In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
Do you ever think that you have another tumour? I don’t mean a recurrence with a breast cancer lesion, but a secondary cancer. And if you do, do these dark thoughts catch you by surprise in random pockets of moments, like when you feel an ache in your shoulder, or a knotted muscle along your spine, or when you take a deep breath and experience a sharpness of pain before you fully exhale? When this happens, do you immediately think, “fuck, I have a tumour,” and then have to talk yourself down from this mental, paranoid ledge? I do.
It’s weird how having had breast cancer has created this fear in me. It creeps in and out of my psyche at unexpected times. I know it sounds crazy, but I also know it’s not 100 percent irrational. According to a 2018 study by the Radiation Oncology Journal, published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 17 to 19 percent of cancer patients develop a secondary cancer, which can be attributed to lifestyle choices, such as smoking, a lack of exercise and excessive use of alcohol; genetic susceptibility; and having had radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments. Factor in being prescribed the chemo-infused drug Tamoxifen, as many breast cancer patients including myself are, and endometrial (uterine) cancer can also become a very real risk.
These potential secondary cancers are not to be confused with metastatic breast cancer, also known as Stage IV, when the breast cancer cells have broken free from the original tumour and spread to other parts of the body, most commonly the liver, brain, bones or lungs. Obviously the reality of metastatic cancer is a harsh and frightening. But what I’m referring to is the uncertainty and angst that potentially having a brand new cancer can bring. How feeling a new lump or bump, ache or pain after your breast cancer surgery and treatment when your body is supposed to be in remission can put your mind into a spinning place of anxiety.
I’m not saying that I think about these risks or new tumours often, but the “oh my God, I have cancer again” thoughts that I do experience are real when they flash through my mind. I don’t enjoy these moments. They make me break out in a cold sweat from head to toe and then I start cursing myself for not having a proper will set up, as I scroll like a mad woman through webmd.com. Not helpful, I know, not even a little bit, so to curb these emotions and thoughts I take some necessary steps to create new and proactive behaviours instead.
While my therapist is not on speed dial, we do have a set weekly appointment. When I feel the fear, I write down my thoughts and actions in my journal and share them with my therapist when we connect. I know having cancer is an emotional and physical trauma and certain things, like having a flashback at the oncologist’s office or feeling a lump on my ribs by my lungs can trigger a whirlwind of emotions. But getting to the root of my thoughts and actions beneath and beyond the trauma of having had cancer by talking about it has been incredibly beneficial for me.
Opening up about my emotions is both awkward and powerful. I know I could confide in my sisters or a friend, but there’s something about unloading every ugly, insecure and scared feeling with my therapist that enables me to heal. Because I’ve sought the support of therapists throughout my adulthood, I have the tools to help me explore and understand why I make the choices I make, including the irrational thoughts about having a new tumour. Yet, I still find the need to deep dive into myself, so that I can gain an increased sense of self-awareness and self-power. Having a therapist who’s able to do this hard, inner work with me above and beyond overcoming my cancer trauma, empowers me to reflect on my actions and reactions and is truly awesome.
I’ve made early morning meditation a ritual for several years now. Some days I can do it for 30 minutes, other days two minutes and trust me, there are no days when my alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. that I leap out of bed ready to go. But, like therapy, the consistency works and always teaches me something new about myself. Plus, I love the peacefulness I feel afterwards. It sets me up for the day.
My meditations start with reading a section from the book A Course in Miracles and then fulfilling the daily lesson that accompanies it. It’s not an easy book to read and I still fumble with it at times, but it works and I like it. Next, I read a section from any other number of books that speak to me, although I tend to lean towards those written by authors such as Marianne Williamson, Dr. Wayne Dyer and Brené Brown. Then I meditate and last but not least, I journal. The entire process takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
I love walking and I try to go for a walk every night. It’s not always a long walk or a fast one, but I do it. It helps clear my mind, helps me breathe more deeply and it gives me the alone time I need to process my feelings and behaviour. I like night-time excursions the best, because it’s always cooler then and there’s something about seeing all of the street lights lit up that fills me with a magical feeling and a sense of connectivity to my community and the world. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.
There are health benefits too. My entire body is engaged when I walk, from my shoulders and legs to my booty. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that walking can reduce stress, lower anxiety, and improve your mood and I believe this because I can feel it. That’s because walking, like any other kind of exercise, produces endorphins, the chemicals that regulate our emotions. I find it also releases any negative thoughts I might have and helps me sleep better at night. I’ve read that sleep health experts claim that any kind of exercise including walking boosts the sleep hormone melatonin which can alleviate counting sheep and get you to sleep more soundly. For me, it’s an important part of putting myself first, getting through my day and regulating my thoughts so that I can transform them into positive ones and create a sense of self-acceptance and well-being, inside and out.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter