Ask the Advocates: Self-Care
Welcome to to the second series of "Ask the ABC Advocates"! Feel free to post your own answers to the community question in the comment section below. You can also ask your own questions in the community Q&A section.
What does self-care mean to you? What role does self-care take in managing symptoms/diagnosis?
Self-care takes many forms and is most beneficial when it is personal to you. It can be in physical activity, a nap, or getting pampered at a salon. For some, being surrounded by family or friends is self-care. For me, I enter what my friends and I call my ‘hermit’ phase.
Living with something as heavy as a terminal diagnosis, sometimes everything just gets to be too much for me. I feel like I am on sensory overload and just need quiet and solitude. I read books and watch too many true crime TV shows to be mentally healthy. I have also become quite a good nap taker which years ago I would have balked at. In a lot of cases, we, especially women, put this burden upon ourselves to be taking care of everyone else and we put our own needs on a shelf to be dealt with later. Cancer forces you to look at that and learn to take care of yourself first. It is a bit like an airline guideline, put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help someone else. To be the best versions of ourselves during this time, we need to put ourselves first from time to time.
Adjusting to the constant pain has been huge for me. I’m managing it better now but I never had to be so rigid about my routine, my medication, etc. before cancer. I can’t cheat on my diet or skip medication or do more than I planned. It’s not my habit to think of myself and prioritize myself first yet but it needs to be. I’ve had family telling me this same thing for years but now I have to do it or I pay for it.
Self-care for me is primarily focused on making sure I don’t put the needs of everyone else before me. As a wife and a mother, there’s a good amount of instinctive and societal pressure to do the opposite. It’s fine to decline an invite because a kid is sick but try to do the same if I just don’t feel like it or have run out of spoons that day is much more difficult to justify generally.
I have had to be impervious to the reactions of others and just be ruthless with my time in order to truly care for myself. This doesn’t come easy but I am reminded regularly by my family that what my kiddos really care about is being with me not necessarily what we are doing. It reminds me of being a new parent and being super careful to protect my infant's immune system. I have to protect mine just as carefully and I still don’t as much as I should.
I’m pretty open about my diagnosis since so much of my life now is about cancer; however, explaining to others how I need accommodations when I don’t always look like I need them has been a bit adjustment. I’m doing better at speaking up or giving others the freedom to speak up for me.
I can’t stand when people think self-care is “pampering” yourself. Or that it is an expensive luxury. Self-care to me means taking care of your mind, body, and soul. Taking care of yourself so you are a healthy functioning person. To some people that might mean bathing themselves each day. To me, self-care means listening to your three points of well being 1. Body 2. Mind and 3. Soul.
In all examples of self-care, I think these actions should make you feel good about yourself. Some examples might mean having a facial care routine that makes you feel good about how you feel. Or putting on a lipstick that makes you feel pretty, an exercise routine that makes you feel strong or 5 minutes of quiet and reflection that allows you to feel clear!
In my opinion, self-care is very important in managing our diagnosis. Being told you have cancer is scary. It messes with our heads and bodies in a way you can not be prepared. So taking the time to take care of yourself becomes very important. During my treatment, I felt very insecure and vulnerable in the beginning.
Was I going to beat this? Would I see my kids grow up? Getting my head and self in a place where I felt strong was very important and I recognized that early on. Getting outside and taking walks. Breathing deep and enjoying the spring (I was diagnosed in March) was important. Spending time with my girlfriends and laughing. These are all ways to take care of yourself and part of self-care!
My husband and I were just talking about the idea of self-care the other night. One of the methods of self-care that we have found is to make sure that our relationship remains a priority. Even without cancer, it can feel easy to push a marriage onto the backburner, to take out hard feelings on the one you love the most, and to let irritation and frustrations rise to the surface, to nitpick, and to argue. As the parents of a three-year-old, our time together is often triaged into the management of appointments, child care, household tasks, and the management of my symptoms and side effects. In recent weeks, my husband and I looked at each other, truly saw the exhaustion in the other’s eyes, and recognized that something had to change. We took stock of our own needs - who needed to get some extra sleep on the weekends, and how could we divide and conquer to make that happen? What resources were we not fully utilizing? Most importantly, how could we nip our petty fights in the bud? It felt painfully simple - why weren’t we doing this before? - but once we recognized so many of the ways, both big and small, that we could work together, it felt like each of our burdens were lifted a bit.
In many ways, my forms of self-care in the early months of my diagnosis became somewhat self-destructive. I would justify them as ways to check out emotionally, to ignore many of the difficult aspects of my reality, and to escape. But instead of filling my proverbial cup, so to speak, I found that I was further justifying my bad habits: mindless instagram scrolling, a second (or third) cup of coffee too late in the day, or sleeping in one too many days in a row. Self-care became self-escape, and instead of relieving stress, my stress compounded. None of these crutches were appropriate tools for me to care for my increasingly sick body. Self-care became adherence to a more regular exercise program, cooking more vegetables instead of ordering pizza, and managing my medications and side effects in a proactive way. It looks more like yoga and walks outside with my son, and less like hiding under the covers. It had become so easy for me to conflate my guilty pleasures with self-care that I had lost sight of what it meant to truly care for myself.
Since my diagnosis, I have to say this is the focus of my life. Here is my day and keep in mind, I am retired and in my sixties, so I cannot compare myself to the younger woman with MBC who have very busy lives with jobs and families. Quite frankly, I don’t know how they manage it all.
I start my day by getting a great night’s sleep (so important). In the morning, I get my exercise clothes on and plan my day. Each day, I do something at the local gym. My gym has so much to offer and it makes me feel alive to be there. Somedays, I do hatha yoga, restorative yoga, latin dancing, zumba and try to do weight training and the treadmill at least three times a week.
Self-care also includes acupuncture and a visit to an energy healer on a monthly basis. The acupuncture has helped with my initial bone pain and increasing my white blood cells and my acupuncturist is also a medical doctor and friend and guides me to pay attention to what my body needs to heal.
The role of self-care has led me to live my best life managing symptoms/diagnosis. My best life right now finds me pain-free and ready for each day. I have also maintained a food plan free of sugar and have lost 60 pounds. Maintaining a healthy weight can be your best friend.
Do you feel like your metastatic breast cancer is under control?