Striking a balance in the aftermath of a breast cancer diagnosis is an art form that I am slowly learning.
When it comes to my health, in the past I have pushed my body through pain while running, creating an injury. I once ignored my symptoms of pneumonia so long that it was hard to tell how long I had it before I finally went to the doctor with what I thought was allergies — I thought it was allergies because I had been sneezing, with watery eyes and I was short of breath when walking my dog. The allergist did a battery of allergy tests and suggested I get a scan of my lungs, but told me it was not a rush. And, guess what? I had pneumonia. The point of all of this is that I used to push myself through pain and other symptoms, disbelieving that anything bad could happen to me. I was invincible.
Fast-forward to 2018, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a wake-up call, showing me bad things can happen to anyone, even me, who was running frequently and eating healthy. Cancer does not discriminate.
It showed me that I definitely need to listen to everything my body was telling me, but I realized that in my anxiety over having and coping with the disease that I did not know how to strike a balance. Prior to my diagnosis, I often overdid things. And, with all of the "health" information on the Internet, I initially Googled every little chemo side effect I had, asking what was wrong with me and why. The Internet is good at suggesting what could be happening, and it always seemed to say that there was something horribly wrong. That can cause panic. It created more stress for me than necessary, and when I told my oncologist about something I thought was wrong and what the Internet told me about it, she responded with, "Well, it's the Internet." In actuality, there was nothing wrong and the side effects I was experiencing were normal.
I learned to stop Googling things or else I would induce my own anxiety. I knew I could only trust my doctor and my nurses at that point. Eventually, I learned to trust myself — to a certain extent. While I listen to my body now, it can be a challenge, especially when I am healing. When I have a wound, I am afraid that I may do something wrong in caring for it and I may hurt myself. When I was healing from my mastectomy, I was afraid to change bandages on my own or to take a shower when I had my drains in (they allowed excess lymphatic fluid to exit my body after I had seven lymph nodes removed), as I thought I might do something get an infection. Part of this belief came from the fact that I am a germophobe. To be fair, I had also heard from others who did develop infections following their surgeries.
Thankfully I healed without any concerns from that mastectomy, and I am healing well from my most recent reconstructive surgery. But, when I realized how intense the reconstructive surgery was — six (!) hours long — and the details of everything the doctors did to my body during it, I treated myself with kid gloves once I was it was over. I did not want to risk pulling an ab muscle that they tightened, or opening an incision. I wanted my body to heal well.
So, I have followed all of my plastic surgeon's orders exactly, not once deviating from them. For a month following the surgery, I cannot pull or push anything over five pounds, which is about the weight of a half gallon of milk.That means that I of course am not walking my 53-pound dog, and I am cautious about everything else I do.
It was not until I asked others who have had the same procedure that I have had how they coped with staying inside for three weeks, that I realized that others are a little fast and loose at adhering to doctors' orders. Many people ignore them. One woman asked me if my doctor told me not to go outside. Of course he didn't, I thought, but since I couldn't go to the gym or push or pull something greater than five pounds, what was the point of doing much else? Five pounds is not much. That meant no grocery shopping, at least not like I what I had been used, and no laundry. Even pulling open a heavy door would be off limits. So, what would there be to do outside other than to go to appointments?
Others who have had this surgery said that they had gone outside just for walks. And, then I realized that I had been having a hard time striking a balance. My doctor had told me to make sure I walked, but I was walking up and down the halls at home or going to my appointments and calling it a day. To be fair, I wasn't going outside and taking walks, in part because it hurt my lower back to do as I could not stand up straight. However, I soon realized I was being so cautious — reading and re-reading my doctor's list of restrictions so often before I did anything — that I forgot to realize what I could do.
I began to walk more outside, within reason, as I was not going to walk despite the pain. I saw that slowly, there was no pain where there once had been, and one day I realized I was standing up straight, without hunching. I believe the extra walking did help.
As I go forward, I remain committed to listening to my body and of course, following doctor's orders, but I will not forget what I can do. Little by little, I know I will begin to strike more of a balance.