Body & Fitness

Life after breast cancer: A survivor shares her advice

You’re in the clear, but now what? The next step is self-care.

It is one thing to survive cancer, but moving on afterwards can mean big changes to your life, and involves confidence and courage, says Andrea Fairbairn. She should know – she has survived breast cancer twice.

The Wellington woman has written several books about the insights she has gained through her experiences.

One of them, Baring it All, offers tips on life after breast cancer.

Here, Andrea shares some of them:

Treat recovery as your job

One of the most helpful things a doctor told me was to treat cancer treatment as a job, and when treatments finish, to treat recovery as a job. This means that you focus on recovery as the priority in your life rather than meeting requirements of other people and your paid job. Once you have prioritised your recovery, life gets a whole lot easier and you start to bounce back quicker. This important message was reinforced by one of my oncology nurses, who told me that women who rested more during and after treatment often suffered fewer side effects, as they were less fatigued in general.

Take wonderful care of yourself

You have just survived cancer and cancer treatments, and your body and soul require gentleness and healthy living in order to repair and rebuild. Eat as well as you can (good protein, fruit and vegetables). Get gentle exercise every day, even if you start with just 15 minutes. Take some time for reflection and rest each day. Ensure that you get eight hours of sleep a night. If your spirit is blue, do something uplifting each day. Listen to your body and if you need to go to the doctor, go.

Practice the art of convalescence

Convalescence is the gradual return and recuperation to health and strength after illness. It is almost out of date to talk about convalescence, as we have a culture that wants things fast. It would be easier if things were black or white and we were either unwell or well. Yet associated with illness is a period where we are neither or sometimes both well and unwell. Take time to recuperate after your cancer treatments. Don’t return to full-time work straight away unless you really feel 100 per cent.

Act on what your body is telling you

Something we all learn during breast cancer treatment is how to listen to our bodies. We are no longer bulletproof, and if there are aches and pains, they need to be respected and acted on. The first step is learning to listen to your body (notice when your body is tired, sore, irritated or you feel something is not right). The second step is to act on what your body is telling you. If your body is tired, rest, and if there are pains, they need to be checked by a specialist.

Focus forward, not on the why of cancer

It is easy to dwell on all the possible causes of cancer or even blame yourself. Unfortunately, it won’t help you in your recovery. Do not spend hours and days reflecting on how you could have prevented cancer. Instead, focus your energy and mind on getting better and creating your future. When you are feeling well and have recovered from cancer, it is a good time to look at lifestyle and reducing stresses in order to prevent future cancer. But even then, there are complex combinations of genetic and environmental factors at play. Just focus on what you do have control on, which is how you live today.

Acknowledge and express your grief

Cancer comes with a shock and takes us down a road that we were not planning to take. We enter into the world of life-threatening illness and things change as a result of that. Our lives are disrupted or changed from small to huge ways. We may have lost parts of our beautiful bodies but in addition, perhaps we lost a job, relationship or income due to cancer. It is often at the end of treatment that much of the grief of cancer arises.

During treatment time, we are busy, focused on getting through the appointments, treatment and getting well. As we finish treatment, waves and feelings about loss, change and grief seem to come up. Relationships with friends, family members, work, money, love, life and health may have shifted somehow, even if just by a millimetre. It can be quite unsettling, even if we are grateful to be alive.

If you haven’t before now, this is the time for accepting and grieving cancer. Express your feelings in a way that feels right to you such as with a counsellor, through writing and creating, art therapy or talking to friends and family.

Support, support and support

Life during and after cancer is not always a piece of cake. Support helps you negotiate the twists and turns of life during and after breast cancer. The Life After Cancer Epidemiology study in 2012 found women with small networks and low levels of support were 61 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer than those with large networks and high levels of support. So seeking support is not only good for your mental health, but also necessary for your physical health.

Get your mojo back

At the end of cancer treatment, there may be temporary dents in your self-esteem and confidence. In addition, your sense of hope and spark for life may be missing in action. I find the best tonic for this is to do as many enjoyable things as you can every day. My friend Sandra says “do something jolly every day”. I also recommend having adventures and goals to look forward to and that you feel excited about (such as going on a retreat or holiday, or joining an art or writing class).

Baring it All is available as a free eBook from the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation’s website. For information on other books by Andrea on coping with chemotherapy and supporting someone with breast cancer, click here.

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