How A Personal Pandemic Prepared Me for a Global Pandemic

The lessons I learned from my experience with breast cancer taught me how to release control and trust my gut in our strange new world.

Tina Zaremba, Host of the "Chemo Stories" Podcast
Tina Zaremba, Host of the "Chemo Stories" Podcast

If you think 2020 needs a do-over, let me tell you about my 2019. On a beautiful June day at the beginning of the summer, I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. I can’t sugar coat the experience of illness and treatment that followed, but I’ll share one unexpected benefit of being a breast cancer survivor: it truly prepared me for this year’s global pandemic. 

Here’s an outline of some of the lessons I learned, and how I repurposed them to navigate the uncertainty of lockdown:

Release Control

As I went through chemotherapy and had good days and bad days, I began to realize that control is an illusion. Truly and completely. 

Pre-breast cancer Tina liked to have everything in order and plan everything down to the tiniest detail. I’d spend so much of my time and energy worrying about EVERYTHING to create a sense of control, as if worrying sufficiently would somehow help the situation. Ha. As my outer appearance changed—and especially as I lost my hair—I began to think about shedding behaviors that were no longer serving me. Control was at the top of the list.

When the identity you cling to gets stripped away, there’s a serenity that can flow in to replace it. When I stopped wasting my precious time, I felt relieved. As with treatment and recovery from breast cancer, the pandemic has taught me that there is a freedom in letting the chaos around you just be chaotic.

Listen to Your Gut

Instead of trying to process all of the advice that was thrown at me, I chose to trust myself, my medical team … and that’s about it. Whenever anyone in my life offered commentary about my treatment plan, I told myself, “This person is trying to be helpful, and maybe they’re scared, too. In this moment you’re here and alive.” If I didn’t have the inner peace to repeat that mantra, I’d just say to myself, “Cancel, cancel.” Over time, the ability to filter input and trust my gut about what mattered became an ingrained skill.

Identifying relevant information is one of the most valuable gifts in the middle of this global pandemic when misinformation abounds. I recognize that everyone has the right to their own opinions, but I also have a right to use my hard-won “cancel, cancel” filter. Most people don’t have time or the energy to wade through fear-driven conspiracy theories or fear-mongering. Shut it out.

Take Care of Yourself

I used to go to a gym, take strenuous CrossFit classes and treat myself to monthly pedicures. During chemo and now, those self-care rituals aren’t available. 

So I learned to be flexible. I swapped the gym for gentle yoga and monthly pedicures for Epsom salt baths. These simple acts have turned into a way for me to tell my body, “I love you, you matter and I am taking care of you.” It was these gentle new practices that gave me a sense of routine, self care and self love.

During the height of shelter-in-place, knowing how to soothe your body and mind is downright vital.

Evaluate What Really Matters

How many times have you heard someone say, “When life throws ya a crisis, you see what matters,” or “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything”? As cliché as both of those statements are, I’m here to tell you they’re true. Everything I’d taken for granted before treatment, like having a full head of hair and being able to play with my son for more than an hour, was thrown back at me and seemed utterly ridiculous. I felt as though my face was being pushed up against a window and the Universe was saying, “Girl! Wake up! Get it together and let go of all the crazy shit that’s got your panties in knots. LIKE YESTERDAY!” And so I did.

The pandemic has taught us a valuable lesson – we need less than we think. Notice what you do have, let go of what you don’t, and let the gratitude wash over you.

Embrace Who You Are

When I was going through chemo, part of me wanted to be alone and another part of me felt a pull to be close to my son and husband. Yet I also knew in that moment that I needed to rest and be on my own. As I surrendered to that moment and that need, a lightness emerged. Now more than ever, my newfound ability to be happy and calm by myself is a true gift. Learn how to take walks, watch programs or journal by yourself. When you can’t be with loved ones, find contentment with yourself.

If you want to hear more about my journey through cancer and beyond, listen to my pandemic passion project, “Chemo Stories” This limited series podcast that shares not only my journey through chemotherapy, but also my experience learning to organize my inner chaos into calm. Thanks for listening. Until next time……here’s to owning our voices.

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