For Stephanie Walker, 62, having to slow down after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer was no easy task. Her husband, John, describes her as “somebody that always has a broom or a mop at the ready.”
Stephanie, a mom, a stepmom, and a grandmother of six children, is keenly aware of the role society — and women themselves — places on women’s often overburdened shoulders. “For a woman, putting yourself first is hard,” she says. “We’re the ones who are nurturers. We fix things. We make it better.”
And that expectation of being the rock and source of strength is something that’s all too frequently put on Black women, says Stephanie. “We’re supposed to be strong all the time,” she says.
John notes that his wife is indeed the anchor of the family, which he worries may dissuade her from leaning on others for support. “I think she feels like because she’s viewed as the anchor, she has to be strong, because she doesn’t want people to worry about her,” he says. “She has all this going on in her own life, and she doesn’t want to impose on anybody, but it’s not an imposition.”
Stephanie admits that she struggles with that instinct to put on a brave face when she’s not feeling strong or needs help from others. “I fake it to make it, as we say in the cancer world,” says Stephanie, who admits that even when she’s not feeling well or is struggling with something, she might hide it behind a smile and try to push through it. “I haven’t learned [how to ask for help] quite yet,” she says. “I’m working on it.”
For his part, John can see through her forced smile and knows when she’s not having a good day. “I pay attention to her and see her expressions and listen to the tone in her voice,” he says. And he does what he can around the house, taking care of laundry or walking the dog.
Stephanie credits John, who she calls her rock, with helping her learn how to relax. “My husband’s teaching me how to sit in a recliner with a remote,” she says. And she’s accepted that it’s okay to sit down if she’s having a bad day. “I don’t need to clean. … The house is not gonna fall apart. I don’t need to do laundry, and I don’t need to cook a meal,” says Stephanie. “I’m learning that, and I kinda like it.”
She adds that while she always thought her family would come first, that’s not always possible with metastatic breast cancer — and it isn’t a bad thing. “At 62 years old, I am finally learning that I can put myself first,” says Stephanie. “I’m a late learner, but I am learning.”
This interview took place in February 2021.
5 Key Self-Care Tips for Living Well With Metastatic Breast Cancer
Prioritizing self-care is one of the most important ways to feel better as you manage metastatic breast cancer, but that’s easier said than done — especially if you’re used to putting others first. Here are some ways to give yourself the TLC you need.
- Identify your stressors. Try to pinpoint things that might be causing stress, and come up with ways to minimize or eliminate them. Research has shown that managing stress is essential for good health and may be especially important for people with cancer. One review, published in August 2020 in Frontiers in Oncology, found that chronic stress can encourage cancer development, whereas actively managing stress through exercise and mental health therapy may boost cancer treatment and improve outcomes.
- Lean on others. There may be days when you’re too exhausted or not feeling up to cooking or cleaning. Be honest with family and friends about how you’re feeling, and ask them to help you.
- Practice healthy living. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep can help you feel less sick, improve your energy levels, maintain a sense of well-being, and improve your health in general.
- Think about how you would care for someone you love — and then allow that for yourself. What would you do if someone you loved were ill? How would you make sure they had the help they needed? Picture how you would help that person and then allow your loved ones to do the same for you.
- Read how others with metastatic breast cancer are practicing self-care. Breastcancer.org has excellent suggestions from their stage IV discussion board, including tips on prioritizing joy and going out and enjoying activities you love, such as concerts or vacations.