“You have breast cancer.”
Four of the most dreaded words you can hear from your doctor. Your world has changed and you feel a loss of control. A moment ago you were a mom, wife, maybe even a doctor. Now, suddenly, you are a patient. In the ensuing panic, disbelief, fear and confusion you have to make decisions. This is why empowerment is so important. Empowerment enables us to regain control and to move forward to conquer cancer.
Being an active participant in your care can make all the difference in your quality and quantity of life. As an empowered individual, you can take the path of action and self-advocacy. Empowerment can help you to successfully navigate the cancer journey.
Tips for Empowerment
Tip #1 Know Your Options
Choice gives us a feeling of empowerment. Knowing your options and educating yourself is critical in order to make the right choices for you and for your cancer. Learn as much as you can to feel comfortable about your diagnosis. Information is power—the more you know, the more confident you may feel about your choices. You are not just a patient, someone who is expected to passively accept the treatment plan being offered; you are the person in control. Get a second or even third opinion; explore every option. You are in charge of your health.
It is your doctor’s job to offer a treatment plan, but it is your job to determine if it is right for you. Every individual is different and every situation is different. Be sure that your team understands your goals, limitations, fears and questions.
Questions to ask your doctor:
- Will this treatment cure me or extend survival?
- Could it kill me?
- What are the possible side effects, both short and long term?
- What is the downside to refusing the proposed treatment? Is it measurable?
- Are there reasonable alternatives?
- What can I do to affect my survival?
It is empowering to know that we can be active participants in our care. Think of the power when you say, “this is what I am doing to beat cancer” as opposed to “this is what they are doing to me.” The latter is very negative and does not inspire anyone. Plus, when you have confidence in the treatment, you develop the much-needed positive attitude–not the one that says you have to be happy you have cancer, but the one that says, “I will beat cancer.”
Tip #2 Beware Statistics
Don’t dwell on statistics–they have nothing to do with you as a person. Statistics can be useful for treatment recommendations but have very little to do with the individual. Every person and every cancer is unique with its own set of circumstances based on genetic and physiological characteristics associated with them.
Statistics are one of the most common causes of distress when talking about predictions for survival and can be tantamount to a death sentence. Instead of focusing on ways to live and improve one’s chances, patients end up in despair and focus on preparing to die. There is plenty of time to be dead, so use your energy to focus on living.
Tip #3 You Are Not Your Cancer
You are not your cancer—you are the same gal you were before, but now you are fighting breast cancer. It will take time to get back to your routines; you may struggle to find that new normal and you may feel angry that cancer has invaded you. Redirect that anger to regain control and take action. Build a support team and stay connected. Avoid negative or draining people. Some people around you might disappear, withdraw or distance themselves from you in some way–out of fear of saying the wrong thing or out of fear in general. Let them go and surround yourself with people committed to your healing. Share your thoughts and feelings. Do not feel that you have to comfort others or defend your treatment choices. You are a person with cancer; you are not your cancer. Go out for lunch; go shopping; live, love and laugh just like the gal who didn’t have cancer.
Tip #4 Embrace Hope
Hope gives us the opportunity to do what we must do to heal from our cancer. Hope is the miracle medicine of the mind because it inspires the will to live. But hope also speaks to your biology; it changes things. Psychological factors can exert a potent indirect influence on the growth and spread of cancer because emotional states affect our internal biochemistry, even molecular factors, as well as the state of our immune system. Among these stress-related shifts in biochemistry are excessively high levels free radicals, blood sugar, inflammatory cytokines, immune-suppressive factors and certain growth factors which contribute to the progression of cancer. Our thoughts and emotions are capable of creating wellness or disease in our bodies. When we live in a state of constant anxiety, depression or helplessness, we become more susceptible to illness and to the progression of illness.
Putting hope in the proper context is important, and false hope is not always beneficial. However, there are countless stories of patients who were offered little chance of survival or a cure, yet who are here years later to tell their tale, so “false hopelessness” is clearly not beneficial either. Early stage or late stage, we need hope: “For while there is hope, there is life.” -Wilferd A. Peterson
We can hope for a cure. We can hope for peace, comfort and relief from pain as we live each day we are given. We can hope for a long life, living with our cancer. Be hopeful, not helpless.