Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer has had their lives changed and may have needed new ways to cope . The Covid-19 pandemic is also changing lives. Many of us dealt with wildfire smoke in the summer and the shorter winter days can be another challenge. Breast cancer survivors on the Pathways Study Community Advisory Board (CAB) decided that understanding our risk of Covid-19 and taking care of ourselves are important and timely topics for us to address.
Am I at higher risk for Covid?
Cancer and cancer treatment can affect our immune system, which finds and fights infections like the virus that causes Covid. People who have immune problems are likely at higher risk of having worse Covid symptoms. Chemotherapy is hard on the body’s defenses, but after treatment ends, it usually goes back to normal over time. Studies haven’t shown that endocrine therapies, like Tamoxifen, raise the risk for getting Covid-19 or having a more serious illness.
In the early days of the pandemic, it was harder to get follow-up cancer care, including mammograms and other screening. Laura, a Pathways CAB member, said that the pandemic has raised her fear that her cancer could return. Fear of recurrence is common in people who have had cancer. And it can cause more stress and make anxiety worse. Many of us are also worried about other things. Mia, another CAB member, said, “as everything has piled on top of the next thing (health, economy, climate, politics), staying positive takes much more effort.”
Our health is about much more than seeing a doctor or taking medicine. Zero Breast Cancer, a partner on the Pathways Study, focuses on things we can do to take care of ourselves, as individuals and as a community. Self-care means prioritizing your health and well-being, being kind to yourself, and supporting your mind, body, and spirit. This is especially important during difficult times.
So, what were five breast cancer survivors on the Pathways CAB doing to care for themselves before the pandemic and how has that changed? What has helped and what gets in the way of self-care? Read on for what Sara, Mary, Mia, Irene and Pam are doing and ideas for you. As Irene said, “Somehow, we all need to cope with the reality we are living with!”
Move your body
Being physically active is not only good for our bodies, it also helps our minds and our moods. It even helps our immune system! Studies show that breast cancer survivors with even low and moderate activity have better mental and physical health. Every little bit helps, too. Being physically active also reduces cancer risk, including a recurrence.
The aim is to get our heart rate up for 30 minutes most days, all at once or broken into 5- or 10-minute bursts. Several CAB members used to take exercise classes at a senior center or a gym (some are free or have discounts). Mia told us her gym is closed. Mary said, “I am able to do everything I did before, but differently.” She is still able to take yoga and Feldenkrais Method classes online.
Taking a class online doesn’t always work. Sara’s water aerobics classes have been canceled. Irene told us, “Trying to get my exercise is difficult and so very necessary. The exercise class I loved does not work for me anymore,” she said. “Recently I started learning exercises from a physical therapist at KP. This helps to do effective exercises at home, but it's still boring.” If your routine is no longer “fun” or keeping you motivated, try some new activities, maybe do them with a friend--even online.
Sara is still able to go for walks. Her group is smaller than before, and they wear masks and keep distance between them. Mia walks after work. “I love walking and commit to 10,000 steps each weekday; I try for 20,000 on weekend days. The city I live in is beautiful, so walking is pleasant.”
Having someone else to move with can be very helpful. Pam and her husband “started exercising inside the house and riding a stationary bicycle.” Soon, Pam reported, “I bought a new bicycle and we've been riding outside.”
Many health care systems offer free exercise classes, which are now online. You can use apps on a smartphone or find videos at your library or videos on YouTube to help get and keep you moving. Some sites for videos or programs include:
- Silver Sneakers Fitness Program (free for many people on Medicare)
- British NHS (free videos)
- Fitness Blender (free videos)
- HASfit (free app and online videos)
- Popsugar Fitness (free dance and exercise videos)
- Yoga With Adriene (free)
- Kit Rich (free pilates inspired workout)
Remember, Exercise is for EVERY body. Moving is important for those of us with a disability, since we tend to be less active.
It can be hard to eat healthy, especially in times of stress. On the other hand, being at home so much, some people are taking more time to think about and cook food. Pam said that since Covid, “We have been eating healthier and lost weight.”
The risk of getting cancer again is lower if we eat mostly food from plants. Irene said, “Last week, I was told to work toward learning to live on a plant-based diet, because there is concern about my kidneys. I will take a class on this issue and clearly, anything I used to do needs to be evaluated and probably changed.” Stress can also cause changes in appetite—Sara has been eating less—or emotional eating.
You can ask family and friends to practice healthy eating with you, and share healthy, delicious recipes and cooking tips. If you need more help, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. Look online for groups that support healthy eating and share success stories, offered by some health care systems.
You can find tips online for healthy eating habits. Check out healthy cookbooks at your local library or try anti-cancer recipes on these websites:
- AICR cancer prevention recipes
- Stanford cancer nutrition
- Eat to Beat recipes
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering cancer nutrition
If you want to learn more about cooking and eating healthy foods, check out the free lessons from the Anti-Cancer Lifestyle Program.
Read the second part for more ways we can take care of ourselves.