5 powerful life lessons breast cancer taught me

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Evidently we all know someone who has been affected by cancer. It’s high on our fear radars but it’s something we try not to think about … until a cancer diagnosis is given. The statistics are startling – breast cancer is the most common type of cancer facing Kiwi women, with 3,000 being diagnosed every year. And while it’s an experience no one would voluntarily choose, going through it can also teach some good life lessons. Four courageous breast cancer survivors share with focus five powerful lessons that breast cancer taught them.

Isabell Zitzelsberger

Isabell arrived in New Zealand six years ago with the aim of getting out and enjoying the great outdoors and the famous laid-back lifestyle of this country. At 31 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She felt shocked, confused and angry, and being sick and staying at home, or in hospital, was really messing up with her inspiring to-do list. Avoiding ‘house arrest’ became her mission. Isabell continued to work throughout the whole treatment period, exercised regularly and kept on ticking off all those weekend adventures she had planned.

1 Mental strength is the most powerful tool you have. Cancer is nasty, cancer is time consuming and life changing, but it also gives you the chance to reflect on your life and change something for a better future. You lose a lot, but you also gain a lot. You just need to be open to see it.

2 Keep smiling even at the toughest times. It lifts up your mood and reminds you that things could have been worse.

3 Relaxing is necessary, but this skill requires regular practice. It is as important as sport exercises, if not more. For 31 years, I always had that ‘gogogo’ attitude; never stopped. I was always afraid to miss something important. Breast cancer showed me that I can actually enjoy the Hot Pools for longer than two minutes, or look forward to an hour-long massage. It’s not a waste of time, it is a precious moment, when my body can have some recovery and relaxation.

4 The community of fighters and survivors, who give each other strength and support, is the most incredible community to be a part of.

5 Put yourself first! Nothing is more important than you and your health. It is YOUR life!

Emily Searle

Emily’s story began with a lump that she didn’t really pay attention to at first – who doesn’t get those lumpy breasts when breastfeeding, after all? But things went in the opposite direction at her next doctor’s appointment. The diagnosis was stage three breast cancer, and aggressive. As Emily’s breast surgery date came closer, and after agonising over why she felt so low about losing her uneven boobs, she wrote to them and never looked back. Her healing progressed and the letters supported her throughout the six months of treatment. The Dear Boobs project now inspires women throughout New Zealand who are living with breast cancer.

1 The power of taking one day at a time through the hardest times should not be underestimated.

2 Having a plan is overrated. Going withthe flow allows us to discover a moreauthentic path for ourselves.

3 Stopping being ‘busy’ is a choice.

4 If you get tired, rest, don’t quit.

5 Most fear is unnecessary.

Sonya Nicol

Sonya’s family had no history of cancer, so being diagnosed at 45 at a routine mammogram was a shock. She had to take time out of her business – Eyes Open Coaching – and get her head round the unfamiliar treatments and procedures. Five years later, Sonya is happily back to coaching and loving her life. She has even taken on a new role as a volunteer with the Breast Cancer Support Trust, which she absolutely loves.

1 Love your life, count your blessings and take nothing for granted.

2 Belief is a huge part of recovery. My daughter, who was 11 at the time, asked me, ‘Why you, why us?’ And I remember saying, ‘Because I can handle it!’

3 It is incredible how a diagnosis of one person can affect so many. Family and friends, work places and communities are all impacted by one person.

4 Medical care for breast cancer is outstanding. We are very lucky in the Bay to have such great specialists available to us.

5 Your pain tolerance will never be the same! Since breast cancer I don’t do things that are painful if I can avoid it, like waxing.

Caro Richards

Back in 2008, seven days after her 45th Birthday in March, Caro went for her first mammogram. All clear! It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that she became aware of a lump in her right breast. On January 7th her worst nightmare came true – breast cancer, stage 3. As a Legal Administrator for a Tauranga law firm and mother of two, her first thought was, ‘Is my Will up to date?’ Her family and friends were the greatest supporters when Caro went through lumpectomy and lymph removal, followed by chemo and radiation therapy.

1 Having open and frank discussions with family and friends means there will be no confusion as to the treatment and my feelings. It provides them with the ability to help. You do need to rely on family and friends; it doesn’t show weakness, it shows strength.

2 Learning new words like ‘oncology’, ‘radiotherapy’, ‘chemotherapy’ was like learning a new language. One that I thought I would never need to learn! It is amazing how quickly you come to terms with the meanings and accept them as the norm.

3 Gee, was I ready for the thought of going bald! After reading articles on how other women went about this process, I decided to have a ‘Hair-off party’. This brought my family even closer together, and we made a sad event into a fun one. I learned that I could be in control of when my hair disappeared and not wait for the treatment to start the process.

4 The Breast Cancer Society helped me to realise that having breast cancer was not my fault. They provided me with an amazing support network and taught me that I shouldn’t be hard on myself.

5 Learning to accept that my life had changed was hard. I learned that the choice of treatment was mine and how I approached it was also up to me.