Renee’s Story: 5 Lessons I Have Learned from Metastatic Breast Cancer

Renee’s Story: 5 Lessons I Have Learned from Metastatic Breast Cancer

Renee blogs about metastatic breast cancer at Team S- Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer.

One day while scrolling on the internet, I ran across a list written by someone in their 90’s writing about what she wished she would have known sooner in life.

This had me stop in my tracks.

Here I am 40 years old, living with metastatic breast cancer for 7.5 years, having had a bone marrow transplant 2 years ago...I found many of the lessons she wrote about were in line with what I have learned over my years in Cancerland.

To say I have thought about death many times is an understatement. Particularly my death.

With that in mind, I started looking at these life lessons I read with a whole new understanding. Then, I wondered: why do most of us wait to learn these life lessons until the end of life?

I don’t know, but I want to share with you my life lessons I have learned while living with a terminal health issue.

1. Self-talk

Let me start off explaining self-talk. When I use the phrase “self-talk,” I am referring to the chatter that is always running through your head. Whether it is reliving past situations, imagining future possibilities - good or bad, or the comments you think to yourself about yourself - there are always thoughts running through your mind.

Once I started to learn to listen to my self-talk, I was floored at how mean I could be to myself. I realized I was saying things to myself that I would never say to someone else - even someone I didn’t like, much less to someone I loved.

That realization made me stop in my tracks. I have since been committed to talking to myself with love and kindness - the way I try to talk to my son as he is walking the path of life.

2. Try, try again

After my 2nd brain surgery for tumor removal, my right leg was left numb due to the amount of scraping needed to clean out the tumor. After my 3rd brain surgery, the numbness in my foot and leg worsened.

I didn’t let this stop me, though. There was no way I was going to roll over and say, “I am done,” after coming this far. A quote I hold tightly onto is, “I haven’t come this far only to come this far.”

I did physical therapy after both surgeries to teach me how to walk with a completely numb foot and started using a walking pole (with NO SHAME) when I need. Walking is still challenging, so when I will be in large crowds, I now have someone push me in my wheelchair.

3. Keep Lists

It might not surprise you that as a writer, I am a big list keeper, too?!?! BUT, these lists I have kept over the past 7 years have taught me so much about myself.

The best list I ever started keeping has been my “I DID” list.

Think like Dora the Explorer and her theme song: “I did it!”

I started keeping my “I DID” list after I started chemo for metastatic breast cancer. I knew how chemo affected me the first time around, and I wanted to figure out a new way to approach the fatigue, mental fog, and anything else that might come along with chemo.

I started big...too big. I would only write down large “I did” activities, which backfired on me because I didn’t feel well enough to have any large “I did” activities daily, which then led me to think I wasn’t doing anything, which led me to get down on myself, and boom, I was thinking I should have been able to deal with this better.

4. You can either complain about something OR do something to fix - don’t do both.

When our son was a newborn and we were trying to find our footing as new parents, my husband and I came up with this rule: if one of us is taking care of our son, the other one can’t sit there and correct the other on how we would do it.

You either do it yourself, OR you accept how the other one is taking care of the situation, even if it is completely different than how you would handle it.

Example: when my husband was changing a diaper, feeding our son, washing bottles - any of the many things that need to be done for a newborn - I would have the choice to let him do whatever needed to be done doing it his way, or I could choose to do it myself.

We still use this rule today in pretty much every aspect of our lives.

5. The Spoon Theory

I read an article titled “The Spoon Theory” years ago that 100% changed how I looked at my energy - or lack of it.

The basic breakdown of “The Spoon Theory” is this: pretend each and every person wakes up with 30 spoons to use that day.

Those 30 spoons are your energy for that day.

Everything you do takes spoons. The only rule for the spoon theory is: once you have used the spoon, that spoon is gone for the day and you can’t go negative with your spoons.

Now, let’s compare a healthy individual’s spoon usage to that of someone like me, someone who has had over 50 chemo treatments, radiation, 3 brain surgeries, a bone marrow transplant and whatever else I am leaving out!

Healthy individual:

  • Morning routine of getting up, showering, taking dog for walk, making lunch and driving to work: 4 spoons
  • Be at work all day: 15 spoons
  • Work out: 2 spoons
  • Make dinner, do nightly cleanup around home, do a load of laundry: 5 spoons 26 spoons used Me, someone with a chronic illness, someone on chemo, someone healing from surgery or injury,and this list could go on and on:
  • Morning routine of getting up and showering: 5 spoons
  • Gentle yoga: 3 spoons
  • Going to 2 doctors appointments: 18 spoons
  • Driving home and eating: 4 spoons

This is a very loose example of spoon usage, but you can see how it works.

The biggest lesson I learned from using this method is that I didn’t realize how much more energy it takes me to do the same activities compared to my healthy family and friends (yes, I had them keep a list of their spoon usage for a few days!).

I must admit that it was SO nice for them to get a tangible look at how energy is different for me and for them to understand why I have to bow out at the last minute, that it truly has nothing to do with them.I am just simply out of spoons that day.

So, this my friends are a few of the lessons I have learned early on in my life. I am grateful to have these lessons in life now, so that I can live more freely and happily, as opposed to finding out later in life and not having the time to enjoy the wisdoms cancer has given me.



Renee Sendelbach
7.5 year MBC thriver