The Top 9 Things That Helped Me Through Breast Cancer

Surgery and chemo are rough. But as HealthCentral's Sabrina Skiles learned, the right strategies can go a long way to making treatment easier.

by Sabrina Skiles Patient Advocate

It’s been 189 days since my breast cancer diagnosis and 153 days since I started chemo. But who is really counting? During those days, there have been some OK moments—and a whole lot of pretty rough spots. A number of things have helped me through it all (peppermint oil, the Giving Keys necklace, and gratitude journal—I’m looking at you!).

I wanted to share the things that have gotten me through this crazy #cancerlife thing, as well as tell you why exactly they helped. My hope is that it might help you, too.

1. A Good Read

A friend from high school whom I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me For Once In My Life by Colleen Coleman as part of a care package. It came about three weeks after I started chemo and it was the perfect timing because all I wanted to do was escape my reality for a little bit. I remember several nights after taking a shower and realizing my hair was falling out, I dried up my tears, wrapped up my hair, and settled in with this book. It was my mental break from thinking about baldness, appointments, tears, and explanations of complicated medical things.

Also, if you’re looking for a book about breast cancer but you’re so over the medical jargon, then Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Hope & Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey is for you. My sister sent this book to me–it’s filled with inspirational stories from women who have gone through breast cancer. I smiled after reading each personal account. And a smile is something that is definitely needed during this difficult time.

2. Gratitude

Cancer has a way of playing tricks on you. One day you’re crying at the doctor’s office and the next day you’re laughing over margaritas with your girlfriends (#truestory). It was when I started incorporating a gratitude journal as part of my morning quiet time that I found consistency in the way I approached each day. Instead of stress and worry, I trained myself so that the first thing my mind went to every morning was all the things I was grateful for in my life: my hardworking husband, my energetic and happy boys, my supportive family, hot coffee, and having my appetite back. When you focus on the good, the good gets better. And that it did my friends.

3. Lip Balm and Lemon-Honey Candies

Because some chemotherapy drugs can cause mouth sores, it’s important to keep moisture locked in those areas. My lips were extremely dry during chemo and lip balm helped immensely. I didn’t have any cracks or bleeding, which can be a common side effect. I did have another chemo side effect, however: a metallic taste in my mouth. When my sweet friend brought over a whole carton of these lemon-honey candies, it was the first time I found something that totally got rid of the unpleasant taste. I was so relieved that I packed them with me everywhere—my purse, in the car console, in my husband’s car, my kids’ backpacks. When I say everywhere, they came with me everywhere. Before I would eat, I would suck on the candy and it helped rid my mouth of the metallic taste so I could actually tolerate—and even enjoy—my food.

4. Hand Cream

Like my lips, my hands were extra-dry during chemo. When a nurse at the hospital gave me hand cream during my first infusion, I never let it out of my sight. It became like a ritual, applying it right before my infusion and again any time I washed my hands or stepped out of the shower. The trick there (beauty advice, y’all!) is to make sure to do it while your hands are still wet. This helps lock in the moisture that’s already on your skin. Goodbye, chemo dry hands!

5. The Giving Keys Necklace

This is something that was extremely touching for me and is making me emotional just writing about it. The Giving Keys necklace is a simple chain embellished with a key charm that’s been stamped with an inspirational word. The wearer is encouraged to pass it onto someone in a time of need. I had two friends send me their Giving Keys necklaces that I wore to every chemo appointment as a reminder that I had the strength 2 get thru today. Those five words have been a mantra for me going through this entire journey and will stick with me forever. As I start radiation, the necklaces are still around my neck. You can’t go wrong giving this as a gift either.

6. An Inspirational Chemo Bag

On my 35th birthday, my sister gave me a bag with a quote from one of my favorite actresses/philanthropists, Audrey Hepburn: “I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles.” I was diagnosed with breast cancer three days later. I have taken this bag with me to every doctor's appointment, every chemo infusion, and every scan. It holds my essentials (which is, ahem, clutch, since you have a lot of stuff you’ll want to tote back and forth during treatment), but more than anything it’s a constant reminder to be strong when I don’t think that I can.

Sabrina Skiles chemo bag with an Audrey Hepburn quote
Courtesy of Sabrina Skiles

7. Luxe Lipstick

It’s no surprise that I lost all my hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes when I started chemo. While I was busy worrying about wigs and eyebrow pencils, I didn’t even think about lipsticks. But when my friend sent me this Rosewood Trio pack from BeautyCounter, I literally smiled opening up the package. One, I know Beautycounter is all about clean beauty, so I didn’t have to worry about putting harsh chemicals on my body. Two, there really is no such thing as too many lipsticks! As soon as I put on that cheerful color, I didn’t think about the fact that I was losing my hair or my thinning eyebrows. I was rocking this look and I was ready for whatever the day was going to throw at me, chemo or no chemo! That, ladies, is the power of lipstick!

8. Peppermint Oil

When you’re going through chemo, the smell of saline or flushing the port after the nurse takes your blood and before the premeds are given can cause nauseous feelings. I was advised by another breast cancer survivor to pack peppermint oil (which some studies show can fight nausea) and keep it handy at my chemo infusions. This peppermint oil came in my chemo bag with me and I’m so glad it did. The nurses even got into the habit of saying, “OK, we’re flushing your port now, get your oil ready.” If peppermint’s not your thing, you can try another scent that you like or find comforting.

9. Gift Cards

This may sound impersonal, but I can’t tell you how many different gift cards I got that truly helped me out. I received plenty of Grubhub gift cards that saved me during the long doctor’s appointments and chemo infusions. I remember on my first chemo infusion, my husband came with me and we thought we’d packed and prepared everything for that day. Well, the one thing we didn’t do was pack a lunch. When it came time for us to eat, I still had about two hours left in my infusion but I didn’t want him to leave. So we pulled up the Grubhub app and had food delivered. It helped out immensely. Other gift card ideas: local grocery stores, Starbucks, or Amazon. I also had friends ask me, “Hey, what would you rather have, this card or that card?” This was very considerate, too.

Every cancer diagnosis is different. Every chemo journey will be different. But what isn’t different is the anxiety and fear that comes with tackling something that no one is ever prepared for. This list is made up of seemingly little things, but together they’ve made my cancer journey less scary. I hope it does the same for you or your loved ones fighting through a cancer diagnosis. Remember, just focus on the good, and the good gets better.

Sabrina Skiles
Meet Our Writer
Sabrina Skiles

Sabrina Skiles is a lifestyle and psoriasis blogger, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer just two days after her 35th birthday. She created her blog, Homegrown Houston as a lifestyle resource for millennial women and those living with chronic conditions. She shares daily inspiration from health and wellness, motherhood and marriage to managing a chronic disease while living a stylish life. Sabrina is also a volunteer mentor, coach and social ambassador for the National Psoriasis Foundation. You can find her sharing #chemolife and psoriasis tips while living a stylish life on Instagram @sabrinaskiles.