So six months after treatment, it’s back to that question again, how long will it take me to recover and start to feel that I can do the things that I used to be able to do, have that energy and focus that I used to have? Earlier this week having gone to bed late, and waking up early, I spent the day going round town with my son specifically buying things that he needed for school, he had a friend over in the evening and I cooked a meal for all of us instead of getting a takeaway which I normally do when his friends stay over, and was so tired - almost drunk from tiredness – at 9:30pm I started dozing on the sofa falling asleep to the TV and didn’t wake up until morning – with my shoes still on as well!
“Every day may not be good, but there's something good in every day. ~Author Unknown “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference”. ~Winston Churchill
Statistics show that 30 per cent of women who have had breast cancer develop anxiety or depression within a year of diagnosis. There are expectations on you to recover quickly once you are healed physically, but the emotional trauma to your life is something you may still be dealing with long after your treatment is over. Some family members, friends and co-workers who were there for you during the “worst of it” may now expect you to get back into life. Some may even want you to act as if nothing happened or perhaps as if it weren’t as bad as it was. However, having spent an enormous amount of inner strength to carry on during treatment – almost like a delayed reaction or shock – it’s not that simple. You need to give yourself time to heal emotionally as well as physically. Do not feel that you are failing if you feel you are not recovering quickly enough, you may still need further support or perhaps some form of counselling.
Although I know I have come out the worst of my depression, and to some degree strangely having breast cancer moved me still further out of depression, I still take my depression pills and do not yet feel confident enough to stop them altogether as I do sometimes still feel down and emotional about all the drama over the last few years.
“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow." - Mary Anne Radmacher
It is said that at the end of chemotherapy treatment you can expect it to be at least six months before you will recover from its physical effects. Radiotherapy side-effects can also persist for several months after the treatment is finished, but others say it can take up to year or more to feel healthy and better again. The recovery process can take further emotional strength with a healthy diet, exercise and positive thinking playing a crucial role in this recuperation stage
“Recovering from a serious illness is like a bright light suddenly being switched on from a deep sleep – your eyes need to be able to adjust before your mind catches up and you can awaken again.”
Interrupted sleep is definitely a big problem for me at the moment and experiencing an early menopause is not helping this. Having an early menopause as a result of breast cancer treatment is not unusual. I certainly do not want to take HRT so I am hoping my hot flushes won’t last that long! After chemotherapy, some women stop getting their periods every month - or stop getting them altogether – it can be due to the treatment you have gone through, or the pills taken after treatment, or a combination of both. Mine just stopped after diagnoses and never came back.
Most cancer survivors say they experience fatigue and sleep problems. You may have trouble getting to sleep, getting up early, or getting back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night. This can be due to various reasons - medical ones such as anaemia or a thyroid disorder. It may be it stems from depression, or the onset of an early menopause - or simply after a period of inactivity exercise can improve symptoms of fatigue. There is a saying that “energy begets energy”. I must admit although I have thought of doing some kind of exercise regime but haven’t quite got into one yet - mainly because my ankle needs to get a little stronger for anything too strenuous (excuses, excuses) but also it’s just that I’m tired!
I am planning to start cycling again – knowing that I can do this after my holiday - but I do need to get myself another second-hand bike first. Aerobic exercise is cited as one of the best exercises you can do recovering from cancer so I could start doing more of a stretching routine (which I do intermittently anyway) and seriously have been think about joining a zumba class – I think there are classes just across the road from me! I think I could also find the confidence to start swimming again as well. To be fair my ankle is still a bit stiff after breaking it earlier this year – so I do have an excuse – well sort of! Meanwhile I am just relishing being able to do the normal day to day things again such as a walk through the park, shopping and housework! I think I need to revert back to David Haas who guest blogged a while ago for his advice on the kind of exercise I need to do.
“Even thus last night, and two nights more I lay, and could not win thee, Sleep, by any stealth: So do not let me wear to-night away. Without thee what is all the morning's wealth? Come, blessed barrier between day and day, dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!”
My diet and weight gain has certainly been a frustration for me. After my ops I put on so much weight I went up two dress sizes almost overnight and after my chemo and radiation treatment I went down 3 dress sizes! My weight is now creeping up again so I know I need to do something and although it’s a great reason to buy new clothes, I can’t afford it. To be fair to myself just getting my taste buds back was a revelation in itself for a while. I know what I have to do to eat healthily (we all do really), it’s just doing it, everything in moderation and not being tempted by those things which are not healthy – I do not include chocolate in this equation!
“I feel about airplanes the way I feel about diets. It seems to me that they are wonderful things for other people to go on” - Jean Kerr
Going to the dentist at some point is also on my health agenda. Research shows that 40% of people who have had chemotherapy have oral symptoms, such as sore gums, cavities, mouth infections and dry mouth – and I am to some extent at this point although not half as bad as when going through chemo treatment. I did need to have gone to the dentist before I had cancer and kept putting it off so this is not necessarily something new – but I have a fear of dentists and not just because of the expense involved!
“Some tortures are physical and some are mental, but the one that is both is dental.” - Ogden Nash
If you have had radiation you can suffer skin irritation at the radiation site which typically abates within 12 months – this is one thing I am ok with but I do know others who have had problems in this area. I have been extremely careful in the sun this summer making sure I have plenty of sun cream on and particular stayed covered up on my radiation site.
While researching this blog, I found out that if you have had a mastectomy, you can also experience what doctors call "phantom pain," a pain that seems to be coming from your missing breast. I have certainly noticed this now and again and worried about it so to know this is a relief for me. I still have the tightness of the scar tissue and still put my cream on. I also worry about contracting lymphedema which is the most common health concern related to surgical procedures for breast cancer - I still do my arm exercises intermittently, but have not got back the left arm movement that I used to have and it pulls at the scar – I am always aware that I do not have breast because of the scar and I wonder if this feeling ever goes away or you just get used to it? If you've had breast surgery or radiotherapy there is often tissue damage which can restrict arm movement so to continue doing your arm exercises is important. Strangely I have a shooting pain on my shoulder on my right hand side which sometimes keeps me awake at night too – I think I may be compensating for the loss of the breast on the other side – my posture is not wonderful anymore.
“There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”
The worse thing right now is when I forget things and get easily confused and can’t find the right words, put things down and can’t find them, or just don’t do the things I am supposed to do in a timely way like pay my bills on time! Research shows that one in four people with cancer reports memory and attention problems after chemotherapy. This is sometimes called "chemobrain." Many survivors describe this as "brain fog," which can lead to problems paying attention, finding the right word, or remembering new things.
These effects can begin soon after treatment ends, or they may not appear until much later and they don't always go away. If a person is older, it can be hard to tell whether these changes in memory and concentration are a result of treatment or the aging process. I think my lack of focus comes from having turmoil of thoughts. Either way, some of us feel that we just can't focus as we once did. This can also be a connected by changes in your hormone levels (menopause again) and your emotions. I have noticed that I am starting to get my focus back (albeit it slowly) and starting to feel much more organized but it has taken some effort. I brought some crossword books to do on the bus on the way to work just to get my brain exercising and play word games – my blogging and poetry helps – as well as the spirituality I find at my Source group - but I just can’t wait until I can read a book all the way through again rather than just getting through the first few chapters.
“But my brain winds and wends. Back and forth. Up and down. It feels like the county fair has inhabited my mind-- complete with sketchy rides, carnies, and sugar-amped kids crying over lost balloons. So loud and disorienting. I want it to pack up and move on to the next town. I want my mind to be an open grassy field again with crickets and dandelions.”
I still have sensitive fingertips and cannot open plastic bags – so frustrating to have to ask others to do; my son for the rubbish bags, the checkout girl for the plastic shopping bags!! There has certainly been an improvement in this sensitivity as I can at least do the filing now which was a problem when I first went back to work and do up zips and buttons again. Sometimes cancer treatment does cause damage to your nervous system and can take up to a year to resolve. The nerve damage is called neuropathy and the symptoms can be made worse by other conditions, such as diabetes (me again), and alcoholism (not me). Most people first notice symptoms in their hands or feet, usually starting with their fingertips and toes. Common symptoms include tingling, burning, weakness, or numbness in your hands or feet; sudden, sharp, stabbing, or electric shock pain sensations; loss of sensation of touch; loss of balance or difficulty walking; clumsiness; hearing loss; jaw pain; constipation; and being more - or less - sensitive to heat and cold. Funnily enough I think I may also have a bit of hearing loss as well – or that is what my teenage son says although I think it’s because he mumbles!
“After obsessively Googling symptoms for four hours, I discovered 'obsessively Googling symptoms' is a symptom of hypochondria.”― Stephen Colbert
Sometimes I feel that I am a walking hypochondriac - which is another trait of a cancer survivor – obsessed by every little little twinge! However I am putting down most of my minor physical twinges at the moment down to recovery and menopause and not to any other medical problem – although I should factor in my diabetes as well.
I had a mammogram recently on my right hand breast and that came back clear and my next scan is due at the end of October – which date is ever coming closer each day. A trip to the doctor to talk about some of the things I am going through is probably very advisable and what this is what I would advise anyone else to do - although I really do not want to go through any medical things at all at the moment – we don’t always listen to our own advice!
According to the charity Breast Cancer Care, a national organization offering support and information to those affected by breast cancer, after surgery, 20 to 30 per cent of patients develop persisting problems with body image. The losing of a breast can lead to a loss of confidence or self-esteem. I do want to meet a like-minded affectionate chap with a good sense of humour but who would want to take on a one-breasted short grey haired positive yet emotional woman, a grumpy teenaged son and two cats? Oh well we do all have our own baggage!
I’m not sure where to start, going to pubs and clubs is not necessarily conducive to meeting single men as I certainly do not want someone that drinks too much and clubs – well there is just too much competition for me to stand out. There is a singles club in town but the age of men are so much older than I am and I don’t fancy dating on-line. I suppose I should just follow what the advice columns say and join an activity where you may meet like-minded people - perhaps I will meet an angst single poet at one of the poetry groups I am now going to - but it could take some time!
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something”
Finally the fear of recurrence, this is something I try to push back into my mind and not to think about, but it is a real fear a real worry. According to the National Cancer Institute nearly seven in ten survivors worry about cancer returning and is one of the biggest challenges that people who have finished treatment face. The fact that you are no longer actively receiving treatments or that you are not being watched as closely can leave you feeling vulnerable. Some people have trouble believing that the cancer is really gone, so it may take them a while before they have the confidence to return to their normal activities – I think I fall somewhat into this category. Others may find it difficult to deal with the possibility that the cancer could come back and you may have to manage their fears. Every survivor deals with fear of recurrence differently. You may recognize that there are certain times when stressful feelings surface – I was a little nervous waiting for the results of my first mammogram after cancer and I am definitely apprehensive about my scan in October. I am hoping that my worries on appointments with doctors or follow ups will diminish as time passes.
“I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.” William Allen White
Finally, we all basically do know what a healthy lifestyle is:
- Eating a healthy balanced diet
- Taking regular exercise (where possible, even during treatment)
- Stopping smoking
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
- Positive attitude
I owe it to myself, not just to my son, family and friends, to actually get fitter, eat better and give up smoking – not think about it, or push it back until another day – but just need to get on with it and take the first steps and change some habits of a lifetime. They say 28 days is the period where habits can change – just 28 days – so September is my month to taking the first the steps and tackle each of these one by one –I don’t drink lots of alcohol although sometimes I am partial to a vodka and coke, a glass of red wine or a strawberry cider, and most of the time I think I have cracked the positive attitude!
“To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” I do agree with the quote for those who are healthy or can become healthy – but there are some of you out there where this is not possible. “Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do”.
I do have to keep reminding myself that I need to be gentle and not too hard on myself especially when I find that I am unable to meet commitments which I am sure does annoy some of the people I know. I try to listen to my body and although up to now have concentrated on my emotional well-being, writing poetry, blogging, tweeting, deepening my spirituality, exploring new ways to relax such as meditation and visualization and affirmations to affirm a positive attitude, it’s time to move forward for a complete change of lifestyle. I have taken big strides towards the end of this particular journey but now need to take longer ones to reach its destination.
I am just glad that I do now have the peace of mind and the strength to tackle my own problems in my own way as they arise more calmly and logically, and not to let other people get me down. Having cancer has made me realize that nothing is insurmountable; everything is possible, and if you have love and support around you, and a positive attitude that you can get through life’s hurricanes and steer yourself through to calm waters whatever they are.
“We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.” ~Author Unknown
It’s scary to think that there are very few people in the UK who haven’t been affected by breast cancer let alone those across the world. One woman in every nine will be diagnosed with this disease during her life however I do believe that with the current scientific discoveries and research currently being done, and the unity of us together sharing our stories, our experiences, hopes and fears and taking action to keep cancer research in the minds of Governments, perhaps one day, soon in the future, cancer will be eradicated or not such a fear and a doddle to recover from!
“Healing ourselves on the spiritual level involves developing a strong connection with our soul. We heal ourselves on the mental level as we become aware of our core beliefs, release those that limit us, and open to more supportive ideas and greater understanding. Emotional healing takes place as we learn to accept and experience the full range of our feelings. And we heal ourselves on the physical level when we learn to honour and care for our bodies, and for the physical world around us.”