Gratitude in the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Here we are at the beginning of another year. Often, whether we want to or not, we reflect on the year that just passed. We can either be happy about it or sad about it — whatever. But, as we go into 2016, we can decide to tip the attitude scale away from negativity and toward positivity.

How we look at a bad experience (or a loss) changes when we focus on the good that might come from it.

I’ve been thinking about certain women who had something in common with me. I started with a woman I knew as Mrs. Carter. She was the mother of my oldest friend, and my mother’s BFF.  Mrs. Carter was also the first person I’d known with Stage 4 cancer.  You see, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when Mrs. Carter was in her seventh, and final year, of her battle with ovarian cancer.  We went through chemotherapy at the same time. Because of this experience, we related to each other in a way that only cancer patients can understand. Mrs. Carter was my touchstone for how to live graciously with a chronic disease.

Fast forward to 2015… I knew three more women who were Stage 4. Two had metastatic breast cancer; and one, a close friend, had squamous cell oral cancer. All of them died this year. Before you think, ‘Damn, this post is by Debbie Downer,’ just bear with me.  I have to put my chatty, witty posts about great food and travels and my occasional witty rants on pause for a bit.  Sometimes bad stuff will remind us of things for which we should be grateful.

My gratitude is not “Thank God it’s not me at Stage 4.” It’s gratitude for being witness to the grace these women had as they faced our common adversary, Cancer, to the end.

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been referred by friends to other women going through the same illness. That’s how I met Rhonda and Lisa: we all had tennis and breast cancer in common. Rhonda and Lisa never met, but each came into my life on the same day for the same purpose — through mutual friends, who wanted to introduce one breast cancer survivor to another.

Lisa was already in Stage 4 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We met for lunch through a tennis friend. Lisa was in good spirits when we met, but admitted her own doubts about whether she’d reach her 50th birthday. She told me about the extravaganza 50th birthday party she’d hosted that year when she turned 49. Lisa hung on most of the next year. She almost made it to 50, but died a few months shy of her birthday.

Rhonda and I met for dinner through another mutual friend on the same day I met Lisa. Rhonda was a Stage 2 survivor, who’d had the same diagnosis as I. But, Rhonda chose to treat the cancer only with surgery and forego the rest of the treatment protocol of chemo, radiation, and five years of a hormone drug. After she healed from her mastectomy, Rhonda quit her job with a Florida newspaper and became a freelance writer. She pursued her dream to live abroad for at least a year, starting in Costa Rica.

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Rhonda (in striped shirt)

Rhonda’s sabbatical was cut short last January when pain sent her to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed her with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I thought about Rhonda, my thoughts would turn inward and I wondered if I’d be going down this same path one day. What scared Rhonda was scaring me, too, only I wasn’t living with it.

Rhonda wrote a couple of poignant pieces about her diagnosis and living with metastatic cancer here and here. Her theme was the strength of surrender. Rhonda’s own words were her guidepost for living.

Rhonda and I stayed in touch and followed each other’s blogs. From time to time, she would reach out to me for health advice.

In 2015, Rhonda became a certified life coach, and she enjoyed spending lots of time with family and her boyfriend. She was also present for every life milestone achieved by her loved ones. Rhonda continued freelancing for on-line publications, sometimes inciting controversy. She had a classy way of shutting down ugly comments from fools. And, among other things I learned about Rhonda, she was fearless when it came to her convictions.

My sister and I ran into Rhonda at the BlogHer15 conference in New York. I remember Rhonda’s response to a loud, boisterous group of women in the middle of the lobby. Even as she flinched at their behavior, she said, “Hashtag (#)nohometraining.” That’s a quick wit.

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Rhonda (in orange)

Rhonda and I were last in touch right after Thanksgiving. She told me about a spiritual conference for women she was organizing in Hartford, Connecticut for January 2016. She also shared news about her medical treatment. She said, “The Tamoxifen stopped working unfortunately and cancer in my liver got worse. Not exactly the best news but the doctor has another hormone drug she wants to try. I’m speaking its success into existence!”

I reflected on Rhonda’s message and noted that she literally continued to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I told her I hoped she’d find a successful alternative treatment. I made a mental note to offer help with her spiritual conference.

Rhonda died right before Christmas, less than a month later.

I only knew Rhonda a short time, but I’m grateful for what she reminded me — a cancer survivor — about life. Stay in the moment and cherish each one. Show grace when things appear to not be in your favor. Truly keep living.

 

This post is dedicated to Rhonda Swan — journalist, author, blogger, life coach, and awesome spirit.

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To Detox or Not Detox?

I’m on a mission.

I have one little lingering issue from surviving estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.  I didn’t take a drug my oncologist prescribed seven years ago. The drug basically blocks estrogen production in the body.  Every year I see the doctor, she still asks if I’ll take the drug, which is now supposed to be effective for 10 years. Nope, I say. At the 10 year mark, I’d be on my own, anyway.  I decided to reinforce and tweak my eating habits instead.

I’m on a mission to take my health to another level.

So, why tweak eating habits that have already made me lean? Because I still craved sweets; I had become more agitated and stressed; and sometimes didn’t sleep well. I’ve read a ton of information to figure out which way to go because I’m not a candidate for certain prescription drugs.

I learned there are different types of estrogen and not all are bad. In my oncologist’s view, estrogen is my enemy. Period. But, I think it depends on how it’s metabolized in the body. I decided to go a natural route and balance my hormones through diet and by removing man-made substances in my environment that could disrupt that balance. It sure couldn’t hurt to try.

At the beginning of the year, I signed up for a three-week hormone-balancing detox and seminar offered on this website. The seminar was right on time and what I had been looking for. I liked the instructor’s credentials, her focus on functional medicine, and her own wake-up call that started with her husband’s health crisis. (I also think she favors the Paleo diet.)

The seminar included a few hour-long lectures, a community board for Q&A with the experts, and support during the detox, and recipes. She explained the endocrine system in layman’s terms. There’s a lot of information out there about certain foods and chemicals that can disrupt this system. The endocrine system plays a vital role in whether you develop diabetes or another hormone-related disorder.

Some people debunk the whole notion of detox. They say:

  • There’s no such thing as a food “toxin” because “toxins” are a classification of defined substances, like botulin.
  • Sugar is not a toxin.
  • The liver doesn’t need to be “rested.”
  • Detox supplements are gimmicks; and peddlers of detox services are quacks.

Those arguments don’t get to the reason behind why people may need a detox. They don’t address  the collective adverse effects to our bodies of  highly processed foods, refined sugars, and the abundance of chemicals in our environment.  I agree that the wellness industry has its share of quacks and bad products. But, let’s face it — they’ve successfully played in the wellness market because if we only needed a “magic pill” to make us healthier, we would take it.

It seems to me that we are either absorbing or ingesting substances that are working at cross-purposes with our health. Diabetes is rampant in the U.S., as well as some other parts of the world. Our bodies are letting us know something’s not right. We need to pay attention.

I learned some things that were brand new to me. During the three-week detox, we were asked to eliminate some foods that are Paleo-acceptable, like eggs and fatty meats (like beef and lamb). Dietary suggestions seemed to follow the Paleo diet protocol, but were also very vegan-friendly. Recipes and menus came with the seminar — some of which I liked, and others not so much.  I also did my own thing in the kitchen within the provided guidelines.

Blueberry scones (gluten-free); sweetened with coconut nectar

Blueberry scones made with almond flour (gluten-free); sweetened with coconut nectar

Here’s what I got out of  the three-week detox program:

  • Better ideas for snacks
  • Good information about plastic and food: replacing plastic storage containers for glass, and plastic spatulas and spoons for bamboo or wood
  • High cost of a Paleo-centered pantry
  • Switching to a variety of coconut products and sweeteners; not buying so-called healthy snack foods
  • Smarter grocery-shopping with a list; and less food waste
  • Understanding which foods can spike blood sugar, like dairy (and oatmeal); substituting dairy with unflavored almond milk
  • Passion flower herbal supplement for calming the nervous system
  • Flaxseed meal and tempeh —  estrogenic, but not necessarily bad
  • Magnesium and vitamin B supplements — additional support to the body
  • Wine (sigh) is not necessarily my friend. (I drink it on fewer occasions now.)
  • Sleep — very important
  • Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, arugula, bok choy, and kale
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Red kale

I participated in this online seminar along with 200+ other folk, each of whom had their own concerns about the effect of hormone imbalance on their health. All in all, I’m glad I did this hormone-balancing detox. It was my first step this year on my very personal mission to resolve that last lingering little well-being issue.

What do you think of a diet-based detox?

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A Misty Thanksgiving – Part I

I was looking forward to the Thanksgiving of 2010. My sister, Kim, had invited me to her house, in Maryland, for the gathering.  This was to be the first time, as I recall, Kim was to host a Thanksgiving. I was looking forward to kicking back with a beer; helping with a dish or two, if asked; and enjoying a low stress event, the way she likes it. It would also be an opportunity to try the new dishes she was bound to present, that were aligned with her new and irritating diet.

Sister Kim, with her ongoing campaign to combat the rebellious cell lines that had mutated in her breast, had chosen a diet she felt would reduce the untoward effects certain foods had on her body. She had identified inflammation as the enemy, and was hell-bent on eliminating anything and everything that tipped her body towards an inappropriate immune response.  Her guide in this quest was something she identified as “the blood type diet.”

From what I gathered from her interminable treatises on the subject, this diet consisted of lists of foods that one could eat based on a given blood type. The lists were very specific. The diet would not merely say you could eat nuts. Instead, for example, it would list for type AB, that almonds and walnuts were beneficial, but cashews and Brazil nuts were to be avoided.

I am used to relying upon scientific principles in most things. These statements loudly (to me, at least) beg the question, “How do you know that?” Each list should represent conclusions of scientific studies with measurable quantities, corroborating the claims. I couldn’t imagine anyone quietly applying that rigor to the subject and then printing it all up neatly in a book available on Amazon for fifteen bucks.

With Kim, every offered or suggested food was vetted by her list. She would respond,“No, it’s not on my list,” or, if her answer was “Yes,” then it would be accompanied by the verbal footnote: “It’s on my list” or “It’s my powerhouse food.”  This would be followed by a brief lecture regarding the diet, the lists and the ramifications of it all.

All.Quite.Tedious.

To me, it was pseudoscience. To her, it was the religion of her new lifestyle and the firm foundation in the belief system that allowed her to survive her ordeal with breast cancer. She emerged to thrive in the state of health, post-cancer therapy, that had long eluded her. In essence, the diet worked. Science or no science, the diet worked for her and the food she cooks is delicious; and I was looking forward to it.

As luck would have it, I was scheduled to work the day after Thanksgiving, and therefore, unable to go to Maryland after all. I was disheartened, but resigned to work my assigned shift.

Luck intervened again and I found myself suddenly free of my work obligations and the trip east was back on line. I made that journey, but during my brief absence from the plans, the plans had changed. The dinner, originally slated to be at Kim’s house, was now at Cheryl’s. This was not a downgrade and it opened up the menu considerably.

The short Thanksgiving holiday makes travel a pain, though many folks try to make it back to family, anyway. That is what this holiday is about after all. It’s not really about a meal. It’s about the opportunity to share a meal, once again, with family. As crowded as the airways and highways may be, they come.  The common ties are once again connected.

It can be messy, too.

-Author, David

Next: A Misty Thanksgiving – Part II

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Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Radiation

I was so tired of being in treatment, but radiation was next. I had been slashed and poisoned, and now it was time to burn.

I received two key recommendations. The first was from my friend, Linda, who suggested I work with Dr. Yi Ping Hu, a licensed acupuncturist in Bethesda, Maryland. She has many cancer patients and treats the immune system. The second came from my chiropractor, Dr. Six, who recommended I take holy basil supplements during radiation.

Before starting the next phase, I took a mini-break. I celebrated the end of chemo with my sister, Cheryl, and our niece, Emily, from New York. We hiked Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Maryland. I had no doubt that I could hang on the hike, and my anemia didn’t pose a problem. We had fun!

Dr. Hu examined me the following week and said I had some weakness, but was remarkably strong for having just finished chemo. She wanted me to have acupuncture twice a week before starting radiation. She also gave me Chinese herbs to drink twice a day. I held my nose when I drank the nasty-tasting mushroom brew. Dr. Hu’s treatment was supposed to strengthen my immune system —  the body’s natural defense to disease.

My radiation oncologist proposed the radiation treatment field and explained I’d have a higher risk of lymphedema from radiation in certain areas of my chest.  Because of that risk, I told her I didn’t want radiation in those areas.  I didn’t want to risk my tennis game, you know. The doctor outlined the areas I consented to with tattoos.

Radiation was the treatment with the least apparent side effects. I was zapped five times a week for eight weeks. Each treatment took about 10 minutes. The doctor prescribed a cream to soothe my skin in case of burns. The health care provider’s literature on radiation warned about fatigue.

Here’s what happened (and didn’t happen):  I was never fatigued and, in fact, started playing league tennis again. My skin was deeply tanned in the radiation field, but didn’t burn, so I never filled the skin cream prescription. Over time, though, I realized the pain and tightness I felt somewhere between my right armpit and back ribs was caused by scar tissue from radiation. I massaged the area to break down the scar tissue; and I used yoga and other exercises to keep my right arm flexible. To this day, the area can feel tight and painful.

After radiation ended, Dr. Hu scaled back my acupuncture treatments to once a week for six months. After that, I went to acupuncture every other week. I also continued to take the Chinese herbs twice a day.

My surgeon made an awesome observation. When she examined me, she said my breast didn’t feel like it had been treated with radiation. I asked, “What should it have felt like?” She told me a radiated breast would would usually feel kind of hard and tough. To the contrary, mine is quite soft and pliable.

Could it be that acupuncture, yoga, and the supplements helped?

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Next:  Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today


Refuge

I found an ad in the newspaper for a yoga class for breast cancer survivors. It was what I’d been looking for — a specialized class for the lymphedema risk and other issues caused by cancer treatment. At Circle Yoga in Washington, D.C., I found my support group.

Two instructors, Jill and Karen, alternated teaching Yoga for Breast Cancer. I was the last to join the class and started between surgery and chemo. The other women were way ahead of me in treatment. All were mothers of young children, and between 38 and 41 years old. Jill and Karen began each class with a thoughtful meditation. They allowed us to take a moment to say what was on our minds. They asked what we needed from the yoga practice. And what we needed to let go, if only for a little while.

At one class, I shared that, to friends, family, and co-workers, I appeared strong, independent and capable. But, I was starting to have meltdowns. I was tired. I was tired of focusing on that outward appearance. I knew I needed a break of some sort, but didn’t know who to ask or what I needed. I just wanted a break. The other women said they hit that wall, too — around the sixth chemo session.

Circle Yoga was my refuge. This yoga class was as important to me as any medical appointment. I relaxed and let the meditation transport me. I was with other survivors getting my warrior poses on. Jill and Karen continued the class faithfully each week, even when I was the only student left.

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4 Acts of Kindness

I wasn’t prepared for the physical pain of losing my hair. My scalp felt like it was being stabbed by thousands of tiny needles. On my way home from work, I stopped by the shop in Wheaton, Maryland, where I’d bought my wig. My head was on fire. I was crying when I went in and asked a woman there for help. I didn’t know what she could do for me. She knew. She took me to a sink and gently washed my head. It was soothing, both physically and emotionally. A lot of my hair was washed off and went down the drain. My head looked patchy, but I felt relief.


The remaining hair still hurt my head. I asked my sister, Cheryl, for help because I couldn’t deal with it. She came over and carefully washed my head. She brought an old pair of pantyhose to catch the hair that came out in the kitchen sink. Most of the hair vacated my scalp, except for one little patch in the back. The process and pain of losing my hair was almost over. She made me laugh when she looked at me and recited, “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” Only my sister….

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A close friend, Donna, and her husband, Nilante, came over to visit. I took off my little bandana scarf to show them my head. When Nilante saw that last stubborn patch of hair, he said, “Oh no, that’s got to go.” He came back the next day and gently and expertly shaved it off.  I was so grateful for that simple act. The transition was over and my head was no longer crazy-patchy. I was transformed.

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I told Donna it was too hot to wear the wig, and I didn’t know what else to do. She and Nilante had an African seamstress make five colorful scarves and they showed me how to tie them. I experimented with different looks. The scarves made me a stylish survivor.

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Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Chemotherapy

Chemo made me feel like I was in a sci-fi horror film, like “The Fly” (starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis). Like Goldblum’s character, as he transformed into an insect, I was fascinated by every change in my body. My main focus, though, was to do the following very well:  eat, sleep, and poop. These things were essential for my body to be as strong as possible during this treatment.

I had chemo infusion treatments on my Fridays off from work. After every treatment, I went to my acupuncture appointment with Larry Godwin, L.Ac., in Alexandria, VA. His treatments provided immune system support and helped me avoid nausea. I didn’t know what to expect from chemo, other than the hair loss.

I felt woozy after the first infusion. My body erupted in sweat every night, and my boyfriend said he could have fried an egg on my body. My brother, David, explained that every cell in my body was reacting to the chemo and screaming, “WTF!”  The first physical change I noticed was my tongue. It was purplish like a Chow Chow dog, but mottled. My hair was thinner.

After the second infusion, my period stopped… forever, as it turned out. A large patch of hair at my forehead disappeared. I started wearing scarves.

As time went on, the palms of my hands became blotchy and dirty-looking. My fingernails and toenails had dark stripes. My cuticles and nail beds thickened, but I didn’t lose any nails. I lost all – and I do mean all – of my body hair, even my eyelashes. It was weird to see the little holes where my eyelashes had been. I couldn’t breathe as deeply as I could before the treatment. And, to my dismay, I couldn’t even pee straight. It trickled out in a crooked stream and dribbled down my thigh.

I paid attention every day to how well I was eating, sleeping, and pooping.

Eating: I bought higher quality food and water and cooked most of my meals. My appetite was very good and my weight stabilized. The oncologist told me to avoid raw foods during chemo because of my immune system and low white blood cell count.

Sleeping: I aimed for seven hours, but I was always so hot and often had insomnia. (I wouldn’t take any sleeping pills because I was already taking enough drugs between chemo, anti-nausea medication, and the shots I had to give myself to boost my white cell count.)

Pooping: All was well in the poop department, except for a brief bout with hemorrhoids.

When the chemo drug regimen changed for the second half of the treatment, my knees started hurting. I was limping and it was painful to walk, especially up and down stairs. On my boyfriend’s recommendation, I mixed a supplement called bromelain powder with water. It seemed to help because I stopped limping within a few hours. Even though the pain ended, I had to work through joint stiffness in my knees and hips for about six months after chemo.

Now here’s where I think my new diet and the initial acupuncture helped: I didn’t gain weight, get mouth sores, heartburn, “chemo brain,” nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or fatigue. That was significant because I could eat without any problems, work every day, go to the gym a few times a week, and play tennis once a week. According to lab tests, I was very anemic; but, I felt physically weak only about once every two weeks.

Throughout chemo, I kept my focus simple: eat, sleep, and poop.

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