In 2009 I was living the New York dream. I had a small, successful public relations business specializing in food and drink. I organized glamorous events, hobnobbed with famous chefs, and traveled the world tasting wines and attending cocktail conferences—for a living! Life was simply delicious!
And then everything deflated like a fallen soufflé.
In August of that year, I was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer after discovering a lump in my left breast during a self-examination in the shower of a small hotel in Tuscany, Italy. I returned from two weeks of drinking great Italian wine to weep over a glass of French rosé with two dear friends in a Manhattan café. My friends worked to calm me down as I realized that life as I knew it might never be the same.
That day, I made a promise to my friends and to myself: I was determined not to let a breast cancer diagnosis sideline me completely. I would face my cancer with bold determination to stay fearless and fabulous, no matter what happened. This was not a “pie in the sky” promise. It was a practical one. I needed to keep running my business to pay the bills. And I wanted to stay in control of my wit and my wits, which had always guided me through life. I was not ready to curl up and cry or shrivel up and die. And so I took action.
Taking Charge of My Treatment
I started by putting together several lists of questions to ask the doctors. My goal was to be more informed so that I could make better decisions about managing my diagnosis and taking care of myself for the long run.
After educating myself as much as I could, I decided to treat my cancer journey as one giant health boot camp. I made a plan to retool my diet, ramp up my exercise regimen, rid my life of toxic stress, and resist taking on too much and overloading my system. It worked. I stayed healthier during treatment and am a stronger person today.
Staying Fit and Vibrant During and After Cancer
There are many ways to maintain a sound mind and body even with a cancer diagnosis. What follows is a list of the ten most effective health routines that worked for me during my treatment, which I continue to follow today in order to stay healthy.
- I stayed hydrated. I drank plenty of healthy fluids (especially water) every day to avoid dehydration. My skin said “thank you.”
- I got moving. Daily exercise can boost energy and maintain a healthy weight, both of which are important for overall health.
- I ate healthy, wholesome, unprocessed foods. I focused on eating vegetables, lean meats, and healthy oils in small portions. I learned to think of food as the fuel my body needs to keep functioning and to make sure that fuel was clean and healthy.
- I abstained from drinking alcohol. Throughout treatment, based on the recommendations of my oncologist and nutritionist, I didn't drink any alcohol. Today, I drink alcohol in moderation. While there is some concern about the link between alcohol and breast cancer, because I work in the wine business, abstaining completely is out of the question. Instead, I follow this basic rule of thumb: On most days, I limit alcohol intake to one glass of wine. And I always make sure that what I drink is of great quality!
- I was kind to my skin. I wore sunscreen daily and moisturized for my skin type. This was especially helpful because treatment made my skin prone to breakouts and rashes. When this happened, I learned to not self-treat the problem. Instead, I sought the advice of a licensed dermatologist rather than trying to fix the problem myself
- I unplugged. I turned off the computer, tuned out the TV, and got more sleep. In the process, I learned that good sleep doesn’t just give us more energy to get through the day; it’s also one of the most inexpensive and effective beauty treatments around.
- I got high naturally. I never smoked or took recreational drugs. Instead, I got my highs from exercise and pursued various hobbies to stimulate my creative side.
- I learned to de-stress. I learned that smiles opened doors, while stress shut me down. I truly believe that stress contributed to my cancer. But looking back, I see that nothing that stressed me out in the years leading up to my diagnosis really matters any more. And so I’m learning to not sweat the small stuff, to the benefit of my physical and mental health.
- I was vigilant about health screenings and checkups. I self-examined my breasts regularly and got regular mammograms.
- I prioritized quality time for myself and my loved ones. I learned that it’s not selfish to put my own wellbeing first; it’s smart. I recommend the same to anyone, regardless of health status: If you want to live a long life to enjoy with your partner, children, or friends, then start with making your health and wellbeing a priority.
Staying Healthy After Treatment—The Takeaway
No one chooses to have cancer, and even the most self-confident woman can find her emotional foundation rattled when a doctor delivers the message, “You have breast cancer.” It’s easy to fall into a well of self-pity. But what I discovered is that I was responsible for choosing how I wanted to take care of myself during and after treatment.
A big part of this new commitment to myself was learning to never be afraid to speak up. I spent two years keeping my diagnosis and emotions close to my chest to protect my privacy and my business. Today, I believe in asking for help when it’s needed. I have become my own advocate, and I look out for myself in order to stay healthy and strong.
Breast cancer survivor Melanie Young is the author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide to Staying Fearless and Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer (Cedar Fort Inc./September 2013). The views expressed herein are hers. To learn more about Melanie, follow her @mightymelanie or check out her website at www.melanieyoung.com.