• Eileen Lopez Tome, CPC

How Taking Care of Everyone & Everything but Yourself Backfires

I’m a recovering workaholic. And a breast cancer survivor. I’ve always been active, or as my mom likes to say hyperactive. I got my first job when I was 15. I played sports in junior high and high school. For the past 40+ years, I joined clubs, volunteered, planned (and attended) parties and social events, got married — twice — and had five kids. Did I mention I’ve worked since I was 15? I’m always on the go and often double-booked.

In my mid-40s, all those years of constant work, play, stress, and little self-care caught up with me. On August 14, 2016 I was lying in bed, sleeping, in beautiful Marathon Key, Florida when I woke up gasping for air and clutching my chest. I was terrified, but I didn’t know why. As I sat in bed, next to my sleeping husband, trying to catch my breath I felt something. A lump. On my right breast. I knew, in that moment, that everything was about to change.

I waited until dawn to wake my husband and tell him that I found a lump in my right breast and that I was certain it was cancer. He tried to reassure me, but a week later a mammogram, breast ultrasound and biopsy confirmed what I already knew: I had stage 3 breast cancer. I was diagnosed on August 22, 2016. It was the first day of pre-school for my then 3 year old and I was at lunch with a dear colleague and friend when my gynecologist called me to share the then terrifying results.

It had been four, maybe five, years since my last mammogram. I wasn’t avoiding having a mammogram. I knew better! My grandmother was a breast cancer survivor decades ago, who went for her mammograms every year and was diagnosed at an early stage 1. She lived almost 40 years past her diagnosis! Mammograms don’t prevent cancer, but early diagnosis means less invasive treatment and better chances of long-term survival. I had prioritized everything — work, family, kids, friends, social life — but my health. I LOVE making lists! After my diagnosis, I looked back at a few years worth of to-do lists, and on every single one I had written “schedule mammogram.” But that one item got bumped down on, or off of, every one of my to-do lists for four plus years. I was too busy to even call and make that important appointment.

What does this have to do with me, you're asking? Take stock of your to-do list and notice where, or even whether, you’ve included your physical, emotional and mental health and well-being. If you’re somewhere near the bottom, or not on there at all, give yourself permission to put yourself at the very top. Write your full name, in all caps and bold, as the #1 item on your to-do list. And next to your name write, “I matter.” How does that make you feel? Guilty? Bad? If so, remind yourself that by acknowledging that you matter, you aren’t saying that you matter more or most, only that you matter. You matter, too. You matter enough to pause the pursuit of your to-do’s to schedule a medical appointment, or go to the gym or just do NOTHING.

The nine months after my diagnosis whizzed by. I had 16 weeks of chemo, a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, and 28 days of daily radiation. Cancer treatment is invasive and hard. Thanks to my medical team, the loving support of family, friends and community AND putting my self-care at the top of my to-do list, I am cancer free today. I’m grateful for my cancer journey. I received more than I lost. And cancer also taught me an important lesson: If you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of anyone or anything else.

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