Hi I’m Laura and just over a year ago, despite doing everything right (working out, eating kale) I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the ripe old age of 32. The last 12 months have been the hardest of my life as I faced a mastectomy (and lymph clearance), 6 rounds of chemotherapy, 15 fractions of radiotherapy, plus ongoing bone and hormone treatments but I like to think I got through it with a smile on my face. I’m often asked how I did it, especially during a global pandemic, so here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way...
How I stay positive when everything feels a bit crap…
The last 12 months has been difficult for all of us. Let’s face it, 2020 was an absolute shit show, and 2021 hasn’t started much better.
When you think of the word positivity, it probably conjours up images of smiling and happiness… an optimistic view of the world. All of these things can seem quite elusive when faced with something like a cancer diagnosis. On top of that, with so many negative news stories and so much going on in the world at the moment, it can be very easy to misplace your positive pants somewhere along the way.
One of the things I am asked frequently is how I stay so positive all the time… and can I just point out… even I have my down days! We cannot be happy every minute of every single day, that is not normal or natural! We all have moments when we feel sad or scared - especially when you haven’t been able to hug your family or friends for months and your normal support network can’t be there for you.
When you get told you have cancer, the first thing you will probably focus on is the worst case “I don’t want to die”. This might sound melodramatic, but it’s definitely the first thing I thought. We, as humans, are hardwired to survive and when that survival is threatened, we focus on the threat, and it motivates us to do what we need to, to get through it. So when you say to a cancer patient “I don’t know how you stay so strong” generally, it’s because we don’t have any other choice!
That being said, people deal with things very differently. I am a firm believer that there is always something to look forward to in life if you look hard enough and block out the bad things you can’t change! It’s hard to see the positives when you are lost in negative thinking, so you need to change your mindset, and focus on the good out there. The information below helped me to do this.
We control how we react to situations
In recent research, it is believed that an event (such as a cancer diagnosis, or a global pandemic) only actually accounts for 10% of how much it impacts your entire wellbeing. The other 90% is made up of 50% nature (what we are born with) and 40% is how we think, and what we do. That means that 40% of how you react to a situation is completely within your own control. (Source -Dr Jodie Fleming, author of “A hole in my genes”).
I think part of how you react to something is how you ask yourself questions… how you talk to yourself. It would have been very easy to think “why me” when I was diagnosed, but instead of going down that negative mindset, I focused on new viewpoints, new possibilities. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, instead of thinking “why is this happening to me”, “what did I do wrong” ask yourself “what is one good thing about this” or “what can I focus on to help move forward.” For me, it was telling myself I was strong and I could take on whatever was thrown at me. It was taking advantage of a slower pace of life, spending more time with Frank that I wouldn’t have had if I was at work, discovering yoga and simply making the most of a bad situation.
Improve your situation
Time for some tough love. I hate to break it to you, but life aint all rainbows and butterflies…. It is a series of challenges. You are going to have bad times mixed in there with the good, but instead of thinking “this is the worst thing ever” consider if it truly is. Now I won’t lie, a cancer diagnosis is probably about one of the worst things you can hear BUT instead of focussing on the negatives, ask yourself how you can improve your life situation.
The way I see it (and to quote a card a wise friend once sent me) your now is not your forever. The feelings of terror will pass and when you realise that, you can focus your efforts on improving your life rather than wasting energy on feeling sorry for yourself. Use your time and energy positively, do something you love - take a bath, go for a walk in the fresh air, write, read, sing, dance. Something small to make yourself feel better.
Create your own positivity!
Any sort of life threatening diagnosis is probably the most scary thing you will ever hear in your life. That fear can be all consuming if you allow it to be, and it will be almost impossible to be positive without focussing on the things that you DO have some control over… so for me (a self confessed control freak!) it was taking the fear of the unknown and getting as much information I could, so I understood what my options were, and I knew what I was potentially going to be facing.
Things you can take control of: how you react (see above!), what you eat, how you treat your body and yourself, what you do with your time and who with, when you sleep, your thoughts.
Your treatment team can help you with answers, as can talking to other people who have been through a similar experience (look to social media, fellow bloggers etc) don’t be afraid to ask. Once you have a treatment plan from your team it will really help you be able to have something to focus and concentrate on.
Don’t lose perspective
This is very easy to do, especially if you’re over stressed, over tired, or racing through life too quickly without a moment to process things. Something small can become so overwhelming, so take a step back and reevaluate. Breathe. Just sit, be still, stop your head from spinning and focus on your breathing to calm yourself (trust me, it works) and refocus your mind.
How and who you spend your time with has a massive effect on your attitude…
Not long after my first session of chemo I spent an afternoon with someone I know who has a tendency to be quite negative… they spent our whole time together moaning about how crap their life was (which it really wasn’t!) and when they left, I felt completely emotionally drained. For the next day or so I felt really down in the dumps until I figured out it was all connected to the toxic negative energy I’d been around, so I made a vow to spend time only with the people who lifted me up and helped me stay positive.
That’s not to say you can’t be a friend to someone who is going through a tough time just because you are going through your own hardship, in fact, that sense of normality is what keeps you sane when you are going through something like cancer treatment. My friends and family were incredible, they treated me as they normally would, but at the same time they were constantly providing optimism and support when I needed it the most. Surround yourself with people like that… they are your tribe.
While we are on the subject of avoiding negativity, limit the amount of exposure you have to negative media. Whether that is turning off news notifications (something I did early last year whilst going through chemo and the constant media horror stories about coronavirus) or avoiding social media that can damage your self-esteem (for example, unfollowing people on Instagram that make you feel bad about yourself with their perfect hair/ body/ life!) Instead, focus your attention on books, blogs, and social media that are created by positive people… things that instil motivation and optimism. I even have a playlist on Spotify which is FULL of my favourite songs of all time… over 100 amazing feel good, boogie inducing tunes to dance around the kitchen to if I feel my mood slipping.
For a person to be able to stay positive, they need to have influences in their life that support them. Things that lift them up rather than dragging them down. Ask yourself this - who are the 3 most negative people I spend time with, what are the 3 most negative sources of information I spend time on. Once you have considered your answers you can spend less time on those things having a bad effect on your mind and free up more time to spend on the more positive influences in your life.
Mindfulness really is a thing…
Yes. I know. I KNOW it sounds like just another fad, but TRUST me when I tell you that when you’re going through a challenging time, you can encourage positivity by practising mindfulness. I’ve done it. And there is plenty of scientific research confirming the health benefits. Mindfulness is not about blocking out your thoughts, having a clear mind (ever tried emptying your mind for a meditation practice? It’s bloody impossible) or simply ignoring you feelings… it’s about being aware of something happening at that moment in time, and guiding your mind to focus on that. Your mind will wander, mine does frequently, but it’s about acknowledging that thought, and then moving your focus back to your breathing. Studies have shown that practising mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day can help with a number of cancer related issues (sleep, pain, stress, fatigue, even potential recurrence)
A very easy way to tap into your positive side, is to have a think about what you’re grateful for. Spend a few minutes asking yourself what you can be grateful for, what has made you smile, who are you lucky to have in your life and write it down. I started doing this not long after I was diagnosed and I found it such a great exercise for reminding myself that not everything was bad.
When you practice gratitude, you start to notice the smallest things that make you smile, things you might not have even noticed before. By bringing yourself consciously back to a moment that made you feel grateful (such as noticing the first snowdrop of the year, a moment of calm on a walk etc) it will have a massive effect on your overall mindset which will in turn help improve your mood.
Look after your bod!
I’ve always been a big believer in fuelling your body with the right stuff to help it perform to it’s best ability. Put in what you want to get out. The World Health Organisation estimates that around a third of cancers are caused by our diet or behaviour - drinking alcohol, being overweight, having a bad diet (not enough fruit or veg), a lack of exercise, and smoking… proof in itself that looking after your body is SUPER important!
I’m not saying that by being healthy you will avoid all risk (I have always been very healthy yet it still happened to me!) or that you should cut out absolutely everything in life that brings you joy (I certainly haven’t!) just that you should enjoy things in moderation, and follow these basic fundamentals:
Get a good nights sleep - none of us function properly on not enough sleep and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying a bad nights sleep leads to a very grumpy Laura the next day.
Pamper yourself - take some time out, have a bath, put on a face mask, read a book… whatever it is you enjoy doing to relax, and MAKE THE TIME to do it! If (like me) you struggle with sleeping, I use Jennifer Young's Well Being Beauty Sleep Ritual Bath Oil in my bath which not only smells divine but also leaves your skin feeling gorgeous. I follow with the Well Being Beauty Sleep Ritual Spritz - to help me nod off (and it genuinely does help!)
Exercise regularly - aim for 30 minutes a day 5 days a week of gentle exercise. Being active can help maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of cancer, create endorphins (improving your mood and reducing stress) reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, and depression. Yoga is also a fantastic way to get moving whilst also focussing on your breathing and mindfulness.
Eat well - avoid processed foods and anything high in sugar. Aim to eat seasonal food from local sources, and buying organic will mean less pesticides. If you eat meat, buy the best quality you can afford - ideally you want to be eating grass fed locally reared animals. By buying locally grown (UK) meat and veg, you will also be helping to reduce your carbon footprint.
Lastly…. It’s ok to let it out!
Don’t bottle things up under the impression you need to stay strong all the time, you really don’t. Speak to your friends and family.. shout, rant, cry, write it down… whatever it is you need to do to get it out of your system and move on.
Ultimately, positivity is a CHOICE
In times of fear and uncertainty, it is very easy to feel sad, angry, or lost. Mindset is EVERYTHING, don’t let fear ruin your life.
To read more from Laura, visit LauraThroughTheLens.com