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From One Survivor to Another

These Are the Lessons I Learned While Battling Cancer

by Sara Nelson O’Brien

Inspiration image

To help unleash her inner superhero, Sara wore these super socks to every chemo treatment.

My battle with cancer began in the summer of 2012 when I was diagnosed with stage III endometrial cancer. This June, I celebrated two years of being cancer-free. It has been a hard fight, with plenty of good times, and more than enough difficult moments too. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons that I want to share with you – from one survivor to another.

Hold on to your faith.
It is easy to neglect religious practices, like prayer and scripture reading, when you feel tired and ill. However, if you are a spir­itual person, now is the time to cling to your faith. It can become your greatest source of strength and comfort.

Seek friendship with a fellow survivor.
It helps to know you are not alone in your struggle, and it can be therapeutic to talk with someone who understands what you’re going through.

Exercise (with your physician’s OK).
Even a small amount of exercise each day can help combat stress, pain, and fatigue. Exercise is a valuable tool for recovery after cancer treatment.

Try not to stress about food.
I found that obsessing about eating increased my anxiety and decreased my appetite. Eat when you feel relaxed, and always have a variety of options on hand. Your sense of taste does change during chemotherapy. Try not to expect a favorite dish to taste the same as you remember. Approach every food as if you are trying something new. That way, you’re less likely to be disappointed if it doesn’t taste the way you expect.

It helps to know you are not alone in your struggle.

Talk to a social worker.
Your hospital or clinic should be able to connect you with an oncology social worker. I was fortunate to meet one after my first oncologist visit. It was part of my clinic’s protocol, and the introduction was invaluable. Social workers have experience dealing with all the issues that come along with a cancer diagnosis, and they can help you establish a plan for managing bills, returning to work, talking with your family, taking care of your emotional health, and many other challenges cancer survivors face.

Have a sense of humor.
It’s OK to laugh during treatment. Some of my best moments were spent joking with my fellow radiology “inmates.”

Let people know what you need.
Friends and family want to help you. Give them practical ideas, like grocery shopping, rides to and from treatment, house cleaning, preparing meals, walking the dog, or even cleaning the litterbox.

Give yourself a break.
Not only are you battling a life-threatening disease, but you are also experiencing the often-harsh side effects of potent treatments. You will feel tired. You will need to scale back at work and at home. Don’t feel guilty about it. You need your energy to attack the cancer.

Keep in touch with your friends.
Through phone calls, group texts, email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever method of communication appeals to you. Also, feel free to let people know when you are tired and not up for a visit or a chat. Your friends will understand.

Elect a “sanitation officer” in your home.
Their job is to help protect your weakened immune system by ensuring visitors wash their hands upon entering your house. My mom accepted this role for me, and she laid down the cleanli­ness law. She even had a powwow with my husband and son when she felt the amount of soap in the dispenser wasn’t decreasing to her satisfaction.

Get out of the house.
If you are able, a change of scenery can do wonders for your mood. My husband and I would often go out for ice cream. I would eat it in the car while enjoying the countryside.

Don’t compare yourself with other cancer fighters.
Treatment plans, energy levels, and medication responses are very individual. One person may be able to train for a half marathon during treatment. Another may be lucky to get up and out of bed each morning. Both are doing what they can to battle this beast. Try not to judge yourself, or others.

Wear your superhero t-shirt …
and socks and undies on treatment days. It really does help!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sara O’Brien is a mother, nurse, caregiver, cancer survivor, and author of The Bald Headed, Tattooed, Motorcycle Mama’s Devotional Guide for Women Battling Cancer and Those Who Love Them. To learn more about Sara, visit her website

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2015.