by Lisa M. Wolfson
In my quest to stay cancer-free after having survived breast cancer originally diagnosed in 2008, I have done a lot of research and I can list the ten best tips for staying healthy, and so on. I know the value of good nutrition, of taking vitamins and getting exercise. These all fall under the umbrella of Self-Care, yet these regimens are not the core of Self-Care.
I have always been a person who does for other people, who finds more joy in giving than in receiving. This is the part of me that I am most comfortable with, and I never want it to change. But after breast cancer, I had to learn how to not deplete myself in the act of giving. This is the heart of Self-Care. There are many things I love about me, and I have no problem recognizing and even listing those things, but I still had to learn how to love and honor myself first.
Wow, what does that mean? Sounds kind of egocentric, right? To love and honor oneself?
I have found it to mean that you live in a place of respect for the person you are — that you indulge a desire to become, to even embrace, who you are and what you want in your life. When I have the ability to do for “me,” I can be strong and solid when I give to others. Instead of being overwhelmed with how to stay healthy, I have brought myself back to the starting point and made a short list of ways to love and honor myself.
I believe these five ideas fall under the essential first step of Self-Care.
1. Just Breathe. It’s amazing when you really tune into yourself, you realize that, in so many situations, you have actually stopped breathing. It wasn’t until recently that I realized how often I just involuntarily shut down my own respiration. When I used to work with a trainer, I often had to be instructed, “Remember to breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe!” Now, when I exercise, I force the issue by opening my mouth to count every breath, sometimes out loud, sometimes to myself. I also started doing daily breathing exercises. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise — inhale for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8 — is very calming and centering. I also open my mouth slightly now to force my exhalations. I do this at work, in the car, when I am winding down at night. As a meditative exercise, I use mala beads (any string of beads can be used) and take a breath for each bead as I work my fingers through the whole strand. Concentrating on your breathing quiets your mind.
2. Be Good to Yourself. Recognize all the wonderful things that make you the person you are. The love you have for yourself will radiate to those around you and is quite possibly the greatest gift you can give to others. Say no when you can do no more, and remove yourself from negative situations that you cannot change. This doesn’t mean you are living in a bubble or being selfish. It simply means you love yourself enough to make sure you don’t deplete or sicken yourself, and thus keep yourself strong for situations where you can make a difference. You are in the very center of Self-Care when you love and honor yourself and then bring that gift to others.
3. Find What You Love to Do and Do It. Whatever you love to do, find the time to do it. I’ve tried so many things and often ended up feeling bad that I didn’t stick with them. Until I finally realized that I wasn’t doing what I love to do. And maybe I had to try all those things in order to come full circle back to what I love. I’m a giver: I volunteer my time and find the experience exhilarating. I love to write and often entertain the thought of writing a book. But that seems like a huge undertaking and I don’t want the things I love to become a chore. So I write articles and short stories and maybe one day, they will all be gathered up into a book, which seems much more appealing to me. I have always wanted to sew, possibly because I was fascinated by how good my mother was at it. So I asked my husband to forgo all the fancy holiday gifts and buy me a sewing machine. I don’t want to be a great seamstress, I just want the quiet time alone, learning something I always wanted to do. I think it will be therapeutic. And if I make one dress for my goddaughter along the way, I will be thrilled.
4. Keeping Moving. I have never been that girl who works out several times a week, but I know now more than ever that I have to keep moving, circulating my energy. I love to walk, so I do so several times a week. I have found an amazing Pilates instructor who has tailored my workouts perfectly. She incorporates cardio, which I would never do enough of by myself, and a lot of stretching into an all-over exercise. It becomes a full-body workout that I enjoy immensely — it gets my heart rate up, my energy circulating and counteracts the stiffness of medication. It’s all about finding the right exercise and routine for yourself so you can stick with it. And for me, for the first time in my life, I’m actually disappointed if I miss class.
5. Create a Sacred Space. Find a place in your home to call your own, a space where you can relax, reflect and honor yourself. Many people create an altar in their scared space with candles and statues. I have a relaxed version: it contains candles, pictures of my parents who are no longer with me, a keepsake box of letters and items I received when going through my cancer journey, some meditation CDs, my mala beads and a mat to lie on. (See the photo above.) Sometimes I meditate in my sacred space. Sometimes I lay on my mat and drift away or read letters from loved ones or inspirational quotes or passages. Each time I retreat to my sacred space, I determine what I need and I always find it there.
The heart of Self-Care is love of self. Once you understand and accept that, all else will follow and make sense. I’m still working on this, but I can truly say it is making more and more sense to me each day!
Lisa Wolfson lives in Rockville Centre, New York, and volunteers at You Can Thrive!, an organization that provides free and low-cost support services for breast cancer survivors.