Thursday, November 21, 2013

You've made it through cancer treatment. Now what?

In September 2012, I completed my second of two autologous stem cell transplants for Multiple Myeloma. My doctor gave me a four week break and then in October, I went on my maintenance plan, which included weekly velcade via IV with Dex, and daily thalidomide. Once per month I had my labs and Aridia via IV, and I only saw a doctor once every six months.

And that's when fear set in. I had no idea I would feel that way. I was so used to being in clinic several times per week, sometimes every single day, that the void was frightening. When I was being monitored so closely, it was reassuring. I relied on the constant feedback. I knew that as long as I was treated by the angels at Huntsman Cancer Institute's Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) clinic, that myeloma would not claim my life. But now that I wasn't getting that constant care?

I knew that it was time to start taking a more proactive role in my health, as clearly it was up to me now more than it had been since diagnosis.

One aspect of cancer care that I find surprisingly lacking is how us cancer warriors can take care of ourselves post treatment. We get lots of support during treatment but not so much after we are done. So I did a little research of my own and came up with my own plan, which I'll share below. But the bottom line is this: It is vitally important that we all take care of our emotional and physical health post treatment. If you ask me, our ability to stay well depends on it. So whatever your plan is, make sure you at least have one. And, to your best ability, stick with it.

Emotional health
-Pray/meditate: I prayed throughout treatment. I actually prayed throughout the day. Post treatment is no different. I also talk to my body a lot. Those talks tend to focus on telling my body that it needs to kill off any crazy cancer cells. There is a mind-body connection so convincing my inner body to do what I tell it is an important part of my emotional recovery.
-Yoga: I'm putting this under emotional health because yoga is an excellent way to heal emotionally, as well as physically. For me, I love Bikram yoga, especially in the winter. Sweating out impurities, including emotional impurities, is incredibly therapeutic.
-Therapy: I did not see a therapist but I purchased self help books that were appropriate for me. It helped me heal from the trauma I experienced in my fight to get well.
-Support: Find people you love and surround yourself with them. Learn to laugh and have fun and live again. Fill the void that not being in treatment every day with something that brings you joy.

Physical health
-Exercise! This is so critically important! After almost a year of treatment, I was physically very weak. I started off with power walks. I had just met my boyfriend, William, and we would go for long walks together. The first time that we walked six miles, I nearly started crying. It felt like such a huge achievement. One day last year, I even went skiing. Granted, it was a very "easy" ski day for me. William and my daughter, Morgan, went on the more challenging runs while Siena and I stayed together. But it all meant that I was getting a bit stronger every day.
Photo: Sundance

-Rest: I'm on a two year maintenance plan so I still have side effects, which includes extreme fatigue sometimes. I used to try and power through it. I don't anymore. Most days, I need to be horizontal for at least 15 minutes. Sometimes I need a nap. This week, I've been more fatigued than normal and I've needed a nap every day. I literally drop the kids off at school, take a shower, and then take a nap. Frequent rest is important. Get it.
-Nutrition: What we put in our bodies either helps destroy us or makes us stronger. Focus on anti cancer foods, like tomatoes and garlic and organic berries; nuts and seeds, lemons, ripe bananas, and avocadoes. There are a million books and websites to direct you to anti cancer diets. I also learned that turmeric is very anti-myeloma. I cook with that spice often.
-Work: I worked fulltime prior to diagnosis and stopped working throughout treatment. I have not yet gone back to work and I won't even consider it until after my two-year maintenance plan is complete. Each one of us is different so know your options and what works for you. I need rest and my Friday clinic appointments sometimes take several hours. Working and managing my maintenance treatment are not compatible. Whatever you decide, feel no guilt and no need to justify that decision to anyone.
-Massage/acupuncture: I scheduled weekly massages. It wasn't cheap but it was necessary. It helped address sore and aching muscles and was good quiet time to meditate.


-Alternative therapies: I won't go into detail on which ones I've chosen (and they change all the time), but there are many alternative therapies that appear to be very successful. Do some research and consider picking one (or several) that makes sense for you.

Whatever you do to recover from treatment, I strongly suggest you make a list and stick with it. I don't know a single cancer warrior who doesn't come out of treatment a profoundly different person. Most every person I've talked to appreciates life in a new way. Life post treatment is exciting-- especially if we stay healthy. Cheers!