When I was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer the week after my thirty-sixth birthday, my self-care routine was practically non-existent. I occasionally exercised or meditated, but that was about it. It’s not that I didn’t think self-care was a good thing, I just didn’t one-hundred percent believe that I deserved it. But when I learned I had a life-threatening disease, I immediately knew how much I cared about myself, and that I wanted to stay alive. After a year of chemotherapy and surgeries, I was cancer-free, but the commitment to my health stuck. Here are five ways I stepped up my self-care following cancer.
1. Saying no to toxic relationships
Before I learned I had cancer, I considered toxic relationships a necessary evil in my life. Whether I was working for a boss who mistreated me, or chasing after friends who didn’t appreciate me, I clung onto those situations thinking I had no choice. Once I was diagnosed, I declared, “No more!” If a friend continually disrespected me, I walked away. When bosses abused me, I set boundaries. If they continued, I left that job. I learned that I could opt out of relationships that hurt me. When I gently let go of those toxic situations, it created space for healthier opportunities to come in.
2. Setting realistic but consistent exercise goals
I will probably never be someone who does yoga every single day, or who can bicycle twenty-five miles at a time, but that’s OK. Before I had cancer, I set unrealistic exercise goals, psyching myself up to meet them, then beating myself up when I failed. I’d try to spend an hour on the elliptical machine every day, but before a week was up, I’d missed my targets—and I'd feel like a failure. Cancer taught me to be gentler with myself. The point of exercise is to help my body, not make me feel terrible. I’ve learned that I do much better at maintaining a workout routine when I have realistic expectations, rather than dictating daily exercise like a drill sergeant. Taking on a routine that supports me—rather than punishes me—helps me to feel happier and healthier.
3. Finding recovery from an eating disorder
For all of my life leading up to my cancer, my weight was a rollercoaster. When I wasn’t using unhealthy amounts of food to numb my feelings, I was depriving myself to try to strongarm my body down to the size I wanted it to be. It was an excruciating obsession that left me emotionally unavailable to my friends and family. I felt alone and isolated and I didn’t think that there was anyone else out there experiencing the same thing. When I found out I needed chemotherapy to treat my cancer, I thought it would be a good way to lose some weight. After cancer, I knew that healing from my eating disorder was going to be critical in realizing my physical and emotional health. I walked into a twelve steps program specifically for eating disorders and saw that I was not alone. The meetings were filled with people just like me. With their help, I got better.
4. Having fun with fashion
Before cancer, I only put energy into how I dressed on special occasions. Getting ready for work in the morning was more about looking acceptable than having fun. When I had cancer, I realized how much I enjoyed being on this physical planet, and embraced more of the material things that life has to offer. Clothing didn’t become more important to me than my spiritual life, my friends, or my companion animals, but I realized how much I enjoyed playing with it. I put time and thought into how I looked, not to impress other people, but because it was a pleasure for me. I also discovered that I could afford beautiful clothes when I purchased fabulous secondhand pieces from thrift shops. Today, getting ready in the morning feels more like an adventure and less like an assignment.
5. Doing my soulmate work
We often hear about romantic soulmates, but what about our jobs? I believe in “soulmate work.” When I was a child, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals. Growing older, work became something I did for money rather than to help others. But after having cancer, I knew that each day I had on Earth was precious and I wanted my work to be meaningful. I rediscovered my devotion to animals, and got a job at a vegan company. Then I spent years working in animal welfare. As a writer, I have a deep desire to write books that move and entertain people, and since regaining my health, I have put two more out into the world: Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary and Vegan Love: Dating and Partnering for the Cruelty-Free Gal. By re-embracing work as a way to help others, I have found happiness and satisfaction in my professional life that I had written off as a childhood dream.
Maya Gottfried is the author of books for children and adults, including Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary and Vegan Love: Dating and Partnering for the Cruelty-Free Gal.