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.

Triggers and Treasures

People with metastatic breast cancer often write about things that trigger strong emotions.

Common triggers are:

  • Oncology visits – Stressful
  • Scans – Stressful
  • Results – Stressful
  • Insensitive and/or negative comments from others – Did they get it all? At least you don’t have to work. My grandma had cancer . . . she died. Maybe you should give “x” a try. You don’t look sick. The list goes on and on.
  • Dates that serve as reminders – Memories can haunt.
  • Deaths of others with metastatic cancer – Painful emotionally and physically.
  • Aches, pains, feeling under the weather and worrying about any new symptom – What is normal when abnormal is the norm?
  • Invitations and attending social events – I have a hard time feeling comfortable, looking decent, and I worry about food agreeing with me, dodging questions, and talking about what I’m up to when so much of my time focuses on my health.
  • Making long term plans – I don’t want to cancel something fun I’ve planned to do even if it’s next week. It’s challenging to commit to taking a vacation longer than a week because it’s pretty rare where I don’t have something medical on the calendar. Committing to a vacation a few months away involves tacking on the extra travel insurance because I feel better knowing a refund is possible if my health causes a problem.
  • General toxicity from others – I’ve had enough.

Here are two new ones for me:

  • Politics – I can spiral when health care gets used as a pawn or when inalienable rights are taken away. It sickens me when elected officials are self-serving and ignore the U.S. Constitution rather than serve the people.
  • Susan G. Komen – I’m afraid I have developed trolling behaviors on Facebook when I see posts about how this “nonprofit” gives the gift of time even though they refuse to help people with stage IV cancer and turn them away when they ask for help. Stage IV is the only stage that kills and NOT helping us is giving us the gift of LESS TIME. I can accept that they may help others (provide mammograms and some financial assistance for those who need it) but then a slogan needs to match this intention where false claims aren’t made. How would you even go about proving a donation gives the gift of time? You can’t connect them together. See what I mean about being triggered? I can’t hold back once I see one of their stupid posts. I’m working on it because the troll version of me is mean.

Yet there are treasures in my life that I focus on when I find myself needing to steer away from triggers. Life doesn’t always afford the possibility of such control. A partial list of my treasures includes:

  • Good books – My favorite from last year was Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Reading helps me escape from reality while still focusing on universal needs for love, truth, justice, and what is right. I thoroughly love words.
  • Writing – I find the process cathartic. It helps me organize my ideas and feelings in a concrete way. There are times I am not even sure what my point is until I’ve finished writing and the words stare back at me. I learn from it. I loved teaching children to write. I don’t mind revising. Revising is part of the crafting. Again, I love words.
  • Friends who are friends no matter what – My life is better because of my friends.
  • Exercise – Stress relief. Builds strength. Feels good.
  • Being in nature – Relaxes me.
  • Birds – A sweet little chickadee just came to the feeder outside my window and made me smile. Birds are entertaining creatures and unique from one another.
  • Calming music – Soothes me.
  • Caramel, cookies, brownies, and ice cream – Not at the same time but that sounds delicious.
  • Reiki – Universal life force energy helps me feel better connected and supported in the world.
  • Favorite photos – Happy memories warm my soul.

A lot of advice centers around not reacting to triggers immediately and trying to find a healthy outlet to replace the trigger. Spending time on treasures brings me more joy. Joy comes from a place of love and that replaces triggers that originate in fear. There is a reason treasures are buried and protected – they are valuable and we want to keep them safe. They are priceless. Treasured people, places, and things are kept close to our hearts. We don’t want to lose them.

We all have treasures in our lives. May the year ahead hold more treasures than triggers in your life.

Floating

Adventure is not my middle name. Not even close. I still do my share of new things. Plenty. Floating is one of those new things. I decided to try something new and purchased a series of floats at Float Madison. My adventure began as I left an icy, dreary, and drizzly January day behind for a womblike world of peaceful comfort, safe and soft.

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Float Madison offers floating experiences in either a small room or a pod.                                             Image credit: Float Madison

Floating has many merits. Professional athletes use it as part of training programs to let their bodies rest and recover. The Epsom salts used during floatation therapy give your body magnesium which supports muscle recovery and relaxation. Pressure is taken off your spine and joints which will help reduce inflammation. Creative thinkers and artists enjoy floating and feel it can help them reach their highest potential and expression. No one learns or performs well when in a stressed state. I can’t help but draw upon lessons learned from past students from my life as a teacher. Children can’t learn well who come to school tired, hungry, worried about friends, or afraid of looking stupid or embarrassed about something. We are all alike that way. Being relaxed opens up possibilities whoever you are and whatever you’ve chosen to do.

Being relaxed opens up more possibilities for me as a metastatic breast cancer patient. Space is created for emotional healing. I believe other toxic medication may work better if I’m not stressed out about treatments, tests, and the other challenges living with this disease throws at me.

The biggest draw for me is the time to just BE. It truly is the gift of nothing. You can’t get up and do that thing you forgot to finish (or start) earlier. You can’t quickly go online and then discover you’ve lost an hour you’ll never get back. No one will interrupt you. There is no one right way to float, so whatever happens is meant to be and is absolutely perfect. Perfect moments in my life are few and far between. I’d be happy with nearly perfect.

Just BE.

Here is a list of verbs used to describe a floating experience:

  • Unwind
  • Connect
  • Heal
  • Explore
  • Grow

Reread them. All are positive. All are affirming. There is no room for fear, doubt, or negativity.

I did far too much thinking during the float. Giving my body over to floating was much easier than I thought. I knew immediately I was not going to be the only person ever to sink. I was comfortable and safe. I focused on the sensation of the water gently meeting skin still exposed above water. It lapped unobtrusively and was barely detectable. A feeling of oneness with the water prevailed. With my arms resting above my head, my fingers pushed off from the top edge of the tank. I thought I was cognizant of when my body stopped moving, however, all motion was slow and delayed. A few seconds after I thought I stopped moving, my toes would bump into the bottom edge of the tank. Back and forth I went for some time at this because I was fascinated and like repetition. I also did a lot of experimentation with twisting and stretching, each time proving it was impossible to sink. Not being encumbered by any floor while doing all this was magical.

A deep bluish hue was the mood lighting in the tank. Pinpricks in the ceiling created a star effect. Calming music lulled my soul. A preset timer would eventually fade the music. Knobs inside the tank were my responsibility to push to turn off the bottom and ceiling lights. Then I would be immersed in the stillness of no sound and no light.

Pitch blackness.

I can be claustrophobic in the right settings (MRI tubes). It’s why I signed up for the ocean room rather than a floating pod. I wanted a little more room.

Woman of adventure that I am, I turned out all the lights.

Total darkness.

I was okay, more than okay. I knew where I was. My spatial awareness is quite strong and I could still feel where the buttons were for the tub and ceiling lights, as well as the dry washcloth if I needed to wipe salt away from my face. I splashed with my fingertips that made sounds of lonely drops echoing like they were dripping from a long distance. It was water music.

Floating is called the gift of nothing. I understood the concept of nothing while I floated. The point is to let go of all the inner chatter, not think, and have a meditative experience. Meditation would be a goal for another float.

I may have mentioned in an earlier post that living with metastatic breast cancer is stressful. The floating environment is not stressful. I entertained thoughts of how floating could be used to remove some of the stress I experience with the ongoing stressors in my life.

Could science, in all its exacting facts and structured design, turn the MRI scanner filled with all its anxiety and pounding sounds into a floating experience? No deafening noises. No breath holds. Freedom to make small movements. It would still provide precise and accurate results. Try as I might to imagine the current medical technology as a comforting cocoon, it is ineffective in many ways. Chances are if the floating tank was ever associated with a scan as part of cancer testing it would inherently turn into something stressful. Still, a girl can dream. Scheduling a float session after a stressful scan is a more realistic way to deal with the stress of scans and not associate it with scanxiety.

Floating can still be effective in reducing some of the emotional issues cancer creates like stress, anxiety, sadness, as well physical issues because it can relax muscles and ease tensions on joints. Less stress opens up the possibility of more healing.

Any moments I can get away and relax are important to me.

Many write posts of life after treatment ends. I’m always in a state of ongoing. The best I have are in between times. It is hard to find times of sustained peace, balance, and happiness.

I have become better at living in the NOW.

Now is all I have. Now is all any of us have.

Meditation has been only so-so effective for me. I do well when I meditate on a walk, through prayer, through writing. Sitting quietly works for me. Focusing on my breath often doesn’t. The next time I float I may try doing more of a guided imagery practice. Imagining and envisioning scenarios and outcomes have been successful. Visualization is a proven way to plan steps to reach a goal.

Floating was the first of several adventures I have planned. Stay tuned as more unfold. Maybe adventure could be my middle name. Just maybe.

Consider responding:

  • What is a gift of nothing you give yourself?

 

Cancer Research Lab Tour

I had the opportunity last week to tour the Burkard Lab for Breast Cancer Research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Dr. Mark Burkard is one of the oncologists there. In addition to seeing patients with breast cancer, his research interest is in targeted therapies, especially those directed at protein kinases. He also heads up the Outlier Study in addition to work in clinical trials. It’s his lab that I toured.

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Burkard Lab for Breast Cancer Research, UW Carbone

My working knowledge of cancer started when my mother was first diagnosed with primary breast cancer. I learned a lot more years later when hers became metastatic and with my initial diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in 2012. A period of time exists between then and now where lots of information has blurred. Science never was my strongest subject. I’ll do my best to summarize what I understood from the evening’s tour. Beware of technical difficulties.

The lab tour was guided by graduate students and research team members through several stations in the lab much like learning stations would be set up in a classroom. The structure lent itself well to guiding a group of people through areas in smaller groups to provide a more personal experience. Snapshot descriptions of each station follow.

Cell Division Station

The first station was led by graduate student Roshan Xavier Norman. He explained how erroneous cell division can cause lagging chromosomes that form a micronucleus. This micronucleus doesn’t have all the material it’s supposed to have. It can lead to cancer if a cell doesn’t have the same nucleus material as the others. His work involves staining proteins in cells and looking at them through expansion microscopy. This enables him to see molecular structures at high resolution and see the difference between normal cells and abnormal cancer cells. He talked at length about chromosome segregation, spindle abnormalities, and differences in cells from mitosis that were damaged because of lagging chromosomes during DNA replication. It became very technical for me to understand, but the gist I took away was he was being successful in pinpointing these errors in cell division and there are applications to research.

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Expansion micCell Division in Various Stages

Outliers Study Station

Rob Lera, PhD, is a research associate and has been with the Burkard Research Group since 2009. He talked about the Extreme Long Term Survivor Study. The goal of this study is to identify patterns that attribute to long term survival in metastatic breast cancer patients. This study is also known as the Outliers Study because despite the odds, there are metastatic breast cancer patients living well beyond the expected two to three years median survival rate when diagnosed. There are two survivors still going strong by surviving greater than forty years, one of whom was on the tour that night! I felt like I needed to go and rub up against her for luck. Fifty of the longest survivors since their original primary diagnosis have been surviving from 22-42 years.

Data on participants in this study are gathered through extensive paper/online questionnaires, phone interviews, saliva kits, and extracting tissue samples. Most participants are HR+ Her2 – but there is representation from all MBC subtypes. Then it is all analyzed for patterns.

Preliminary results can be found HERE.

It appears the only conclusion drawn so far is there is no apparent correlation between exercise and time living with cancer or metastatic breast cancer. Cancer is so individualized. My personal opinion is that the 720 participants in the study surely must have done things outside the medical box and thrown some of the medical advice out the window to still be around today. I need to think outliers didn’t get where they are from playing by all the rules. It sure would suck if there were no correlations at all and extreme long term survival amounts to pure luck.

I was discussing some of the possible factors determining survival with one of my friends on the tour who has a nursing background and we unscientifically agreed that if an individual thought something made a difference, then it made a difference. I happen to believe the daily exercise I do now makes a difference in my health. I exercise daily and get my 150 minutes each week, usually more. Feeling like I’m doing something positive in terms of my health matters to me. Belief is a powerful medicine. It is one of many attributes and patterns that can’t be measured through this study.

I filled out a preliminary survey for the Outliers Study and felt I provided lots of information on why I feel I’ve survived so far. I am one of the little lines on one of their charts. I haven’t survived long enough to be interesting enough for further study. Someday I will be.

Patient Derived Organoids

Rachel Sundstrom is a research specialist with a degree that’s focused on biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology. Her work involves analyzing patient derived organoids (PDOs). PDOs are cancer cells from patients with breast cancer tumors that are grown in a 3D model. They mimic the biological characteristics of the primary tumors. I think this is what she meant when she talked about organoid morphology and how she is working with different Taxol concentrations that cause cell death, trying to find the just right level for that to happen.

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I had the opportunity to look through the microscope at a sample PDO.

All this work is worthwhile. I spoke to another friend the day before this tour and she told me about experiments where cancer cells were taken from a patient’s body, grown in separate petri dishes, and then various chemotherapies and targeted therapies were tested out to see which treatments the cancer responded to best. I asked if this type of work was being done at Carbone. No, it isn’t. Well, I responded that’s the direction I felt research needed to take. She said some work similar to what I had asked about is being done at the colon cancer lab on campus headed by Dr. Dustin Deming. I have met Dr. Deming and heard him speak about his work with colon cancer treatments. He told me there are some crossovers that may be applicable to breast cancer. Anyway, I made it clear I wanted that kind of work to happen at this lab. Why wasn’t it being done?

It’s expensive.

My response: Yes, research is expensive. People die. That has a cost, too.

I hope my comments were heard and get discussed further elsewhere in the context of future projects being planned. I know a handful of people on the tour that evening had metastatic breast cancer. We were there because of our health and want to live. We support research being done. We want to be outliers. I was not there just to learn and pat them on the back. I want to drive change.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to communicate, “Is this being done? I would like this to happen here. When will it happen?”

I felt a little like it was the elephant in the room.

I wondered if I was the only one seeing it.

Immune Response Station

Yang Hu presented his graduate work on the effects of Taxol on activating an immune response to cancer cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell that are important to the immune system. They are important because they can adapt and tailor a response to specific pathogens. These cells are often likened to soldiers that target and destroy bad cells. The challenge is to get these T cells near enough to the cancer cells in order to kill them off. His work is showing that paclitaxel/Taxol can stimulate T cell immune responses for some people. His sample size is small, however, there may be a small pattern emerging where triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) patients have responded more to this type of treatment than other breast cancer subtypes.

I would like to know what goes into the process of determining which projects get accepted and researched. The lab was interesting to see. In my mind I pictured it as being very spacious and sterile, filled with high tech equipment, cold, and lots of white. People would walk around wearing lab coats, goggles, and gloves. That’s how TV and movies depict research labs. It wasn’t at all like those images. Every nook and cranny was used. It was crowded with color. I was reminded of how I used space in my old classroom.

I am grateful that these researchers are using their time and talents to dedicate their lives to breast cancer research. Teaching hospitals often have tours of research facilities as it’s one way to promote their work and thank donors who’ve helped make that work possible. My suggestion is it’s well worth your time to find one to tour, learn about what’s being researched, and ask the questions that matter to you. Do some research!