THE BLOG
01/20/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

11 Invaluable Lessons I Learned From Having Breast Cancer

Anastasia_Aleksieieva via Getty Images

The threat of being diagnosed with breast cancer is very real. Next to skin cancer, it's the second most common cancer in women.

According to the National Cancer Institute:

  • 232,670 new cases of breast cancer were estimated in 2014
  • 40,000 women were estimated to die from breast cancer in 2014
  • Breast cancer accounts for 14% of new cancer cases in the United States

Not too long ago, one year ended and another began. Without fanfare or angst, I witnessed a day in early January pass, a day that once was filled with dread. It was the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago.

My diagnosis, two surgeries and year-long treatment to eradicate this dreadful disease from my body taught me invaluable lessons that I'm sharing with you. These lessons may help you reduce your risk of being a new breast cancer statistic or a reoccurring case in 2015 and beyond.

1. Make Healthier Nutrition Choices

Breast cancer forced me to learn everything I could as fast as I could about nutrition and the healing benefits of certain foods. While my doctors treated me through the traditional means of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, I treated myself with proper nutrition. For example, I learned that broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts (cruciferous vegetables) have an enzyme called Indole-3-Carbinol (I3C), which has proven cancer prevention properties.

According to a study published in the Journal for Nutrition:

Vegetable consumption could reduce breast cancer risk by numerous mechanisms, specific to particular vegetable families, including sources of carotenoids, vitamins A, E, and C, minerals such as selenium, and such compounds as isoflavones and lignans. Glucosinolates, found in cruciferous vegetables, may be important anti-carcinogens.

Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist, reports that more recent research indicates that I3C thwarts the growth or spreading of breast and prostate cancers as it "reduces the inappropriate excess signaling of IGF-1", a growth hormone which helps cancer grow.

Eat your Brussel sprouts and say yes to cauliflower. Remember to bake or roast them. Add garlic, olive oil, turmeric, which as anti-inflammatory properties and a little black pepper. Your body will thank you.

2. Be Physically Active

Breast cancer taught me the importance of physical weight bearing exercise.

This sounds almost like, "What? You didn't know how good exercise is for you?" Pass me a V-8 thwap on the head, right?

In all seriousness, chemo drugs are toxic. I was 40 and pre-menopausal when I was diagnosed. Chemotherapy put me in early menopause. According to NIH , "studies suggest that chemotherapy also may have a direct negative effect on bone. In addition, the breast cancer itself may stimulate the production of osteoclasts, the cells that break down bone."

I had a bone density test done and sure enough, there were tiny pin prick holes in my hip bones. Those tiny holes represented osteopenia, the precursor to full-blown osteoporosis.

I was already practicing yoga, which is a weight-bearing exercise, and two years after my treatment was complete, I added Muay Thai kickboxing to the mix. I went in for another bone density test in 2008 and voila -- no signs of those pesky tiny pin prick holes in my bones. The holes were gone. I completely reversed the onset of osteoporosis.

Three cheers for weight bearing exercising! Extra benefits include weight management, better mood, reduced stress, and an overall happier outlook on life. I highly recommend it.

3. Set Healthy Boundaries

Breast cancer taught me that other people would continue to suck me dry and walk all over me as long as I allowed them to. I had to learn how to distinguish doing important things for other people and doing important things for me. I was no longer at anyone's beck and call.

I learned that I did not have to alter my mood just because a loved one was in a bad mood. I learned that I was not the owner of other people's issues, problems, or drama. I learned that I didn't have to go to every argument I was invited to.

Breast cancer taught me that I alone am responsible for not only setting my boundaries but enforcing them as well.

4. Stop Tolerating the Bad Behavior of Other People

This is another huge lesson and I strongly recommend that you take a look at your most important relationships and assess what behaviors you're tolerating. Carl Jung said, "what you allow will persist."

For far too long I tolerated the bad behavior of my youngest daughter. I allowed and made excuses for her crappy, insufferable behavior which only created more crappy and insufferable behavior. It was only when I stopped allowing her bad behavior that a change in her and our relationship occurred.

I also tolerated the bad behavior of people I worked with simply because they were higher up the food chain than I was. I'll never forget the day I hung up on a vice president of a company I once worked at. I told him that when he could speak to me without yelling he could call me back.

Click.

5. Say 'No' When You Really Mean No

Another big lesson breast cancer taught me was to stop saying "yes" when I really meant "no." All that yessing gave me nothing but resentment and an underlying frustration that I never seemed to rid myself of until I stopped saying yes when I really meant no.

I know what you're thinking, "If I say 'no,' I'll disappoint someone."

This fear based thought plagues every single people pleaser I know. As a recovering people pleaser I was afraid of disappointing or displeasing other people. Breast cancer was my cosmic dope slap. I stopped wasting my precious time and energy trying to please those who could never be pleased with me anyway.

6. Stop Caring About What Other People Think About You

Here's the truth everyone needs to hear and more than once because it will take many times for it to sink in. Breast cancer drove home the lesson that what other people think about me is none of my business.

Nope.

In fact I spent so much time worrying about what Billy, Bob, and Sally thought of me that I never gave myself permission to just be me. Because, oh my good golly, what if they didn't like me?

Oh dear. Talk about unnecessary self-imposed stress.

I recognized this as wasted energy. There are some people on this planet that don't like me and that's okay. There are some people I don't like and that's okay, too.

Breast cancer taught me to focus my time and attention on the people I love and who love me.

7. Stop Caretaking

In the Language of Letting Go, the author, Melody Beattie, writes that "caretaking doesn't work." Beattie is the first person who ever told me that.

In fact, Beattie states that caretaking sends the silent message that the person you think you're taking care of is incapable of taking care of him or herself. Caretaking is the breeding ground of resentment. People pleasers are all too often caretakers - taking care of everyone else's needs and wants and cleaning up after mistakes or the bad choices of other people. I was incredibly guilty of caretaking.

Breast Cancer made me stop cold turkey. Divine intervention? Perhaps.

8. Take 100% responsibility for Every Choice and Decision You Make

This was a big lesson. Well, they're all big lessons, right?

YOUR LIFE IS YOUR CHOICE

If my life was my choice that meant I had to be 100% responsible for every choice and every decision I made in my life. Yeah. Big. Do you want to know what the consequences are for owning your life?

  • No more excuses
  • No more blaming
  • No more complaining

Blaming, Complaining, and Making Excuses makes you a perpetual victim with someone else or many someone else's in charge of your life.

It's such a kick in the keester when you wake up and realize that you're in charge of your life. Owning my breast cancer and my life put me squarely in the driver's seat. I stopped making choices and decisions that I thought would please someone else or make another happy. I reclaimed control of my life from my victim self who had once relinquished control to the whims of everyone else.

9. Stop Asking Permission to Live Your Life the Way You Desire

Breast cancer taught me that I didn't have time to wait around for the approval of others. It taught me that living my life based on the expectations of others was an entire waste of time, energy, and attention. I quit living in such a way that sucked the life out of my soul.

There were a few people who weren't too happy with me because they could no longer bend me to their will and once I was no longer of any use to them, the emotional vampires and I parted ways.

10. Radical Self-Care is a Necessity

If breast cancer taught me anything it taught me that no one, and I mean NO ONE, was going to take better care of me than me.

Only I knew exactly what I needed and when: If I needed time to myself, I took it. If I needed a massage, I got one. If I needed love, I loved myself.

The biggest misconception that people, especially women, have about self-care is that it's selfish. I'm living proof that self-care is a necessity never to be confused with selfishness. Self-care is as important as the air you breathe. If you don't take care of yourself or put yourself on your own priority list, no one else will either.

11. Create the Life of Your Choice

Breast Cancer destroyed my pretend life. The life that looked good and perfect on the outside was void of purpose and meaning on the inside. Breast Cancer taught me that the inside mattered more than the outside. In fact, it taught me to take better care of the inside and the outside would take care of itself. I decided to live my messy wonderful life from the inside out.

Today, I'm living the life I began to create the day I learned I had breast cancer. I no longer surround myself with negative or toxic people. I travel whenever I want to. I show up. I listen. I don't pretend to be anyone other than myself.

Today, I'm living a life that's infinitely more positive, happier, and healthier than the day before I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While I don't wish cancer, serious illness, or any type of life threatening injury to anyone, breast cancer was my toughest challenge, my wake up call, and my greatest teacher.

Eleven years later I'm awake and alive and I'm much more than a breast cancer survivor...

I'm a thriver.

***
Peggy Nolan is a sacred bad-ass warrior, vanquisher of fear, slayer of doubt and she loves helping others move forward. She's a published author, yoga teacher, and second degree black belt. When she's not teaching or training, you'll find her chasing butterflies. Peggy lives in Derry, NH with her husband, Richard.

If you liked this article and would like to live a happier life, download Peggy's free eBook, "30 Ways to Boost Your Positivity and Increase Your Happiness."