Dr. Zoe Shaw, A Year of Self-Care

Words of Encouragement From a Cancer Survivor

Words of Encouragement From a Cancer Survivor

Each year as I celebrate my “Cancerversary” of a Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis, I reflect upon the eight months of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation to battle my disease. As a survivor, I can say that the healing process is arduous. Physical and mental challenges continue long after the stages of cancer end, but for me, life has become more meaningful. After assessing cancer’s collateral beauty, I have found so much to enjoy and appreciate.

Some days my bones feel twice my age, and my chemo-brain leaves me struggling to find the right words. But I’ve done more living since my cancer treatment ended than I have in many years. I’ve landed on the ocean from a seaplane, I’ve snorkeled, kayaked, seen the rolling waves of both coasts, saw the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, savored the change of seasons in the Midwest, and spectated at my kids’ soccer, volleyball, and music performances. I am so thankful for these moments in motherhood and for my life as a whole.

Life experiences are more meaningful when you’ve been given a second chance. Things I thought were important before cancer seem insignificant after cancer. I am still learning how to navigate survivorship, but my life is beautiful and totally worth living.

I’ve discovered some things I’d like to share that have helped me live a richer, more hope-filled life as a cancer survivor.

1. You are a survivor.

The day you were diagnosed, you became a cancer survivor. A survivor is someone who continues to live. Think of survivorship as a mindset. Each day is a gift, so do things that are meaningful to you. Live in the present, not focused on the past or trying to predict the future. Cancer is a part of your story, but don’t let it define you. Delight in life as a cancer survivor. Have faith that God’s got this. He has a plan for you, even if you can’t see it now. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

2. Choose joy.

There are so many things about cancer that are beyond our control, but how we react is entirely up to us. We are in full control of our own attitude and cancer has no power over joy. I’m going to say that again, cancer has no power over joy. It cannot defeat your spirit. Choose to be joyful and glad that you are alive. Lean into the Lord. Put your trust in Him and never give up hope.

There will be days as a survivor when this feels impossible. It’s ok to be discouraged, but don’t linger there. How you handle your circumstances shapes your character. Your cup is either half empty or half full. It’s all in how you choose to see it. Don’t let worry or fear steal your joy. Listen for God’s Word. The Lord kept planting Joshua 1:9 in me, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

…challenges continue long after cancer treatments ended, but for me, life has become more meaningful.

3. Have a grateful heart.

Find something to be grateful for each day. Being grateful helps cultivate a positive outlook, which I believe is healing. I’m not grateful for breast cancer, but I am grateful for the relationships that have developed as a result. I’ve met people who have enriched my life immeasurably that I may never have known without cancer.

Be grateful for the beauty in everyday life: the smell of rain, a brilliant sunset, the first signs of spring. Celebrate survivor milestones. Create a gratitude journal to capture your positive affirmations and reinforce an attitude of gratitude. Claim it by writing it down.

Some days are difficult as a cancer survivor. We feel physically and emotionally fragile. These are the days that I turn to God’s Word. One of my favorite devotionals is Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It always speaks to me and calms my spirit, giving me great peace. I am most grateful for my personal relationship with God, I have been growing in faith exponentially through my cancer journey. It’s not something easy to define, but when I feel His presence I am not afraid.

4. Faith over fear.

I can waste a lot of my life worrying. It’s a life skill I’ve developed, and I’m really good at it. I have found that with a little practice (OK, a lot of practice), I can overcome fear with faith. By choosing to immerse myself in God’s promises instead of worrying about things beyond my control, I live a fuller, happier life.

Fear can be an insurmountable burden for cancer survivors. Fear of pain, death, recurrence, financial strain, and fear of the unknown are all common concerns. I’ve learned that our lives move in the direction of our strongest thoughts. Face fear head-on and conquer it with your faith in Jesus Christ.

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My worst fear with cancer is dying and leaving my husband without a wife and my children without a mother. The reality is that we are all going to die at some point, whether it’s from cancer or something else. If you believe in heaven, then death is not something to fear. My pastor always says the resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing. Death isn’t the last thing. Because Jesus died on the cross for us, the best thing is the last thing. Even if cancer takes my life, I will be reunited with my family in heaven, where there is no pain and everyone is cancer-free. Fear disappears when you know the end of the story.

During treatment, I needed something to keep me from feeling overwhelmed. The thought of so many appointments, tests, and treatments felt unbearable. To help me focus on one day at a time, my sister-in-law created a chemo checklist that I could check off after each cancer treatment. There was something so gratifying about checking the “done” box after each treatment. My chemo chart referenced a powerful verse from Scripture for each treatment. I leaned into these verses in my weakness and they gave me great hope and strength.

Here are a few of my personal favorites; may they bless you as they did me:

“Faith; it does not make things easy, it makes them possible.” Luke 1:37

“He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might, he increases strength.” Isaiah 40:29

“I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous hand.” Isaiah 41:10

“The Lord will fight for you. You need only to be still.” Exodus 14:14

“I have heard your prayer and seen your tears, I will heal you!” 2 Kings 20:5

5. Accept help and share your gifts.

Cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a great deal of endurance and perseverance to get through it, and there’s no conditioning that prepares you mentally or physically. Let others help you. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness. Don’t try to be a hero and do all things on your own. It will hinder your healing. Cancer is hard. Friends and family want to help. They feel helpless because they can’t take away your cancer. Their hearts hurt for you and it is healing for them to be able to do something helpful: provide a meal, water your plants, walk your dog, etc. People are blessed by helping you. Tell them what you need; don’t assume they know.

I believe God provides armor bearers to carry us through difficulties. They come bearing movie tickets for your family, a hot meal, a warm blanket, flowers, snack baskets, smoothies, devotionals, magazines, healing hugs, encouraging words, and chemo charts. These are the people who love you through it. Listening when you need an ear, attending appointments, running errands, and letting you know how much they care.

When you feel up to it, be an armor bearer for someone else. Pay it forward by sharing your gifts. Nothing makes me feel better than doing something nice for someone else. It’s therapeutic and gets my mind off my own troubles. Cancer is scary. It’s reassuring to talk with someone who’s been there and knows the ropes. Your insight will be a huge blessing to others facing this disease.

If you don’t have a good support system, seek out local cancer support groups. Most offer free classes, and you’ll meet other cancer survivors in your area. It’s good to talk with people who understand what you’ve been through. Good support groups to try are Gilda’s Club, Susan G. Komen, Livestrong, local churches, and hospitals.

We all know a few people who don’t know how to react or what to say when they see you. Their eyes wander to your bald head, and they can’t look you in the eye or they say the wrong thing. Or worse, they go out of their way to avoid you because cancer makes them uncomfortable or they are afraid you might see them cry. They don’t realize that crying is ok, even healing. Don’t be angry or sad over people who can’t be there for you. Be forgiving; some people are natural caregivers, and others aren’t. Give grace to these people and love them anyway.

Cancer is a marathon. Not a sprint.

6. Take care of yourself.

Try to stay strong spiritually, mentally, and physically. I’m no fitness expert, but I believe a healthy body stands a better chance of fighting cancer. I can’t say that you’ll never get cancer again if you take care of yourself. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It strikes all walks of life. I’m suggesting that you do what’s within reason for you. Treatment took the wind out of my sails. If I ever have to do it again, I want to be as physically strong as possible. At this point, I’m still recovering from round one with breast cancer, but I beat it and want to stay in the ring for however many rounds it takes to win.

I want to believe I’m in control of my own destiny. I know that’s the control freak coming out of me and let’s face it, none of us are really in control. God’s got our lives all mapped out. But I feel like I’m taking control by doing something proactive to fight cancer when I do good things for myself. For my type of cancer, my doctor said I should be as lean as possible, eat “clean,” and exercise—a lot. Those were his words, not mine. Hard advice to follow, but cancer has been a real motivator for me.

Here’s a way to make it easier and a rationale I can get behind. Suzanne Dixon MPH, MS, RD says we should look at our health as a bank account. We are constantly making deposits into our account that improve our health (eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight); and making withdrawals for things that are not healthy (smoking, alcohol, stress, processed foods, not getting enough sleep). It’s all about balance. Enjoy your life and have an occasional glass of wine or decadent dessert, but build your health account balance by making more deposits than withdrawals.

I’ve changed my eating habits, made exercise and sleep a priority, and reduced my stress level. I’m selective and frugal when it comes to withdrawals. The indulgences I find worthy of withdrawal are the occasional glass of wine, grilled steak, and good chocolate. I can maintain a healthy balance by making deposits of good choices. I love to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and enjoy walking with my friends, which reduces stress by being social.

Here are some excellent resources for information on survivor health: American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Julie Langford MPH, RD, CSO, LDN (cancer dietitian), and Suzanne Dixon MPH, MS, RD (epidemiologist and registered dietitian).

Cancer can seem like a Goliath: intimidating, overwhelming, and impossible to conquer. David faced the giant without fear because he had faith that the Lord would give him the strength to defeat Goliath. A friend shared a card with me that says, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart” (Psalm 46:1-2). On the other side, the card says, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” These words were crossed out and replaced with the words, “God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.” God didn’t give me cancer, but He’s most certainly helping me through it.

Fear disappears when you know the end of the story.

If you are a cancer survivor, care for a survivor, or are someone challenged by your circumstances and looking for hope and peace, approach each day with a joyful heart and positive attitude. Be grateful for what God has provided and choose faith over fear. Know your limitations and accept help from others, and share your gifts with those in need. Take care of yourself by filling your health account and be ever mindful that you are a Survivor. You’ve been given a second chance, so live your life to the fullest and enjoy each day.

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For more articles on cancer and the strength of a woman, start here: 

On Life and Cancer, from a Pediatric Oncology Nurse
I Never Wanted to Be a Pregnant Widow 
One Woman’s Journey, Why Rebekah Lyons Wrote “You Are Free”
How to Read Your Bible: For Beginners

How My Sister’s Cancer Brought Greater Hope

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