Society likes to talk a lot about self-care: which often translates to a box of chocolates, a bubble bath, and perhaps a glass of wine. Our guest writer, Kim Fredrickson, however, takes the idea of breast cancer self-care (and all self-care) to a higher level–beginning with the language in which we talk to ourselves. Perfectionists, self-critics, and those of us who tend to ignore ourselves a lot, this article is for you! We are so privileged and grateful for Kim Fredrickson’s wise words this week.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer (triple negative). I discovered the lump during a breast exam and went to the doctor the next day. You know the routine — mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy. Ten days later, I had a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. It was a rough road, much harder than I thought it would be, but I did it! I was so happy to be done with treatment and back to reclaiming my life.
Four days after finishing radiation, I noticed I couldn’t take a deep breath. I went to the doctor the next day. At first, they thought I had pneumonia and put me on antibiotics. This didn’t help, and after some tests my new lung doctor told me I had developed pulmonary fibrosis. This terminal lung disease was a rare side effect from the chemo and radiation I’d received for breast cancer. Life expectancy for this disease is three to five years.
The great news is that it’s been four years since then and, although my disease has worsened, I’m still here and determined to live the life I have left to the fullest. I also want to help others who are dealing with a health crisis.
Breast Cancer Self-Care Reality: We’re on a Rough Road
This is such a rough road, and it’s one none of us have walked before. So much changes when we are going through a health crisis. We’re shocked, overwhelmed, and terrified. In a moment our world changed. Our future changed. And our loved ones’ future changed.
I’m a fellow traveler on this road with you. Being a good friend to yourself on this unwanted journey makes it a little easier. I’d love to help you learn how to do this. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve been teaching others to develop a compassionate relationship with themselves for 30 years.
I want you to know that you matter. Yes, you heard me…you matter. Your life matters; what you are going through matters; and how you are doing matters. You are valuable and of great worth.
I know being diagnosed with breast cancer is devastating and going through the treatment is even worse. I know you’re discouraged, and you may even be thinking of giving up. You’ve already been through so much pain, suffering, and confusion. I know you’re scared about treatment, survival, recurrence, changes to your body, and possible harm to your heart and/or lungs. All of this may seem like it’s too much, more than you can handle. I know because I feel that way sometimes too.
Be a Graceful Friend to Yourself
You need to be a good friend to yourself right now. I know how important this is. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, I first cried and then said to myself, “I’m going to be a good friend to myself through this process.” I said this again one year later when I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
You may feel tempted to abandon yourself right now, but this is when you need yourself the most—as a gentle advocate and encourager. If you don’t know how, you can learn. You may not be able to summon up the words or energy right now. That’s okay. You are caring for yourself right now just by reading this. Here’s how to start being a kind and compassionate friend to yourself.
Decide to Treat Yourself with Compassion and Care
Diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment are stressful, scary, painful, and disruptive–to say the least. How we treat ourselves and care for ourselves while we are on this road makes a huge positive difference in our lives. Turning toward ourselves with care, compassion, and grace, honors ourselves and what we are going through and makes this road a bit easier. Even though it can be a challenge, we need to make it a priority to take care of ourselves. When we don’t care for ourselves during crises, our systems break down and we end up in even worse shape.
Learning to be a compassionate and supportive friend to ourselves in the midst of this battle is critical. Approaching ourselves with kindness, caring, empathy, and understanding will help us get through these tough times. As we relate to ourselves in warm and gracious ways, we will be able to tolerate and process the ever-changing feelings and experiences that come with battling such a serious disease.
Self-compassion helps in these situations because it builds resilience—the internal flexibility to rebound and recover from painful, disappointing, and devastating times. Why is this? Because there is a world of difference between going through a difficult time while ignoring or beating yourself up and going through that same difficult time while being compassionate and understanding with yourself.
Kind Words to Say to Yourself
Part of being a good friend to yourself is to kindly acknowledge to yourself what you are going through. Maybe like this…
This is hard. I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t want to have breast cancer and go through all the treatments. I’m scared, heartbroken, overwhelmed, and don’t know what to do. What about how this is affecting my spouse, kids, grandkids, parents, and friends? It’s all too much to think about. This is really, really hard. I think for now I will be kind to myself, no matter what I’m thinking or feeling. I want to be a good friend to myself as I go through each step of this unwanted journey.
Going through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation is so painful and scary. Sometimes it’s all I can do to survive the next step and the next moment. This is normal. I’m not going to get down on myself for struggling or for being afraid. I’ve never been through this before, and I don’t need to do this perfectly. I will do what I can to make each step a little bit easier.
There’s so much to learn and understand about my disease and the types of treatments. I wish I didn’t have to learn about all of this. I’m not going to expect myself to know everything and make all the right decisions. It’s normal to be discouraged, exhausted, and feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not going to be mean to myself for mistakes I make or for not being able to do what I used to. The reality is that I am brave, courageous, and am fighting an enormous battle. I’m going to make being kind and compassionate to myself a top priority, starting right now. I’ll allow myself time to recover in whatever ways work for me. I don’t have to follow anyone else’s plan. I’m going to notice what things are helping breathe new life into me and keep doing those.
What’s it like to talk to yourself this way? It may be a new way to relate to yourself, but don’t worry, you can learn. What you need right now is kindness and compassion, not harshness. Try to start talking to yourself in compassionate ways.
Self-Compassion Softens Reality
You are precious. You are valuable. And you are scared, hurting, and brave. You’re not alone in this battle. Let’s walk together as we treat ourselves with compassion and kindness for the road ahead. I’m glad we’re in this together.
Kim Fredrickson is an author, blogger, and marriage and family therapist. She is the author of “Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend” and “Give Your Kids a Break: Parenting with Compassion for You and Your Children.” Kim blogs about self-compassion and faith at kimfredrickson.com, and also writes a patient column at pulmonaryfibrosisnews.com. Kim is honored to help those facing a terminal illness (as she is) and their families be kind to themselves on their final journey.
Inspiring article,and almost my story.I was diagnosed with TNBC 4years ago and subsequently pleural thickening and moderate emphysema.I know it is important for me to put myself as a priority,but am still learning to not be guilty in doing so,especially in regard to time (not)spent with my elderly but active mum.
Catherine, that’s such a tough road to walk. If learning self-compassion is something you’re in a place of wanting to prioritize, Kim is really a great resource on this topic, beyond just this article. She blogs at https://kimfredrickson.com, has some great books, and even recordings of compassionate self-talk. For me, personally, her words have really challenged how I think about the way I talk to myself.