“I am so much more peaceful after cancer”

Chicago psychiatrist Uzma Yunus’s world turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When you consider your own mortality, you draw upon your inner strength.”

Health Monitor Staff
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Uzma Yunus, MD, remembers finding the lymph node in her armpit. She remembers showing it to her husband. “I knew deep inside [what it was]. Before I was even diagnosed, my mind was gearing up for treatment.”

When a biopsy confirmed cancer, Dr. Yunus did something unexpected. “I went and got a bob,” she says. “I had always been known for my really long hair. But this was my acknowledgment that I had cancer and that I accepted it.” And in heading to the hair salon that day, Dr. Yunus set the tone for the rest of her journey through treatment. “I tell people, have a hopeful attitude. Own the illness and take control. Your body is not in your control, but you still have control over everything else.”

“I cried—and flipped into action mode”
With grace and concerted effort, Dr. Yunus kept her world revolving—through a mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation sessions. She continued to see patients, on a reduced schedule. Continued to be a mom to six-year old Shuja and two-year-old Gauri, and a wife to Dheeraj, also a psychiatrist. “Everyone has a style for handling these things. Mine is humor. I’d be coming home after an appointment, making jokes. My husband said, You need to write about this.”

So she started a Facebook page to let friends and loved ones know her progress. And a blog at uzmamd.com, called Left Boob Gone Rogue, where she shared what was on her mind. Her professional training helped her cope with challenges and make sense of her feelings. “Still, I grieved and struggled with sadness. I had crying spells. You can’t be perpetually happy and thankful,” she says. “You can’t be ashamed if you’re having depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, panic. These are all normal emotions that come with being diagnosed. Advocate for yourself. Ask for a referral to a therapist. There is no stigma to getting the help you need.”

Here, Dr. Yunus shares a few strategies that helped ease her journey through treatment:

1. Turn outward. Even when pain from radiation burns made it impossible to drive, Dr. Yunus’s husband took her to work. “Getting out and helping others gave me time I could turn [the cancer thoughts] off in my head. Isolating yourself in this situation is harmful.”

2. Prioritize your sleep. “Be vocal about your needs,” urges Dr. Yunus, who didn’t hesitate to ask her doctor to prescribe a sleep aid. “I knew this experience would cause me sleep problems—and I knew I’d need sleep to get through it.”

3. Do self-therapy. Dr. Yunus didn’t get professional counseling while going through treatment, but she was not at a loss for people to talk with. “I set up a Facebook page to update friends and loved ones about my treatment, and help poured in from all directions. It’s self-therapy, and the feedback was very helpful.”

4. Focus on all in your life that is positive. Dr. Yunus continually took stock of her blessings during treatment, giving thanks for her children, her supportive husband and recognizing “I’m in the best country in the world to be getting cancer treatment. And I do have a lot of faith in modern medicine. My aunt, a 30-year breast cancer survivor, is here and thriving. That helped me to believe, Even if it’s cancer, it will be okay.”

5. “Fake it until you make it.” During treatment, Dr. Yunus never spent days in her pajamas. “I’d shower, get dressed, go for a walk. Inevitably I’d come back in a better mood. Make the most of every day—even in treatment.”

6. “Push yourself to do things.” “Make a list of all the things you find pleasurable. When you’re tired and sick, you can’t recall what is fun. When I was tired, I listened to music on YouTube. These are small interventions but they can make a big difference in mood.”

7. Share with others. “Cancer is a lifelong chronic illness—whether you’re in active treatment or not. We don’t get a debriefing to our civilian life.” But it helps, she says, to voice your concerns to people who “get” you—both during and after treatment. “Establish connections with other survivors, because some things you don’t get from a medical office.”

8. Manage your world. Dr. Yunus accepted help whenever it was offered—and let people know what she needed. “I asked my mother to make us a few meals each week. I went on Facebook with my cancer because I didn’t have the emotional energy to handle phone calls. And I emailed child psychiatrist friends for their guidance in talking with my son. It’s ultimately about taking care of yourself and the people around you. They’re looking to help you but they don’t know how.”

August 2015