Choice. This is a powerful word, especially if you have been diagnosed with cancer. You did not choose to have cancer, and once you are diagnosed you’re faced with countless choices about doctors, treatment options, how to care for your family, whether to tell colleagues at work and many more decisions. It can be overwhelming!
The one choice you cannot afford to ignore is choosing to take better care of your self during and after cancer. Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I lived a rich and full life, albeit a bit unhealthy. After cancer, I still live a full and rich life but with more balance and focus on my health.
In 2009 I was living a delicious lifestyle running a wine and food public relations agency in New York City, hobnobbing with famous chefs, drinking world-class wines and traveling the globe to promote wine and food regions. That summer I had partied with P Diddy’s celebrity guests at his Beverly Hills White Party, attended a cocktail conference in New Orleans, and went on business trips to visit wineries in Spain and Italy.
My well-traveled life was about to take a bad detour to an unexpected destination: Cancer Land. While in Italy, I discovered a lump in my breast during a self-examination. Weeks later I was diagnosed with Stage 2A breast cancer. This savvy world traveler found herself lost in a place she wasn’t prepared to visit and desperately wanted to get out alive with a one way ticket back to good health.
After the initial shock sunk in I looked at myself in the mirror and said to the scared person staring back, ” You may not have chosen to have breast cancer, but you can choose how you will face it and how you will use this experience to make sure you stay in good health from this point forward. You will choose to be fearless and stay fabulous.”
During my “Year of Living Chemically and Surgically,” I underwent a double mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy and a prophylactic surgery to remove my ovaries and Fallopian tubes after I tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation. This was also my “Year of Personal Transformation and Re-framing.” I decided to use the time to change all unhealthy habits, and eliminate toxic stress that I believed were contributing factors to my illness. While I let the doctors take charge of fighting the cancer; I took charge of healing my body.
The year after treatment I looked like a new woman. I was healthy, fit, lean and my skin glowed, all attributable to the healthy lifestyle changes I made and still keep today as a vibrant and active survivor-thriver.
Here are five steps I took to stay healthy before, during and after treatment that you can do:
Hydrate: Drink plenty of water, non-caffeinated herbal teas, vegetable broth or fresh juices. Avoid sugary drinks, artificial sodas and caffeinated beverages such as coffee or energy drinks. Though it contains caffeine (approximately 30 mg per eight ounce cup), green tea is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols which science shows contribute to anti-cancer properties (Reference: https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/green-tea).
Masticate: Make smarter food choices and manage your portions. Focus less on “dieting” and more on “editing” the foods you eat with a focus on fresh vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, nuts and monounsaturated oils such as olive. Think smarter choices and smaller portions. Healthy eating is about adding in better foods and reducing or eliminating processed and artificial foods which contain hidden salt and sugar as well as chemicals you can’t pronounce and your body does not need. If you need to add more flavor try fresh herbs and spices as a better option to salt. Craving something sweet? Choose fresh or dried fruits or a small piece of dark chocolate over sugary cakes and cookies.
Gyrate: Daily movement, even a brisk walk, will help clear your mind, boost energy and maintain your weight. The Dept. of Health & Human Services and the American Heart Association both recommend that you get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity* or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity. This is very important for women, who have a higher risk for heart disease. Strength and stretching exercises such as yoga, barre method and Pilates will help with neuropathy, muscle tightness, and body stiffness. The nonprofit Moving for Life, http://www.movingforlife.org/, offers free dance programs for cancer survivors in certain cities as well as a great video. Your local YMCA or JCC may offer fitness programs for cancer survivors.
Meditate: De-stress with meditation and deep breathing exercises. Create a calm quiet space in your home, or outside, where you can disconnect for at least 15-20 minutes. Make sure you are getting enough rest and relaxation so your body can regenerate.
Stimulate: Exercise your mind to stay focused and defog chemo brain with a creative outlet such as painting, coloring, crossword puzzles, board games. Mine was writing. I like to make lists and write essays. During my treatment I created check lists of tips and suggestions to help other women facing the cancer journey and kept a journal. This led to my first book, “Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide.
Before you begin any dietary or fitness regimen consult with your primary medical practitioner and/or oncologist to make sure your body is physically ready. Review any drugs you are taking to know whether certain foods could interfere with them. Before purchasing any vitamins or nutritional supplements consult your physician and/or a naturopathic doctor (ND). A naturopathic doctor can prescribe complementary treatments to help your body cope with traditional cancer treatment as well as any long term side effects. But many nutrients you need can come from making better food choices.
The Choice is Yours
Getting sick was not your choice. Taking steps to reduce your risk of getting sick, recurrence and to stay strong is one of the best choices you can make to stay strong and healthy.
These ten takeaways I learned from having cancer are really no different than those we should live by when we are healthy. It took a health scare to put it all back into perspective:
- Be physically active with daily aerobic exercise
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Make smart food choices
- Lower alcohol intake.
- Use sunscreen daily.
- Reduce/manage stress.
- Get enough sleep.
- Don’t smoke or use recreational drugs
- Be vigilant about your health care, including annual exams, screenings, and vaccinations
- Focus on positive energy and make quality time for yourself and loved ones.