For as long as I can remember, I have always put a lot of pressure on myself to be the 'est': tallest, funniest, smartest, youngest, well, you see where I am going with this. By the time I was in grade 4, I was four feet, eleven inches - needless to say, tallest was not difficult through my formative years. In my double cohort graduating high school class, I was voted funniest female and I was not afraid to put that on my resume for the few years that followed (funniest? Check!). By the time I was 24 years old, I had earned three degrees - well, at least three pieces of paper say I'm smart(est). And by the time I was 26, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, something that not many other 26 year olds can achieve (Youngest? Also Check!).
While I spent the first 26 years of my life putting pressure on myself to achieve all the important 'ests', I was not prepared for the pressure that I was about to feel as a cancer survivor. I'm not sure how many times someone has asked me the reason that I was diagnosed with cancer; microwaves? deodorant? the birth control pill? too much meat? not enough meat? too much stress? did you swallow a bottle of cleaner as a kid? did every female ancestor in your family have breast cancer before you? the gene mutation? tap water? And with this barrage of questions comes a certain pressure that no one intentionally puts on me but it weighs heavily none the less. Along with these questions come a deeper questioning; 'Now that you've had cancer, you don't still use a microwave, do you?', 'You're not going to eat that chocolate bar, are you? You know what sugar can do to you, especially now that you've had cancer, don't you?', 'What? You don't eat organic EVERYTHING? You are a failure at being a cancer survivor!'.
I consume so much of my day with questions of 'What would a good cancer survivor do?'
We are faced with so many questions about what to eat, what not to eat, supplements to take, pills to avoid, and interactions to consider that it becomes so overwhelming and the result many times is a guilt induced binge-fest on everything that we know is bad for us. I gained a whopping 33 lbs with cancer and chemo. Wait, aren't you supposed to lose weight when you're going through chemo? Ya, that's what I thought too. But with breast cancer, it's different. When they start playing with your hormones, when you eat anything that you can keep down regardless of nutritional or caloric value and when you limit your physical activity because the thought of walking to the bathroom exhausts you, you pack on the weight. Oh, and because I am in a medically induced menopause, the cancer drugs that I'm on now help pack on the weight, too. Yes, if you're wondering, I AM living the 20-something dream!
Many times, when I would obsess over eating the right thing or avoiding the wrong thing, I would feel so overwhelmed and helpless that I would find myself wondering 'What's the point?' and I would eat myself into oblivion. Anytime I would start to research post-cancer foods or cancer survivor diets, I would find opposing viewpoints; coffee is bad because of the caffeine/coffee is good because of the antioxidants; bananas are good because of the potassium/bananas are bad because of the potassium. Avoid sugar. Avoid fat. Eat enough fat. Avoid carbs. Our body needs carbs. Become a vegan! You need meat... Holy crap, it is so overwhelming. Actually, just out of curiosity, I just googled 'too much broccoli' and articles actually popped up. Seriously?
When our life has just been flipped upside down, we have been hammered with toxic chemicals, we are beaten and battered, we are many pounds heavier than we were, and we have no energy with no promise of any in the near future, where do we go? Where do we start?
Back in January, I started to realize my addiction to pop (soda for my American friends). I loved pop, a lot. It was that 'thing' that I could never give up. Take away chocolate, and candy, and pizza but don't ever take away my pop. In all the research that I had been doing, with all the different food, and all the opposing viewpoints, I couldn't find one article that said that pop was a good thing or that its contents were beneficial in anyway. At that point, I decided to try to make it a week without a pop; a little 7-day challenge if you will. I didn't think I would last three days but one day turned into two which turned into four which turned into a week and ten months later, I haven't had a drop of pop. I mean, I still dream about it, and most mornings I wake up hoping that it was just a nightmare, but to this day, I haven't had any since I gave it up. This gave me a little momentum and I started trying this little challenge with other aspects of my life.
I started upping my veggie intake. I like vegetables, luckily, but I have never been a big vegetable eater (well post-mom's cooking). I decided to try to eat 4-6 servings a day - I challenged myself - and it worked and now I just naturally gravitate towards the vegetables, I even crave them. Don't get me wrong, I still like all the bad stuff but I make sure to get my vegetables in to me and then if there's room, I go for the bad stuff and to be honest, there isn't usually room. I also tried eating less processed foods. I am no pro at this but I definitely limit what I consume when it comes to prepackaged meals in a can/frozen/vacuumed-packed container.
Two weeks ago, I got on a juicing kick and decided to do a three day juicing detox. I know, right? Why would anyone not eat for three full days and only consume homemade juice that isn't the most delicious tasting liquid in the world? Well, I thought after going through chemotherapy and still currently being on cancer drugs that it was a good idea to detox, to give my digestive tract a break from the ups and downs of chemo and cancer (a long overdue break). Day 1 was so hard and if it hadn't been for Keith, I think I would have quit. Day 2 was just as hard but at least I knew that I could say 'tomorrow is the last day' and Day 3 was easiest although we did spend a lot of that evening planning the food we were going to eat the next day. Actually, we had planned to order pizza because we were both craving salt and couldn't imagine anything saltier. And then, when the time came, oddly enough, we both just wanted salad. I know that sounds like I am making it up, or that I am getting paid by a juicing company to say that, but honestly, we both just wanted nutrients. It was like our body had rebooted and once we could eat again, once we could have the salt, and the sugar and the garbage, we didn't even want it. To be honest, I wasn't expecting that. Bonus!
But, this challenge approach has not all been about what I consume, it has also been about exercise. I rely on public transit and I walk a lot but I am not someone who exercises for the sole purpose of exercising. I also found that after I felt a little relief from the residual chemo fatigue, Tamoxifen was right there to pick up where chemo left off - I am still tired from cancer. Needless to say, I haven't had the most energy in the past two and a half years. But regardless, I decided that on October 1st I was going to join a gym and go for five days a week for the whole month. I could quit on November 1st if I wanted to but I had to make it through the month and I had to go five days a week. When I go to the gym (I have been a member at a few gyms over the years) I am not someone who likes to ease into it. Every day that I have gone, I've burn 800-1000 calories (an hour on the elliptical and then weights). The first week was the hardest. I was so warm for hours after my workout because my circulation was going crazy and then I would freeze for another few hours. I was sore all the time. I was so tired. I didn't think I could last the week let alone the month. I just kept telling myself that I want to enjoy things like baseball again (which I haven't played since cancer), and I am getting married at some point in the future, and I know about the correlations between being overweight and the recurrence of breast cancer, and an hour on the elliptical gives me time to think about the good stuff - the endorphins just encourage good thoughts. Well, wouldn't you know it, I'm still going to the gym 52 days later, five days a week and I am down 17.5lbs. At the 15.5lbs mark, I had officially lost the last of my chemo/cancer weight. Did that ever feel good! F-U cancer, and the horse you rode in on.
I am going in next Tuesday (the 3rd) for the last of my three surgeries. I am getting my expanders exchanged for implants. So that means six weeks of no elliptical or weights. I am nervous about the break in my routine but let's be honest, no pop is much harder than being on the elliptical for five hours a week and I'm ten months deep with the 'no pop thing' so I should be able to get back to it mid-January.
I know what it's like to feel like you need to make a change but feel powerless. Consider giving yourself a seven day challenge. Start with something achievable (which is different than easy). Giving up pop was achievable but it was not easy. Eating more vegetables was achievable but not always easy. As a cancer survivor, it is so easy to feel the pressures of needing to change your entire life over night but instead of trying change everything and succeed at nothing, try changing one thing at a time; you'll be surprised how long seven days can last.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2011 @ 26 years old. Breast cancer does not run in my family; further proof that cancer doesn’t discriminate.I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason. I want to get my story out there so other young women know that they are not alone. I have been blessed with an incredible support system and I would love to pay that forward.