Becoming a Cancer Thrivor by Putting Your Health First is the last in my 5-part blog series called The Thriving Series. We are nearing the end of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In this 5-part Thriving Series - I share my insights and personal experiences for going beyond surviving cancer, to thriving. I am a doctor who had cancer. The experience changed how I treat myself. This is the last and most important aspect that made it possible for me to go from surviving in the midst of horrific chemotherapy & mutilating surgeries, to actually thriving because of the process. I hope that my story and insights might help someone facing a similar health crisis.
I took impeccable care of my body and spirit during cancer treatment and it showed.
When I told people I was on chemo, or had just completed a mastectomy, they were startled and blown away because I looked vital and healthy. Invariably they would say things like “You’re amazing,” “I would never guess,” “You’re such an example,” “You glow!”, and the funniest one, “You don’t look like you’ve just been infused with poisons, you look like you came back from a health farm!” After a while I started to believe it. I felt vital too - so I knew that it was both inside and out. I asked myself: How did this happen?
In retrospect, I took impeccable care of myself during my cancer treatment year. This meant both my inner and physical health. As a result, I tolerated very strong chemo, three big surgeries, and two smaller ones (for a total of 15+ hours of grueling anesthesia!) without a single acute bad reaction. This made it possible for my doctors to do what they needed to in order to treat the cancer - and my body held up to that rigorous medical ‘itinerary.’ My doctors and I beat the cancer...! Despite scary statistics. So my initial not-so-good prognosis because of aggressive breast cancer is now a very rosy likelihood for complete cure.
The ‘side benefit’ of my Breast Cancer Year is that I developed powerful self-care habits and learned how to take great care of myself.
And these skills transformed me from being an emotional train wreck that was teary, fragile, and fearful, to a vital and tranquil woman in the midst of a life-changing health calamity. These same skills have continued to serve me oh so well in my “post-Breast Cancer Year” life. I feel like I am more than a Breast Cancer Survivor - I am a Breast Cancer Thrivor. I have more tranquility and vitality than before this disease hit me - which still astounds even me sometimes.
So, what do I mean when I say “I took impeccable care of myself” during this time?
Cancer Self-Care Lesson 1: Pace myself
First and foremost, I paid attention to my energy limits - and I did not exceed them. I had never done this before.
I’ve always put goals first, making my body and psyche “toe the line” in service to these goals. Even though I tell patients to do otherwise, I always pushed through my own stress and fatigue. People would describe me as a workaholic, and I was my own worst task master. Whether I was adding another item to a list of errands, another patient at the end of a day’s schedule, or getting straight A's so that I could go to medical school, my life has been lived ‘goals first, rest second.’
You probably know what I mean...Ambitious holiday gift lists, perfect kids’ birthday parties, flawless work presentations, immaculate house in case friends drop in, expertly crafted reports, delicious and nutritious dinners - every single night...sound familiar? Frankly, I wish I’d learned to pace myself earlier in life, but at least I’ve learned it now.
During chemo treatments and after my surgeries the limits of my energy were obvious. At other times though, they weren't so obvious. So, I had to learn to pay attention, and call it quits when I reached my limit. This invariably meant letting go of tasks I would have clung to before cancer. During my cancer year it was easy to say "no" to that extra task, because I simply didn't have anything extra to give. And practicing that experience over and over was a beautiful gift. What’s even more wonderful is that I have practiced this self-care habit enough in my post-cancer life that it truly is becoming a new life skill. I continue to thrive because of it. Learning to pace myself was one of those lemons that became lemonade.
Cancer Self-Care Lesson 2: Make daily healthy choices that restore and replenish my vitality
My second key self-care lesson was to use my energy and focus for restorative activities that helped my body endure the treatments, and heal.
I exercised regularly, as recommended by my survivorship physician. Often, I did this with friends.
I lived on a really healthy diet. I did my research and created a diet known to discouraged cancer growth (a diet filled with fresh organic veggies and whole foods - you can’t help but thrive if you eat this way! Read more here).
I meditated, did yoga, took an afternoon nap, and made sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep at night. We all know this is good for us, but we often don’t take the time to do it.
I regularly spent time in nature, and with friends.
My inner world took on a calm focus during breast cancer treatment and I think this helped me heal.
My meditations helped quiet the cycle of worry that could get running in my mind. When I meditated, I also did positive visual healing imagery and I prayed.
To help me “process” what I was going through I did a lot of writing, including keeping a journal. Writing in a journal helped me let go of scary, repetitive thoughts. I’d write them down and let them go. Facing death forced me to take stock of my life - and I had a lot of rich insights that I wanted to capture...just in case I survived. My journal is filled with treasure that I can now look back on and refresh myself with.
I protected my “inner world” by limiting what I allowed in there.
This meant I limited my activities to things that de-stressed me, instead of ones that made me anxious. For example, I read for pleasure but I was very careful about the stories I “let into my psyche.” I did not read books, watch movies, or television that had too much trauma or drama. Going through what I was going through made me unusually sensitive and often tearful. I could even start crying from shows I had previously watched and enjoyed, like The Good Wife!! When they killed off Will Gardener, I felt heavy-hearted for far too many days...! So, I became careful with TV.
It was clear to me that my emotional resilience was low, and honoring this rather than ignoring it helped me grow stronger. Taking care of my tender self and proactively replenishing my vitality supported my transition from surviving to thriving in the midst of treatment. My husband and family were supportive, and it became the new normal. We created a kinder and gentler home. And I've kept it up even post-cancer. While this means that I’m more likely to watch shows like Call the Midwife and nature documentaries, that’s okay with me! Plus, I’m still healing. I can still feel certain types of media rattle around in my head and be unkind to the psyche, so I am selective about what I let in.
When you are sick, taking good care of yourself is paramount. When you are well, it’s important too. Life feels very different when lived at a healthy pace, with priority given to activities that replenish and restore, and with limits placed on things that deplete you. It took Breast Cancer and its associated avalanche of lemons to get me to finally develop a sensitivity to my limits and needs. This in turn made it possible for me to develop new levels of openness, presence, and connection to the people in my life. The tempo of my new “Post-Breast Cancer Life” is lived with much less adrenaline. I live with a deeper sense of what I need to restore and balance my body and mind. This year I’m a 3 Year Breast Cancer Survivor and a Breast Cancer Thrivor.
My family and I visiting San Francisco 2 years after I had breast cancer treatment
To see Dr. Bailey's full 5-Part Thriving with Breast Cancer Series - Beyond Surviving to Thriving:
- Thriving, Part 1. From Surviving to Thriving with Breast Cancer in 2016
- Thriving, Part 2. How I Went from Feeling Like a Victim of Breast Cancer to a Thrivor
- Thriving, Part 3. Breast Cancer Forced Me to Jump into the Abyss
- Thriving, Part 4. Thriving with Cancer Means "Letting" People Help
- Thriving, Part 5. Become a Cancer Thrivor By Putting Your Health First
During treatment for breast cancer I developed my Chemotherapy Skin Care Kit – a combination of being both a dermatologist and cancer patient.
I donate al of the profits to cancer advocacy and research. Click here to learn more about my Chemotherapy Skin Care Kit.