Self-care might be an overused buzzword at times, but the notion of making it a priority to take care of yourself is inarguably valid. Looking after your mental, physical, and emotional health is an essential part of living well. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with an illness like triple negative breast cancer.
Triple negative breast cancer is a type of breast cancer that “does not have the three most common types of receptors known to fuel breast cancer growth: estrogen, progesterone, and the [HER2 protein],” Veronica Shim, M.D., a surgical oncologist and director of the Breast Care Center at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland California, tells SELF.
That might sound like a good thing. None of these receptors to fuel cancer’s growth can’t be bad, right? But it’s not that simple. If someone has breast cancer with these receptors, that essentially gives doctors more treatment options because they can target the hormones or proteins involved in the cancer’s pathology, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since triple negative breast cancer lacks these receptors, there are fewer targeted treatments that may help with this illness. That doesn’t mean it’s not treatable at all; options such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy along with chemotherapy can help, the CDC explains. But triple negative breast cancer can still be more aggressive and difficult to treat than other breast cancers. (Here’s more information about how triple negative breast cancer differs from other forms of the disease.)
Receiving a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer can make an already dizzying experience even more confusing and scary. In reality, self-care is most likely the last thing on your mind, and that’s completely understandable. But, while speaking with people who have been in this situation, one thing we heard was the importance of tuning in to yourself—especially when things inevitably get overwhelming. Self-care can’t fix everything, but it might make an emotionally and physically trying time a little bit easier. Here, four women with triple negative breast cancer share how they practice self-care.
1. Turning off the phone
Chelsea M., 30, was diagnosed with early stage triple negative breast cancer in July 2018 and had her last round of chemotherapy in December. The way Chelsea’s friends and family have rallied to support her is incredibly helpful and touching, she says. But she’s also found the constant attention and offers to help overwhelming at times.
“During treatment, I turned my phone off for hours throughout the day,” Chelsea tells SELF. “I would write a text to everyone saying, ‘Thank you for reaching out—it means so much and I will catch up with you when I’m feeling up to it.’ That way I didn’t feel pressured to respond to people right away.”
While she was tuning others out, Chelsea pampered herself. She’d get her hair done, go for facials, and, once her doctor gave her the all-clear, indulge in massages. Every time Chelsea turned off her phone and focused on herself for a bit, it reinforced the fact that it was OK to put herself first.
2. Focusing on movement and mantras
You might feel lost in medical minutia and complex, terrifying emotions when you’re diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. For Samantha M., 30, who was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at 28, yoga helped change her mental focus.
“It’s hard to be anywhere but present [when] you are focused on something so moment-to-moment as your breath and the postures,” Samantha tells SELF. That attention to the here and now has helped Samantha reframe worries that her cancer will return as well. “I talk myself down by saying ‘If the outcome is going to be bad, it’s going to happen whether or not I spent my energy fearing and worrying about it. So I might as well enjoy my life,’” she says.
3. Finding self-expression that celebrates all that you are
Kelly T., 34, received a diagnosis of stage 3 triple negative breast cancer in January 2018 and is currently going through chemotherapy. At times in this process, she felt as though cancer stripped her of her womanhood, she says.
“Looking into a mirror and not seeing a single hair on your head is heartbreaking,” Kelly tells SELF. “I’m talking the whole shebang: no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes. I could’ve pulled the sheets over my head and wallowed … but that’s not me.”
Instead, Kelly went to a wig shop and treated herself to a handful of amazing options. She watched YouTube tutorials for headwraps. She looked right into the mirror and expertly drew on eyebrows each day. “I felt like me again,” she says. “Looking back at all that I’ve done and accomplished in the last 16 months, I learned that I am beautiful, I am resilient, I am stronger than I ever knew.” And, she says, she learned that she looks damn good in a wig.
4. Engaging in meditation
“I never meditated before breast cancer … I honestly thought it was kind of hocus pocus,” Melissa B., 47, tells SELF. But on the heels of Melissa’s stage 1 triple negative breast cancer diagnosis in 2013, a friend suggested meditation. “I thought, ‘Why are you telling me this? I have chemo and doctors’ appointments,’” Melissa recalls. But meditation wound up being the very thing that got her through all those appointments, she says: “It became a place for me to go mentally when I couldn’t handle it anymore, and it saved me.”
Melissa would follow YouTube meditations each morning before her treatments and again when the nurses began prepping her skin with rubbing alcohol to administer the chemotherapy. Meditation helped her reduce her anxious feelings, she says. It also helped her sleep, which, for Melissa, calls to mind advice from her grandma Sylvie. “She always said, ‘Naps are life’s greatest luxury,’ and they really are,” Melissa says. Though she’s been in remission for six years, Melissa found so much benefit in meditation that she still keeps up with the practice—and the naps.