I have struggled with weight most of my adult life. I am a married mother of three children (now young adults) and have always worked in full-time demanding jobs. Comfort foods, wine, and relaxing on the couch were my easy go-to remedies to find quick respite. Don’t get me wrong – I adore my children, love being their mom, am very involved in their activities, and have been fortunate to have a successful career – but I have been stretched very thin at times. Growing up a middle child, taking time and attention to make myself a priority amidenoust the pressing needs of others has always been an internal struggle. The notion of self-care literally perplexed me – what is it? Self-care seemed like a luxury out-of-my reach.
Over the past two decades I would go through spits and spurts of dieting and exercising leading to a yo-yo of weight loss and gain. I have lost and gained 50 lbs. more than once, and as a result, have lived with a high level of frustration about my own ability to manage my weight and take care of my health. My confidence was low as to whether I would ever free myself from the ongoing weight struggle. This was reflected in how I would gravitate toward magazines in the grocery lines – the ones advertising how to lose weight quickly always drew my eye. I’d buy them, but not often feel compelled enough to try them. Even when I was thinner, I didn’t feel truly confident that I could maintain the lower weight without a strict adherence to some deprivation diet. As a middle-aged female, I had lost the belief that I would ever have a body image again that I admired and was proud of, much less the optimal health benefits from maintaining a healthy weight. I was pretty much giving in to the fact that I would always be overweight and unable to achieve the positive body image I really wanted.
Then everything changed two years ago. I found out I had breast cancer…again. Sixteen years before I had a very small, non-invasive breast cancer, which was treated with a lumpectomy and radiation. I thought of it as a fluke and went back to my busy lifestyle. At that time no doctor (and I saw quite a few) ever told me about the role excess fat, alcohol, sugar, lack of exercise, etc. – all these lifestyle habits – can play in increasing one’s risk of breast cancer. This time, fortunately it was again a very small amount, on the other side, but invasive, and thankfully without lymph node involvement. The fact that this was my second time shocked and stopped me in my tracks. I kept thinking to myself, “This is serious. I need to do everything I can to lower my risks.” I was frightened and laser focused.
I asked my breast surgeon, “What are the best ways to lower my risk?” She said that she had seen two things make a difference in her career: lose all the excess weight and break a sweat every day. (At that time, I weighed 176 lbs at 5’5” and carried most of my weight in my chest.) Through my own research I soon discovered that fat cells are not benign; they create an environment that increases the type of estrogen that is harmful for post-menopausal women, particularly with hormone positive breast cancer like I had.
Ironically the doctor’s advice sounded so simple to me: lose all the excess weight and break a sweat every day. What seemed so complicated all these years with so much emotional struggle attached to it, all of a sudden seemed so straightforward and clear. But then she said something else. She said, “You know, you can look a lot better than this.” What? I didn’t expect this statement. In fact, I didn’t really believe her. I was skeptical that out of something so frightening with surgery that seemed horrible, I could possibly get something I had longed for for years. My prior lumpectomy had left my chest very lop-sided, but I never thought anything could be done about it. She went on to describe aesthetically the potential outcome through breast reconstruction by a plastic surgeon. At that moment she opened a door for me – a door of possibility – that was going to ignite a desire in me to transform my body and my life over the next 18 months while going through treatment.
Growing up I was a competitive swimmer – fit, trim, and athletic. I had always lived in bathing suits. I also loved fashion and beauty ideas. I learned to sew at an early age and designed many of my clothes. These aspects of my creative self were a deep part of me but had gotten hidden away over the years through adulthood and responsibility. These passions were no longer visible to me. My weight and the lifestyle I attached to it created an obstacle to accessing these two sources of enjoyment – physical fitness and personal aesthetics.
All of a sudden in this doctor’s appointment, and the ones that followed with the plastic surgeon, I began to believe that I could possibly get healthy and at the same time, get the added benefits of shaping a body and lifestyle that would enable me to be more my true self. I left my doctor’s office that cold day in February with a completely shifted mindset that perhaps out of this scary and unfortunate situation, I could achieve what I previously thought was unthinkable. Even with the breast cancer, I had a new and improved vision of myself, my health, my body, my desires, and my lifestyle.
The reason why I share both my fear motivation from a dire health diagnosis coupled with my emerging vision for a more positive body image and active lifestyle is that it was this unique combination that has driven me over the past two years, and continues to motivate me each day, to do the following:
I no longer drink alcohol; what once relaxed me, didn’t any longer;
I eat primarily a whole food, plant-based diet;
I only have sugary treats on a holiday, and then in a small portion to celebrate;
I really love to research food along the ‘food as medicine’ lines. It has become a vocation for me. I typically look at food as to whether it will help or hurt me – very different than before when I was somewhat health conscious about food choices with kids, but not as intentional about what to add or subtract during the course of a day for impacting my own health;
My mantra is “break a sweat every day” and I do. I alternate between jogging 3-5 miles or strength training through Pure Barre daily;
I have freed myself from peer pressure around food. I can be with people eating and drinking whatever they do, without feeling pressured to do what they do. My own health situation has made me truly independent in picking the path that is right for me. What may be fine for others, may not be good for me. I am very comfortable saying “no thanks;”
I don’t worry about being perfect like on a diet. I stay the general course, do not stray too much or too long (I do have a weakness for tortilla chips), but I’m not rigid and judgmental with myself;
I’ve adopted a long-term, forever approach to food and exercise. I knew my behavior changes needed to be forever for my health so the time pressures of losing x amount of weight by a certain date were gone. I aimed to create a healthy lifestyle that I would maintain forever;
I aimed for making an internal, epigenetic environment within my body that would be hostile to cancer cells, so my goals have really been to change myself on a cellular level;
On the fun side I have a whole new wardrobe (and many bathing suits) that I feel at home in and matches my aesthetic interests in fashion; and
Most of all, I have made my health and wellness a priority in my own life – I have grown to understand the meaning and the value of self-care.
The medical results of my lifestyle changes have led to:
Losing the “excess weight” of about 55 lbs., and deeply feeling it’s for good;
Cholesterol dropping from 240 to 160; and
Going off of blood pressure medicine.
People often ask me, “What did you do to lose the weight?” While I share this information freely, I also say that it’s not so much the specifics of the plan I followed, as accessing my own internal motivation – my unique mojo. Through a tough health diagnosis and with the help of creating a healthier vision with my doctors, I found a positive path to reinvent myself into someone who is more me. When it comes to health challenges, we often know what needs to be done physically (i.e. food choices, movement, etc.), but we have a hard time accessing the internal motivation to move from a state of knowing to a state of active doing. For me it was not just the health diagnosis and fear of disease that led me to change my lifestyle; it was tapping into a more attractive, aspirational and fun way to lead my life that sparked my energy, commitment and motivation to take action. I got over the hurdle of my own skepticism when I had a clear vision of my healthier self, and the belief I could do it.
Sometimes I ask myself, “Did I need the breast cancer threat to light a fire within me?” Breast cancer was definitely a catalyst for me but fear alone does not always sustain behavioral change. I believe that I have been more motivated by my own personal vision of a healthy and fun lifestyle and what it could bring into my life. I discovered through my own experience that tapping into what will deeply motivate someone to change their lifestyle and behaviors is so unique and individual. A diet or exercise regimen is often a short-term fix and designed as “one size fits all,” which is why many do not work. What we all need is the deep belief that in losing excess weight, we will achieve a lifestyle that is not only healthier, but one we most desire whatever that might look like. Being driven by desire makes the weight loss process enjoyable, not onerous, and sustainable over time as a way of life.
We can start by asking ourselves, “Where is our weight getting in the way of what or how we deeply want to be?” Through my own journey I became fascinated with the internal journey of what motivates a person to change their lifestyle and modify their behaviors in a long-lasting manner so that they can be successful in living the life they most desire. After many unsuccessful attempts at maintaining weight loss, I know first-hand how hard this can be. This is why my own health and weight loss journey has led me into a new career direction as a health and wellness coach aiming to help others to tap into what most motivates them to pursue lasting behavioral changes for optimal health and wellness. Both the source of motivation and the plan one will actually follow are highly personal and unique to each of us – here’s to you finding yours!
Martha Wescoat-Andes is a health & wellness coach certified through Georgetown University; a leadership coach certified through George Mason University & Philosphy IB; and holds an ICF credential at the ACC level.
If you have any questions fro Martha, please email her at email@example.com