If a diagnosis of breast cancer has brought your world to a crashing halt, you're not alone. "It's a time fraught with stress--you're not only dealing with the implications of the diagnosis and what it means for your future, but also all the decisions that must be made about your treatment and the repercussions breast cancer will have on your family life and work," says Parveen Vora, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group. "It requires great fortitude and you need to be in the best shape possible--emotionally, physically and mentally--as you navigate life as a breast cancer patient."
That's why self-care is so crucial as a source of sustenance and strength, and should be considered an important part of breast cancer treatment. Dr. Vora shares these self-care tips:
1. Don't stop moving.
Exercising may be the last thing on your mind, whether it's because surgery or chemo has sapped your energy or you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed after your diagnosis. But, notes Dr. Vora, “Movement helps boost mood, relieve stress, improve fitness and clear the mind.” And it's a good habit to start sooner rather than later, as the benefits of exercise last well into remission--a recent study suggests it may help ease the stress and fatigue that may be partially responsible for "chemo brain," the memory problems reported by some breast cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
"Your exercise regimen doesn't need to be intense," Dr. Vora says. "You can aim for 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic activity about three times a week, but if you're not up for that because your body is in pain due to treatment, start out with 10 minutes. Walking is terrific, as well as cycling, jogging or swimming. It's important to consult with your doctor about your exercise plan to make sure it doesn't interfere with your recovery from any surgery or therapy."
2. Use food as fuel for your health.
A balanced diet works hand-in-hand with exercise to help you feel strong. "As with any healthy diet, whole foods, produce and lean proteins are the cornerstone," Dr. Vora says. Fat shouldn't make up more than 20 percent of your daily calories, and you should cut back on processed foods with their artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Because dehydration can keep the body from functioning properly, try to drink 64 to 80 ounces of water while limiting caffeine and alcohol.
3. Remember that knowledge is power.
"Staying informed about your health can alleviate anxiety when it comes to treating your cancer," Dr. Vora says. "That means asking questions of your physicians--get details about your type of cancer, the pros and cons of treatments available to you, specific directions for post-surgery care or what to expect during chemo and radiation. The more you know, the more you won't fear the unknown, which helps emotionally and mentally." Write down any questions you have before each doctor appointment, and if you think you'll have a hard time remembering all the particulars, bring a family member to the appointment who can jot down notes for you and make sure you have clarity.
4. Build up your support network.
"A support network can take several different forms," Dr. Vora says. "There are, of course, the family members and close friends who will offer a listening ear, help with chores, dinner and a movie when you need to get out of the house. And then there are breast cancer support groups, where you can meet with other patients, share your story and learn from their experiences. You can find these groups either though your local hospital or via referral from your oncologist. Finally, you may want a counselor, spiritual adviser or psychotherapist you can meet with one-on-one and talk more deeply about your experiences.” Some research has also indicated that talk therapy can help counter the possible 'chemo brain' memory issues.
5. Prioritize what's important to you.
"This is a time when it's OK, and even necessary, to focus on yourself and your needs," Dr. Vora says. "Investing time in things that bring you joy--whether that's knitting, reading or walking on the beach--will improve your outlook and bring positive energy to your life, making it easier to combat negative thoughts and feelings. Conversely, know what your triggers are for stress and negativity, and avoid them. And don't feel guilty about making choices with your health in mind--if that means taking a nap in the middle of the day, then do it."
6. Relax your body and mind.
Research has shown that mediation, deep breathing, visualization and other stress-relief techniques can play a part in lessening worry and exhaustion for breast cancer patients. "Because you are centering and focusing on the here and now, it prevents you from spending precious time and energy feeling anxious about the future or past," Dr. Vora says. "Your doctor should be able to recommend some relaxation exercises, or you can get ideas from a support group. A yoga class can also be helpful."
7. Get your zzzz's.
Adequate sleep is important for anyone, but especially for breast cancer patients. "Unfortunately, there are some obstacles you may face to getting a full night's sleep; chemotherapy and radiation can make you more tired, and you may experience night sweats. Anxiety can also keep you up at night," Dr. Vora says. Establish a bedtime routine to ease the transition to bedtime, wear cool, comfortable night clothes and avoid caffeine or alcohol late at night.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.