Let’s Chat About Surviving Cancer and Living Well

I always enjoy having a special guest join me for my Let’s Chat sessions and blog posts, and this one is no exception. Tammy Myers is a breast cancer survivor and current patient at true. Women’s Health, and she truly is a very special guest! Tammy is living proof of someone who has survived a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments. She is willing to share her story about surviving cancer. It did take some persuasion to get Tammy to open up, but she decided she wanted to help others who have experienced a similar journey.

Living well after surviving cancer

I wanted to talk about this topic, and have Tammy share her story because I think it’s so important for women to understand what it’s like to actually “live well” after a chronic diagnosis. The bad news is that too many women are being diagnosed. The good news is, because of advances in cancer treatment options, more of them are surviving. But, what does “surviving” mean? I want women to do more than just survive once they hit that one year mark and hear the words, “Okay, you’re good to go,” as they leave their oncologist’s office. They may be done with treatment and feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief, but does life magically go back to “normal?” Unfortunately, for many women, it’s not that simple.

Tammy’s journey

For Tammy, her cancer diagnosis left her feeling lonely, isolated, and afraid—especially of the unknown about her future. When Tammy came to see me, she shared that she definitely felt all of those things (and more) during her journey. She also discussed some of the positives that came from her experience. She learned how to be bolder, advocate for herself (and her health), and not be afraid to ask for what she wants out of life. Tammy shared three important ways that helped her cope as she was navigating her journey. If fact, all three of these tips apply to just about anything in your life. If you practice these, you may find you are able to cope better when experiencing stressful events:

  1. Keep a good support network around you, including your partner, friends, relatives, and doctors.
  2. Believe you deserve to be happy! Keep telling yourself that every day.
  3. Ask for help when you need it.

I see many patients in my office who are young and going through early menopause because of cancer treatments. Sadly, many of these women don’t really understand the significance of early menopause. They are focused on getting through their cancer treatments and just surviving! Their oncologists likely told them about the possibility of being quickly thrust into menopause, but it’s just not something they fully understood at the time.

Your sexual health is important

When Tammy came to see me (at the request of her oncologist), we talked about the challenges she was facing since her cancer treatments, including her feelings of loneliness and isolation, and the issues (communication, lack of sex, fear of being touched) she was experiencing with her husband. Talking about sexual health isn’t always easy, because many women are afraid or ashamed to even bring up the topic. But, just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t think about sex or being close to your partner—with or without intercourse. Tammy and I talked about her fear and shame related to sex, and just being able to have an open conversation made her feel so much better. We used a tool called the Sex Puzzle Cards (available on truewomenshealth.com) to pinpoint the reasons why she was avoiding sex. Tammy took the cards home with her so she could use them to help her communicate the issues more clearly with her husband. Communication is huge—especially with topics that can be more difficult to discuss!

Supporting women after surviving cancer

Stories like Tammy’s make us realize that women need more support as they try to navigate life after battling cancer. At true. Women’s Health, we are in the process of launching our Cancer Wellness program to give more support to women who are living with or have survived cancer. We are fortunate to have Susanne Pettigrew, a Nurse Practitioner who has specialized training in cancer as it relates to risk assessment, cancer survivorship, and menopause. Susanne is also trained in sexual health and has started several programs about cancer survivorship. Also at true., we have several tools, including the Sex Puzzle Cards, to help women live well after surviving cancer. We want women to feel hope and know they are not alone. I love it when patients like Tammy leave my office with a sense of hope!

Before closing, I want to share two lists that can help you live well on your cancer journey.

Tips for your journey

Five tips to help you survive a cancer diagnosis:

  1. Speak up and don’t be shy! It’s not enough to have survived—you deserve to thrive after cancer.
  2. Allow people to support you. You don’t have to do it yourself.
  3. Spend time visualizing yourself as strong and healthy. What is your Picture of Self?
  4. Have a daily practice of relaxation (or metered breathing) and gratitude.
  5. Don’t suffer in silence regarding menopause symptoms. There are treatment options!

Five questions to ask your healthcare provider about living well after your cancer diagnosis:

  1. Am I in menopause? What does that mean for me and my health?
  2. Are there things I can do to lower my cancer risk going forward?
  3. What are the recommendations for follow up and which provider is doing what?
  4. What can I do to reduce the effect of cancer on my long-term health?
  5. How do I manage symptoms such as fatigue, hormone changes, low sex drive?

By Dr. Diana Bitner