After six years of doctors appointments, two breast cancer diagnoses, and multiple surgeries, my experience in Cancerland was like a visit to the world’s worst theme park. I traveled to nightmarish lands, rode the scariest roller coasters, got a bad sunburn and left exhausted.
I was diagnosed at 30 and 32. The first time I had a unilateral mastectomy of my right breast, fertility preservation, and was given Tamoxifen to prevent recurrence. Nineteen months later, my plastic surgeon felt a suspicious lump near my implant during a routine follow-up. Lumpy was stage 1 ER+ cancer and treated as a primary case. This meant that the cancer grew while I was on Tamoxifen and treatment had to be aggressive. I underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and 33 doses of radiation.
While managing the uncertainty of my Cancerland experience, I figured out that it was up to me to paint the backdrops and decide how to show up for challenges.
I learned to prioritize my wellbeing and got creative with ways to maintain my quality of life.
I hope these ideas help guide you to a sense of empowerment and spark ideas that will help you navigate the path of wellness. Know that the path of recovery isn’t linear and it’s okay if it takes longer than you thought to get back into the flow of life.
1.Have a Daily Practice
Establishing a consistent activity is a powerful way to ground yourself at times of uncertainty. During radiation, I’d arrive a few minutes early to do a quick guided-meditation in my car. I always picked the same spot, one that was far from the busyness of the entrances, exits and pedestrians. Taking three to five minutes with the Headspace app helped me feel better prepared for every appointment.
Writing also served me well. I used social media as an outlet for all the cancer feels. Sharing stories on Instagram (@thedailylindsey) was cathartic and taught me how to hold space for myself. It also helped me see that time was passing when everything felt awful. I enjoyed creating hashtags and sharing daily updates about treatment and recovery: #lindseyloveslippies, #goddessinrehab, #marvelousmorningmoves, #excitingmorninghair.
2. Set Boundaries
Do whatever you need to make your healing top priority; it’s like putting on the oxygen mask first. Give yourself permission to distance yourself from social situations that drain your energy or put your immunity at risk. While most cancer muggles have good intentions, you are the expert on what’s best for you.
3. Enjoy the Outdoors
Depending on your energy level for the day, sit in the sun for 15 minutes, do some light gardening, go on a walk, take a hike, or enjoy a picnic. Any time spent in nature is time well spent. It’s an opportunity to connect with your senses and recharge from the sterile environment of a doctor’s office.
For more on the healing power of nature, there are organizations that will help you get in touch with this aspect of wellness at no cost. I’ve gone rock climbing in Joshua Tree and white-water kayaking in Montana with First Descents’ programs. Both activities never appealed to me pre-cancer. I was an uncoordinated beginner, but I had the best time. Participating helped me recover confidence in my physical abilities that I didn’t think was possible and I made lifelong friends with others in the cancer community.
4. Make a Mojo Wall
The wall in front of my dressing table became the hub of all things cheerful. I hung cards, letters, and thoughtful mementos from my loved ones. I’d also include printouts of screenshots from texts, social media messages, and beautiful Instagram posts created by artists like @morganharpernichols. It was my daily reminder that there were always people cheering me on. I even have a sticker to remind me of my mojo wall on my computer.
5. Get Creative
I got a lot of coloring books, which came in handy. I didn’t have the energy to do many things, but I could color. The big books I’d leave at home and the pocket-sized ones I’d bring with me to surgery days and follow-up appointments. Keeping my hands busy during waits helped keep my mind from racing. I’d tell myself the most important decision was picking what color to use next.
If coloring isn’t your thing, make playlists or listen to podcasts. Try cross-stitching, hand-embroidery, painting, tending to indoor plants, journaling, or puzzles.
6. Accept Help
I wanted to be strong and independent at every stage of my diagnosis, but it was physically impossible. What a humbling edge to reach.
Allowing others to help gave my loved ones an outlet to express their love and care by dropping off groceries, coming with me to chemo, or literally getting me back on my feet with walks around the neighborhood. Know that there are always people around (more than you think!) who would love to help.
Make a list of tasks: meals to make, errands to run, activities that would boost your sense of wellbeing. Next time someone says “let me know how I can help,” you can give them a few options or assign a caregiver to share the information.
7. Find a Sense of Community
You might have family, friends or a significant other in the picture, but there’s also another element to consider — the breast cancer support community.
It took my second diagnosis for me to fully embrace this resource. I went to one support meeting shortly after my first cancer, and it was overwhelming. During my second case, I dipped my toe in the water by connecting with others through social media platforms. I had no energy to attend events, but my phone let me connect with others on my own terms. Instagram hashtags and Facebook groups were my first stops. When I had more energy I remember going to my first IRL event, Breasties Friendsgiving, it was life-changing!
Some helpful communities I’d recommend: The Breasties (obvi!), Young Survival Coalition, Rethink Breast Cancer, Yoga4Cancer, Courage for the Soul, and Barbells 4 Boobs. If you’re based in Southern California: The Foundation for Living Beauty, the Luna Peak Foundation and Haus of Volta are my faves.
8. Meet Your Inner Dancing Queen
The body remembers everything and moving around stuck energy helped me feel the feels and let go. There’s a song for everything! Dance it off. Do it daily. Bonus points if you can dance before going to an appointment. It helps to shake off the nerves.
Get your caregiver involved. Record it and share it with your support system. My mom — the original disco queen — and I had a good laugh dancing to “I Will Survive.” On hard days, I pull up this video clip and it never fails to make me smile.
9. Self-Love Matters
When the doctor told me it was breast cancer, it took a long time for me to learn how to manage my inner critic and treat myself like a good friend.
Of course, it’s easy to get caught in a shame spiral when it feels like everything is going wrong. Making time every day for mindful pauses helped me recognize what was going right. Sometimes I’d write a list in my journal or call them to mind walking the hallway to my doctor’s office. Soon that expanded into taking inventory of things that made me smile everyday.
It can be done first thing when you wake up in the morning, while you’re eating lunch or before going to bed. For me it’s in the shower. This sounds silly, but as I wash each body part I’ll thank my left arm, my right arm, my neck — the list goes on, for putting in a good day’s work.
When I learned the language of self-love and kindness, a way forward became within reach. Brene Brown’s work has helped me with this. A good place to start is her book The Gifts of Imperfection.
10. Stop Being Strong and Just BE
Cancer brings many complicated emotions to the surface and I gave myself permission to ride the waves. I replaced my shoulds — “I should be strong,” “I should be grateful,” or “I should be upbeat” with “It is what it is.”
Riding out the messiness, the exhaustion, and the fear helped me move through the tough parts more than the time I would’ve spent resisting it. Emotions pass and know that every day is a fresh start.