Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Eating to Live

This blog post was originally posted on the Kicking Cancer In The Kitchen blog on June 12, 2012. Here's the link -

The two women who created this site are cancer survivors themselves and they are pretty amazing. Here's a little background;

Kendall and Annette are two young cancer survivors who not only survived but learned to thrive throughout their cancer journeys: from diagnosis through intense treatment and beyond. They know what it's like to be stopped in your tracks by what seems to be a death sentence. And they know what it’s like to wake up from the scared-shitless, post-diagnosis stupor and wonder: “What the heck do I do now?!” However, they didn’t want to just slog their way through cancer; Kendall and Annette also wanted to look and feel as good as possible while doing it. And they did.

When I connected with Annette over Twitter and found her (and Annette's) website, I was thrilled to write a blog about nutrition post-cancer and here it is.

Ever since I was told 'You have breast cancer', I have felt the pressures of needing to be some sort of health nut. I get it from co-workers, from friends and most interestingly from strangers. Recently on a flight, I was told that I needed to lose weight, now that I've had cancer and all. And then this complete stranger followed that up with 'but I don't need to tell you that.' I know how important exercise and eating properly are, you'd have to live under a rock to not know of their importance, but it doesn't mean that because someone tells me I should do it that I can change my entire life overnight.

I have read studies, been to presentations and been told by a variety of doctors about the importance of exercise, especially post-breast cancer. I know that a lower BMI plays an extremely important role in lowering your chance of recurrence and I know that eating a balanced diet helps keep your body in check, running smoothly, and allows it to flush out the toxins much easier. Even though I know all of these important facts, I continue to find it difficult to always make the right choices. Sometimes convenience, accessibility, and laziness supersede everything else previously mentioned and although I know that in the long run, it is not beneficial for me to make these decisions, sometimes it is the instant gratification that wins.

Many people feel like they have the answer as to why I got cancer and regardless of if my team of doctors are baffled, these people seem to have an insider's take on MY cancer. I've been told that I got breast cancer because I was on the birth control pill, because I had too much stress in my life, because of the hormones in beef, because of fast food, and the list goes on and on. Everyone has an opinion on cancer, I've come to expect that, but what I find frustrating is that there is an expectation of 'health-perfection' put on cancer survivors and it just isn't easy to make the right choices all of the time.

I am still feeling the effects of chemo (although I am 9 months post-treatment) and the Tamoxifen keeps me in a relatively fatigued-induced trance. I have just gone back to work in the past couple of months and at the end of the day, the thought of making a time consuming healthy meal followed by a walk to even the corner is overwhelming. I have to admit, sometimes, Pizza Pops and couch-laying become my reality at the end of the day. I try not to make it a habit, but it does happen.

Along with the fatigue, the eating poorly, and the lack of exercise comes a lot of guilt. I feel guilty for the amount of weight I have put on since my diagnosis (due to the steroids, the lack of energy, the 'I-don't-care-what-I-eat-as-long-as-I-can-keep-it-down' mentality, etc.), I feel guilty for not making the healthiest of food choices, I feel guilty for driving a mile for milk instead of walking it. But, I have found that feeling guilty makes things worse. As soon as Guilt joins the party, he becomes that guest who overstays his welcome and he encourages more poor choices and then I develop the 'what difference does it make' point of view and one bad decision turns into another.

So, I have tried a new approach. If I don't have the energy to walk to the store, I don't, but when I do have the energy, I try to get off the bus one stop early so I walk a little bit farther. And when I do have the energy, I take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I drive to the grocery store, I park far from the door; an extra 30 steps is not going to kill me. I'm trying to achieve tangible goals that may only make a small difference now but they are goals that I know I can stick to. I am trying to work my way up to longer walks and at some point in the next few months, I want to incorporate going to the gym. I've decided to start out going to the gym two or three days a week at maybe a half an hour each day - that way I'm not setting myself up for failure. If I try to go for an hour and a half every day during the week, I know I will give up after only going for two days.

As for eating, it's coming along too. Did you know that you are supposed to have 8-10 servings of vegetables a day? EIGHT to TEN!! Now, that isn't realistic for me but again, I have to admit, there are some days when I don't eat any vegetables. That's not realistic either. How is our body supposed to function without the proper nutrients? Sometimes, when I am trying to plan dinner, I mentally go over what I've eaten already during the day. On days when I realize that I haven't had any vegetables, sometimes I cook up a huge bowl of broccoli and cauliflower. Quite honestly, I find it quite delicious after not having veggies all day. My body has started to crave vegetables now that I'm making them a priority. How cool is that?

It's not easy and it's not a quick process - not putting certain expectations on myself may be the most challenging part of this whole process but because I feel like so many other people already have so many expectations of me, I don't need to add the pressure of having my own. I'm trying to make lifestyle changes instead of short-term weight loss effective changes that will result in binge eating in a couple of months once I inevitably fall off the wagon. I'm trying to look at it from a perspective of eating to live rather than living to eat!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Full Time Cancer Survivor

I remember when I had just finished treatment, people would ask, 'So, when are you going back to work?'. I think those who have never had cancer assumed that I would be back a few weeks after my last treatment while those who have had cancer kept saying to me 'Don't go back too soon. I went back too soon and I regretted it.' It ended up that one year was the right amount of time for me.

I remember asking my oncology surgeon how long I would need to be off from work (expecting her to say three or four months) and when she said it would be about a year, I was in shock. I can't take a year off work! I can't afford to take a year off work! Who is going to cover me? How am I supposed to keep my student loan payment schedule? I can't substitute a full time, paying job with cancer, I'll go crazy. And eventually, I slowly realized that I had to become the priority, not my job, not my employer, not my student loans but my health, it needs to be the priority. And while I was off, although I felt some guilt, I did learn that the time I was taking was to heal and it was necessary not optional.

My decision to go back was an easy one. I felt ready, I needed a routine again that didn't involve chemo or hospitals or needles. I needed to be needed again - a feeling that I missed ever since I was diagnosed. So, a year after I left, I went back to my job. I started with 20 hours a week and increased five hours a week until I was full time again. As I gradually started back, it was easy to distinguish between who I was as a person and what I do as a job. Before cancer, I worked a lot, usually about 45-50 hours a week, and although I was often too tired to go out after work, and many times vegging on the couch was what I did most week nights, I liked working. After I went back to work this past March, I vowed that I would never let myself get like that again. I know how precious life can be, I know how important relationships are and how unimportant 'stuff' is and no matter how much money you make, it will never be enough.

I've now been back to work now for three months. I love having a routine, I certainly don't think I went back too early, and I feel like I'm being depended on - all aspects of work that I really missed while I was off. But sometimes I struggle with being a full time employee and a full time cancer survivor. Although for everyone 'else' cancer is over, for me it's just beginning. This is the best way I know how to describe it - when I was first diagnosed, I was numb and while everyone around me was 'freaking out', I was able to ground myself, look at what had to be done and do it. While everyone else was trying to process what was going on, I was in fight or flight mode. I didn't have a chance to process what was happening to me. While I was in chemo, I felt like saying 'Well, yes, I am 'technically' in chemo, but it's just a precaution' because for me, I treated it like it wasn't that serious, I guess it was a coping mechanism. Then, when treatment ended and everyone else took a huge sigh of relief, I looked back at the passed six months and thought 'Holy shit! I just had cancer.' Now while everyone else is moving on, I feel like I am just starting to deal with it now. I am not faced with nearly as many physical challenges now as I was and now I am dealing with the emotional challenges that got pushed to the side while I was dealing with the vomiting, the bone pain, the PICC line, the hair loss, the no-boob and so on and so on. Like I said, I find it exhausting to be both a full time employee and a full time cancer survivor (not to mention the chemo-recovery fatigue and the Tamoxifen fatigue).

I'm writing this blog entry today to say that I feel like I have failed at being the 'good cancer survivor' that I set out to be. This week I am working a seven day week. I swore that I would never do that to myself again and here I am, in that situation. Why is it that when we're in the thick of things, we're surrounded by clarity but when we're in a less chaotic, more routine-like way of life, we forget to stop and smell the roses. I've broken so many promises to myself now that I'm 'better' and I know in the long run that I will be the one who pays for it. I like my job and I have great co-workers but I have turned into the person that I promised myself that I wouldn't. For what? Money? And, I think I can speak for many survivors when I say, after having cancer, you feel an obligation to give back and to make a difference for the next person who is about to face what you faced. I want to come home from work feeling like I've helped someone get through a rough cancer day. I want to work in the cancer field helping people. Now, all of a sudden, my current job doesn't seem as fulfilling as it did pre-cancer.

I'm not trying to imply that I think everyone should quit their jobs and live on love but there needs to be a balance between who you are and what you do. I need to worry about me as much as I worry about money and student loans and car payment. I need to do something that makes me happy. When is the last time you asked yourself that? Instead of doing what is expected of me or what I'm supposed to do or what I have to do, what could I do that makes me happy? It's so easy to get caught up in our day to day lives, that we end up letting our life pass us by. I mean, it's already July! Didn't we just ring in the New Year? I feel like I'm watching my life pass me by instead of living it. We only get one crack at this whole life thing and mine was almost taken from me last year. I know better than to let my life control me instead of the other way around.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some 'Choice' Words

There have been so many parts of cancer that I wasn’t prepared for, that no matter what someone could have said to me, no one would have prepared me for what cancer does to you, both physically and emotionally. Lately, I feel like it’s more of a matter of when it is coming back rather than if it’s coming back. The other day, I heard someone said that at the 3-year-post-cancer-mark, the fear of recurrence lessens, so I guess I have a while to wait and even then lessening isn’t disappearing.

I have been struggling lately with my physical appearance. I have been trying to eat properly and am really trying to walk, a lot. I feel good physically but mentally, I feel bad about the way I look. I have a lot of guilt, I feel like I have done some of it to myself (mostly weight but even my breast, why do I feel responsible for what has happened to me?).

What is very frustrating, more frustrating than I thought it would be, is my hair. I used to have really long blond hair and when I wanted it curly, I wore it curly and when I wanted it straight, I wore it straight. I could wear it up or down or half and half, in a pony tail or messy bun or in a braid (I loved braids!).

When I found out that I needed chemo, my hair wasn’t a big concern of mine. When I cut it, I felt good about donating it and when I buzzed it off after my first treatment; I had a surprising feeling of pride. When it started falling out and I started to go bald, I wore my bald head like a badge of honour; never ashamed, never embarrassed; it was all part of the journey. Then, it started growing back, and kind of fast, and I loved it. Everyone was used to me not having hair, so I was getting so many compliments on my new pixie ‘cut’. I felt good.

As it grew out, it got curlier and curlier and now it’s ringlets. I don’t mind the curls, and even though it’s curly because of chemo and because of cancer, I don’t mind the curls. For me, it’s the length. I haven’t had hair this short since I was in grade 3 and as my Papa told me in 1992 in such a Papa-esque way, ‘I liked it better long.’ So did I Papa, so did I. Now, I can wear my hair one way; short, curly, and maybe with a head band. I don’t have any choices!

Aha! And therein lies the issues; the lack of choices. Isn’t that the issue as hand?

Cancer has robbed so many of us of so many choices. I don’t have a choice in my hair length along with having one breast, breast feeding, taking steroids, being so f*cking tired, feeling so much less of a woman, being on estrogen blockers at 27 years old, getting pregnant, and so on. Cancer has decided many of these things for me and while something like getting pregnant is still up in the air, I know that cancer has made its decision already, regardless of if I’m aware of it yet.

So many young women, who have had cancer and gone through treatment, have talked about choices. I hear all the time ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted children before I had cancer, but now that I may not be able to, I’m upset that the choice has been taken away from me.’ I feel that way about so much anymore.

I know that I need to mourn the life that I used to know and the body that used to be mine; I know that I have to do that, I just don’t know how to do it? I don’t want to get used to this hair, or this breast, or this steroid induced weight, or these doctors, or the needles, or the prescriptions or the surgeries, or the word cancer having a whole new meaning compared to two years ago. I’m tired of thinking of my funeral or wondering if cancer is going to ‘get me’. I think of all of these things when I look at my hair.

If I were to describe someone to you, who has short hair, a small chest, a big belly and was on a lot of prescriptions, you would most likely think I was describing your grandpa or a great uncle, but instead, I am describing myself. I think what’s crazy is that I can feel this way about myself on the inside and still laugh and still act like everything’s ok. How is it that we can function when we feel so poorly about ourselves?

I write this blog to get it out there, not because I need sympathy or because I need the external validation (like I have needed my entire life). I think a lot of ‘cancer’ isn’t written about and because treatment is over, there’s sometimes an assumption that life should ‘go back to normal’. I just wanted to write about the way I see things.

I know that this is about more than hair. It’s about having to go through with something because a disease has left you with no options. It’s about being robbed of my womanhood. It’s about being given one option when others seem to have a variety of choices. It’s about not having the control over your own life that we are all supposed to be given. It’s about being tired of relying on inner beauty when all you want in some outer beauty.