustration, sadness, or confusion that you may be feeling about your diagnosis.
But you can also write about positive feelings and events that happen. These can help buoy your spirits. I’ll never forget the day my hairdresser came over to shave my head and my son happened to be visiting. My son’s encouraging remark that I looked “awesome,” even with all my hair now laying on the ground, was just what I needed.
- Create a document or journal of encouraging quotations. Some of these may come from friends or family members who write notes and cards during your treatment. You’ll have all this content in one place so you can read through it on days when you feel discouraged.
- Do activities if and when you feel up to them. I found planning for something like coffee with a friend helped get me out when I didn’t feel my best. However, other times I had to cancel, and that’s okay, too. People will understand if you want to participate but can’t.
- Consider finding spiritual support. You might find this through a church or time spent in nature. You might also find spiritual solace from reading encouraging self-help books or by joining a small support group. These all helped buoy me up during my cancer journey.
Finding help and support during my breast cancer journey
The support of my friends, neighbors, and family members helped carry me through the experience of breast cancer. As I began treatment, I quickly discovered just how crucial it was to have a strong social network.
Friends and family offered to bring me meals and to drive me to and from medical appointments. Caring friends delivered treats, such as fruit popsicles, when I didn’t feel like eating. Or they’d send colorful bouquets to cheer me up. These little gestures of support helped in big ways. And I realized how important it was to not let my independent nature get in the way of accepting help and care from others.
I also found immense comfort in turning to someone who had gone through cancer. A friend of mine went through chemo for lymphoma about 3 months before my treatment. Being a natural comedian, he would text me about the ins and outs of chemo, along with silly jokes. Not only did he give me a heads up about what I would experience, but he also put a smile on my face.
How my breast cancer support group helped get me through
Another tremendous source of help during my journey came from the breast cancer support group at the hospital. This lovely group of women included newbies like me, but also some who were 10 or 12 years out from treatment. Those who came months or years after being cancer free served as living, breathing proof that you can survive cancer.
The dear, strong women from this group who devoted their time to encourage me, joke with me, give advice on what helped them, and just chat about anything and everything meant so much to me. They created a safe place—a place to know I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.
Along with sponsoring the support group, my hospital provided special events, including a beauty make-up session. Top cosmetic brands donated bags full of products. A make-up artist donated her time. About a dozen of us sat around a table with our beauty treasures. We were bald and had also lost lashes and eyebrows to cancer treatment. But for that magic hour, we applied make-up, had color in our cheeks once again, and lit up inside as our outsides looked just a bit more presentable.
Discovering your unique perspective on dealing with breast cancer
What I discovered helped me the most throughout my breast cancer journey was my own desire to help someone else each day. Whether it’s a doctor or nurse, the person sitting next to you in chemo, or a frail patient in the radiation waiting room, someone will cross your path who can benefit from your encouragement.
During chemo, for example, when everyone sits in rows of chairs like you’re all enjoying a mani-pedi together, the person beside you may be battling severe or recurrent cancer. A kind word or general question can open up a conversation that will lift that person’s spirits.
One day in chemo, my “neighbor” and I talked about where we lived, and soon, several others joined the conversation. We discovered that some of us were actually each other’s neighbors, which got us all to laughing and chatting. Everyone’s day brightened a bit.
Similarly, my radiation protocol was an appointment at the same time every day for weeks. So, I got acquainted with the other regular patients.
One woman, wheelchair-bound, spread her fear-induced crabbiness to all. Her family sat in the corner trying to ignore her. One day I mentioned to her how difficult it is to eat when all food makes you feel sick.
She immediately perked up and told me she found one thing that helped. The next day she pulled a handful of coffee nips from her pocket. “Try these,” she told me. “You’ll be able to suck on these without feeling sick.” She was a changed person, her bitterness gone for that morning, all because she felt empowered and useful in reaching out to me.
Living—and giving—as a breast cancer survivor
As a breast cancer survivor, now I’m able to encourage those struggling through the early stages of treatment. I know how it feels when your world is upended by one phone call.
One friend talked and texted when she wanted a listening ear. When I stood in her kitchen with a small group of others one day, she said, “How is life different for you now, after cancer?” Another cancer survivor and I answered in unison, “All of life is a bonus.”
We laughed and agreed that once you’ve faced your mortality and come through the worst, every day is a treasure. I could have missed the diagnosis until too late. Or the cancer may recur. Meanwhile, today brings joy.
Oh, and even in good health, why not look for those you can encourage? There are those in need all around you, all the time.
This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Sharon Odegaard is not a member of the Silver&Fit Program. Images used for this article do not depict Sharon nor any members of the Silver&Fit Program.
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Mayo Clinic. (2022, September 13). Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-diagnosis/art-20044544
Plastic Surgery.org. (2023). Breast reconstruction. https://www.plasticsurgery.org/reconstructive-procedures/breast-reconstruction
This article was written by Sharon Odegaard, edited by Gail Olson, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RD