Sara is the author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, a book about juggling life with treatment for primary breast cancer at the age of 42. Sara’s book follows the physical and emotional impact of breast cancer on her life and provides practical help by way of checklists at the end of each chapter for both the patient and their friends and family. Here, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), the formidable Sara shares her top 10 tips for getting through cancer treatment.
On 19 October 2016, my life changed forever. I was diagnosed with cancer. It took a further two weeks to identify primary breast cancer (which is the type of breast cancer to have spread no further than the lymph nodes) as the culprit. You see, I didn’t have a lump in either breast. I was only alerted to the fact that something wasn’t quite right by a small lump in my left armpit. It turned out that my lymph nodes were swollen with breast cancer cells. Eighteen months of treatment followed: surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biotherapy (a drug called Herceptin) and hormone therapy (which I’ll probably have for ten years in total). As you can imagine, the past three years have been somewhat of a roller coaster. But over the course of those three years, I have learnt a lot about going through cancer treatment and here are my top ten tips for you, or your friend who’s currently going through cancer treatment…
- To read or not to read. When you’re diagnosed with cancer you have a choice as to whether to read up on your diagnosis (on the internet or reading patient booklets and books) or whether to go with what your medical team are telling you and not do any further research. This is a choice that continues throughout treatment. The key point is that it is a choice. Some people like to read absolutely everything they can get their hands on. Others feel totally overwhelmed and unable to do any further reading. And some people do a bit of both. Everyone is different. If you don’t research your situation or read around about it, then that’s fine. Don’t feel any pressure to read more than you are comfortable with at any point during (and after) treatment.
- The pros and cons of social media. There is a wonderful cancer community on social media where you will come across lots of support, advice and encouragement from people who are in your situation or who’ve been there. It really is wonderful. However, always be wary with social media – don’t compare your diagnosis, treatment and side effects to others, don’t take medical advice, ignore claims of ‘miracle cures’ and don’t feel bad if you’re not exercising or living your life in the same way as others who have cancer (some people do triathons and all sorts of amazing things during treatment – they are in the minority and it’s perfectly normal to not look or feel your best).
- Note it down. Always have a notebook to hand. You’ll need to write down any questions or concerns as you think of them so you can raise them with the medical team at your next appointment (and then you’ll need to make a note of the answers). You’ll also need to keep a note of all appointment dates, what’s discussed at each appointment, keep track of your side-effects and generally keep control of life with cancer. Cancer can cause mayhem with your brain (whether it’s just being distracted due to the shock of what you’re going through or full-blown chemo-brain). Even if you were the most organised person before cancer, you’ll need a notebook to get you through treatment.
- Practical preparations. It’s worth trying to keep one step ahead during treatment by putting in some practical preparations for the next stage of treatment. For example, research what you should pack for surgery, what changes you’ll need to put into place at home for after surgery, what to take to chemo, what you’ll need at home during chemo, how to prepare for radiotherapy and so on. My website, www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, and book of the same name are both full of practical checklists for someone going through breast cancer treatment, and much of the advice is equally relevant for treatment for other types of cancer.
- Friends. You might expect that a cancer diagnosis will bring all your friends rallying around. However, not everyone is comfortable around a cancer patient, even if they are a good friend. Sometimes the friend you really want by your side, doesn’t really come around much. Unfortunately, this is a sad side-effect of cancer – it may not happen but just be prepared in case it does.
- Get it off your chest. Having cancer is overwhelming and incredibly scary. At some point during the cancer-path (whether straight after your diagnosis or after you’ve finished treatment) you may find that it helps to do something to release some of the mental anguish that you may find yourself going through. There are various options: cancer centre support groups and drop-ins, one-to-one counsellor appointments (which are sometimes, but not always, offered by your local cancer centre), private counselling or perhaps writing about your experience. Don’t feel embarrassed to seek help or write down your feelings. You’re going through a traumatic life event and it’s important to acknowledge that and seek the appropriate help.
- Exercise Exercise Exercise. No matter how rubbish you feel during treatment you will really need to do some exercise. As well as generally being good for you, exercise is known to help with some of the side-effects of treatment. You don’t need to keep up with your pre-cancer exercise levels and you don’t need to implement some sort of major exercise programme. Just go with what feels right each day. Even if you just manage a short walk up to the end of the road and back – that’s a win. Talk to your medical team about what you should and shouldn’t do given the treatment regime that you’re on.
- Your medical team. Your medical team (surgeon, oncologist, radiographers and nurses) are all there to help you get through this. If you are in doubt about anything, or you have any questions, then do not hesitate to ask them. Don’t feel shy or embarrassed.
- Help! Ask for, and accept, help. There are no two ways about it. It might not come naturally, but just do it because you’ll need it. Ask neighbours, family, friends, parents of your children’s friends, people at your club/gym/choir/place of worship. What you’ll find is that everyone wants to help you, but most of the time people don’t know how to help or what to say. By asking for help, you’re actually helping them!
- Slow down. We all live incredibly busy lives – working, raising children, running a home, looking after older family members, volunteering, socialising, exercising and on and on. Most of us rush around from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed. There is always a huge to-do list lingering around. However, during treatment you must slow down and not try to keep up your pre-cancer pace of life. You won’t be able to keep it up and then you’ll get frustrated and resentful. Plus, you need to allow your body to rest, recuperate and recover. Don’t feel guilty about it. A saying that has stuck me with from early on in treatment and which still resonates is, “You can’t pour from an empty cup”.
The book Ticking Off Breast Cancer is out on the 26 September 2019 but you can pre-order the book now from Hashtag Press : https://www.hashtagpress.co.uk/product-page/ticking-off-breast-cancer-by-sara-liyanage].
Sara is also the founder of www.tickingoffbreastcancer.com, a website dedicated to helping people through their breast cancer treatment. It supports those who don’t know which way to turn for help after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis; those who are overwhelmed by the breast cancer resources online and those just looking for a comfortable, safe, calm place to turn for help. The website provides practical advice for each step of the way, together with many links and signposts to other online resources.
To read more guest posts, click here.