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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Putting Yourself First

By Kristen Carter

When Dawn Oswald was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2008, her first impulse was to get on with treatment as quickly as possible so she could keep working as an occupational therapy assistant. “Most of my life I put people first. It’s my caring nature,” she said.

After chemo and a month of radiation she was back on the job. She took medication for ten years to prevent the cancer from recurring and so she could keep working. “I just needed to go back to work to help my patients get better,” she explained. Meanwhile, she raised four children.

It was only ten years later, when Dawn was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, that she “took another look on life” and put herself first. Over the past five years she has treated herself and her husband to multiple trips, including three times to Hawaii and multiple cruises. She even bought a house on a beach, where she can sit on the front porch and see the water and watch the boats go by, which brings her peace. She rests when she needs to and lives one day at a time.

Women Tend to be the World’s Helpers

Dawn is not alone in her focus on helping others. Women are, on average, more focused on “other-concern,” according to studies reported by LibreTexts™, and “are more likely than men to help in situations that involve long-term nurturance and caring, particularly within close relationships” such as families and friendships. Women are also more likely than men to engage in occupations and community behaviors such as volunteering or helping families.

In most, if not all, countries, women are socialized to take care of others. In addition to work, most women manage their children and family’s obligations. An increasing number of women also care for their aging parents.

Around the world, women do an average of three times as much unpaid care work as men, according to international consulting group McKinsey & Company. In the U.S., even among women who earn the majority of their household’s income, 43 percent of women who are primary household income earners continue to do all or most of the household work, compared with only 12 percent of men. In some countries like India, women do almost ten times as much unpaid care work as men.

The challenge for women is even greater thanks to the economic fallout from COVID-19; in the U.S., for example, the amount of time women spend on household responsibilities increased by 1.5 to 2 hours per day, according to a study by

Changing the Paradigm

Some of the solutions to these problems rest at the national, state, community, and company level. But there are steps you can take to reclaim time spent helping others that you can use to nurture yoc

Research shows that taking time to yourself is good not just for you but also for your family and your workplace. If you’re burnt out or have lost interest in your career or family, it’s not good for anyone.

Ideas for Self-Care

Here are a dozen ways you might prioritize yourself and your health:

  1. Write yourself a forgiveness letter, absolving yourself of any guilt you feel over not prioritizing yourself more in the past. Start with a clean, positive slate.

  2. Begin to make yourself the priority, even if it’s only for a small amount of time every day.

  3. Stop beating yourself up. Silence that critical inner voice that says you have to be perfect. Think of yourself as the type of person who is kind and gentle with herself.

  4. Do something, even something tiny, that will make you feel good each day.

  5. Make time to rest. Even a few minutes of deep breathing will help.

  6. Get a good night’s sleep. Experts recommend avoiding screens before bed, keeping your room as dark as possible, and going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.

  7. Start meditating. Just five minutes can make a massive difference. If five is too many, start with one minute where you breathe slowly and calm your mind. If thoughts pop up, imagine putting them in balloons and letting them float away.

  8. Exercise. Go for a walk. Stretch. Join a friend or family member for a walk-and-talk. If you have kids, join them for something fun and physical.

  9. Begin planning a future vacation. Half the fun is in the planning.

  10. Ask a family member or colleague who also struggles with self-care to be your accountability buddy and keep each other accountable for finding “me time.”

  11. Keep a self-care journal – simply jot down what you did to care for yourself and how it made you feel. If you keep one, add it to your habit tracker. Or simply stick it on a post-it note where you’ll see it daily.

  12. Learn to say no. A no to requests for help from others is the same as saying YES to yourself. You could try something like, “I’d like to help you but right now I need to take care of myself.” Chances are, the other person will not only accept your explanation but respect you for it.

Start small. Pick one thing from the list and try it for a few days. See what happens. Build on what works and learn from what doesn’t. Research shows that making tiny changes you can stick with is more successful than attempting lofty goals.

Last Words

Ignoring your own needs shows others that it’s okay with you. Choose instead to show your family and colleagues that you value yourself and your health enough to set limits on what you’ll give away and what you protect for your precious self.

“It wasn’t until I was diagnosed Stage 4 that I realized I needed to take care of me,” Dawn said. “I even continued working for 15 months before I officially retired. Yes, it was hard at first, but I’m good now and enjoying my life.”

Learn more:

Author bio:

Kristen Carter is a certified coach with a background in communications. She was diagnosed with stage zero breast cancer in 2008 and metastatic breast cancer in 2018. Writing for SBC — sharing tools that help her and others cope and thrive — is a creative outlet for her and one that gives her a sense of meaning and purpose. She can be reached at Resources & Support:


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1 Comment

Feb 26, 2023

In Italy we call it "sindrome della crocerossina", that means "red cross woman syndrome". Because we women tend to take care of others. We've been raised thinking that's how we feel complete, useful. In the past women didn't work. Their job was taking care of children, house, old parents/relatives. Then women went to work out of the house but still, the world expect from us to still take care of our family and house. I remember that my mother-in-law was shocked when she discovered that sometimes my husband got up in the middle of the night to take care of a crying child. I explained her that he was the father and we were both working. But for her it…


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