Imagine running as fast as you can, carrying several unwieldy objects. You’re exhausted, but you have to keep going and not drop anything. Suddenly, a brick wall appears. You slam straight into it, dropping everything and crashing to the ground.
The unwieldy running is a metaphor for life in my thirties: rushing from dropping off the kids to a full-time job, desperate to be a good friend, daughter, wife, mother and colleague. In 2021, aged 40, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was the brick wall.
My diagnosis of stage-three, grade-three, triple-negative breast cancer required five months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumours before I could then have surgery to remove my breast and lymph nodes from under my right arm (where they also found cancer). It was followed by 15 rounds of radiotherapy and, to cap it off, a further six months of adjuvant chemo.
I felt as if I had been betrayed by my own physiology, causing disassociation from my body. It had grown two tumours without me realising until I could feel them through the skin, and now had a heavily-scarred, nipple-less, reconstructed right breast. Chemo had caused early menopause, with a litany of symptoms including anxiety and brain fog. I had lost myself completely.
So I made a decision. I would make peace with my body, and work with it, doing everything I can to improve my chances of sticking around to see my kids grow up. It was a self care crash course, and this is what I learned along the way.
Nutrition is important, but don’t obsess
People ask me how I’ve changed my diet: am I vegan? Have I gone keto? Do I eat only raw food? I have interviewed doctors, scientists and dieticians and the best advice is what your grandmother could have told you: eat your veg.
You don’t have to exclude food groups, but you might make healthy tweaks. I still eat dairy, but I try to focus on gut-friendly kefir. I still eat meat occasionally, but I steer clear of the highly processed stuff. And I still have sweet things, but minimise the impact on my blood glucose by having it after a healthy meal.
Exercise can literally save your life
It was only when I started researching ways to reduce my risk of recurrence that I realised the astonishing impact of exercise. The guidelines of at least 150 minutes moderate intensity activity (cycling, brisk walking or housework) each week, plus strengthening activities (a plank, squats or lunges) on two of the days, reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence by a staggering 40 to 50 per cent. Pre-cancer me skived off PE at school and shuddered at the thought of the gym. But this has been the incentive I needed to change my whole attitude around movement. I actually enjoy it now.
Embracing spirituality is good for your health
I was totally dismissive when a breast care nurse mentioned complementary therapies as a way to support me through treatment. But as I learned more about the mind-body connection, my attitude changed. A randomised controlled trial of breast cancer patients at Lincolnshire NHS Trust found that, when women spent time each day visualising their cancer being destroyed, their treatment was more effective than the control group who didn’t do visualisation. Of course, I’m not saying you can wish your cancer away, but you can harness your mind to support conventional treatment.
Annie Ridout, author of Raise Your SQ: Transform Your Life with Spiritual Intelligence, isn’t surprised by this research, and tells me that a simple practice like breathwork can have enormous benefits. “Regular practice improves sleep, reduces anxiety and is thought to strengthen immunity,” she explains. “Like meditation, yoga and other practices that are now mainstream in the West, breathwork stems from traditional Eastern cultures where spirituality was – and still is – just part of life.”
One of the easiest ways to raise your SQ is to spend time in nature. “It’s been proven to lower cortisol levels, which in turn reduces our risk of developing an array of diseases,” says Annie. “This could be as simple as gazing at the clouds for 60 seconds a day, known as ‘skychology’. There are no rules with spirituality, it’s simply about having hope, a connection to the world around you, a curious mind and respect for people and planet.”
The small things are the big things
I always used to be in such a rush with my children, who were six and three when I was diagnosed, telling them to stop dawdling and hurry up. It takes a mental shift to decide that, actually, being a bit late is a small price to pay for a moment of wonder and connection with your child, stroking a neighbour’s cat or watching a snail tackle a leaf.
Anything that heightens your awareness of death makes you more capable of appreciating the little things in life. We feel this to some degree when we read a news story about a horrific event in which people have died. Friends and colleagues will talk in hushed tones about how the incident “puts things in perspective”, and it does for a while but, as everyday annoyances stack up, that perspective tends to disappear.
Having cancer provides this perspective on a longer-term basis. Previously, I was so concerned with being liked by everyone from my child’s teacher to the barista in Pret that I bent over backwards attempting to keep everyone happy. It was probably painful to watch. Now, it’s not as if I go around being a dick to people, don’t get me wrong – I’m still nice. It’s just that I no longer take it personally if someone is having a bad day and it manifests as being grumpy towards me. It’s not my job to ensure that everyone is happy.
Rosamund Dean is the author of Reconstruction: How to rebuild your body, mind and life after a breast cancer diagnosis (HarperCollins)
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