Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Survival Mode

It strikes in the middle of the night.

I awaken with a start. As my mind drifts inward in my darkened bedroom, I start to wonder if a rogue cancer cell may have escaped from my breasts. Will it multiply?  Will I have to do all this again? Will it kill me this time? I think about those funky little aches and pains. Are they really just "funky" and "little?"

I have since learned this thinking is perfectly normal. 

I have shifted gears in my cancer experience - from treatment to survival. I recently met with a nurse practitioner with Hartford Hospital's cancer survivorship program. I would encourage anyone in recovery to participate in this kind of program if you have access to one.

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My breast surgeon referred me to her as part of the follow-up to my breast cancer diagnosis, bilateral mastectomy, and reconstruction surgery. It has been more than a year since my diagnosis and nearly a year since the surgery that removed both my breasts.

Re-Hearing My Diagnosis

In our meeting, we took it from the top.

She reviewed my original lab reports with me. It was interesting to hear them again from the other side of  my treatment. In August 2014, I didn't know as much about breast cancer as I do now. The emotional devastation also clouds perception. I knew my cancer was in its early stages and my tumors were very small. What I didn't hear back then was how aggressive my form of cancer was. I dodged a bullet.

Another issue we tackled was anxiety. I characterized my fears of recurrence as mild. I have them, but they don't interfere with my daily enjoyment of life. She made sure I had information on where to turn if I feel overwhelmed. Time, she said, heals these feelings.

Also as a result of our meeting, she gave me a written summary of all my treatment. It was forwarded to my breast surgeon, my primary care physician, my oncologist, and my plastic surgeon. If I should need to tell a new doctor or other healthcare professional about my illness, it's all right there.

Moving forward

We also talked about ongoing follow up care and resources that are available to me to maintain ongoing good health. I had several takeaways:
  • Nutrition - I took a one-night class on nutrition after cancer, given by a dietitian and health coach in the hospital's Integrative Medicine Program. I have been on a healthy-eating quest for some time, but this class clarified a number of things. The goal of post-cancer nutrition is to create an inner terrain that is as inhospitable to cancer as possible. To do that, eat G-BOMBS - greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds and nuts. Plant-based diets can help prevent recurrence. I also shop with a list of the produce that is best purchased from organic farms.
  • Exercise - This message keeps coming at me. Exercise is one of the best and most effective ways to prevent cancer in the future. I have been a faithful home exerciser for many years, but I felt like I needed extra help as I continue my recovery from the surgery. I was referred to the LiveStrong program at the Farmington Valley YMCA, an exercise program that is tailored to cancer survivors. Twice a week, I attend a class that includes 30 minutes on cardio equipment, followed by 30 minutes in a small group with a trainer that focuses on building strength, flexibility, and balance. The final 30 minutes are for stretching and relaxation. I can't say enough good things about this program. It provides cancer survivors with a free family membership to the Y for three months. It is wonderful to be with a group of like-minded people. There are certain things I don't have to explain to them. An added blessing - my first evening at the program I discovered one of my trainers is a former colleague whom I haven't seen in several years. It was wonderful to see her!
  • Chemicals - I had never given much thought to the products I put on and around my body. I have now checked most of the cosmetics I use with the Environmental Working Group website. Parabens, sulfates, and phthalates have been associated with breast cancer, and I will avoid products with them. Many of my favorites are made without those potentially dangerous chemicals (Sadly, my favorite cleanser isn't one of them. It contains parabens. But the manufacturer is in on the conversation, and they are trying to formulate the product with a healthier preservative.) 
"A cancer survivor is defined as anyone with a history of cancer, spanning from the time of diagnosis and for the remainder of life, whether that is days or decades." - National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship

With the survivorship program, I feel I have regained an important sense of control over what is happening to me. I feel like I am taking good care of myself. I've even started to feel pretty again.

So when those middle-of-the-night moments recur, I can banish them by listing the ways I am safeguarding my health.