The best way to stay positive about breast cancer is to look at the bright side – especially when the worst is all you can see.
Believe it or not, some breast cancer survivors say they’re glad they got (and beat!) breast cancer. These five reasons that breast cancer can actually improve your life will help you stay healthy and hopeful…
“Because of my mother’s struggle with breast cancer when I was 16, I always felt like I had two B-sized time bombs sitting on my chest, just waiting to explode,” says 36-year old Leslie Haywood, of Charleston, SC. “Two years ago, they finally did – and I was relieved. My doctor said, ‘It’s cancer’ and I almost immediately knew I wanted a bilateral mastectomy – and be done with the stress and worry of those pesky mammary glands forever!”
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer – know someone who has - you may find Just Get Me Through This! A Practical Guide to Coping with Breast Cancer helpful. Here’s what one reader said: “When I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, needless to say, I felt very scared and anxious. I felt as if I had so much to learn in order to be prepared for my journey. Deborah Cohen’s book gave me what I needed: a great deal of practical and valuable information about breast cancer that helped me see what I could control and do. As I read the book, I began to feel less anxious and frightened.
The best way to stay positive when you’re fighting any disease is to remind yourself that you’re not alone – and that’s what books like Just Get Me Through This do.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Health magazine about the bright side of breast cancer. Read it and tell me what you think…
5 Reasons to Stay Positive When You Have Breast Cancer
For some women, a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment means freedom to move forward.
“Chemotherapy and other breast cancer treatments can bring a sense of relief to breast cancer patients,” says Dr. William Dunn, MD, a radiation oncologist at the West Michigan Cancer Center. “Knowing that the radiation is working every day to kill those cancer cells lifts a burden. Getting treatment reassures patients, relieves fear and guilt, and increases hope.”
There’s no denying the ugly, miserable, nasty face of breast cancer – but some side effects of traditional and complementary breast cancer treatments actually make women healthier and stronger!
Women with breast cancer have fewer heart attacks and stronger bones
If you have breast cancer, you’re less likely to develop coronary disease for two reasons, according to Dr Elizabeth Lamont, MD, Assistant Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. First, the high estrogen levels that contribute to breast cancer actually protect against heart disease.
Second, Dr Lamont’s research shows that tamoxifen – a common treatment for cancer – stimulates the estrogen receptors that improve cardiovascular health. Dr Lamont’s research also shows that elderly women with breast cancer are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis and hip fractures because tamoxifen stimulates estrogen in the bones.
Breast cancer survivors get better health care
“After 20 years, I still go to my oncologist every six to nine months for tumor markers, lipid profiles, and flu shots,” says 60 year old Gitta Wombwell – mother of Leslie with the “time bomb” breasts. “My doctor watches closely to ensure I stay healthy.” She was diagnosed at age 39, had a radical mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy, and has enjoyed NED (“no evidence of disease”) ever since.
Another reason to stay positive when you have breast cancer is that research shows that breast cancer survivors have increased access to preventative services such as flu vaccinations, cervical and colon screening, and lipid testing, according to a study from the Breast Oncology Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA. Since these women are already involved in the medical system, doctors have more opportunities to diagnose and treat other possible diseases – which can mean longer, healthier lives.
Some women with breast cancer have less acne and arthritis
“For me, a positive side effect of chemo – besides eradicating my tumor – was the perfect skin I had after the treatments,” says 42 year old Allison Stanley, from Charlotte, NC. “The chemo poisons kill everything inside your body, including the toxins that cause a bad complexion. My skin, during and after chemo, was flawless. So, even though I had no hair and couldn’t feel my hands right after chemo, my skin was better than ever!”
Allison’s oncologist explained to her that bodily toxins are destroyed by the chemo. Some chemo drugs rejuvenate skin cells, making them pure and free from flaws, acne and other problems. This hasn’t been medically substantiated, and doctors agree that different women experience different effects of chemotherapy. If you have breast cancer, you might find other reasons to stay positive.
“Some of my chemotherapy patients not only have clearer skin, but also better control of their arthritis,” adds Dr Dunn. “Many skin and joint diseases, such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, are caused by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. Chemotherapy interrupts this process by slowing the immune system, which decreases symptoms of those diseases. When chemo ends, those symptoms may reappear.”
Breast cancer survivors have increased well-being and more energy
Acupuncture is a complementary treatment for breast cancer that relieves the nausea, hot flashes, night sweats, and excessive sweating that chemotherapy brings – and offers additional health benefits.
“After acupuncture, I just feel better…at the top of my game,” says 51 year old Susan Azar of Northville, MI. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor, and uses chemo to prevent a recurrence. For her, acupuncture relieves the side effects of ongoing drug therapy. “I was surprised by the increase in my energy levels. I’ve continued the acupuncture treatments at my own cost because of the benefits.”
Research from Dr Eleanor Walker, MD, radiation oncologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, shows that acupuncture offers equivalent results as traditional drug therapy, without the nasty side effects. “In our study, acupuncture improved energy, and increased clarity of thought and overall quality of life,” says Dr. Walker. “Some patients even had an improvement in their sex drive.”
From what I hear, a better sex life isn’t one of the side effects of breast cancer…but you can always stay positive by hoping it is!
Better self-care for survivors of the big C
Breast cancer survivors often experience a stronger connection to their bodies as a result of both the cancer and the treatment, which is another secret benefit of the big C. “I learned more about my sexuality, breasts, skin, wrinkles, endurance, breathing, hair – and lack of hair!” says 33 year old Stefanie LaRue, patient advocate and spokesperson for the Breast Preservation Foundation. She had a skin-sparing mastectomy, which removed the tumor, left her skin intact, and allowed a breast reconstruction that restored her shape. “Now, I respect my body – it’s done a good job in helping heal itself. We have a much better relationship than before.”
Many survivors of breast cancer take better care of themselves by eating healthier, stressing less, and tuning in to their bodies – which protects them from other diseases. Take physical fitness, for instance. “Exercise reduces the risk of recurrence of some breast cancers,” says Dr Julie Silver, MD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “Exercising to recover from breast cancer treatment improves overall health, and reduces the risk of dying from the most common diseases that affect women: heart disease, stroke, and cancer.”
And some women – like Leslie – enjoy their “rebuilt” bodies:
“I chose natural breast reconstruction to put back what the cancer took away,” says Leslie. “It’s a wonderful procedure that takes the tummy pooch that being a mother of two brings and puts it up top where it can do some good! Imagine that…no more worrying about cancer, two perky new boobs, and a bonus tummy tuck! How in the world could I complain about that?”
Other Reasons to Stay Positive for Breast Cancer Survivors
“Not having to shave, not having to deal with my period, and eating whatever I wanted while going through chemo were definite benefits,” says 31 year old Wendy Keating, of Seattle, Washington. “I also learned a great deal about my body – and am more in touch with it now than I’ve ever been.”
“In one way, the chemo was the worse thing I ever experienced,” says 60 year old Gitta Wombwell of Charleston, South Carolina. “In other ways, it’s something I don’t regret. I lost all my hair, but it grew back thicker and fuller, which was great. I had always had fine hair.”
“One of my overweight patients returned to work 25 pounds lighter due to the side effects of chemo,” says Gloria Nelson, a senior oncology social worker at the Montefiore-Einstein Cancer Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Her coworkers didn’t know why she was gone, and were curious about how she lost all that weight. She looked great! ‘You wouldn’t want to do it my way,’ my patient told her colleagues. ‘I was on the ‘cancer diet.’”
“Patients tend to lose weight during surgery and chemotherapy, and general health improves,” says Dr John Di Saia, MD. “With decreasing weight, people who had problems with high blood pressure and diabetes find themselves needing medication less frequently.”
If you feel depressed, scared, or sad because of your cancer, read Living With a Chronic Illness? 3 Ways to Cope With Your Emotions.
Has breast cancer been a gift to you, or a burden? How do you stay positive?