Better Breathing and Your Nose

Breathing seems simple enough. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I haven’t stopped yet. It’s one of those innate behaviors we’re born with, thank goodness. And yet, I learned recently that I’ve probably been doing it all wrong.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor, was a recent book club read. I talked about this book a lot while I was reading it to people who had not. I got some strange looks. When you ask someone out of the blue if they’re a mouth breather, a strange look isn’t that strange. Usually, they’d be talking about headaches or poor sleep. Nose breathing could correct these behaviors.

I am a recovering mouth breather. Nose breathing is becoming more natural.

 James Nestor is more than a breathing enthusiast. He’s obsessed. I’d go as far as say perhaps a nut. He has put himself through periods of mouth breathing to see his health deteriorate and then restore his health through nose breathing. The man crawled through Parisian catacombs to examine how skulls of a thousand years ago differed from those of today. He has spoken with others who conducted disturbing breathing experiments on animals. His experiences go well beyond anyone’s norm. The book also contains fascinating anthropological glimpses of our human development as breathers.

The premise of the book is that nose breathing makes us healthier. Not only would we experience gains in lung capacity and athletic performance, but we’d see benefits in other health areas. Nose breathing can lessen headaches, asthma, halt snoring, improve sleep, and makes other internal organs healthier.

One experiment in the 1990s demonstrated the effectiveness of bikers breathing through their noses. Bikers were instructed to breath only through their mouths as pedal resistance was increased. The bikers struggled and panted as 200 watts of power was reached. When the same bikers repeated it and switched to nose breathing, their rate of breaths per minute decreased. One biker was able to cut his breaths per minute from 47 to 14 even though the intensity was increased. I find that amazing. I sure could benefit from cutting my exertion in half and being fitter by doing so.

Breath is jammed packed with good science that is written in an easy narrative style. If you’re reading this post, you may be more interested in some of the recommended exercises to encourage nose breathing. Below are some of the techniques James Nestor included in his book.

Mini Breathholds

• This practice encourages breathing less.

• Nestor claims it can stave off asthma and anxiety attacks.

• Over time, it is also supposed to happen more naturally when running or doing other physical activity.

• Breathe normally. Exhale and hold for 5 seconds. Breathe normally for two breaths (10 seconds). Repeat for 2 to 3 minutes / about 10 rounds.

Box Breathing

• Use for calm and focus.

• Inhale and count to 4. Hold four. Exhale 4. Hold 4. Repeat for 4-6 rounds.

• You can change the size of the box to 3, 5, or 6 as you’d like.

Sleep Tape

• Encourages better sleep with nose breathing and mouth taping.

• James Nestor suggests 3M Nexcare Durapore durable cloth tape.

• Use a postage stamp sized piece of tape. Nestor says to tape it like a Charlie Chaplin mustache moved down over your lips.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

• Use to improve lung function, lower heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic stress.

• Cover right nostril with thumb, inhale through left.

• Cover left side, exhale through right.

• Inhale through right, cover right side, exhale through left.

• Practice alternating for 5-10 cycles.

Nose Songs

• Breathe normally and hum.

• Humming for 5 minutes or more a day increases the nitric oxide in your nasal passages which eventually increases oxygenation.

Breathhold Walking

• This practice increases carbon dioxide in the body which increases circulation.

• It will also help you slow your breath when running, biking, etc.

• Breathe in. Exhale all the breath. Walk slowly counting your steps.

• Stop counting and return to gentle nose breathing while still walking. Breathe normally and repeat after a one/two minute break.

These are just a few of the breathing methods included in the appendix.

Not all is rosy in my breathing world. My personal data is skewed by a slightly faster heart rate caused by my Taxol chemo treatment. It’s definitely an uphill battle to consciously try to breathe slower and breathe less if/when I try to run because a faster heart rate makes me breathe harder. I switch to mouth breathing and I can’t maintain a rate that high. I don’t know if it’s medically possible to make strides in my breathing and running while being on this chemo. I wind up winded and frustrated. As a walker, I’m in my zone. As a runner, it’s a bummer. I’ll keep working on it because the idea of working less to achieve more excites me. I’m tired of working so hard and not ending where I want to be.

The perfect breath is apparently a 5.5 second inhale followed by a 5.5 exhale. I’m not perfect. Never have been and never will be. My breathing won’t be either, but it will be perfect enough for me as long as I keep doing it.

So, are you a mouth breather or a nose breather?

Cancer and Exercise

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity each week for adults. This is equal to a brisk walk of about 3 miles per hour. More vigorous activity where you raise your heartbeat and sweat for 75 minutes each week can be swapped for the 150 minutes. Spreading these minutes throughout the week is preferred over cramming them into one day or activity.

Exercise won’t prevent cancer, but it can lower risk. It’s shocking how many sources still falsely claim exercise prevents cancer.

With that being said, exercise can improve overall survival for those going through treatment and for those with metastatic cancer. I have heard this from my doctors, nurses, and so many articles I’ve read. Overall survival is still a murky, unspecified amount of time. I do believe exercise has been a factor in my survival with metastatic cancer.

Exercising while receiving treatment for cancer is encouraged, always with the caveat to do what you are able. Run it by your doctor (pun intended) if you’re starting something new. Walking, lifting weights, running, yoga, swimming, etc. all reap similar benefits of maintaining healthy weight, improving heart and lung fitness, increasing muscle strength and endurance, and managing stress. Boosting immune functioning, energy, and improving sleep are additional benefits of exercise. The benefits go on and on.

Maintaining a healthy weight is a problem for me. I’ve maintained my slightly above average weight for 2-3 years. I blame it on treatment drugs and steroids. Ice cream has always been in the background. It’s hard to blame something you love. Whether my weight is considered healthy or not, I’ve maintained it in addition to maintaining an exercise and movement schedule.

I exercise even on days when I feel poorly because I believe it can affect my overall survival. I don’t have a choice. Sometimes it even makes whatever is bothering me (mood, fatigue, aches) go away. I upgraded my Fitbit to a higher version and now need to contend with something called zone minutes rather than just total active minutes. These zone minutes are the equivalent of the 150 minutes of moderately intense activity. Whereas I had no trouble reaching my active minutes, it was a wakeup call that I needed to do more to meet cardio targets. Now I’m getting those minutes and more thanks to work with my weights and walking.

Personally, I have many reasons why I exercise.

• I know I’m healthier when I exercise.

• I can see myself making progress and getting stronger.

• Regular exercise, especially cardio, boosts my immune system. When I encounter bumps like an infection or minor procedures, I think I recover faster if I’m making an effort to care for my body. If this is only psychological, it still works for me (much in the same way I see dark chocolate as a health food).

• From a treatment perspective, exercise and moving helps me do better with treatment and side effects.

• Exercise also keeps me alive. Again, I think it makes a difference. Staying alive is a HUGE benefit to me.

I know it takes me longer to achieve physical goals and longer to recover once I have. I exercise so I have a chance at keeping up if I’m with others.

• Exercise relieves stress and provides more energy.

• Exercise makes me feel more like me.

• I exercise for me and I do it for those I love.

I mentioned above that exercise helps me deal with bumps in the road better. A case in point involves issues I’ve had with my port. I had zero pain and didn’t take one Tylenol after it was replaced. The next morning, I got up early to do weights before my treatment. I started literally with just the motions and used lighter weights before feeling comfortable to do my normal routine. The day after that, I walked my 5K route. My surgeon said he wouldn’t tell people to alter any of their activities, so I proceeded as normally as I could. Exercise is part of my normal routine.

Walking is my favorite way to exercise. I don’t need a power workout every day. A brisk walk of 3 miles an hour done a few times a week surpasses 150 minutes a week. Breaking it down to 30 minutes a day for five days a week is another way to get your minutes. Some of the nitty gritty behind the health benefits of walking include better heart and lung fitness, stronger bones and improved balance, and increased muscle strength and endurance. Walking can also help manage conditions like high blood pressure, joint and muscle stiffness, and diabetes. No fancy equipment is needed, and it can be done almost anywhere. Just be sure to avoid cars, wild animals, and cliffs and such.

Weights are my second favorite way to exercise. I love meeting goals and seeing myself improve. I hate backing off when I’ve needed to readjust my goals and do less when my body isn’t up to lifting. Then I lose ground and feel frustrated because I have to work three times harder to regain half of what I once was able to do. The satisfaction is just as sweet when I reach a new (or new again) benchmark. Presses, deadlifts, squats, swings, rows, and halos give me lots of variety and opportunity for a love hate type of workout. I like that strength training increases my bone density and reduces the risk of fractures. I don’t mind the increased muscle mass either. Perhaps this is because it’s such a minimal change in my situation. I’m not known for my abs of steel . . . yet. I’m not sure what I’m known for.

Swimming may be a great choice if you’re looking for something that takes stress off your body and joints. It has many of the same benefits as walking in terms of cardiovascular and pulmonary health, maintaining a healthy weight, and building muscle strength and stamina. Walking is easy on a person’s joints, but swimming is even easier on joints because the water removes a lot of impact stress on your body. I have never been a strong swimmer and have lost any minimal ability I had other than floating. I thought it would be an easy way to work all my muscles and stay fit and was almost ready to sign up for lessons. Building endurance and cardiovascular fitness might even be fun and not feel like work that involves sweat and exhaustion. Then Covid-19 hit and my thoughts of swimming sank like a steel anchor.

Biking is another one of my favorite ways to exercise because it involves fitness with enjoying bike trails. I joke that it’s something I can do while technically sitting down, but I’ve realized I’m fairly serious about it. Sitting down has its merits. Like swimming, it’s easier on the joints and is good for building muscles. I don’t get to bike as often as I’d like because of the effort involved attaching the bike rack to my car, loading and unloading my bike, and making sure I still have energy to do some quality biking.

Yoga looks easier because it has some of those sitting down poses, or even lying down poses, but it’s deceiving. I’ve made this comment before. Maybe this is because I find strength, balance, and flexibility at the same time incredibly challenging. Yoga pushes me. Holding poses forces me to slow down and not try to lift more or be faster. Sometimes just being in the moment is work enough and that is the magic of yoga. Working on flexibility is good practice for me. God knows my life needs physical and emotional flexibility.

Being physically fit can make living with cancer a little easier. I’ve found information on exercise is out there for those going through treatment and post recovery. Exercise is addressed as making short term treatment easier and post treatment recovery smoother. It is touted as reducing risk for everyone, not a guarantee. I had trouble finding much on how exercise helps those of us living with metastatic cancer. It figures. The Stage IV population is frequently left out of topics that includes other cancer stages. I’ve made the decision to extend the exercise recommendations to me and those with Stage IV. Dealing with ongoing cancer is as important as short term treatment and recovery. We all need to be included. Lessening side effects, extending overall survival, and feeling good are all important. For everyone.

Always.

For further reading: My friend and fellow blogger Gogs Gagnon has written about the importance of exercise as part of his post prostate cancer survivorship plan. You can read about his thoughts and perspective here.

Hope and Nature

2021 got off to a rocky start for the United States when a riotous mob stormed the Capitol in an attempted coup. This happened on the cusp of all 2020 gave the world. A friend of mine shared how she went for a walk to walk off feelings of despair she felt in the wake of recent events. Beauty surrounded her. She explained that she came across smiling strangers who offered greetings, children laughing and sledding, and sunshine breaking through the clouds. Walking often clears the mind and changes perspective. My friend returned home feeling better, reminded that lessons from nature make us stronger.

Wow. I decided I needed to head out to the nearby arboretum myself the next day and look for signs of hope in nature. I was not disappointed. Signs of hope were plentiful in my surroundings. Several inches of snow covered the ground. Tracks from small animals, skis, and walkers left trails to be followed. I see hope in snow because it assures me winter is how winter should be. It is a time for parts of nature to rest. Thousands of trees surrounded me. Some trees had rough bark with lots of texture, others were smooth. I always feel protected among so many trees. I know they are still alive in winter and just conserving energy. Their continued cycle of life is hopeful. I heard geese as they flew overhead. Signs of life were all around, and where there is life there is hope.

I even saw signs of spring. Literal signs near one of the entrances. Spring is perhaps the season filled with the most hope through births, blossoms, and the return of animals that have migrated. It will be months before these return but spring will come.

The people I encountered were friendly. It’s always what I find there. Waves, smiles, lots of good mornings. When I see images of people in the news who are hateful, dangerous, and destructive, I’m filled with despair. Spending time outside is good for me. It’s fresh air. I’m moving. I’m away from the TV and the news. Having interactions with humans who are polite and seem positive are meaningful to me even if they are brief. Hope in humanity is restored in small doses.

Of all the things I noticed around me, a slow realization began to build.

The greatest signs of hope I found were within myself.

  • I was in charge of my day doing exactly what I wanted.
  • I had control. I felt agency. All decisions and actions were entirely mine.
  • I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. I could hear myself breathe. I was fully alive.
  • I wasn’t just walking. I was briskly walking. My stride felt like I could break into a run or I could lift off and fly. What the heck was going on with me? Times when I feel well will never be taken for granted.
  • Moments in the now are filled with hope.
  • I thought I could walk for hours. My energy was boundless that week which I welcomed like a warm fire on a cold night. I liked seeing what I could achieve on a week when I felt like me. I capped my walk at an hour because I occasionally do more than I should, and I wanted my feeling of success to stay with me. Success breeds more hope.
  • I felt strong.
  • I felt my spirit.
  • I felt my will.
  • I felt healthy.
  • I felt at home.
  • I felt gratitude.

I felt all of these on a grand scale. Each gave me hope. Treatment resumed last week for me, and I carried hope with me. Hope is a necessity living with metastatic cancer that at times wears thin. Some days I run on fumes. Regular boosts are as essential as chemotherapy. The side effects from hope are a lot better, too. Those are all listed above. Nature provides hope every time. I look to the sky, clouds, sunshine, snow, and even rain. It’s in the trees, flowers, and wildlife. I feel it in the breeze. It is there in the stillness. Look, listen, and feel for it.

Hope is within each of us. It’s our nature.

Morning Yoga

I want to stay as healthy as possible so I can do the things I want. It’s been harder lately as I’ve experienced some side effects in my feet and hands that make moving not fun. I believe they will improve. I believe I have some control. Who knows if I do or not, but I like to believe I do.

Belief is powerful.

We become what we believe. Beliefs become our words and actions. Keep in mind I don’t believe I brought on a cancer diagnosis by my thoughts or actions. No blaming myself. Belief is part of my personal treatment wheelhouse. I believe I can maintain my health. Staying active is the action to match that belief.

My oncologist told me not to alter what I was doing as a means of preventing some of these uncomfortable and at time painful side effects. I’m not sure she fully understands how intense I am. I don’t look super athletic. I’m not. Yet, I push. I sweat. I make decisions I question once I’m well past the point of no return. I woke up the morning after my first cycle of Doxil and felt so good I walked four miles in the heat. I wake up extra early on the days of my treatments so I can get a good workout done before I go and spend the bulk of my day at the hospital. I exercise even on my down days. I choose easier work, but I still choose something. She repeated her advice not to limit my activities the day I went in for my second cycle.

With her guidance in mind, I’m still keeping up my activities, but I’ve taken it a little easier for several days after treatment and integrated more yoga into my routine. The chemo care sheet says not to create extra friction on hands and feet for up to a week after each treatment. I see yoga as a way to work on core strength and flexibility while also quieting my mind. Yoga can grow my inner strength in addition to my outer strength.

Usually, I don’t stick with it very long. I feel tired after thirty minutes and not incredibly successful. I would improve if I practiced poses more as part of my practice.

I never did yoga outdoors until one glorious morning. I didn’t think I’d like it. I felt too self-conscious. Heat and bugs would bother me. But I went for it and loved it.

No heat and no bugs made my yoga time feel more refreshing.

I love that I still have new things at this point in my life.

I’ve been rising early on Sunday mornings, even earlier than on weekdays. On this particular day, the forecast was to reach the upper 80s. Hot weather is not my cup of tea. I wanted to get my workout done before it got too hot and definitely while my patio space was still in the shade.

Thoughts of the back yard I created wandered through my mind as I practiced. I admired my red bee balm knowing I was responsible for planting it. A hummingbird visited while I was out. I see them often enough due to the flowers in my garden. I always take it as a good sign when I see them. Cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, and robins filled the air with their singing. Dew glistened in multicolored glints off the green grass. The outdoor air felt good on my skin. My senses took in my environment.

Other than myself, there were no people and no people sounds. I was alone in this piece of paradise for a few moments. I felt total oneness with my surroundings. I noticed close to a dozen different shades of green.

There was an insane level of power and peace at the same time.

I held poses much longer than I usually do in my wellness area in my basement. My commitment was to do what felt good and not commit to a set time. I did everything I wanted and practiced a little over an hour.

It was a time I could consciously focus on my breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Cloud watching was included as some breath work. Lying flat on my back and staring upward was a good rest from some hip extension work. I love watching the sky. Cirrus clouds brushed the sky. I looked for animals as shapes drifted by slowly. Somewhere in my childhood was likely the last time I took the time to see the sky from this perspective. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

When I finished, I walked in the grass barefoot. It was more needed sensory work. I am someone who has always liked something on my feet. I’ve never been a barefoot kind of gal. The dew kissed grass was too much for my toes to resist. I walked slowly and each step became part of a reflective meditation.

Maybe I used my hands and feet more than I should have. Shoulding is a horrible business. I was told I could operate business as usual. So far, my feet seem to be faring better than my hands. My palms look shiny and waxy. They are a bit red in between my fingers and have peeled very minimally. I did them in a couple weeks ago wringing out water from towels when my air conditioner broke and my furnace leaked. I cleaned it up because that’s what needed to happen. In addition to the cost of a new air conditioner, it cost me my hands. Every crease where there are joints on my fingers are red, stiff, inflamed, and painful. I’ve been using a ton of lotion on my soles and palms. Days of not adding extra stress to them have helped more than anything. It took about ten days for my hands to heal so they don’t hurt. The joints still feel leathery, look different, and flare up after treatment or when I overdo it. I will continue to practice good self-care.

Until next time – Namaste.

Making A Run For It

I am not a runner.

The only thing about me that runs is my nose as a side effect from treatment.

I hated running in high school. Every step of the yearly running test was agony. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough because I never did well and always walked some.

At the end of 2019, I saw a comment from one of my friends who works at the UW Foundation who has been a main support to me as I’ve worked to raise more funds for metastatic breast cancer research. She had written a supportive comment on someone else’s post promoting a 5K race for UW Carbone.

The race is on May 30th.

My birthday is on May 30th. My 50th birthday.

Uh-oh.

Thoughts are faster than any runner. I knew in a flash what was happening. My thoughts are italicized.

 Don’t even think about it.

 You are not a runner.

 Don’t be ridiculous.

You don’t enjoy running.

You can’t do this. You have metastatic breast cancer. 

You have never run a 5K.

You haven’t even tried.

Because it’s insane.

You’re insane.

But you’ve seen this information and you can’t un-see it.

 The idea is already there that it would be an awesome way to greet your 50th birthday in victory. It sure would show cancer a thing or two.

It also would be a miracle, but you’re a lot stronger than you were last year. 

You know what happens once an idea has already rooted. 

It grows. 

Dammit.

You’ve envisioned crossing the finish line.

You’re apparently doing this. Keep it to yourself so others don’t think you’re unrealistic, too ambitious, or crazy.

What’s wrong with you?

I started doing some research on 5K training schedules. I learned most schedules intersperse running and walking and eventually phase out the walking. I would manage by building my abilities slowly.

On days that I didn’t strength train or walk outdoors, I worked on my running plan, slowly building endurance and running stamina and keeping the embers to do this burning inside me.

I also started working with a running coach. Get this – it turns out I already had a perfect gait from my gait analysis and good rhythmic breathing. Who knew?

I might be a runner.

My mind throws obstacles in my way. It’s really good at that. A sliver of doubt that sneaks in has more weight than all my positive affirmations, mantras, and visualizations. It shakes my goals. I struggled at home on my treadmill in extending my running minutes and lessening my walking recovery minutes. Breathing was harder to manage. The fun phase was over. I realized all the hard work that lay ahead.

Ah-ha! I knew it wouldn’t last. It would be best to give up and enjoy something easier.

 No, it wouldn’t. Stick with this and figure it out.

Be stubborn. Rely on that irrefutable strength. Being stubborn is more important than your physical capabilities right now.

 I am in this for the long haul.

It’s time for another session with your running coach.

More physical obstacles showed themselves. I broke out in a rash fairly early on in my efforts training on my own that kept coming back every time I ran and got so hot. It was exercised induced. My body eventually accepted what I was doing to it.

Take that body. I won.  

I officially registered for the Race for Research at the end of January and formed Team 50. My heart felt choosing Team Pokey for a name was a better fit, but I wanted to keep messaging consistent with messaging from other fundraising goals.

My running coach wrote out plans for me. I worked on interval training mixed with strength work. I would vary the speed and incline, hop off the treadmill and do some lifting drills that runners do, and then repeat for 5 times. I was amazed at what I could do.

I practiced progression runs of varying paces and runs with varying inclines. I could do them. It was a challenge, but I could do them. It made me feel accomplished and athletic. Feeling athletic in the midst of metastatic breast cancer is not me. Feeling athletic was never me.

Except athletic has become me over the span of six months.

Okay, semi-athletic. Keep it real.

I worked on treadmill progressive runs, inclined runs, surge runs, and made it outdoors a couple of times. I was hitting a 5K fairly easily on my treadmill. Then COVID-19 hit. One by one, my plans disappeared. The Race for Research is the last event standing and I suspect it will either become a virtual run or be rescheduled for fall. Gathering cancer survivors, those being treated for cancer, as well as their supporters together at a crowded event, even if it’s outside, doesn’t align with physical distancing. The UW Carbone Cancer Center will make the choice it needs to make.

It will be a major disappointment, albeit necessary.

It is a miracle I’ve even endeavored to run. I experienced hand-foot syndrome several years back which made walking extremely painful. Neuropathy has been present at some level since my original chemotherapy. I ignore it. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am.

If COVID-19 sidelines the race, it will not sideline me. I have mapped out a 5K loop in my neighborhood and will run it on my birthday. I’ll invite a few friends to come cheer me on at various points along my route (all six feet apart – more like six blocks apart). COVID-19 will not take it away from me. It may take away my VIP status and prevent me from speaking at the race about the deep hope I have for research at UW Carbone, but it won’t take away what I’ve been working for, sweating for, and fighting for since December. It can’t take away the hope I am always striving to give others.

No way.

If you know me, you know I will find a way to get this to happen and make the best of it.

I’d love to say I’ll do it rain or shine, but if it’s rainy I’ll postpone my moment in the sun for a time when it truly will be a moment in the sun. I’m stubborn but not completely crazy.

I have been unknowingly making a run for it for many years.

I have been a runner all that time.

I won’t stop running.

I am a runner.

Watch me.

 

April 16, 2020 update: The Race for Research has been canceled. It will return on June 5, 2021. Onward to Plan B for me.

Hot Yoga and Inner Strength

Whoever came up with the concept of hot yoga needs either to be imprisoned or awarded whatever award is given to the highest level of excellence in yoga. Before I tried it, I was strongly in the camp for imprisonment. I see its merits now that I’ve tried it.

I’ll even go back and do it again.

My friend Nancy suggested a yoga event last fall as a fundraising idea to support my efforts to raise money for more metastatic breast cancer research. I was all in. Coming up with fundraising events that emphasize healthy lifestyles while also raising money for MBC research is a goal. I want to do healthy activities. I want to promote healthy choices. I want people to feel good physically while giving to a worthy cause. Yoga had all of these.

My yoga practice always posed challenges because I couldn’t hold poses well. Truthfully, I couldn’t even achieve the correct form needed to do the poses correctly.

I have never been bendy.

My balance issues cause problems.

Damage from neuropathy makes some poses particularly painful to do.

My core needs work.

I modify almost everything.

And yet, I was all in.

Nancy gave me names of a couple of connections she had in the yoga world and I took it from there. It was remarkably easy. The universe seemed to want me to have a yoga event.

The universe wanted it to be hot yoga.

Hmmmmm. Thanks a lot.

Exercising on purpose in temperatures of 90 to 100 degrees struck me as another fine mess I had entered into willingly.

What is the draw with hot yoga? It incorporates muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and weight loss in a comprehensive way. It is good for the skin. Yoga, whether it’s hot or not, can also build bone density, reduce stress, supports cardiovascular health, and improves balance.  It emphasizes meditation and relaxation. I am in favor of all these things.

I am good at cat cow, mountain pose, and some simple seated twists.

I love the amazing stretch in puppy pose.

I feel incredibly strong in the warrior poses.

I am really good at Savasana.

Working on your breath is another central part of yoga. I am learning how centering and empowering breath work can be.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The event happened. I felt like a beginner in a room full of advanced learners. Quite surprisingly, the heat didn’t bother me. It was a profound discovery because heat bothers me. The poses and the pacing didn’t bother me. I can’t successfully do them, but it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t do them. I was there sweating in the moment and embracing my circumstances. The heat made it easier for muscles to move. I see potential for what I may be able to do if I stick with it. I find that possibility oddly exciting and motivating.

What happens to my thoughts through hot yoga is perhaps more pronounced than the physical components. My mind is very bendy and it stretches easily to make new connections. One of the reasons I’d love to do hot yoga again is to see what I learn about myself another time. I have a feeling I’ll walk away with something amazing every time.

What the instructor Tiffany repeated several times during the fundraiser flow is that we are stronger than our bodies. She reminded us of this as we started and ended to bring the idea full circle.

It was a deliberate teaching point.

Intentional to the core.

I did a practice run in hot yoga earlier in the week to make sure I could handle it. I had a revelation toward to end of that session that I do many things harder than hot yoga. Hot yoga wasn’t going to break me. Cancer throws things at me all the time. I deal with them. A smile broke through my perspiration as I ended my practice session with this personal revelation. I don’t think I’ll ever know how I got to be so tough.

Or beautiful.

Or smart.

Knowing that inner strength is greater than physical strength is huge. Inner strength is why I keep getting up when I get knocked down. It’s how I find a way time after time. It bats down the fear and it isn’t always easy. I can attribute my stubborn streak and tenacity to inner strength. Is there a bit of insanity mixed in? Maybe. A little willful madness can’t hurt when doing hot yoga.

Knowing that inner strength is stronger than physical fortitude has made me feel very safe. It isn’t how I imagined feeling in a hot room where I was voluntarily exercising. Nothing could touch me in that room that felt like a humid August day. I was safe. I couldn’t hold needle pose. I didn’t understand what Chaturanga meant. I wasn’t ever going to be one of the best participants in any yoga class. But I knew I could set the room on fire if my inner strength were a match.

We all have stuff. We also all have grit. One friend who came to hot yoga is parenting her young daughter who has childhood cancer. My sister has a lot of pressure and stress at work. Everyone there likely had cause to summon their inner strength. Inner strength is an energy. It is a good fit to pair with hot yoga. Inner strength supports us when challenged. I believe it is part of everyone’s core. My core is rock solid when I think of core defined this way. We all practice strengthening our core whether through yoga poses or the challenges we rumble with in life. Some of us have had more practice than others. We all are stronger than our bodies.

Big Steps

This is a tale of taking steps.

Step One: Failure and Recovery

It starts last September in a training session where my fitness coach was gathering baseline data to use for setting goals.

She wanted me to step up on a medium sized step up box without any help from my hands, other equipment, walls, etc. It was hard for me.

I can step up on a small step up box 12 inches high successfully without support.

The medium box is 18 inches high. I can do it if I am holding something for support. This means I am using leg muscles and relying on arm muscles for help. What counts in this setting is to not use arm muscles. My hamstrings, quads, glutes, and core need to do all the work.

I knew it wasn’t going to go well and I didn’t want to do it. My coach was there to hold on to me if I needed it. She’s great but I didn’t find her stabilizing. I fell backward, stumbled, but was able to right myself so I didn’t fall.

It was scary. There were tears. I moved to another part of my workout. We focused on all the things I was really good at. I don’t do well with fear or failure and couldn’t shake the voices in my head. Casting away those negative voices is also hard for me. It bugged me that I had trouble with the box because I knew I could do it. At home stepping up and down from a kitchen chair I had moved into a corner was part of my workout because it mimicked climbing hills and making big steps I climbed on hikes. I hold on to the top of the chair while I practice which is cheating, but it works for me.

Since I couldn’t get rid of the voices, I moved the medium box to a corner and did it confidently without issues, without hesitation, without fear. I felt a little better. It shut up the voices and I salvaged what I could.

Step Two: Approximated Movements and Muscle Building

Some time ago I bought a TRX suspension trainer to use at home. Entire workouts can be built around it. I love using it because it works so many different muscles and fits whatever level of difficulty I need. I can do pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, stretches, and modified yoga moves. Working with it makes my body feel quite good.

I hang on to the TRX when I’m practicing with the medium box at my weekly training session.

I have worked to isolate movements in my hips, glutes, and legs.

I climb my staircase at home with exaggerated movements pretending my regular steps are jumbo-sized.

I have turned on my abs repeatedly.

I have exhausted myself and felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all.

Step Three: Success

Muscle memory is mysterious yet strong.

Something happened at the end of November.

I felt like I wasn’t making any discernible progress. There was a minuscule lift of maybe an inch when I would try to push off from the ground with my foot. I didn’t have the needed strength.

My trainer set the small box next to the medium box. I stepped onto the small box, then the medium box easily. I took one big step backward from the medium box to lower myself to the floor. Even doing that terrified me the first time because it felt like such a big step down. I modified (cheated) and held onto something to make sure one foot was securely on the ground before letting go and step down with the other foot. It was doable. I repeated this exercise several times not using my hands.

I tried stepping up from the ground straight to the medium sized box. No dice. I was unable to piece it together moving forward. My trainer gave me the TRX to use while I stepped up. As an educator, I’m all for modification and chunking smaller steps together. I get it. I know that’s what I’ve been practicing. I don’t get why I haven’t progressed faster.

It was time for something different. What was next? Did I want to do arm pulls or push-ups? Neither. I wanted to use the punching bag. I like hitting. Beating up something other than myself feels good. Hitting works. It helps me focus. Other feelings fall away.

More practice on the box was next. No one expected a surprise. I was to practice a skill in isolation and work on pushing off with one foot.

I knew I felt different as I walked to the box. Let’s blame it on adrenaline. An insane idea entered my mind when I was just a couple of steps from the box that I was going to go for it and I’d make it this time. In hindsight, I should have announced my plans in case my plans didn’t work out and I needed help. I still had on the boxing gloves and wouldn’t be able to grab anything easily if I fell.

The momentum was there. I stepped up, pushed off, used my core, glutes, and leg strength, and just like that, I stood on the box.

Yes, I did it. Triumph was mine.

I did it several more times, giddy and confused with my success.

Step Four: Real Life

A step up is defined as when there is an increase in size or amount. There have been noticeable improvements in my strength and stamina where my fitness is concerned. Right now, I feel I struggle a bit more because I’ve moved up a level.

Quite often I find I am not making many strides living with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I go to the hospital for treatment, I am faced with at least one aggravation, usually several ranging from long wait times, people who don’t know who I am, insurance or billing absurdities, and of course health hurdles. I will step up to each of these with as much tenacity as I can muster. Persistence and doggedness paid off in the classroom when digging in my heels with teaching children. I do it well and I’m getting lots of opportunities to showcase how stubborn I can be. My life away from treatment days when I can do things the way I want without restraints (aka the right way) goes much more smoothly.

There have been changes I’ve noticed in myself. I’ve stepped up in my confidence. I carry myself with more assurance and I see it in how I talk to others and what I’m willing to take on myself. I am bolder when I stand up for myself and say what I need when I’m at an office visit or treatment. I plan events that go well. Each successful event moves me closer to a greater goal.

The Rockettes practice hours a day to ensure everyone is in the right step at the right time for a performance. Marching bands do the same. The moon landing and the first steps on the moon didn’t just happen. It took many people working together and many small steps over time that added up to a giant leap for mankind. Medical advancements, breakthroughs, and treatments used today are the result of research, trials, and carefully planned steps that led to medical successes.

In what areas of life do you need to step up? Success takes time. Moving forward takes time. Whatever it is that challenges you, keep at it one step (up) at a time. Use a TRX suspension trainer or boxing gloves if you need a hand. Keep working.

Writing and Health

Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.

Writing is a way to self-reflect, express my beliefs, and share my voice with others. Tara Parker-Pope wrote an article in The New York Times titled Writing Your Way to Happiness. One path to happiness is through writing a personal story.

The goal is to create an “optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” She explains that although our inner voice is choosing the words as we write, we can go back and edit our story. For example, I may choose to write a story about a session with my trainer, or planting morning glory seeds, or being kept awake by a thunderstorm. Rewriting it can bring about behavioral changes, improve happiness, and lead to better health.

Bringing about behavioral changes, improving happiness, and working toward better health are all important to me as someone trying to live well with cancer. I’ve written quite a bit about the progress I’ve made with my trainer. Through the rewriting process, I discovered how negative self-talk hinders me in my training sessions and then I made some changes. Maybe I’ll write a story about morning glories and understand why they make me so happy. Writing about sleepless nights during bad weather may motivate me to sleep in my basement where I can’t hear anything which in turn makes me feel a lot better the next day.

Stories lead us to better understand ourselves.

For anyone interested in journaling specifically about health, consider the following prompts:

  • What changes do I want to make in my behavior? Why do I want these changes? What is it I am hoping to gain? What is my plan? How can I take the first step?
  • What things make me happy from the inside out?
  • What small goals do I have that can lead to better health?

Or write a story about morning glories or something you think is entirely irrelevant to your health. After it’s written, you can look for possible connections that you didn’t see at first.

Timothy Wilson has researched writing as a way to change core narratives successfully and calls the process “story-editing.” His background is in social psychology and focuses on self-knowledge and behavior. I recommend one of his books, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, for further reading if interested. He sees writing as a pathway to bring about change. A writer writes for about twenty minutes a night for three to four nights, and each night goes back to edit the narrative. The outcome is that a more honest narrative is written through reflection on consecutive nights.

It’s an enlightening process.

Try it out: Think of a recent situation where you felt some anger.

Anger is a wonderful feeling to use for this exercise because you have automatic conflict.

On the first night, just write a very brief account to get the bare bones of the event written. It’s nothing fancy. Focus on your feelings another night and how to convey those through descriptions or specific actions. Add dialogue another night. Or just see where the writing takes you each night. You really don’t need a plan if you don’t want one. Just write.

Sometimes I wind up with an entirely different piece of writing than when I started.

I see writing your way to happiness as much more of a “revisioning” of a core narrative than editing, especially where endings are concerned. Revising involves bigger changes. Some parts stay, some go. Ideas are expanded. You try things out and see if they work. In Wilson’s book, one of his exercises is called “The Best Possible Selves.” He asks a writer to imagine his or her life twenty years from now and write about how everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Details about how the events of things happened are to be included, as well as meaning, hope, and purpose. Again, writing for twenty minutes a night for three to four nights is part of the directions. It gives your subconscious time to ruminate and work through whatever needs more thought so you can make more progress the following night. I think this is the same reason you are asked to write in the evening.

The part about including details about how future events happened is important. Being specific helps you form a picture in your mind of what you want. It makes a picture with words. Adding meaning, hope, and purpose also makes your vision super clear. Clarity in meaning and purpose makes what you want more probable.

I can tell you in my version I am completely healthy, retired, and enjoying every day doing the things I love. Writing sets a powerful intention more than thoughts or spoken words. It involves being really clear on what you want and organizing your words in the best possible way to express your specific intentions. I found that reading what I wrote out loud to someone after I completed the exercise also very revealing because my soul really responded to the core beliefs that I hold the dearest about my future as I put it all out there to the universe. Writing your way to happiness is one positive affirmation after another.

Writing something down tells your brain that your ideas, thoughts, and goals are important.

Writing engages us with our thoughts and helps us process emotions. It makes those thoughts concrete. It prepares those thoughts for becoming actions. Writing really serves as a blueprint or map for all that unchartered emotional and mental territory. Regular journal writing about feelings or uncomfortable events can help lower anxiety and help a person sleep better.

In the world of living well with cancer, I have both read and written. I am still learning how to write what I know and believe about cancer.

This is how I break down words about cancer:

  • Medical journals/scientific articles on cancer findings/advancements. I’ve avoided reading many of these articles and journals as they aren’t written for patients. Once it was suggested I read one per month, but I found them confusing. Or upsetting. Or not applicable.
  • Test results also can be confusing (or upsetting, or have unclear applications), however, these are much more important to understand because they affect the patient intimately.
  • A personal health journal to document the factual side of a cancer diagnosis. Surgeries, treatments, radiation, medications, side effects, tests, appointments, and schedules fall into this category.
  • Diaries/journal writing from survivors, thrivers, lifers, however a person best identifies. There are narratives filled with tips. Some write about living with cancer. Some write about beating cancer. Some write about dying from cancer.
  • Fictional stories where characters have cancer. They read differently than biographical accounts but contain many of the same sentiments of life and/or death. Some hit the mark – others do not.
  • Advocacy writing that argues for better research and treatments for later stage cancer patients. In my opinion, the world needs more of this kind of writing. People focus on the wrong drivers of “awareness” or accuse women and men of being “negative” if they write about the hard, scary, and ugly parts of cancer. Change will come through advocacy. Current widespread attitudes need to be challenged.
  • Celebrities sharing their “I never let cancer get the best of me” stories. How courageous . . . and . . . inspiring? I think it’s just ducky if they never experienced one moment of fear, doubt, or anger. If you can’t tell, I don’t believe them. I would be more impressed if they used their platform in the public eye (that is much more far-reaching than mine) to put a mark on metastatic breast cancer that can’t be ignored or dismissed. It makes me sad. I feel like they don’t understand. Maybe they can wear pink and that will make it all better.
  • Private writing reflecting on some of the questions above or your own.
  • A few write blogs. 😉

Am I missing any?

Writing forces a person to process a pesky thought that has been floating about unrecognized or undefined. Once on paper (or the computer), it lets you see what you were thinking or feeling. If it isn’t quite right, you revise until your inner voice has spoken.

I end this post how I began it: Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.

Defining Success

“She’s done it all.”

I heard this comment a while back referring to a TV personality. She has written songs and books. She’s written a movie, starred in it, and directed one. She’s co-hosted two morning TV shows. She had a lasting marriage, is a mother, and seems to be loved by many friends. I don’t know her, yet I get the feeling she returns that love back to friends and strangers.

She is talented. I like her.

You may even correctly guess this person’s identity. I’m purposely not going to name her because that really isn’t the point. It could be many people. Those in the public eye often achieve a level of success and celebrity because they are so visible in the public eye. Opportunities and connections come to them like bees to honey. Opportunities and connections are wonderful, as are bees and honey. Nothing is wrong with any of those things.

What I want to write about is success.

How is success defined?

Does success mean doing it all?

It certainly can.

But I haven’t done most of the things this woman has done and I am still successful.

I have family and friends who love me and I love them back.

I established myself in a career I loved where I was respected and made a difference. I feel that overall I was liked and had a good reputation. I worked hard over many years to earn that respect and reputation.

I have traveled extensively including all 50 states and 26 countries.

I have a beautiful home.

I have interests that allow me to grow while still feeling whole.

I see beauty in people and places.

I even have a few books and songs. Unpublished for now. I’d love to see that change with the books. The world may be better off without the songs. Lucky ones have heard these.

Each individual has his or her own definition of success. For a long time, the most familiar model for success meant money and power in the business world. Success was measured with a dollar sign. You were more admired if you held immense power. Popularity was an important indicator of success. You knew you had made it in the world if everyone knew your name. It mattered who you knew and how well connected you were. Success was defined by money and possessions.

Of course, life isn’t this way for most people. I suppose the above description does match a definition of success for a few. The fictitious George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life beautifully demonstrates how someone who doesn’t fit the above description still embodies success. He’s even the richest man in town because he has qualities that matter more than money or power.

Success to me means being loved and feeling happy. I have both of those.

Success means being healthy. I would love not to have cancer. But I do. I am thankful for the health I do have. I can’t feel defeated or unsuccessful when I always try. Some things are out of my hands.

Health means a lot. Life changes when a person has lost their health, mobility, or independence due to an injury or illness. I now live with one of those pre-existing conditions. I’m on Medicare. I receive disability. I can’t take long trips like I once did because of a revolving door of medical appointments. When I do travel someplace, I pack a traveling pharmacy. I try to keep up but need to do less sometimes. A lot has changed. Many health dominoes have toppled over much earlier for me than I thought they would if they toppled at all. The thing with dominoes is that when one domino falls, others do, too. I took my relatively good health before cancer for granted. When a person has good health, they do have everything. I still have a lot, but life is different.

Feeling happy and healthy are the two forces that guide any feelings of success I have.

I am not “doing it all.” Having/Doing it all means different things to different people. It’s all relative to an individual. If I don’t have what someone else has does it mean I am lacking, or vice versa if the situation is reversed? My goals are to be as happy and as healthy as I can be. I still want to get up in the morning with the intention to somehow be helpful if possible and to live joyfully. I want to go to sleep at night with the satisfaction that I succeeded.

Take a moment and think of a time when you felt successful. What had you done? How did you feel?

I’ll give a few examples that may trigger some ideas.

One of my extracurricular activities in high school was forensics. I was a storyteller. Although I never came in first at a meet, I did place well enough to earn a trophy once. The trophy wasn’t all that important. I felt successful in retelling a story so well that I painted a picture with only my words and captured my audience. I also felt extremely successful that I never passed out during a telling. I had a wide range of standards to define success in those days.

I also am privileged to present a small scholarship to a graduating high school student who plans to major in education. It isn’t much, but it’s important for me to be able to give back. I feel successful that I can support someone’s dream in a small way. Still feeling connected to the educational community also makes me feel successful.

Reaching goals enable a person to feel successful. When I finish a hike or a bike ride I feel successful because I have completed something from start to finish. When I’m able to lift more weight or meet a new benchmark in my training sessions I feel successful because I know I have made progress. Goals can be small to still feel successful. I know someone who had a brief stay in the hospital and needed to move around more even though it was painful to walk far. She told me one of the nurses saw her making a slow lap around the halls on the floor. Afterward, the nurse came into her room and made three boxes on the whiteboard where general notes were written about diet, meds, and other plans. She checked off one box for one lap and told my friend she needed to do two more that day. My friend confided in me she really didn’t want to because walking hurt and she was so slow. But those empty boxes stared at her waiting to be crossed off. The boxes were such small things, but very motivating. She did what she had to do. She simply crossed them off without walking to make it look like she had done the work. No, she didn’t, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. She did two more laps, each one faster than the last. She was very pleased with herself. I was proud of her.

No money, fame, or power were in any of these examples. Success truly came from a place of happiness, being able to help, and being healthy enough to get something done.

As long as I can find a way to feel happy, helpful, and healthy, I will be successful.

I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on how you define success.

Pelican Lessons

Sanoviv Medical Institute is situated on the Baja Peninsula in Rosarito, Mexico. It’s built on a cliff looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Every day seems sunny. A lulling symphony of rolling and crashing waves repeats itself over and over. It’s a small hospital that specializes in functional medicine and both integrative and alternative treatments. Many guests visit for a health retreat. A smaller group of guests are patients with more serious health conditions. Research there focuses on how immunity can be supported at the cellular level in fighting disease and optimizing one’s best health. The physical, mind, and spirit are all important components of a healthy individual.

I left Wisconsin for Sanoviv almost as soon as my school year ended in 2016. My goals included strengthening my immunity, detoxing my body, and learning more successful ways to deal with stress. I was open to hearing what they recommended in terms of treating cancer. My oncologist at home was curious and doubted anything would interfere with my current protocol. I wouldn’t be missing any treatments at home by going. Neuropathy had taken a toll on my poor feet. I was also suffering from painful hand-foot syndrome. Of particular interest to me were the options for treating disease from a cellular level after disease had already happened. I signed up for a three-week cancer support program. If nothing else, I was off to Mexico in an idyllic setting and getting away from my life at home. It was even better if my health improved.

There are many moments from that trip etched away both in my memories and in a book that exists in a forever state of revision. I met people from as far away as Nigeria, Australia, and China, and as close to home as Chicago. My days were scheduled from 6 AM to about 7 PM. Some of it was not pleasant, but many parts of it were filled with beauty, purpose, and deep lessons. What I want to share briefly are my memories of the pelicans.

Pelicans flew along the coastline daily. I had never held any affection for these birds. I thought them big, ugly, and dirty looking. If a bird could be fishy, pelicans were fishy as well. My opinion transformed at Sanoviv watching these strong and graceful birds. I admired how they would pass by in single file while floating on an air current. It was like each bird was connected to another with an invisible string. They reminded me of bikers drafting behind a lead bike so as to block the wind and use less energy, an idea which bikers got from birds no less. At other times the pelicans arranged themselves in groups of four like in fighter jet formation. Wings tucked in for increased speed, yet they still managed to stay in unison with each other. These birds had an unspoken quiet beauty no matter how I saw them.

I had a very special pelican sighting on my last full day. I was sitting up in a special care area receiving IVs, looking out at the ocean in a bit of a daze, lost in thought. Far out on the hazy horizon, I saw a somewhat shapeless form. I wondered if they were pelicans, but they were too far away. Whatever it was resembled the v-shaped way a child draws birds flying in pictures. As the shapeless form drew closer, it moved off to the left and changed shaped, now reminding me more of a swarm of bees. From where I sat, I temporarily lost sight of the changing shape and figured that was the end of it.

But it was not. The shape was a small group of about four or five pelicans who were just hugging the coastline. Soon enough, they came back into view and flew by my window in a single file in one long, continuous silent flow. It was as if the pelicans were saying goodbye and purposely saluting me with their waving wings. It was a beautiful and peaceful moment that I will never forget.

Here is one of those perfect times where everything fits together magically. In the animal spirit world, pelicans symbolize regeneration and resourcefulness. I was at Sanoviv to heal and re-energize. The pelican population had dwindled in the past but presently has bounced back. Pelicans also represent resilience and determination. My spirit is filled with this same resilience and determination. My mindset is of one determined path just like the single line of the pelicans’ flight. A greater force was absolutely at work in bringing pelicans to me day after day after day. Signs are always there. I don’t believe it’s all a coincidence.

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted at Sanoviv. I arrived home feeling healthier than I had in a long time. My energy was better, my cholesterol was lower, and I felt happy. New scans were scheduled at home. These showed that returning to a more traditional form of chemotherapy was in my best interests. I would have had the same results if my scans had been scheduled before I went to Mexico. It’s interesting that one of the things I’m currently receiving today is what they suggested as my best option almost three years ago. The drug was not being used in the U.S. in exactly the same capacity as in Mexico, so I got a big fat NO from my oncologist at home. It was an FDA thing. Now it’s FDA approved.

I quickly made decisions and turned my life upside-down once more. Nothing was how I wanted it. Very little seemed the same. Life looks very different to me now. I have been resourceful, resilient, and determined, just like the pelican. Where everything isn’t perfect, I am still here. I am finding a way.

Lessons of resourcefulness, resilience, and determination are important for all of us. We all have stories where life hasn’t turned out as we planned. Many events are outside our control. We almost always think we have more control over events than we actually do. How we respond when life becomes hard is important. There is always a choice to respond positively or negatively. We all have opportunities to adapt, regroup, and come back to either try again or go in a new direction. We rest and give it another go, approaching challenges from new angles and perspectives. We all have more grit, strength, and determination than we think we do.

We are an awful lot like pelicans.

Many times we glide with grace.

Other times we need to be in fighter jet formation.

 

Consider responding:

  • When have you needed to depend on resourcefulness, resilience, and determination?