My Top 10 Coping Tools for Getting Through a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Lately I've been renewing friendships with people I haven't seen in a few years, or just seeing people I haven't seen since pre-BC (breast cancer), and one of the things that they often ask is "How did you manage to get through last year?" I've actually been wondering the same thing lately, as I get absorbed into the very busy life I lead as a wife, mother, consultant, friend, homeowner, etc. There are so many things to do and so much to keep up with, how did I actually manage during the whole year of breast cancer treatments?
The truth is that I actually had a strategy; I treated it like my job (and of course, it was my job to get myself through this). I made some very conscious decisions about how to cope with it very early on in the process, because it was so overwhelming at times. I knew that if I didn't handle it dispassionately and logically I'd either go crazy, lose my family or lose my health (not in any particular order). So, being the Libra/balancing pragmatist that I am, here are the 10 coping tools that helped me through the entire 16 months of my treatment journey.
1. Focus on one day at a time.
Once I realized I was going to have to go full hog and have lots of chemo, the mastectomy and reconstruction, I knew I had to deal with one daunting task at a time or I simply would not be able to handle it. So I focused on each procedure and then broke each one into manageable chunks of time.
For example: My chemo was pretty overwhelming. I had to have 4 treatments of Adriamycin and Cytoxan (A/C); once every 3 weeks. Then I had to have 12 weekly treatments of Taxol, for a total of 5 1/2 months and 16 infusions. I just couldn't wrap my head around that, so I focused on getting through little landmarks. First, I focused on getting through the A/C which I knew would be the worst. Then I set up mini-goals for my progress. I was 25% through my Taxol, 50% of the way through it, 75% of the way, etc. Otherwise, I just could not face the sheer number of treatments in front of me. You can read more about how I determined my chemo regimen in partnership with my oncologist by clicking on this link to an earlier posting.
2. Celebrate the little wins, whenever you can.
In addition to setting these mini-goals I mentioned above, I also celebrated them when they were completed. I planned little trips or visits with friends during the "good" weeks in between my treatments. My daughter and I walked in the Revlon Run/Walk the week after my 2nd A/C chemo. I took a little mini-weekend trip with my daughter and 2 of my close friends after my 5th Taxol to celebrate that I was 50% of the way there. My sisters and another very close friend came to stay with me in between the treatments and surgeries. By giving myself these "treats" in between chemo, I had something to look forward to and kept my spirits up.
3. Rely on your friends.
I did NOT try to be brave. I relied on my friends for a lot last year, and it is astonishing to me how much they did for me. There was nothing they wouldn't do -- they listened, they fed me, they laid in bed and watched TV with me when I had no energy to do anything, they made me laugh, they helped me shave my head when my hair started falling out, they reviewed the status of my breasts and never once told me I looked like Frankenstein (and believe me, I DID for a while there), they told me I was strong enough to get through it all and they made me feel like I was a normal, functioning human-being despite the horrible chemicals and procedures I was experiencing.
4. Don't sweat the small stuff.
I was pretty tired most of the year and after a few months just decided that I was going to have to let things fall to the side. The house was pretty much a mess all year, but I just let it be okay and that was a big relief.
5. Keep friends updated via Caringbridge
Fairly early on, after I realized how long this whole escapade was going to be, I took the advice of a friend and started posting updates about what was going on at Caringbridge.org, a wonderful site that allows people with long-term health concerns to keep family and friends updated. It was too exhausting to call everyone with the details, so I would post frequently and everyone was kept updated without me having to make lots of individual calls. If you'd like to read more details about my treatment process, go to www.caringbridge.org and put my name (Claudiaschmidt) in the box in the middle of the page.
6. Find a place to allow yourself to let loose and cry.
The only time I really felt good was when I was in the shower. The hot water made my muscles and joints feel better, and the fact that I was completely alone in there was a relief. Often when I needed to cry, I would just let it all rip while I was in there where no one could hear me, and no one would ask what was wrong. I'd do that really ugly crying -- howling and raging, with all that snorg and stuff pouring out of my nose and eyes. And then the warm water would wash it all away and I'd step out feeling refreshed and clear. It sounds gross, but it was actually kind of great, because afterwards I'd feel so renewed.
7. Ask your insurance company to assign a dedicated case worker.
The bills were endless and really hard to keep track of. I called my insurance company and told them I wanted a case worker and believe it or not, they assigned me one. She was very helpful and I honestly never had a problem with any of the bills, as long as the doctor was within my network.
8. Get a second opinion.
I was worried about insulting my doctors, but on the other hand... this is my life we were talking about! AND, my breasts. So I did my research, got second opinions and switched doctors a few times during the process.
9. Don't watch medical TV shows!
I just couldn't watch a lot of shows that I used to love. Any show that focused on blood or medicine or anything too visceral just threw me off. I used to love House, True Blood and In Treatment. The ambiguity of the diagnoses on House scared the heck out of me and made my mind go places I didn't want it to go. And True Blood, well let's just say vampires are not the thing to be focused on when you're spending all that time with an IV needle in your arm. And In Treatment, well, as much as I love Gabriel Byrne, it was all just way too sad for my state of mind in 2010.
10. Eat whatever you want.
During chemo, my theory was that whatever I wanted to eat was just fine, given the fact that I was so nauseous that I didn't want to eat anything. For me, that turned out to be Haagen Dazs ice cream, brown rice, and bagels. Who needs to worry about trying to eat vegetables when you're going through all that craziness!
Have you ever experienced a life-threatening diagnosis? How did you get through it?