Coming Back After Breast Cancer
Perhaps one of the most insidious things about breast cancer is that, especially in the early stages, the disease can be invisible. Symptomless. Women who are healthy, active, and vibrant suddenly find themselves perfectly healthy — except for that life-threatening disease.
And after treatment, whatever that may consist of, many survivors feel worse than they ever felt when they had cancer and didn’t know it. Fatigue, weakness, nausea, dizziness, pain, limited range of motion, not to mention the psychological toll of fear of recurrence and hypervigilance about every bruise, headache, or new sensation — all can happen to varying degrees and all can interfere with resuming life as you once knew it.
Fighting your way back to true health after undergoing treatment can be a real struggle.
The good news? It’s doable.
A one-year survivor myself, I talked with three friends who have also come through treatment and are living their lives. Perhaps they’re not the same as their pre-cancer lives, but their lives are full, active, and most importantly, no longer centered around the disease.
Step One: Let some stuff go
Suzanne Nowlis, like pretty much all the women in this small sample, was one of those women whose diagnosis was baffling. A super-fit, competitive endurance athlete with a number of Ironmen triathlons under her belt whose idea of a “vacation” was to cycle up an Alp, she’s one of those women you think is surely immune to disease.
But cancer and a double-mastectomy in 2018 plus chemo and reconstruction meant her world changed — radically and suddenly.
“For me, one of the real hurdles was I kept comparing myself to pre-cancer. I had to let that go. I was really into triathlons and the Ironman thing, and that whole world is based upon timing and numbers. It was easy to get discouraged and think, ‘Oh my god, I’m so much slower.’ For me, the best first step to getting back and active again was letting that go.
“So now I’m free to concentrate on those activities that I truly love. I started backcountry skiing more with my husband, took up kayaking and have a renewed passion for my favorite sport, cycling. I’m so grateful that I have regained my fitness and am able to resume a very active lifestyle. It’s such a joy to do these things now without the stress of competing with my pre-cancer self.”
Step Two: Give yourself grace
Diana Dillard’s cancer came earlier in her life. Suzanne and I were both in our 50s, but Diana was diagnosed much younger, at 43. Now a decade-and-a-half later, Diana doesn’t see the change from active to treatment as having “lost” something. She’s grateful to have been active then, seeing her physical fitness and healthy habits as key to getting through the process more easily. The harder part for her was admitting she needed to slow down.
“I think having been active was helpful for me and is really helpful for women. To be as healthy as they should be anyway, to exercise, and to try to take care of themselves is so important, because I think the fact that I was already into fitness and eating a relatively healthy diet and taking care of myself really helped with my recovery.
“But, my kids were 5 and 11, I had a full-time job, it hit me really hard. I went a million miles an hour, every day, all day long, like working moms do, so the hardest part for me was learning to slow down a little bit. We have to allow ourselves that, like, give yourself some grace. If you’re saying, ‘Oh, I have chemo today, I should probably give myself a couple of hours recovery time in the day,’ listen to that. Take care of yourself first. It’s hard when you have a family and a job and an active life, but you have to prioritize you right now and give yourself grace.”
The faster you get back to health, the faster you can start to reclaim those parts of your life that have been on hold for cancer.
Step Three: The nitty gritty
Of course, while the mental part of coming back from cancer is critical, there are lifestyle things that can support your recovery. I spoke with Gennev Health Coach Katie Linville, who is a Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition. Here’s what she told me about caring for yourself after cancer derails your life:
- Boost your protein intake. Women over 50 need more protein anyway, but a recovering body has higher needs, she says. Aim for 1-1.2/kg of body weight of protein consumption daily, preferably of lean proteins.
- Eat antioxidant rich and a variety of nutrients. Fruits and veggies are great for fighting the free radicals that can contribute to cancer development. If it’s bright, colorful, and looks good, she says, go for it. Don’t force yourself to eat something you don’t like because you think you “should.” A dietitian or nutritionist can help you understand your options.
- Reduce meat/animal products and saturated fats. A diet that leans heavily (if not exclusively) on whole, plant-based foods is the most supportive of your recovery, Katie says. Animal products can increase the risk of recurrence.
- Alcohol is best in moderation. Definitely check in with your doc if you’re in active treatment. And stomach and breast cancer survivors shouldn’t exceed one serving a day: 1.5 oz hard liquor, OR 5 oz wine, OR a 12 oz beer.
- High-fat, high-calorie, highly processed foods are not the most health supporting for any of us.
- What about carbs? For active people, cutting carbs is like only putting a quarter tank of gas in your car, then heading out to drive cross-country. It’s just not enough. But what carbs are OK for cancer survivors? Look for the ones that take longer to digest: yams, brown rice, whole-grain pastas and breads. Fiber also feeds your good gut bacteria, so carbs that keep their fiber rather than shedding them (like white bread, white rice, crackers, etc.) are much more helpful.
- What about soy? For those of us with “estrogen positive” cancers, the phytoestrogens in soy and other foods can be concerning. In truth, soy, consumed in moderation and closer to its natural form, can have a beneficial, protective benefit against breast cancer, says Katie. Avoid concentrated soy isoflavones in supplements, however; those may be too concentrated, and stripped of their natural fiber, may be more dangerous than protective.
Having cancer may feel like so much is taken from you: your active lifestyle, your healthy body, your feeling of security and control. But the truth is, with time and patience, your life on the other side of treatment can be just as rich and fulfilling (or even more) than it was before.
There’s no right or perfect way to do this, so follow the path that works for you, adjust as necessary, be a little selfish when you need to be, and be well.
Images courtesy of Suzanne Nowlis