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What Helped Me Get Throughby Julie Silver
This new book, edited by a breast cancer survivor, succinctly relates the experiences, both practical and sensitive, of hundreds of cancer survivorsincluding celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, Carly Simon, and Scott Hamiltonwho candidly relate what helped get them through every aspect of the cancer journey. The wisdom and hope offered in this book
This new book, edited by a breast cancer survivor, succinctly relates the experiences, both practical and sensitive, of hundreds of cancer survivorsincluding celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, Carly Simon, and Scott Hamiltonwho candidly relate what helped get them through every aspect of the cancer journey. The wisdom and hope offered in this book will be invaluable to newly diagnosed patients and their families, as well as their doctors and caregivers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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What Helped Get Me Through
Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope
By Julie K. Silver
American Cancer Society / Health PromotionsCopyright © 2009 American Cancer Society
All rights reserved.
How I Nurtured Myself
People facing cancer not only need love and nurturing from others, they need it from themselves. Some people may link self-nurture to narcissism, fearing that it's unhealthy or immoral to spend much time thinking about what they need. However, psychologist Frances Cohen Praver has a more modern view of the nurture versus narcissism controversy. She writes, "A shift in attitudes finds that contemporary analytic thinkers value narcissism as a healthy aspect of mature behavior. We now refer to narcissism as high self-esteem, which inspires expression of the self ... Healthy narcissism facilitates aspirations and goals" (Praver 2004, 96).
I recall doing an interview with Ellen Michaud, former editor-at-large of Prevention Magazine, when she was writing the book Sleep to be Sexy, Smart, and Slim. I explained to Ellen how important sleep is during cancer treatment and thereafter because it helps boost the immune system, as well as improve fatigue, a common and debilitating symptom in cancer survivors. After hearing my comments, Ellen decided to devote an entire chapter in her book to the importance of sleep in fighting cancer. I also told her that while getting a good night's rest is an important way for people to nurture themselves, it can be hard to accomplish because of worry, pain, hot flashes, and a host of other issues.
I thought back to when I was going through treatment and my children were quite young. When they awoke from a nightmare in the middle of the night, I could hardly say to them that I couldn't help because I needed uninterrupted sleep. It was a traumatic time for them. They had a mother who was fighting a life-threatening disease. My children's need for comfort interfered with my own ability to sleep and nurture myself.
Certainly, there is a difference between "healthy selfishness" and a narcissistic "I come first" attitude. Even so, sometimes the lines seem blurry, making it difficult to decide when it's okay to nurture yourself. The fact is most people tend to be better at caring for others than they are at paying attention to their own needs and desires. If you are erring in one direction or another, it's likely that you are not giving yourself enough attention.
One way to make peace with the idea of taking time to nurture yourself is to know that the stronger and healthier you are, the better able you will be to nurture others in the future. If you are currently undergoing treatment or have undergone treatment in the past, it is important that you add things to your schedule that are strictly designed to make you feel good.
Cancer survivors who participated in this book described the many ways they nurtured themselves. Basically, it really breaks down to this: what makes one person happy doesn't necessarily make everyone happy. We all have individual personalities, and the things that provide comfort and bring us joy vary widely.
As you read this chapter, consider the things you can do for yourself that will help you feel loved, secure, and happy. The objective is not to pretend to be lighthearted during a very difficult time, but rather to nurture yourself in any manner that will help lighten your load.
Not Enough Nurture
Not everyone took the time to nurture themselves. Lindy explains her situation: "I was thirty-five years old and had stage III breast cancer. Twenty-three years ago, that was uncommon. I'm afraid I didn't do much of anything to nurture myself because I tried to give the appearance that I was okay." Though Lindy is describing how she felt more than two decades ago, many people share this sentiment even today.
In my medical practice, people often tell me that they don't have the time to spend on healing. They've been sick and are so far behind in all the things they need to do, including work and family responsibilities. Yet taking the time to heal is incredibly important. Saying yes to all your old commitments may mean saying no to healing as well as possible. Thus, nurturing yourself can translate into taking the time out of your day that you need to focus on your own health needs — both physical and emotional. Some people are better at doing this than others, but it's worth giving yourself permission to spend the time you need to feel better. Think of focusing on your health as a gift you give not only yourself but also your loved ones. Remember that the stronger and healthier you are — no matter what kind of cancer you have or what stage it is — the more you can nurture others.
This chapter is one of my favorites because I thoroughly enjoyed reading the many ways that the survey participants nurtured themselves. Often it was something really simple, like making a necklace of beads to represent positive milestones, as Cathy describes in the next section. Keep reading, and let Cathy and many others inspire you to love and nurture a really wonderful person — you.
* * *
WHEN PEOPLE FOUND OUT I had cancer, most assumed it was breast cancer. Not many people, including myself, had heard of pancreatic cancer. When they had, they assumed men were the only ones to get it. I started a beaded necklace. This necklace has a bead for every positive event I have made it to: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. I even celebrated the one-year anniversary of my surgery as another birthday.
Cathy, retail district manager
Diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at age 45 in 2005 in Columbus, Ohio
* * *
I'M NOT ONE of those quiet people who keep stress to themselves. I talk to anyone who will listen to me. Most think that isn't wise, but that's how I deal with it. I told everyone. I would have told the mailman if I could have caught him.
Kathie, nurse and social worker
Diagnosis of kidney cancer at age 53 in 2005 in Kingston, New York
* * *
I TOOK ONE DAY at a time.
James, retired police officer
Diagnosis of lymphoma at age 66 in 2007 in Sheridan, Wyoming
PRIOR TO MY DIAGNOSIS, we had planned a special vacation to Hawaii with our children and grandchildren to celebrate my wife's retirement. We went for two weeks. I call it "Maui in the shade." I let the beauty of Hawaii minister to my soul, and then had several surgical procedures immediately upon our return.
Robert, fire chaplain
Diagnosis of melanoma (skin cancer) at age 57 in 2003 in La Habra, California
* * *
I SURROUNDED MYSELF with positive, caring people. My husband would not let anyone with a negative attitude come around. We were honest, knew the prognosis was extremely poor (six months to live), but kept a positive attitude.
Beth, health educator
Diagnosis of liver cancer at age 32 in 1990 in Fort Hood, Texas
* * *
I NURTURED MYSELF BY being friendly and outgoing with all the family and friends who asked to help and were there just to talk to. I believed that going bald was no big deal in relation to what was happening in my body.
David, journeyman sheet metal worker
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 63 in 2005 in Missoula, Montana
* * *
MY WHOLE LIFE IS different as a result of this experience. I actually needed something to happen to make me realize that I didn't know how to care for myself in many ways. Now, I appreciate everything and everyone. I also let go of anger and resentment, which was a normal part of my life. I have set boundaries with people who drain me and cut people who are toxic out of my life. I am now a vegetarian and eat healthy foods rather than the junk I used to eat. I don't care what people think of me anymore. I have a new hobby — photography — that I always wanted to try but never did, and I have peace of mind.
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 39 in 2004 in Pennington, New Jersey
I WENT ON VACATION for a twelve-day cruise of the North Sea.
Mark, retired nuclear pharmacist
Diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia at age 59 in 2001 in Bay Shore, New York
* * *
I WENT OUT for walks between the once-a-month chemo sessions and focused on building up my strength before the next dose. I tried to rest when I felt I needed to, and I used breast cancer Web forums to give me the information and support I wanted and needed. I was not keen on sitting in a circle talking to others who'd had breast cancer. I wanted to do it all my way. After all, it was MY cancer.
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 32 in 2004 in Glasgow (Scotland)
* * *
I WAS DIAGNOSED with colon cancer, which had metastasized heavily throughout the liver. I would have died within three or four months had we not discovered it and done something about it. At the beginning, I did nothing at all to help or nurture myself except to rest, to try to eat as best I could, and to go for my chemotherapy once each week. I was too consumed with fatigue and melancholy to even think about self-help. But overtime, as the chemotherapy began to destroy my cancer and improve my overall health, I began to engage myself to a greater degree in my treatment, to ask questions to better understand it all. I even wrote a weekly health report that I sent out bye-mail to my kids, family, and close friends. I sent this report to my doctor and medical team as well for their critique and/or corrections, to be sure I understood everything correctly. My weekly health reports were the single most interesting, enjoyable, and helpful activity I could imagine. In writing it all down, I began to see the questions I needed to ask to "round out" my understanding of my situation. It also brought me, my family, my support group, and my caregivers much closer together. My doctor helped and encouraged me in it.
Mike, retired real estate developer and cattle rancher
Diagnosis of colon cancer at age 66 in 2006 in Red Lodge, Montana
I WAS AN INFORMATION seeker. I wanted as much information as possible, and my doctor provided me what I asked for. If he did not know the answer, he would point me in the direction to receive it. I formulated goals — both short-term and long-term — and I got involved in the cancer community almost immediately by volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP). Focusing my energies on using my experience to help others deal with theirs was very rewarding.
Todd, oncology social worker
Diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia at age 25 in 1997 and kidney cancer at age 33 in 2005 in Warwick, Rhode Island
* * *
I TREATED MYSELF LIKE a very precious and tender person. I really put all of my energy into taking care of myself and making sure my needs came first (not my usual style). I did not do this in an especially selfish way although I was, in fact, very self-absorbed and very okay with that. I wrote in a journal. I cut out inspirational quotes and pasted them on the walls of my dressing room. I read books by other survivors. I burned songs onto a CD to listen to during chemo — songs that meant something to me and inspired me. I called a designer who was having a studio sale to ask if I could come at a time when no one else was there, so that I wouldn't have to be exposed to lots of people in a crowded dressing room. She was very kind and accommodating, and I had my own private sale! I took long walks with my dog in the park near my home everyday. I really became aware of how precious I am and how precious my life is. That has never left me — what a blessing.
Cathi, clinical social worker
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 52 in 2003 in Waban, Massachusetts
ONE NEW ACTIVITY I did was scrapbooking. My aunt who is also a survivor handed me a kit when my cancer was diagnosed and told me to keep myself busy. By scrapbooking, I was able to see pictures of my husband and children, and that kept me motivated to fight the fight.
Shelly, program coordinator for adults with disabilities
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 32 in 2004 in Concord, New Hampshire
* * *
THE MAIN THING I did solely for myself was to get on the bike and ride, long and hard. When I was on the bike, I found that I could focus on the riding, then the scenery and wildlife, and stop thinking about having cancer. As I would be returning home and making the final turn before arriving at the farm, thoughts of the cancer would resurface. It seemed that I could go no more than a few minutes at a time without thoughts of the cancer coming to mind. When I was on the bike, after about fifteen minutes or so, I could stop thinking about the cancer and focus on the ride itself.
Diagnosis of prostate cancer at age 62 in 2007 in Jefferson, Wisconsin
* * *
MY FIRST (and only) child was only three months old when I was diagnosed, so she truly was the silver lining in a time that seemed to have lots of dark clouds in it. From the minute I found out I had breast cancer, I vowed that my daughter wouldn't suffer from [my being ill] at all and that I would make the most of the time I had with her, even if I was bald and nauseated! Through nurturing her, I nurtured myself and made it through a difficult treatment and recovery period.
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 28 in 2000 in Miami, Florida
I LOOKED AT THIS time as ME time. I decided to focus on healing ... this was my time to rest, get stronger, and not worry about anything else. I thought, well, if I have to stay in bed because I'm sick from the treatment, I will look at it as time to read all those books I never get around to, to watch all the movies I don't have time to ... and I did just that. By telling myself it was my vacation from work and other responsibilities, it almost became a vacation.
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 54 in 2003 in Placentia, California
I GOT A DOG. The dog made me smile even when I was feeling really bad.
Kirsten, distribution assistant
Diagnosis of colon cancer at age 49 in 2006 and endometrial (uterine) cancer at age 50 in 2007 in Buford, Georgia
* * *
I SHOPPED. A lot!
Evelyn, executive assistant
Diagnosis of colon cancer at age 33 in 2004 in Boston, Massachusetts
* * *
I WAS FIFTEEN YEARS old and diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in my femur with mets [metastases] to my lungs and skull. I had three recurrences of tumors to my lungs in 1996, 2000, and 2006. I always made sure to have something fun to look forward to on my calendar. It was very difficult to maintain a schedule because I'd get neutropenic and need to be hospitalized unexpectedly, but I'd always try to focus on the next "fun" thing to get me through the times when I was feeling awful. It might have been camp in August, or Thanksgiving in November, or The Nutcracker in December, or my Make-A-Wish trip in June. I was always trying to keep my head looking forward to brighter times in the future.
Andrea, hospital administrator
Diagnosis of Ewing's sarcoma (a form of bone cancer) at age 15 in 1992 in Norfolk, Massachusetts
* * *
I JOINED A SUPPORT group that really helped me understand a lot of those feelings I didn't even know I had. I marked each milestone with a purchase that I probably would not have made otherwise. I let the house go to pieces and worried only about me.
Pat, office manager
Diagnosis of breast cancer at age 53 in 2001 in Canton, Michigan
* * *
I NURTURED MYSELF by staying in a positive frame of mind. I would go out to dinner with friends, as this was a wonderful way for me to share my concerns for the road ahead.
Diagnosis of esophageal cancer at age 45 in 2002 in Schenectady, New York
* * *
THE MOST IMPORTANT SELF-HELP thing I did was to educate myself. I read books, pamphlets, and [information from] reputable Web sites. I made lists of questions and asked my doctors everything until I understood what I needed to know. I focused on one thing at a time; I shared everything with my husband and most things with everyone else. I couldn't keep secrets; I needed that energy for what I was facing, and I needed the support from others that they could only give if they knew what was going on. I developed an attitude of realistic optimism or optimistic realism, I still don't know which — it means understanding and accepting the reality of the cancer and all that entails and still moving forward in a positive, "can do" way. The smartest thing I did was to talk with other breast cancer survivors through the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery® program and at the support group at the cancer center where I was receiving my care.
Excerpted from What Helped Get Me Through by Julie K. Silver. Copyright © 2009 American Cancer Society. Excerpted by permission of American Cancer Society / Health Promotions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Julie K. Silver, MD, is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She is the author of Post-Polio Syndrome—A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families, Life After Stroke: Recovering Your Health and Preventing Another Stroke, and After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger, and has written dozens of magazine and newspaper articles and authored numerous research publications. She frequently lectures to both healthcare professionals and the public on health-related issues, and has also given hundreds of print interviews and numerous radio and television interviews including, The Early Show, ABC News Now, AARP Radio, NPR radio, USA Today, and many others.
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