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'I've been diagnosed with cancer twice. Here are 12 things I wish I knew before treatment.'

This post discusses sensitive topics and may be triggering for some readers.

I don’t think I heard a word after she said, ‘You have cancer’.

As my husband and I sat across from my breast surgeon, I’m pretty sure I went straight into shock. The world continued to spin on its axis but it was as though everything around me went blurry and out of focus.

As I reflect back on that day, there are so many things I wish I’d known then. The kind of things you can only glean through experience and time.

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I'm fortunate to have come 'out the other side' of cancer, alive but not unscathed.

I would’ve loved for a woman who had traversed this path before me to somehow infuse her wisdom and learnings into me so I might navigate this bumpy, uncharted territory with a little more ease and grace.

There are a few things I wish I’d known when I was diagnosed with cancer. Here are 12 of them:

1. Stop, breathe, check-in with yourself.

I have been diagnosed with cancer twice. And on both occasions, the surgeon delivered their findings in a clinical, matter-of-fact way like my takeaway order was ready. To her, I was just another patient but for me, I was not accustomed to hearing such words. I can assure you, nothing prepares you for it, and I doubt anything ever could.

When I was diagnosed for the second time, my breast surgeon was very quick to provide her diagnosis and proposed treatment plan. She was keen to conduct a lumpectomy to excise the rogue cancer cells growing in my chest within a matter of days and urged me to meet with an oncologist immediately too.

I was already in a state of shock and horror discovering I had cancer for the second time so the thought of heading straight into surgery and chemotherapy was significantly even more shocking.

I felt like my life was a whirlwind with all the many scans and appointments that now filled my calendar. I felt poked and prodded and at the whim of doctors who were complete strangers to me.

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"I felt like my life was a whirlwind with all the many scans and appointments that now filled my calendar." Image: Supplied.

What I wish I knew was that I could've actually stopped, taken a big, deep breath between my diagnosis and commencing treatment. I was made to feel that my health was in a critical state and that we would need to act fast. 

If I had my time again, I would like to have hit the proverbial ‘pause’ on everything to gather my thoughts, do my own research and check-in with myself to ensure that the proposed treatment plan felt right for me. Surely a bit of extra time for me would not have affected my health too gravely.

2. Enlist the help of a key support person.

Most people when they're first diagnosed with cancer go into a state of shock, denial and anxiety. They fear the prospect of facing something so uncertain and potentially life-threatening. I felt like my whole world got thrown upside down and I know for me, I went into a state of shock for probably a good month, if not longer.

I wish I knew to consciously choose a key support person who would accompany me to all of my appointments, who could help me do research and gather information, and help me make informed decisions at a time when I wasn’t functioning at my best.

A cancer diagnosis is usually followed by a flurry of scans, new information and appointments. I called it the ‘cancer circus’ because it’s busy and overwhelming. It is so valuable to have someone who is grounded and level-headed there alongside you to take in information, to recall those conversations and information and to help make decisions about your treatment path going forward.

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3. Build an amazing medical team to support you.

I discovered throughout my cancer journey that each medical specialist I dealt with along the way had a different approach, a different mindset, a different energy and a different level of expertise. Doctors are medically trained and tend to adopt the ideals and practices bestowed on them in medical school and evidence-based treatment. Doctors are unique and individual so it is incredibly important to build a medical team that you feel aligns with you and your ideals.

Thus, it's very important to shop around and make sure that you find the right surgeon, the right oncologist, the right radio-oncologist to support you along your journey. What I didn’t know in the beginning is that I had a right to question what my doctors were telling me. And if I’d had the courage, that I had the right to shop around and consciously choose which doctors I wanted to work with.

There are many doctors and many different approaches to cancer treatment so I wish I knew and had the confidence to shop around and align myself with the doctors that I felt were going to give me the best support in the way that I wanted to receive it.

4. Be informed.

When you are navigating uncharted territory, it's difficult to know what information to look for, where to find it, and what information to ask so you can equip yourself for the journey ahead.

Your doctors are acting with their best intentions but they are still human and can make errors. They are as good as the information they have gleaned from medical training and ongoing study. Because there's so much uncertainty and so many things to get your head around, it is a great practice to have a notebook or journal to take notes in so you can make reference to them later.

What I wish I knew was to ask loads of questions. 

Your doctor is there to inform and support you. Take time to source information about your diagnosis and proposed treatment from sources like the Cancer Council and other reliable agencies. Be sure that you're as informed as possible about your path ahead rather than leaving it to chance.

If you’d like a checklist of questions to ask your doctor, find my top questions here: https://evolvingwomen.co/10-best-questions-to-ask-your-doctor.

5. Heal your mind as well as your body. 

I had a level of confidence my medical team would assist in my recovery. Travelling the path of cancer for a second time, I went in search of answers for more than just my physical health. I felt cracked wide open by this experience and wanted desperately to heal my mind and soul too so that I healed fully from cancer.

Image: Supplied.

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If I had my time again, I'd spend even more time exploring alternative and complementary therapies to add further value and more healing support to my treatment regime.

6. Be open to receive love and support.

Just after I was diagnosed the second time, my husband, Chris said to me, “There are so many people that love you and want to support you through your cancer journey, why don't you let them in and happily receive the support they're so willing to give you?”

I've always been a very independent person preferring to take care of myself. Probably because I don't want to be a burden to anyone else, so the very thought of asking for help and letting people see that I needed help was a really big challenge.

My cancer journey was an exercise in vulnerability. I discovered that a cancer journey is far too much for one person to bear. It actually takes a community to support someone going through treatment. And I am grateful there are so many people around me that love me and want to support me through the challenging times in my life. 

"My cancer journey was an exercise in vulnerability". Image: Supplied.

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I just had to be open to receiving it. I wish I knew ways to ask and welcome love and support from those around me. Reach out and have confidence to ask for what you need and be open to accepting it.

7. People may surprise you.

People show up for you in only the ways they can.

From my very earliest days in treatment I had an expectation, albeit an unspoken one of those I imagined would be my support team throughout the journey ahead. What I wish I had known was that different people will show up in different ways for you. Some of the people who you most expect will be there for you may not show up for you at all. They may not be able to cope with your illness or disease. This was one of the most confronting and challenging aspects of my journey. I questioned why some people didn't show up for me or weren't able to show up for me at a time when I needed them most.

The silver lining however, was that a number of people that I least suspected would be there for me came out of the woodwork and offered their full support.

I came to a place in my treatment journey where I marvelled at who did show up and I appreciated and enjoyed every message, letter, gift, phone call and the unique ways that each person showed up to support me along my path.

8. There is no energy to ‘fight’ Cancer.

I intuitively knew I didn’t have the energy to ‘fight’ cancer. 

In a world full of ‘crush’, ‘conquer’ or ‘f**k’ cancer slogans, I didn’t think meeting the cancer growing inside my chest with anger and fear was going to be the best pathway to help heal it. After all, that is the approach I took the first time I was diagnosed with cancer. And just four years later I was confronted with a second, more aggressive cancer diagnosis.

I wanted to find a more peaceful way to ‘meet’ my cancer, explore why this unwanted visitor had shown up again in my life so abruptly and find gentle ways to make peace and heal from cancer so I wouldn’t have to travel this path a third time.

9. Cancer doesn’t define you.

A cancer diagnosis can send shock waves through you and those around you. However, it doesn’t need to define you. Cancer is a serious disease and needs to be tended to, but it is only just one part of you. And there are so many other parts… like your interests, your work, your relationships, your dreams.

I wish I’d know to keep a healthy perspective about who I was after my diagnosis, and that cancer was part of my experience but was not my whole experience in life.

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10. Introduce stabilising practices that bring you calm.

Hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ are probably among the scariest words one will ever hear. It's enough to send your nervous system into overdrive and overwhelm. And this state is the worst place to be when we are taking in new information and making critical decisions about our health.

What I wish I knew is just how powerful the practice of meditation is to help bring calm and groundedness to an overrun nervous system. From the onset of my diagnosis and into treatment, I discovered meditation to be one of the most valuable activities that I engaged in to help me cope. Meditation helped me to manage my emotions, to ensure I kept a sense of calm about me when my world seemed to be upside down.

11. Journal your feelings.

I learned that going through cancer treatment is just as much a physical journey as it is an emotional one. I personally found journaling my feelings in a beautiful book or journal to be a powerful way to express what was going on within me. It was a safe place to explore my inner landscape, my thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement or repercussion.

Talking to friends and family or perhaps a therapist are wonderful ways to share what is going on for you. However, I found the power of writing to self-express and bring calm to a cocktail of emotions swirling within me was an instrumental component of my healing journey. I wish I knew just how powerfully healing the practice of writing is to connect more fully with my experience and how I was travelling it. Gift yourself the time to express your thoughts and feelings in a beautiful journal.

12. Finding the gifts of Cancer.

Having been diagnosed for a second time with cancer, I intuitively felt that cancer had shown up for a reason. I believed in some way cancer had an important message for me and that this powerful teacher was here to gift me something.

As I journeyed through treatment, I chose to mine the gifts from this experience and discovered there are many.

I wouldn't wish cancer on anyone however, I know that my life is better for having had this experience, and I would not want to return to my life before cancer.

These are just 12 helpful tips I wish I knew when I was first diagnosed. But this is only scratching the surface. There is so much more.

I hope these tips will give you some guidance and support and help you to navigate your journey with cancer with more ease and grace. 

Cindy Scott, AKA "Australia's Cancer Whisperer", is a Sunshine Coast based two-time breast cancer survivor, author, speaker, Resilience Coach, Cancer Confidant and Founder and CEO of Evolving Women Co, a platform for women who are seeking sanctuary; a place to heal, grow and flourish. You can find her on  FacebookInstagram or her  website.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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