When Jill started drafting this post, it was titled "An Open Letter to My Survivor Sisters". As she wrote, however, she realized that in fact, she was writing a letter to the version of herself four years ago, after completing treatment for the first time.
To My Survivor Sisters,
Congratulations! You are a SURVIVOR. Whether or not you like that term, you have survived. You have gone through a very difficult ordeal, mentally and physically, and you made it through! The pats on the backs, hugs, and looks of admiration from others have helped to heal a part of you that felt tired and vulnerable. Now that you are healing, I have some advice I'd like to share. I've been where you are. And I'm now where you don't want to be, ever.
Four years ago, at 37 years old, I had completed chemo, surgery and radiation. It seemed as though I had an entire bachelors-degree's worth of knowledge in Cancer 101. I was continually reading more so that I could learn about my body and how this disease operated inside it. I learned about the benefits of exercise
in warding off recurrence, researched the effects of stress and sugar on inflammation
, stayed updated on the debate about soy and shared my research with others.
But it wasn't enough. Apparently, you also have to CHANGE in response to what you've learned.
Make Changes Now
Remember that getting cancer was not the flip of a coin or the roll of the dice. Chances are, there is something in your body that is built that way. Something in your body likes to make cancer cells. It's in your physiology somehow. It's science. And if you don't make changes in your life, there is a good chance that your body will do it again - science is somewhat predictable like that. You might still be taking medications to help prevent recurrence, but please don't rely on them. They are not guaranteed.
By the time you find out that cancer was NOT a one-time thing for you, that the odds were against you, it's too late. Once you have a recurrence, or like me, once your disease comes back and has found multiple other new places to create homes in your body (metastatic), the stakes are different. Making changes at that point doesn't have the same effect.
I know that going through it all the first time is exhausting. You just want some sense of normal again. The last thing you want to do (or at least the last thing I wanted to do) is to figure out how to overhaul your lifestyle. I was still working full-time, still raising a little girl, still trying to find time for a date night here and there with my wonderful hubby. But to maximize the odds that you get to enjoy all those other things for as long as possible, you have to remember that you have to make your body as healthy as possible still, every day.
Find a way to focus on making changes in your lifestyle.
The doctors will help you deal with the critical needs, but your health and wellness are in YOUR hands. You feed your body with what you eat, the oxygen you breathe, the energy you create and fill your life with. It's your job to make all of it healthy. Our lives are busy and we are tired (who isn't, right?), but this is THE most important thing to do every day - make sure things like juicing, exercising and meditating don't get replaced by piano practice, cleaning dishes or watching TV. There's way too much at stake.
Mourn your mistakes or regrets only briefly.
Don't get weighed down by the "should haves" or "could haves", as they can be very heavy. Guilt is natural, but unproductive. It does not create the healthy energy you need right now, right down to your cells.
Get friends and family to help you stay motivated.
Find walking or yoga buddies. Get up (and this one is very tough for me) just 15 minutes before your family to start the day with some stretching and quiet, or whatever it takes to remember what your priority for the day is. Every day.
The state of science right now says that I can't win this game. But I can keep playing for a while. Right now my job is to do anything I can to stay here and play this game because the state of science, when it comes to metastatic breast cancer, is changing every day. I'm sticking around and hanging out with smart doctors who are keeping me engaged in this fight at cutting-edge levels.
To those of you who have fought this fight and won, I applaud you! Like everyone else, I give you hugs and admiration and wish you continued health and happiness. And with my arms around you in a big hug, I will then turn you around and give you a kick in the ass to get moving to continue to do everything you can to stay healthy. Please return the favor.
Your Sister Jill
Have you written letters to yourself or to cancer? Share in the comments below or sign up here.