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I’ve been thinking about writing about what Putting My Health First means for a while. I started writing and lots of ideas came out so here it is. Let me know what you think.
Putting My Health First
Since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, I have done my best to put my health first. But I didn’t have a clue on how to do it; I was working full time and took sick leave for surgery. Then I worked most the time while doing chemo and radiation treatments. I wasn’t sure how to work, do cancer treatments and get the mortgage paid. A lot of people talked to me about ‘putting my health first’ but it felt like an elusive dream.
With another breast cancer diagnosis in 2011, I realised that more changes were needed. And in 2012, I am firmly getting there with my health. So I wanted to share some of my tips and lessons learned (and hope you will share some of your experiences too).
A definition of ‘putting your health first’
What does putting your health first mean? I think it is:
Taking actions that promote your health and wellbeing as the number one priority before meeting other priorities (yours and others’).
And in practice, how do we put our health first? I think by:
Being physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy and being an advocate for our own needs.
To do this, I have moved my priorities around (this might be temporary or long term, whatever is required) so that: my first priority is my health (mind, body and spirit); my second priority is relationships with others and enjoying life and third, work and other projects and hobbies.
Tips for Putting Your Health First
The following are my tips and lessons learned on putting your health first. I learned that putting your health first is almost the same thing as putting yourself first and that this is a process, not a destination. It does mean focusing on yourself which is not always easy to do but gets easier once you know what your needs are. I have divided tips into four categories:
- Being healthy
- A different pace of life
- Being inward focused and
- Being an advocate for myself and my health
1. Being Healthy
Prioritise your health needs.
Acknowledging that being healthy takes time and then making that time available in your busy life e.g. doing exercise, cooking healthy meals and going to the doctor.
Improve your physical health
Get heaps of quality sleep, exercise, healthy food, some sunshine and fresh air.
- Sleep. Doing whatever it takes to get at least eight hours of quality sleep. Sleep is one of the most important healers and many of us skimp on sleep. I aim to do very relaxing activities in the evening and don’t use an alarm clock anymore so that I can get that precious sleep.
- Resting when you are tired and resting as much as your body needs. Society often judges resting as lazy and it’s taken me a while to get that we are meant to rest when we are tired, especially when you’re recovering from an illness. I used to go to the gym on a schedule regardless of how I felt. Now, I listen to my body as to the type and timing of my exercise.
- Exercise daily. Doing a walk or exercise every day and planning this into your daily schedule, not as a luxury but as the priority. This is still a challenge for me as I get tired but going for a 30 minute walk on the beach is uplifting, re-energising and actively heals my body.
- Eat really well. Eating lots of protein and fresh fruit and vegetables. This requires planning meals and cooking well. This can be my biggest challenge when I get tired.
- Complementary and physical therapies. There are many therapies that are proven to improve your health, whether it is acupuncture, massage, visiting a physiotherapist etc.
Be mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy
Feeling happy, peaceful, connected to people and on track with your life. This requires making your emotions and feelings a priority as they guide you to a life or lifestyle that is best for your physical health.
- A support system. Gathering all the support that you need to be healthy – be it positive friends, a nutritionist, nurse, naturopath, counsellor etc.
- Positivity. Spend time with friends and family that are positive and optimistic and surround yourself with a bubble of positivity. You may have to explain to your friends and family that this is important and if people drain your time and energy, minimise your contact with them. For me, it means being around people who can talk to me about cancer but then move into cool conversations about wonderful things in life. Also laughing a lot; I find watching comedies on TV great.
- Meditation and visualisation. Giving time to stilling the mind and visualising a positive healthy outcome is very important. It can take a bit of time to instil these habits but the research is saying, mediation and visualisation work and are very good for us.
- On track with your life purpose. It’s important to feel that we are achieving something important with our lives. Some of us are very clear about what we were born to do but others of us need to reflect on it. I think this is a significant part of being healthy.
2. A Different Pace of Life
Being healthy requires attention to yourself as well as your health. It is quite a challenge to focus on yourself when you are super busy but it is not impossible. Many of us have to slow things down a little in order to hear ourselves. For me, putting my health first involves:
A healthy lifestyle
- Change your priorities towards healthy goals. We encourage ourselves and others to have all sorts of goals and priorities which is great. But sometimes the goals don’t align with who we are and the lifestyle we need to be healthy e.g. I used to prioritise a lot of things over getting enough sleep.
- A relaxed lifestyle. Choosing a low stress/ low pressure lifestyle rather than being stressed out. Stress hormones are not good for us.
- The lifestyle that suits you. Consciously choosing or re-choosing the lifestyle that suits your personality, health and constitution best. Do things that are important and enjoyable for you.
- Reduce your stressors so that your life is low stress e.g. surround yourself with positive people, and get help with financial, work or other problems that are stressing for you. For me, I sold my house in order to lose the pressure of a large mortgage.
- Working for you. Work in a way that suits who you are and your health needs. For example, part time work or a break from work may be options. Working in a supportive environment is important and lots of deadlines may not be the best way to convalesce from cancer. However, if you enjoy your work and it feels supportive, it can be the healing thing to do. For me, putting my health first meant ceasing work while going through cancer treatments. I wanted to rest after treatments and not feel pressure to do tasks that I perhaps wasn’t up to. It also meant that I could sleep until 9am when needed or have couch days when I felt awful without having to ring in sick.
A healthy pace of life
- Your recovery takes its own time. Everyone takes a slightly different healing path which could take a few months or a few years. Can you give yourself the gift of time to convalesce from cancer and its treatments? With the first cancer, I kept giving myself deadlines as to when I’d feel more energy. The milestones would come and go with me being perplexed as I put pressure on myself to get back into life.
- Using your energy in the best way for you. If you do not have high energy, it’s important to use your energy wisely for things that are important for you. Don’t push yourself to do lots of activities or stretch yourself just to do that extra task when you are tired. This is the opposite of the normal approach to achieving goals but if you are ill, you may pay for it in increased fatigue or infections if you do too much.
- Cancel appointments when you are not physically up to them. I find this quite difficult as I feel like I am letting people down. However, people who really care about you do not mind.
3. Being inward focused
This means listening to our intuition, feelings and emotions for guidance in life, rather than solely listening to external direction. From all of our programming, many of us are brought up to be outward focussed. Going inwards and listening to what’s right for us is critical:
- Listen to your body when it is tired, hungry, has a headache or is not feeling well, and care about what your body is saying. Are there any messages that can hear or that you don’t want to hear? Do I feel comfortable with this course of action, do I feel drained with this person or do I feel right living here? I am learning to listen to my intuition and body more and include their inputs into my decision making. E.g. it looks like a great job but when I see myself in the role, I don’t feel happy and just feel tired.
- Acting on those body messages. Sometimes it is challenging enough to listen to your body but acting on it takes more awareness and courage. E.g. for the first time in my life, I have taken a proper rest and stopped working. I have found it challenging to step out from the career ladder but I know it’s the right thing for me.
Learning about who you are.
It is vital to know who you are and what it takes to make you happy and healthy. This includes knowing your values, limits, needs, dreams and the pace of life comfortable for you:
- What nourishes you? It is important to work out what actually nourishes you rather than what you would like to nourish you. What we find interesting or exciting is not always good for us (e.g. I love the idea of 9 to 5 work but right now, it’s not right for me). Conversely, some of our friends, family and activities really nourish us.
- Work identity. Is your identity and satisfaction in life tied to what you do for a job? Who you are is not what you do for a living. Also, I had to learn not to think about my health in work terms i.e. when will I be ready to go back to work as opposed to when will I be feeling 100% (not just for work)?
- Helping others. Do you help others to your detriment? Believe me, I am all in to helping others when you are able to. But sometimes we give to others when we need to give to ourselves first. For example, a couple of years ago, I was talking about the poverty in a Pacific Island country. This learned person tapped me on the shoulder and said “but really, your focus needs to be here” pointing to my bald head from chemo covered with a beanie. I had an AHa moment about giving my time and energy to solving the world’s problems without first solving my own.
4. Being an advocate for my health and myself
I learned with my first breast cancer that no one totally understood what my needs were except me (sometimes, not even me). However, it was my job to communicate these needs once I could work out what they were. I think putting health first requires self knowledge plus then advocating for ourselves:
- Valuing yourself and putting yourself first means acting as if you are the most important person and letting go of thinking about what other people think about that. A friend Anne gave me some good words at the time when I was making decisions about work and cancer treatment. “You are number One. Everyone else is number two. You need to be strong. No amount of pressure should make you change your mind. Your peace of mind and health are more important. Put yourself first”. I was very grateful for those words.
- Getting support when it is needed. It takes courage and strength to know that you need support and to ask for it, whether it is with a friend, a support group, counsellor or a health advocate.
- Being assertive. Being honest about your health needs, communicating those needs and saying No when things do not suit – can require learning new communication skills. No one knows what your needs are unless you communicate them E.g. I am a nice and polite person and it has been a challenge for me to say when things don’t suit me with words such as “this is not working for me.”
Challenges on the way
For me, all of the above has been darn difficult but is getting easier. These have been some of my challenges along the way:
- Caring too much about what others think and struggling to meet others’ needs.
- Feeling that I had to apologise for my health.
- Feeling like I was letting people down and trying to keep up with everyone else.
- Trying to heal from cancer super quick and then trying to pay off a big mortgage and rest at the same time.
- Trying to keep a great career up there as a joint priority.
- Being a bit workaholic and over-committing to projects (an apparent attachment to being busy rather than resting) and;
- Eating treats rather than vegetables.
Healing myself first and focusing on me is a process rather than a destination. The upside is that as you put yourself first, life gets so much better and magical things can happen.
Let me know what works for you in prioritising your health. What are your tips and lessons learned?