You get a lot of advice when you’re diagnosed with cancer. From your medical team to well-meaning people to strangers who don’t have a darn clue about your situation but feel the need to comment anyway.
For the most part, I appreciate the thoughtfulness but don’t get stuck in the advice. Not that I don’t appreciate the kind tips but I’ve discovered every person reacts to and manages cancer in their own way, from side effects to blood counts to emotional needs and more. I’m not going to be worried and waiting to throw up from a drug just because someone else did as it doesn’t mean that I will. Heck, even my own chemo side effects change dose to dose. But the one piece of advice that has stuck pleasantly in my brain is from my breast surgeon on the first day that I met her – she said “from this point on, you do you.”
Most of you know this isn’t my first face down with cancer. Diagnosed at 21 with bone cancer, I underwent 13 months of aggressive chemo and surgery to replace my femur/knee with titanium. I had surgery at 28 for a melanoma spot. And, of course, breast cancer recently appeared (read about the journey). Going through cancer at 21 is very different than facing cancer at 43.
At 21, you’re excited for your life ahead of you. Career, dating, adventures, caution out the window as you discover adulthood. And then you’re told you have bone cancer and you lose your hair and you’re at risk for losing your leg and you suddenly have no clue where life will lead. My parents pretty much handled everything to do with insurance, appointments, bills, cooking, making sure I smiled and focused only on clearing cancer (BEST parents ever). Bone cancer directed the path of my adulthood and certainly impacted parts of my life choices.
And now at 43, you still have no clue where life will lead (am I right?). As a single professional adult, well, it can be pretty tiring to juggle cancer with life. From working a job, squeezing in a date, paying bills, maintaining exercise, trying to keep my hair from falling out with cold capping, never mind combating chemo side effects and wondering what may come next. As much as my family and friends try to support me, so much is still on me. And while I am so very grateful for the strong tribe surrounding and supporting me, it can still be isolating and exhausting.
All of this is the perfect reason to take my surgeon’s advice of “you do you.” It was her way to remind me to focus on my needs and wants, no matter what others said or need from me. To not be overwhelmed with trying to please everyone (how did she know me so well?!) and know it’s ok to call a timeout and take a break. It seems like such a simple phrase but it was really impactful for me. Here are a few ways that I’m implementing ‘you do you’ during cancer and long after –
Self-care. I’m a fan of self-care and taking care of my body and mind. We’ve been through a lot. There are a variety of things that help me achieve body and mind peace. I love to be active and exercise helps clear my mind while pushing my body to feel strong and healthy. Some of my go to activities are biking, hiking or a walk, meditation, massage, yoga, weight training and Zumba.
Choose you. I’ve been embracing me and my wants the past few years. I’m focused on my goals, likes and what brings joy and love to my life. It’s not being selfish, as you can easily balance this with being connected to others. I believe if you are not happy with yourself, you won’t be happy with others (and others won’t be happy around you). It reminds of my divorce. My ex-husband and I were not a good overall fit. In time, we spent more time apart, had separate activities and interests and simply were not happy together. We could have stayed like that, as many couples do, settling into a so-so marriage and future. We instead chose to be happy in the future and went our separate ways. Of course it was difficult, but I’m still proud of us for choosing to be happy instead of settling. Life is much too short to not choose happiness.
Learn to say “no, thank you.” I like to help people and make sure others are happy. That used to make it difficult for me to say no. However, over the past few years I’ve realized that stretching myself thin or feeling obligated to do something isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially not me. Saying “no, thank you” has become much easier and brings more ease into my life. It lets me focus on what I want to do, makes me happier, then overall lets me bring more light and happy energy into what I’m choosing to do. Having balance is key to a happy life!
Schedule quiet time. Finding time to be alone and decompress after a long work day, chemo day or any busy day is important. Just like the rest of our society, I’m on the go and busy (ugh, I hate hearing busy as an excuse anymore). Between work, volunteer activities, now cancer treatment and just life, escaping by myself is one of my secret pleasures (not so secret now I guess!). Relaxing comes in many form, like reading, doing puzzles, meditation, simply sitting/listen to music, chilling on the deck, sitting by a lake and much more.
Don’t apologize or feel you have to always justify a reaction or decision. It’s funny how many times I’ve felt need to justify cold capping during this chemo with the fact that I already lost my hair at 21. Or I hear myself stating reasons why I don’t want to go on a second date with a guy. Or I explain why…..you name it, I’ve reasoned and explained. Why should I do this? These are choices I’m making for me, my happiness and peace of mind. And, honestly, no one cares about your peace of mind and happiness like you, or you should. My goal is to communicate more openly, even if it means having difficult conversations, and live without regrets but not feel like I need to justify everything to anyone but me. You do you.