Updated: May 16, 2020
Last week I shared a personal post in our newsletter where I called out the person I was before cancer, and who I have become after cancer. The post was short, but basically, even 3 years after my initial diagnosis, I am still processing and coming to terms with my body. There is an important factor here we don't often talk about and that is mental health. When you hear the words you have cancer, yes, you know you are going to go through physical hell but can we talk about the mental turmoil we experience?
You all responded to the call:
Andrea spent a year trying to hold on to who she was pre diagnosis and surgery. She was leaner and more muscular. Then her lungs partially collapsed and she just couldn’t. Aromatase inhibitors have changed how her body works.
Having zero access to estrogen means making muscle and maintaining it is hard. All Andrea knows is that she has to move significantly EVERY day for a number of reasons:
My body needs the exercise to help maintain my mood. Exercise is the only natural mood stabilizer and it only works if it’s consistent and over time.
My joints benefit from daily movement.
Finding novel ways to move is fun, whether it’s a Zumba or burlesque class.
It helps maintain a steady weight especially when I do weight lifting.
Meditation is also important. Even 10 minutes of mindfulness is important.
She gives herself goals like training for a half marathon, or to improve her 1 mile swim time. Having goals keeps us focused on what’s important. For her its always the journey and not just the day of a race.
Andrea, what's your one great piece of advice for others going through breast cancer right now?
"Talk to older women about what they do for aching joints, sore muscles and how they maintain their muscle. It is a privilege to learn from them. I hope to be old too one day.
Learn what nourishes your now menopausal body. It’s less and different from what it may have been before."
Brookshire's first primary breast cancer diagnosis was in 2004. She felt immediate denial and called her brother to ask his doctor friend how they determine the tumor to be cancer; was it by a person in training looking in a microscope and saying, “It looks like cancer to me?”
Brookshire wondered if she was in the low percentage of false positives-not realizing at the time she had 5 aunts who had had breast cancer and were of the generation that the “cancer” word was never said.
Her second primary breast cancer on the opposite side was discovered in 2006 (each found on mammograms in the same month.) Having fallen from a ladder, Brookshire was still on crutches when she was called in during lunch hour to the physician’s office.
A nurse opened the door to the waiting area, and seeing her on crutches exclaimed, “Oh you have that, too!”
Brookshire felt this to be a mentally taxing manner to learn you have cancer! Brookshire silently thought, “I guess this means I really did have cancer the first time.”
Sarah is also 50 lbs overweight and is trying to navigate menopause after a total hysterectomy. She has the BRCA1 gene mutation, and has stopped taking Letrozole because the side effects were horrendous. "I felt like I was a very unhealthy 90 year old woman" she exclaims. Sarah had been active, healthy and have spent her life outdoors and, like so many of us, she is always looking for the silver lining.
After she stopped taking Letrozole, she was positive that she would feel better, work out and loose all the weight. Nope!! Sarah laments that the weight gain continues and she still has horrible pain in her feet and ankles.
The mental health aspect is one that she has not addressed. She is strong. She has always been healthy. She has support. She's got this!
Cancer treatment for her was a breeze compared to navigating life as a survivor. It’s tough. It takes effort and awareness every single day. The mental health component is one that is real despite spending most of her days ignoring that component. Sarah is a paramedic and nurse and has been involved in emergency medicine as a first responder for over 20 years. She has seen things that are oh so traumatic for so many people. She states, "My mind and body holds trauma, I understand trauma. I put my work trauma in my “work box” in my brain. I didn’t put cancer in the trauma category. OMG! Really???? How did I not know cancer is trauma??"
It is turmoil, it is scary and Sarah has picked herself up and carried on.
Sarah, how has being less active, less healthy, less strong, less lean affected your mental health?
"I believe it takes its toll and it is easy to discount. As I carry on and learn to live as a survivor and live and thrive in life every day, I strive to learn to be more aware about my most recent trauma. Our bodies and our brains hold trauma and we pay the price in our every day lives. At this point in my life I want to understand and be aware of how cancer changed me, how it has affected my mental health and be real with that. I want to sit in the fire with that, I want to understand because after all, I had surgery and chemo and medications to get cancer out of me. I want to address the trauma so I can let go of it and let my mind and my body heal completely. It’s a journey, one that will continue to teach me throughout life with all the bumps and all the joys."