October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and many of us are all too familiar with the statistics. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women; one in eight will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime. But the purpose of this column is not to scare you into spending every waking moment checking for lumps. It is, in fact, dedicated to assuring that you, the breast cancer survivor, can move forward with a quality of life that is even more rewarding than it was before.
“There is much to celebrate,” says Dr. Julia H. Rowland, director of the office of cancer survivorship at the National Cancer Institute. “Each year for the past seven years, the incidence of breast cancer has dropped. At the same time, the length of survival for women—and a small number of men–is steadily increasing. Equally important are the strides we have made in ensuring that breast cancer survivors’ lives are not simply longer, but better.”
And it’s breast cancer survivors themselves who are taking the lead in redefining what survivorship really means. “By sharing their personal stories, these survivors have taught us that they are remarkably resilient—that they can be thrivers and not victims of their disease, want to be active partners in their care, and are frequently an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration for their peers,” Rowland says.
I, too, have discovered through my own interactions and interviews with breast cancer survivors that many of them are indeed remarkably resilient. My friend Susan, for example, a powerhouse in the cosmetics industry, went through it, got over it and never looked back. While she doesn’t exactly feel lucky to have had this happen to her to begin with, she truly believes that nobody can appreciate life more than someone who has almost lost it. She considers her cancer a chronic condition–like arthritis–and manages to live her life to the fullest despite it, not because of it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, there are still those like Monica, an artist, who is the first to admit that she has let her breast cancer define her very existence. She laments that she has set the bar so low that she is happy just to live another day.
“Even though my doctor has told me I am disease free, I still can’t stop obsessing that any ache, pain or twitch in my chest means that a full-blown case has most certainly returned,” she confessed to me one day. “And I am just so sick and tired of always feeling sick and tired, not to mention unattractive and depressed. I have a great new boyfriend, and I fear that all this constant cancer talk is driving him away.”
Monica is not alone. She wants to break the cycle, change the tape, develop a positive, proactive attitude and rebuild her self-confidence. But like many women in her situation, she finds it challenging to move from thoughts of simply surviving to thriving. And she’d give anything to figure out a way to peacefully co-exist with what she considers the ever-present Sword of Damocles that dangles over her head.
To that end, I asked Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president of The Estée Lauder Companies and founder and chairman of The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, for her advice for before, during, and after treatment.
“The good news,” she told me, “is that more people are surviving every single year, so first, never give up. Go to a breast specialist or a teaching hospital if possible. Following the advice of your oncologist and surgeon is very important. Many of today’s treatments are more tolerable than in the past,” she continues, “and there are excellent targeted treatments which affect the tumor only (rather than the entire body) that have been, and continue to be, developed. Additionally, there are many effective drugs that now control the side effects of chemotherapy.”
“Don’t be afraid of breast cancer,” Evelyn concludes. “Don’t be afraid to do breast self-examinations or to have a clinical exam as part of a regular doctor’s visit. Don’t be afraid to have regular mammograms if you’re over 40. Don’t be afraid–or wait–to go to your doctor if you find a lump or suspect something.”
While we may not be able to directly control cancer cells, there are numerous facets of our lives that we can control, including our stress level, diet choices, activities, relationships and thoughts.
Remember, just when the caterpillar thought its life was over, it became a butterfly. Like breast cancer survivors everywhere, you, too, have earned your wings. And now it is time to fly. Here are 12 more suggestions for helping you have a quality of life that is Better Than Before.
Know the facts. According to Rowland, there are currently more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. alone; 68 percent of these individuals were diagnosed more than five years earlier; and an impressive 14 percent were diagnosed 20 or more years ago. “Scientific evidence supports the fact that survivors can recover both physically and emotionally,” says Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. “The further they are out of treatment, the less impact it will have on the quality of their lives. We all have the innate ability to reach deep inside ourselves at the most threatening moments and pull ourselves out of both our illness and negative thoughts. Do not give up on the things that give you happiness and pleasure.” The doctor does recommend, though, that survivors follow the rules for a healthy lifestyle. Eat a plant-based diet, maintain a good weight, stop smoking, get your screenings and make sure you take care of your health in general.
Make your days happy. “You don’t have to be happy about having breast cancer, but you owe it to yourself to choose happiness,” saysVickie L. Milazzo, author of Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman. “Your choices—the way you think, the things you do and the way you react—define your emotional health. Life will always throw us curveballs, fastballs and, just when you think you know what’s coming next, the occasional change-up. What you focus on is where you yield results; so focus on the positive. Decide every day that nothing will get in the way of choosing happiness.”
The acid test. Oncologists who specialize in integrative medicine stress the relationship between diet and a recurrence. One of their theories is that cancer thrives in an acidic environment. The goal, therefore, is to slowly replace foods that make your blood pH acidic with those that have an alkalizing effect. That means reducing your sugar intake and taking it easy on meat, dairy, refined flour and all processed and packaged foods, artificial sweeteners and alcohol. Add alkalizing fresh vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, and fruit, particularly oranges and grapefruit, watermelon, apples, and blueberries. Take small steps. Adding just one alkaline-boosting salad a day is a good start.
Moving right along. “Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis,” says Dr. Kerry S. Courneya, professor and Canada research chair in physical activity and cancer at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. “Exercise is important for breast cancer survivors because it helps them get through treatments, recover after treatments and improves their quality of life.” In one study, Courneya and his colleagues found that exercise during chemotherapy, especially weight training, helps breast cancer patients complete more of their treatments, which may reduce their risk of recurrence. The evidence for the benefits of exercise is so strong that the American Cancer Society, the American College of Sports Medicine, and many other cancer agencies endorse exercise programs for breast cancer survivors.
Glow for it. “I have always believed in the transformative power of makeup, but never more than when I work with cancer survivors who are in the process of rediscovering their beauty,” says Rick DiCecca, Estée Lauder Global Makeup Stylist. Here are a few tips from Rick: To add luminosity to your skin, use a hydrating serum under your moisturizer, day and night. Blend a bronzer or a blush from the apple of your cheek back toward your hairline for a healthy glow and an instant lift. Treat yourself to a bright new lip color.
Use your mind to heal your body. “I never thought of myself as a brave person, but I had to learn courage during my treatment,” says Geralyn Lucas, author of the best-selling Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy. “One amazing thing I learned was hypnosis. My affirmation was ‘I am the sky, and nothing can stick to me.’ I still remember the morning of my mastectomy. I saw the EXIT sign in the hospital and wanted to escape, but I didn’t run away. I got wheeled in, and I think a different person was wheeled out. I learned from my hypnotherapist that the root of the word courage iscoeur, or heart, in French. Courage isn’t something we are born with, it is something that can be discovered during the most terrifying times. Whenever I am faced with anything scary in life, I think about that morning in the O.R. And how, since I did that, I can do anything. I am not afraid anymore.”
Be well-supported. With the end of cancer treatment often comes the expectation that it is time to celebrateand for things to go back to how they used to be. Yet it’s common for many people to feel lost, uncertain and confused about how to move on. Joining a support group helps survivors connect with people who’ve “been there” and are currently facing similar issues, such as fear of recurrence, living with uncertainty, lingering side effects and going back to work. Visit CancerCare’s website, www.cancercare.org/supportgroups to learn more.
Hold steady. “Any diagnosis of cancer is alarming, yet there is a way that breast cancer hits to the core of a woman’s being, her femininity, her motherhood, her nurturing self,” says interfaith minister Skye Ann Taylor. ”Mastectomy, if needed, is a radical change to a woman’s appearance both to herself and to those with whom she is intimate.” Skye asks you not to turn away from this, but to turn toward it, knowing that you are more than the parts of your body. “Your spirit will no doubt sag for a while as you adjust, yet it cannot be broken. Find a chant or refrain to say over and over, again and again, producing inside you a sound beyond the ordinary worry words. My personal favorite chant is ‘Steady steady, steady steady.’ One step at a time, one heartbeat, steady steady.”
Discover a zest for life. Dr. Michael Krychman, director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine in Newport Beach, Cal., addresses an issue that many breast cancer survivors feel uncomfortable discussing. “Often medications that are prescribed for the long-term health and management of the cancer have far-reaching impact on the quality of a woman’s sexual life,” he says. “Many women experience changes in their feelings about their bodies, with or without breast reconstruction. Others complain of changes in sexual self-esteem that can be devastating.” But it doesn’t have to be, if you’re open to new ways of relating to your partner, creating what Krychman calls a “new sexual normalcy.”
Clean house. Dr. Steven Clinton, of The Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital, who teamed up with a contractor to build the “Home for Hope” designed specifically to fight cancer suggests reducing your odds of a recurrance by installing an industrial grade air filtration system, using low VOC paint, installing formaldehyde-free carpet and insulation, planting a garden for fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooking with a steam convection oven to preserve cancer-fighting nutrients.
Peace out. Finding peace after a cancer crisis can be a rewarding journey unto itself. “Cancer puts all body systems on alert,” says Richard Dickens, clinical supervisor and mind/body project coordinator at CancerCare. “It’s the fight-or-flight syndrome in overdrive. Then just as quickly as it started with ‘You have cancer,’ you hear, ‘You’re finished. Enjoy your life.’” Mindful Meditation, he says, can help slow things down. “Mindfulness uses breath, the cornerstone of life, as a point of focus and, in that state of peace, teaches you how to look at feelings nonjudgmentally. In crisis we are always judging what’s best, what’s right, adding more stress. In mindfulness we are just present.”
All in the family. Brian Hill, who after surviving Stage IV oral cancer, went on to found the Oral Cancer Foundation, perfectly frames the importance of giving back for survivors of any type of cancer. “Often a person who has survived cancer has a desire to ‘give back.’ Many gain a sense of meaning and purpose in doing something for others with cancer. This is a remarkably important way of giving back because seeing and talking with a live human being who has beat the odds and survived your type of cancer is a more tangible sign that you, too, can survive. It is truly a gift of hope and can be given only by someone who has been there. Hope is so important early on, and a volunteer, by his or her presence, makes a new patient feel, ‘If you made it, I can, too.’”