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Ask any breast cancer survivor, and they’ll tell you: Few experiences teach you more than having breast cancer. Every step of treatment, every unexpected turn in the journey comes with valuable lessons and changes in perspective—many of which survivors carry with them for the rest of their lives. If you or someone you care about is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, these insights from others can be a source of comfort, guidance, and hope. They can provide a sense of what to expect from treatment, including the mental and emotional impact that often comes with it.
We’re sharing advice from Susie Bell and Cheryl Dotson, two breast cancer survivors who now devote countless hours to sharing their learnings and stories with women embarking on their own cancer journey. Here’s what they learned through the course of their own cancer treatments, plus some valuable (and completely free) resources from the American Cancer Society that can help you along the way.
1. People want to help—let them.
Many people with cancer find it difficult to ask for help, even when they need it. For Susie, having her family and friends around, especially her mother, gave her strength and comfort throughout her cancer treatment. Cheryl shared a similar experience, noting that “having the support of family and friends is very, very important.” Both women also connected with other members of the breast cancer community who could relate to what they were going through. “Listening to each other’s stories definitely helped me,” Cheryl says.
One place you can connect with other people with cancer and caregivers is through the American Cancer Society Cancer Survivors Network®. It’s a safe online community where you can find discussion forums for nearly every type of cancer, and they’re all searchable by topic. Members can also post in the forums with their own stories, questions, and concerns—it’s a network filled with knowledge and support that’s open to everyone. Another resource for people with breast cancer is the Reach To Recovery® program, which matches you with a trained volunteer who is also a breast cancer survivor. They can provide one-on-one support to help you cope with your diagnosis, treatment, side effects, and more.
2. Research your cancer enough to understand it, but not so much that you scare yourself.
A certain degree of knowledge really is power. As Cheryl says, there are aspects of treatment you’ll want to be prepared for. “I wish that I would have researched a little bit more, specifically about what chemotherapy and radiation do to the body,” she says. “I would always hear people talk about chemo brain and I didn’t think it was real, but it was. I would forget things while I was going through chemo. And I wish I had researched radiation more—it’s been nine years, and I still have scar tissue that I have to massage every day. There was a lot I didn’t know before treatment.”
For accurate information, you can trust on understanding your diagnosis, the latest treatment options and their side effects, coping with stress during your cancer journey, and so much more, rely on Cancer.org from the American Cancer Society. You can also get immediate answers to your questions from trained cancer specialists 24/7 by calling the ACS helpline at 1-800-227-2345.
While research can help you know what to expect, doing a lot of digging on the internet is not always helpful. Dwelling on lists of symptoms, side effects, or statistics can make you feel anxious or even hopeless. Rather than spending hours online, Cheryl recommends switching your focus by jotting questions for your doctors or speaking to other survivors about their experiences. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says, “and don’t be afraid to share your story. I know a lot of people who are afraid to talk about their cancer, but I think everyone should.” After all, sharing your cancer journey will help someone who may just be starting their own, and who can then share their story with others.
Cheryl Dotson found strength through self-reflection.
3. Give yourself time to focus on you.
When Susie was going through treatment, she had people coming in and out of her home all the time. “The day after I got home from the hospital, I had family and friends over,” she says. “Everyone brought stuff over and hung out with me. That first week was constantly filled with people.” This mostly provided a welcomed distraction, but there were other times when she needed to be alone, to make decisions and care for herself. “I had to sit by myself and try to sift through my thoughts without outside influence,” she says. “My mom encouraged me to take time alone. She told me to focus on myself, live in the moment, and make it more about me.”
Susie’s advice is to find a balance between leaning on your support network and taking time to be by yourself. She also recommends scheduling downtime. “I made sure to block out time after my chemo treatments to come home and not have a schedule,” Susie says. “I wouldn’t worry about the clock. I wouldn’t worry about my agenda. I took time to be present with myself, without any pressure or expectations.”
4. Wrestle down your fears.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is unnerving to say the least, but both Cheryl and Susie said that living in fear was not an option for them. To get through their cancer, they had to come to terms with it, and do what they could to take away its power.
“I know from my own experience, and from speaking with hundreds of men and women over the years, that if you want to get through it, you have to will yourself through it,” Susie says. “You have to find what hurts and scares you the most about cancer. Write it down. Look at it every day. Read it until it no longer scares you. You cannot live in fear and get through this.”
5. Feel your feelings fully, and then move forward.
Both Cheryl and Susie say that in the middle of cancer treatment, when everything feels wrong, it’s easy to slip into a negative state of mind and stay there. To combat this, let yourself feel your feelings. Take time to let it all out—talk to someone, or maybe journal—and then gather yourself and move forward.
“I say this to all the patients and survivors I speak to,” Susie says. “Take five minutes, take 10 minutes, let out all of the negativity. But then let’s pick this up, find our strength and positivity, and figure out how we’re going to get you through this.”
We won’t sugarcoat it—having cancer is hard—but in both Cheryl and Susie’s case, they grew from the experience, in their emotional strength and their capacity for empathy. “This experience has changed me into an even more compassionate human being,” Cheryl says. It’s also stoked her confidence. “I used to be afraid to talk in front of people, but now I can talk to anybody, because this is something that people need to hear.”
“Breast cancer is terrible. You can lose a lot,” Susie says. “But there was beauty in my breast cancer. It made me realize what opportunities I had to grow as a person, as a mother, as a sister. It showed me how to show up for everyone else, and it also showed me how to show up for myself. Now, I help other survivors. I tell them ‘we’re going to get through it.’”
For more resources to help you navigate a breast cancer diagnosis—including understanding your pathology report, making treatment decisions, coping after a mastectomy, and weighing reconstruction surgery options, head to Cancer.org/breastcancer.
Breast Cancer Survivors Share: 5 Things They Wished They Knew Before Treatment was originally published on hellobeautiful.com
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