• Eileen Lopez Tome, CPC

Why Taking Stock Should be Your First Focus After a Cancer Diagnosis

Four years ago this summer, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. After the shock of the diagnosis, I took stock. I ruthlessly examined all areas of my life and asked, "What stays, what goes?" I needed to save time and energy for cancer treatment and recovery. Today, with corona virus, social distancing and sheltering in place, cancer diagnosis and treatment is even more challenging to navigate. And paring life down to its bare essentials as soon after getting diagnosed as possible is essential!

Where do I start?

Taking stock of one's life can be overwhelming under the best circumstances, much less after a cancer diagnosis. I remember thinking, "Where do I begin?" Baby steps! First, I bucketed my life into four major areas. This reduced the feeling of overwhelm and gave me momentum. Here are the four chunks I took stock of after I was diagnosed with breast cancer:

1. Work

2. Extracurricular

3. Family & Friends

4. Health & Fitness

Next steps

Then I created "keep" and "toss" lists for each bucket. (Note: you may have different categories, or more, than these. That's ok!) I asked myself, "What stays and what goes? What's best for ME?" in each of the above areas. For example, with respect to work, I couldn't afford to take an extended leave of absence for the 9 months that I was in treatment. But I also couldn't afford to report to the office every day, or even intermittently, because I was supposed to start chemo during flu season and chemo would compromise my immune system. Getting sick could lead to more severe consequences than normal AND could delay a given round of chemo. So work went on the "keep" list, but working from the office went on the "toss" list. Thankfully, my boss gave me the green light to work from home while I underwent chemo and all the way through surgery and recovery. When I started radiation, I returned to the office! Not everyone has that flexibility, but it's important to negotiate for the most flexibility possible if that's what's best for you.

Similarly, for extracurriculars, there was a keep and a toss list. Keeping extra activities to a bare minimum was best for me and for my husband, who was also my caregiver. If my sisters, sisters and/or brothers in law, adult children or close friend(s) couldn't cover an after school activity, church function or fundraiser for us then it went to the toss pile. We had to save our time and energy for treatment and for the little kids still at home with us. There was ONE extracurricular that I held onto, though: Read Aloud with my 3 year-old son's pre-school class. I was scheduled to select and read two to three books aloud to my son's class during the holiday season. I dressed like one of Santa's elves and sat at the front of the classroom, near the class Christmas tree, while the kids huddled on the floor, a safe distance away. (Again, flu season!) We had alot of fun, I got to wear a green colored wig and plastic elf ears, got a much needed boost about a month into chemo treatments and created a happy holiday memory during a crappy time in our lives.

What, or who, did I keep and toss in the Friends & Family category? This bucket required constant review. I'd read many articles about the importance of keeping as positive and optimistic an outlook during cancer treatment as possible. I informed myself and made sure that I had a good, strong grasp on the realities of MY diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. But I also decided that part of my treatment protocol had to include protecting my peace. If anyone shared a negative cancer outcome or story with me, I silently moved that person to a (mostly) temporary toss pile. I already had plenty of worries and fears in my own mind to contend with. I didn't need other people's garbage in there, too! I was pretty relentless in this area. And I enlisted my husband's help, too. If someone on the toss list called or asked to visit, he politely ran interference.

Finally, while I have always been athletic and active, during the two or three years leading up to my diagnosis I was not living my best health and fitness life. I was an overweight, under active, stressed out workaholic. Immediately after I was diagnosed, I hired a FANTASTIC exercise physiologist, Steph, who was also a trusted friend and fellow classroom mom at my youngest's school. She did some research and found some pretty exciting information. Contrary to my mom's well-intentioned advice to rest while in treatment, the research showed that physical activity before, during and after cancer treatment can help patients. Moving LESS during this time can actually lead to functional decline according to many articles that she read. [NOTE: I got the green light from my oncologist before training with Steph. Important for anyone considering starting or continuing an exercise program while undergoing cancer treatment to consult with their medical provider first.] Working out gave me more energy and helped me feel stronger as well as more in control of my body. I experienced less pain and side effects associated with some of the meds I was on, and generally felt more optimistic and less anxious after exercising. It also helped tremendously that Steph, who I worked out with multiple times a week, is a positive, upbeat, strong, kind, happy, good, decent, relentless human. Steph was a key member of my cancer treatment team. So, health and fitness = keep!

Take stock, take care of YOU!

If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, I hope you make the time to take stock and carefully consider the answer to "What's best for me?" while undergoing treatment. Draw those boundaries, protect your peace and don't be a hero!

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