10 Lessons I’ve Learned in More Than 10 Years of Survivorship
by Holly Bertone
I’ve learned a lot in my 10-plus years as a breast cancer and autoimmune disease survivor. Here are my top 10 lessons for anyone facing cancer or any other health challenge.
1. Your faith is everything
I’ve always had faith. I’ve seen, though, that during challenging times people either cling to or abandon their spiritual faith. Regardless of how you feel, I believe God is always there for us. And my health struggles have only deepened my faith.
2. Fortitude is your new motto
My mother was the one who taught me all about fortitude. She was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a rare autoimmune disorder, when she was pregnant with me. Doctors told her that she would never carry me to term and she wouldn’t live past 30 years old.
Throughout her life, her health continued to worsen, but she never let that get the best of her. “It builds fortitude,” she always said. It never mattered to her how bad she felt; she was always full of love, cheerfulness, and gratitude.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I had to go through all the stages of grief. And that is completely normal after receiving such a life-altering diagnosis. But then, after about a month, something happened. I felt a peace about everything. I knew deep down that breast cancer was my gift and something amazing was going to happen because of it.
3. Marry your best friend
When I was undergoing breast cancer treatment and attending support groups, I can’t even begin to tell you how many women in those groups were going through divorce. It was heartbreaking.
My husband, Carter, and I have certainly had our share of moments. But he proposed to me two days after my diagnosis and has been my rock every day since. I also try to carry my own share of the burden in our relationship as much as I can. However, marriage is never going to be 50/50. Someone is always going to give more than they get. And that’s part of being in a partnership. But it’s also not fair to Carter for him to shoulder all the burdens. So, I step up as much as possible given my health challenges.
4. A healthy lifestyle is non-negotiable
I always thought I lived a healthy lifestyle. I was a competitive athlete and mountain bike racer. But there’s a huge difference between being healthy and being “clean.” What that meant for me was cleaning up my diet and removing the toxins from my home and beauty routine.
I also learned that the emotional side of a healthy lifestyle is just as important as the physical side. This was the most difficult for me to embrace, but it’s had the greatest impact.
5. Your priorities will change
I was the chief of staff for one of the United States’ top federal agencies and became a wife and stepmother, all while going through cancer treatment. I quickly realized that I’m not superwoman. I had to make some serious lifestyle changes if I was going to find balance.
When life forces you to rearrange your priorities, it can be a difficult pill to swallow. But, more often than not, it’s a sign that while some doors may be closing, others are opening.
6. You will redefine beauty
During treatment, I was bald from chemo, in chemical menopause, blasting out the walking farts, and pretty much an overall hot cancer mess. I had to redefine beauty.
I may be bald, I told myself, but the brain inside my bald head produces incredible stories that make others laugh. I don’t have eyebrows or eyelashes, but my eyes are wider and more perceptive. I have scars on my chest, but my heart has never loved more.
7. Put the best in your body
After cancer, I decided to change my diet. I went gluten- and dairy-free. I only eat meat a few times a month. And I made a choice to buy organic groceries whenever possible.
Your food is what fuels your body, and it’s either going to supercharge your engine (good fuel) or cause you to be stranded on the side of the road (junk food). Talk with your doctor or dietitian about what healthy food choices are best for you.
8. You may not be as productive, but you can still make it happen
For years, my energy level and cognition got worse and worse. Healthy lifestyle changes made it better, but the
aftermath of my illnesses still left me a completely different person. Brain fog, memory problems, and trouble focusing. The struggle is real.
Even though I couldn’t be as productive as I once was, I was bound and determined to figure out a way to still lead a fruitful life. Once I adopted a productivity system that worked for me, I never looked back, and I’m much happier … even if I sometimes forget what I did that day.
9. You are stronger than you think
We all go through something. Life isn’t 24/7 rainbows and puppy kisses. The hard times are inevitable. But sometimes it takes going through those difficult moments to appreciate the good ones.
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather rise above the crisis. The view is certainly better.
10. Begin and end each day with gratitude
Did you know that there is science backing the power of gratitude? Developing a gratitude practice was the biggest
game changer for me. I begin and end each day with gratitude. Gratitude does build fortitude. I know you’ve got both! And I know you’ve got this as well.
Holly Bertone is a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate who has published three books on cancer. You can find Holly blogging at pinkfortitude.com, where she writes about healthy living and life after cancer. A version of this article first appeared on Holly’s blog.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2022.
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