Toni's Advice for an Early Stage Breast Cancer Diagnosis
I was successfully treated for stage 1 breast cancer in 2016. The best possible gift from that experience is to be able to share what I learned from it with others—to offer advice and encouragement to those on a similar journey, to spread the word about cold cap therapy for protecting hair during chemo, and to share some recommendations for anyone looking for safer hair & beauty products. I hope you might find something useful, hopeful, or inspiring here.
I can’t speak to any other experience besides my own, but I share the following in hopes it might help someone reading this:
- Find the gifts. When I was diagnosed, a nurse told me to look for the gifts in it. She said, “That may be hard to imagine right now, but most people, afterward, say they found gifts in the journey they never could have discovered any other way.” And I couldn’t agree with this more. Even if it’s just the kindness shown to you by people in your life and the ones you meet along the way, or whether the experience leads you to reevaluate some aspect of your life or pushes you to go after something you want. Sharing this with you right now is, for me, a gift I’m taking from cancer—because if my experience can help anyone, that gives it some purpose and meaning for me. There are truly gifts in the journey if you’re open to them.
- Let yourself feel the emotions that come with it. It’s scary, and when you’re diagnosed you’re thinking: Why me? How did this happen? How is it going to change my life? And again, why me? It’s normal to wonder why you. It’s normal to wake up every morning stunned to remember: Oh my God, I have cancer! It’s normal to burst into tears with no warning at moments when you think you’re fine. It’s okay to be upset and okay to be afraid. But I will also say that through it all, I gave myself a whole lot of pep talks, reminding myself that I’d be all right, that this was just a disruption to my life for a little while. So if you can do that, that’s good, too. :) The upshot, though, is: Feel the emotions, let it out.
- Don’t be afraid to tell people. I think for many of us—and for me at first—there is a fear in telling people you have cancer. Maybe it’s not wanting to make them uncomfortable, or not wanting to feel like a statistic, or not wanting anyone to feel sorry for you. But what I can tell you about this is that people are nice. And when I started sharing my situation, I realized just exactly how kind and caring most people truly are, and I took an enormous amount of strength in the support I received. I am so very thankful that I got past my fear and chose to share it, and I’m grateful for every kind word or thought or prayer that was sent my way. There are moments when you just feel plain alone, no matter what, even when you’re with your loved ones or friends, because no one else knows what it’s like to be in this place—but I can tell you that when you know people are praying for you, or when you open the mailbox to find a card or open the door to a flower delivery, you really feel a whole lot less alone. I have truly never felt so loved as I have during this time. Now that’s a gift!
- Accept help when it’s offered. For most of us, it’s our nature not to want to inconvenience people, or not to want to accept help we may not be able to return. But if ever there is a time in your life to let go of that concern, it’s now. Like it or not, there will be times when you’ll need some help. And other times when you might not need it but when it just makes things easier. And the people who offer it are sincere. Most generally, these are people who care about you, and they’re struggling to accept this news, too, and they feel a lot less helpless if you let them take some of the burden from you in some way. So it’s a win-win!
- Be your own advocate. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when processing your diagnosis and treatment plan. I trusted my doctors, but I didn’t ask enough questions in the beginning. Once I started doing that, and consulting additional sources, I learned there were valid reasons to consider different options in terms of my treatment plan. So remember to ask as many questions as you need to in order to fully understand your own personal situation.
- Be gentle with yourself. This is another piece of advice someone gave me, and there were many times I had to stop and remind myself of it. I’m used to being a really focused, productive person and I thrive on that. This whole experience has seriously slowed me down, often more mentally than physically. Over and over I would find myself “wasting time” and then feeling guilty about it. But really, when you have cancer, it's all okay. The world won’t stop spinning if you don’t answer that email or finish that chore. The world didn’t stop spinning when I took some time away from writing books. I had to reach a place where I told myself it was absolutely fine to do whatever I felt like at any given moment. I had to accept that this is my journey right now and everything happens for a reason and that this is a time to indulge myself. In every way. Pick the restaurant when your friends ask where you want to eat. Accept the flowers lovingly and graciously. Stay home if you feel like staying home, go out if that’s what you’re in the mood to do. Sleep in. Stay up late. Binge watch Game of Thrones or Hell on Wheels or Breaking Bad. Hug your loved ones more. Hold your favorite teddy bear. Allow yourself to do whatever will make you feel best in any given moment and you will come through this easier.
- Consider seeking support through friends or the cancer community. I had a close circle of friends who were happy to listen to me and be there for me throughout this entire journey, and that was priceless to me. My hospital also connected me with a recent breast cancer patient in my area who was a fount of information and additional support during this time. Although I didn’t choose to pursue additional means of support, my hospital also offered support groups and other therapy, and a call to your local branch of the American Cancer Society can connect you with this type of support, as well.
- Be hopeful and brave. I’m closing with this one because it’s important. You have full permission to cry and to be angry and to fear the unknown. But it’s also important to be brave whenever you can. It’s important to remind yourself you’ll get through this and life will get back to normal. More than one person told me early after my diagnosis that they felt like this would ultimately just be a blip on my radar screen. That seemed impossible at the time. But now that I’m through it, I’m beginning to see that despite tough days and scary times, soon it might actually seem like exactly that: a blip in my life, a journey I went on that taught me a lot and then reached its end. So muster whatever bravery you can—and I promise you’ll be glad you did. A little bravery truly makes every challenge easier.