October has concluded.
What’s so special about THAT, you ask? It happens every year, for heaven’s sake.
On October 31.
What’s special about that is, once October comes to a close, the hyper-focus on breast cancer awareness begins to fade. For those of us who have had or currently are managing a breast cancer diagnosis, it most certainly doesn’t fade, but for the rest of the world?
That awareness slips quietly into the background until next year.
Even though, in my opinion, the awareness hype is over the top, there are positive things from the month-long campaign that make sense to give awareness to all year round.
Take the focus on healthy lifestyle behaviours, for example.
The food we eat, the exercise we get, and the wellness practices we engage in (stress management, reducing toxins in our environment, and adequate sleep to name a few) collectively work to keep us on track to be healthier human beings.
Which may seem like a bit of an odd thing to focus on, given that you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer.
You would be forgiven for thinking,
Isn’t my health already well off-track?
The Far-Reaching Impact Of Taking Care Of Yourself
Through all my years spent working in the trenches of nutrition, fitness and wellness/prevention practices, what I’ve seen repeatedly is that most folks don’t stop long enough to focus on taking care of themselves until they’re forced to stop long enough to focus on taking care of themselves.
Or more commonly, focus on how long ago they’ve abandoned taking care of themselves.
Whether it comes at the cost of a health scare like a heart attack, or the actual diagnosis of ANY disease (diabetes, cancer, stroke, arthritis etc.), recognizing how strongly self-neglect vs self-care contributes to poor heal this typically a wake-up call.
Please don’t misunderstand, this isn’t about blame or shame. With perhaps the exception of smoking and lung cancer, which has a fairly linear correlation, you can’t “make yourself” get any disease.
In other words, simply because you’ve been a lover of all things junk food and a hater of all things exercise, you didn’t “give yourself” cancer.
If the cancer disease process worked like that, it’s fair to say we’d have far more cancer diagnoses than we currently do.
However, we also can’t deny that lifestyle habits DO matter. Taking responsibility to care for our bodies by doing all the things we know support a lifetime of good health (regardless of how long that lifetime is), stack the deck in our favor to reduce disease risk, and, in the event we are diagnosed, help us get through treatment with better outcomes, shorter recovery times, and possibly fewer side effects.
Through the advent of earlier detection and better treatments, robust cancer survivorship is a reality for many people. While it’s great news that we’reliving longer post-diagnosis, with longevity and ageing comes an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
The healthy lifestyle habits we practice to reduce our risk of a cancer recurrence or a second primary cancer also translate to strong hearts, in-range blood pressure readings, stable blood sugar levels, and strong, fit bodies – the perfect environment for healthy ageing.
Why You Need To Start Taking Action
A couple of years after my own breast cancer diagnosis, I founded DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer, a nutrition, fitness and wellness resource for women newly diagnosed.
It’s one of the ways I gained refuge from my breast cancer experience.
Through DAM. MAD., I encourage women to BITE BACK with nutrition, MOVE BACK with fitness, and STRIKE BACK with wellness. But guess what?
These missives help ANYONE diagnosed with ANY type of cancer. . .not just women, and not just breast cancer.
I’m a woman who likes to take positive action, ESPECIALLY with my health, and I encourage you to do the same.
Taking action with your health helps manage the challenges that come with ANY cancer diagnosis, while giving structure to your day and meaning to your week.
Example: An early morning fitness class or weekly walk with a friend fill your calendar with positive events to look forward to, and gets you moving.
Taking action with your health offers a sense of taking charge; a reliably steady feeling that may even help reduce anxiety by giving you purpose and intention.
Example: Selecting a simple yet nourishing recipe, gathering the ingredients and pulling the dish together feels proactive and nurturing.
Taking action with your health focuses you FORWARD versus keeping you stuck.
Example: Planning to watch a new movie release, inviting friends over, ordering a new book by your favorite author, or downloading new music are all forward-focused wellness practices that provide a sense of well-being, forward-thinking, and anticipation.
How Self-Care Reaches Beyond The Cancer Experience
As you move along the path of diagnosis, decision making, treatment planning, active treatment, recovery, survivorship and/or managing metastatic cancer, it’s natural to focus only on the cancer task at hand.
Without minimizing the fact that during treatment (and beyond), physical and mental energy and strength vary greatly from person to person and from day to day, I encourage you to step out from the tunnel as often as you can and give even the smallest level of attention to taking small actions to care for your overall health.
15 Healthy Lifestyle Behaviours
Bite Back With Nutrition
- Put more plants on your plate! Dedicate at least HALF your plate’s real estate to fruits & veggies.
- Aim for a variety of colours, as each different fruit and/or vegetable contributes its own special combination of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
- Dining out? Order a double serving of vegetables as a side, plus add a salad for good measure.
- Proteins (generally animal-based) tend to get most of the attention on a restaurant menu. Seek out the “sides” and “extras” to find interesting vegetable preparations to balance your protein plate.
- Shop abundantly at farmers markets and freeze extra produce; in January you’ll thank yourself.
- Fresh OR frozen, fruits and vegetables provide similar levels of nutrients and cancer-fighting compounds.
- Increase the number of meals you cook and eat at home each week.
- When you’re in charge of the meal, you can shift the balance to healthier levels of fat, salt and added sugar, and ensure that an abundance of produce ends up on your plate.
- Add ½ cup raw or cooked vegetables to whatever you’re having for lunch today.
- It gets you one serving closer to the recommended 9 per day.
Move Back With Fitness
- Do your favourite type of physical activity for 20-30 minutes EVERY day.
- The recommended amount of time for moderate aerobic activity is 150 minutes per week, but don’t let that deter you. 150 minutes translates to just over 20 minutes per day. Do what you can, when you feel up to it.
- Include mind/body activities like yoga and Tai Chi; you’ll improve balance, strength and flexibility.
- These activities also help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
- Dedicate at least two days each week to strength training/muscle building exercises.
- Whether you use body weight or actual fitness weights, building muscle helps manage body weight and aids in recovery from surgery and other treatments.
- Pay attention to the intensity of your workouts; increase it as often (and safely) as you can.
- As you progress through your cancer experience, you’ll likely need to adjust your workout intensity to your variable energy levels. Work harder on the days that you can, take it easier on days when energy lags.
- Aim to reduce “sitting time” (at work and/or home) to less than three hours daily.
- Even standing up for a 5-minute stretch every 30 minutes signals your body that you’re “breaking” up your sitting routine.
Strike Back With Lifestyle
- Store and reheat home-cooked and restaurant leftovers in glass vs. plastic or styrofoam containers.
- Reduce your level of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
- Swap your regular cleaning products for non/less-toxic brands.
- You can’t live in a chemical-free world, but you can reduce your exposure in the space where you spend the most time.
- Practice journaling, meditation or quiet contemplation to manage stress and ground yourself in stillness.
- Get stressful, fear-based thoughts out of your head and onto paper, or release them through mindful intention.
- Surround yourself with people who share your enthusiasm for self-care; you’ll encourage and support each other to live a robust, healthy life.
- This is the ONE situation where a “herd-mentality” works in your favour.
- Dance! Every. Single. Day. In your kitchen, your living room, on the street.
- It will feed your soul, move emotion through your body, and liberate your thoughts – it’s tough to feel anxious and scared when you’re bustin’ a move.
Cathy Leman is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, blogger, speaker, and the founder of “DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer” ®.
After nearly 20 years devoted to helping women create healthy relationships with food and working tirelessly in support of preventive nutrition and fitness lifestyles, in 2014, Cathy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Using nutrition and fitness as her weapons of choice to help her heal and cope, Cathy continued her pre-diagnosis diet and exercise routine throughout her treatment.
Although her trusted self-care practices were put to the test, Cathy credits them for her positive treatment outcomes and the maintenance of her physical and mental health. Nine days after her surgery Cathy led a sports nutrition lecture at a local college, and after 14 days was cleared to resume running.
Vowing to end the confusion and overwhelm for newly diagnosed women seeking reliable nutrition and fitness information, Cathy founded DAM. MAD. About Breast Cancer ® to provide evidence-based nutrition, fitness and wellness resources that move women into treatment feeling confident in their self-care practices.
Combining her personal breast cancer experience with her professional expertise, Cathy inspires newly diagnosed women around the globe to BITE BACK with nutrition, MOVE BACK with fitness, and STRIKE BACK with wellness.
Cathy earned her bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and completed her dietetic internship through the UIC coordinated undergraduate program. She holds a master’s degree in health psychology from National Louis University, is certified as a personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and has completed extensive training in the nutritional treatment of eating disorders and principles of “Intuitive Eating”.
With perhaps the exception of an extraordinarily great cup of coffee and an early morning run, Cathy loves nothing more than inspiring women through her speaking and writing opportunities.