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.
I have a friend who works as an administrator in health care. She often shares with me aspects of wellness activities that are part of her work. Recently, she told me there had been many long days at the hospital due to all the planning that goes into protecting staff and patients from COVID-19 while ensuring the hospital and other facilities still operate effectively and safely. It’s a very demanding job, yet she describes it as also being a highly supportive work environment. She has shared with me creative challenge questions they are given each week. One week each person needed to share a sound that made them feel productive. She said it made people more mindful of the sounds in their environment all week long. A little extra mindfulness can make an enormous difference these days. My friend chose the sound of cutting fabric. She is a talented quilter, so this sound made sense even though it wasn’t related to work.
She also shared she liked the sound of a three-hole punch. A three-hole punch fits into her world of many papers at work. As a teacher, I liked the three-hole punch, too, although I think this friend likes it more. I still have a three-hole punch but rarely use it. It has a definite sound of accomplishment. It’s the precursor to placing final papers in a binder. I love binders but they are pretty quiet office supplies.
What would I have chosen as a teacher? Would I have chosen the morning bell announcing it was time to officially start my day with my second graders? Maybe the ending bell was a better indicator of a day filled with work, learning, and productivity. A pencil sharpener evokes mixed feelings. Often it was used to give the illusion of working hard when hardly working was the more likely scenario. Other times it represented the definite hum of worker bees in the hive of learning.
None of those sounds fit my present life. I still like the sound of an electric pencil sharpener. A newly sharpened pencil makes a soft scratching sound as it scrawls across a sheet of paper. It’s hardly perceptible but it’s there. I don’t do tons of writing by hand. I gravitate towards pens over pencils when I do. Even now as I type away, the keyboard clicks in a rhythm of spurts. Words appear, but I’ve never equated the sound of typing as being especially productive. I’ve never paid any attention to it. I’m being mindful of it now but think of it more as a means to an end. It’s the finished piece that makes me feel productive and that has no sound. When I’m done, I’m just done.
My home is pretty quiet. TV or music provides background noise. I’m not producing either of those. I don’t cook a lot, so the cooking sounds of mixers, knives slicing on cutting boards, and timers going off aren’t sounds that work for me either. I like the sound when it’s quiet. Silence has never bothered me. Seldom is there ever truly no sound. The clock that hung in my grandma’s kitchen ticks away in mine. I can hear that from the rooms off my kitchen. I find it reassuring. Comforting. Constant. Centering.
I enjoy being in nature where I can listen to birds sing and leaves rustle on trees. I can hear the wild turkeys forage as they move slowly in a cluster. A strong wind is exhilarating if it isn’t pushing against me. I’m not making any of these sounds. I just take them in and let them fill my soul.
How am I productive? What do I really DO anymore?
I’m a professional patient. Most things during treatment are done to me, not by me. Sounds are not any result of great productivity on my end. I sit the majority of my time at office visits and treatments, only walking to get from one area to the next. The infusion machine beeps when there is a problem or my infusion is done. I hear the whoosh of my cold cap filling with the magic cold that I wear to save as much hair as possible. Occasionally, I’ll hear doors of other treatment bays slide open and parts of conversations between nurses and patients. So much for privacy. About the only productive contribution I make is pressing the call button. I do that often to alert the nurses when I need to start the next phase of the scalp cooling process or there is an air bubble in the infusion tubing and the machine is beeping rhythmically because it isn’t happy. I don’t do very much. I show up and I endure, no small feats, but I don’t turn cartwheels while I’m there.
Professional patients still want to feel productive. We are quiet; we are vocal. We float in and out of appointments and visits; we dig in our heels and don’t make things easy for anyone while trying to get what we need that makes us feel human and a wee bit healthier. We say we are fine; we tell it like it is. We are grateful; we resent some things. We are individuals; we are part of a cancer community. We keep using our voices to push for action and not awareness; we know the number of women and men who die every day from metastatic breast cancer hasn’t budged one bit. Are we productive? Yes and no. There are no distinctive sounds that make any of these behaviors and feelings stand out.
I exercise. That’s an area of my life where I take ownership. Even this has changed no thanks to the issues I’ve encountered on this treatment with hand and feet issues. I’m aware I keep coming back to this in quite a few of my posts or comments, but I tell you, it has hit me hard. I hurt to some degree pretty much all the time with this treatment. Gripping tools makes my hands hurt. Gardening and yard work took a hit this summer. My first attempt at raking this season didn’t bode well for all I have to rake. My opposable thumbs have been highly oppositional. My poor elbows are skinned due to using them to push up off the floor when doing yoga or getting out of bed because pushing off my hands is painful. I work hard at walking, but I never know where my edge is and when I will have done too much. I only had blisters on my feet once, until last week when one the size of dime developed on the top of my big toe. My point is that a lot of the physical work that made me feel like I was being productive has been sidelined. I can’t run right now. I can’t lift my kettlebells. Walking is at a slower pace.
But . . . I have found a way to exercise differently. My coach has been phenomenal. I ordered a weighted vest and can load it up to sixty pounds if I want. Twenty pounds is a good amount for me. I can wear it walking around the house. An extra twenty pounds makes a noticeable difference. I will load more when twenty pounds doesn’t make me work hard. I climb stairs wearing it. I do squats, forearm planks, modified pushups, and some yoga poses. Over and over again. My core gets a workout. That vest pushes me. It makes me sweat. I feel alive and decisive.
The vest gives me control and agency. Putting it on and doing hard work is my choice. I know there will be moments I wish I wasn’t wearing it because it makes the work I’m doing lots tougher. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and like I’m winning for a few minutes of my day. The vest makes me feel strong and proud of myself. I know I’ve had a good workout after I’ve used it. Feeling strong and proud are powerful feelings. I can do hard things. Hard things that make me feel good. Hard things that I choose. I am productive.
How do I know?
It’s the heavy breathing.
Heavy breathing is my sound that makes me feel productive.
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.
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.
While I was out walking the other day, I passed the home of a student I had taught a few years back. I’m still friendly with the student’s mother and she was out working in her yard. Our paths have crossed more over the last few months. We have some similar interests and both like supporting our community. On this particular day, she shared that a cousin out in New York City had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Active. Mid-thirties. A new mother. It’s unbelievably hard to process at any time in a person’s life, but I understood it was hitting her really hard during COVID-19 in a geographic area that has seen astronomically high numbers of cases and deaths from the virus. I am calling her Marcie which is not her real name.
I know what’s like to be going through active treatment during a pandemic in Wisconsin. My lens is what I experience and what I see through network news. I don’t know exactly what life is like for Marcie, but I empathize. I know far too well what it’s like to have life repeatedly turned upside down. My friend asked if there was anything I could share with her that she could pass on to someone newly diagnosed with stage iv breast cancer. We talked a bit longer and I said I would message her a couple of ideas.
I found I couldn’t limit it two or three tips as I thought about what to send. There are many things I’ve done over the years. Some pieces fit into my life better than others. Everyone has their own list of what works for them. I thought about what worked for me, what still works for me, and came up with a top ten list that I sent my friend. Marcie and I are now in communication. I share my list as today’s post.
Top Ten MBC Supports
Take a health journal with you to appointments. Use it to note vitals, take notes, keep a list of questions, document side effects, file test results, etc. I am on my third binder. My notes helped me understand appointments better, remember them, and sometimes I needed them if my oncologist said something that I found contradicted something earlier. A health journal provides a source of accountability.
Consider buying Radical Remission by Kelley Turner. This is the top book I’d recommend from all the cancer ones I have read. I heard she also has a podcast. I haven’t listened to the podcast. I am cheating a bit with this point because it contains much of the advice you would suspect to hear on nutrition, stress, and more. It examines 9 factors that long term survivors have in common.
Belleruth Nepartsek has a guided imagery CD that I downloaded early on in my diagnosis. It was called “Fight Cancer.” I listened to a guided imagery segment and an affirmation segment daily. I am sure she has several guided imageries. The one I like involves a real or imagined place outdoors where you are surrounded by supporters that you know or may not know. It was often in the afternoon when I felt fatigued and I would fall asleep as I listened. I still listen to it every so often. I find it empowering.
Comfort foods are good. When you feel sick, you need to eat what keeps the vomit demons at bay.
Exercise as you are able. Even if you don’t feel like it. Try to do a little walking every day to keep moving. I wasn’t always good at this. Now, it is a priority every day.
I found essential oils helped with anxiety and nausea. They are not to be ingested. Just inhale. Lavender, peppermint, and spearmint work well for anxiety and nausea.
You may have to set boundaries with others on what you need and don’t need. It’s okay to say no thank you. Don’t feel pressure to accept invitations or share information just because someone asks insensitive, none of their business questions.
Some people you may not know very well will rise up and sincerely support you. Let them in. Keep in mind those boundaries. Some people you’ve known for years, perhaps some family members and close friends, may disappear because they honestly can’t handle your situation. Let them go.
Advocate for yourself. Ask questions. Be persistent. Be knowledgeable. These qualities make you an assertive and strong patient – not annoying or difficult. Look into your rights as a patient. Know your rights.
Ignore statistics whenever possible. You are not a number. I was given literature to read before initial treatment even started. I could see it contained percentages on survival rates . . . and I threw it out unread.
I forgot maybe one of the most important things I’ve internalized . . . DON’T GIVE UP. There is a lot of research happening on the metastatic breast cancer front. Ask about it. Research the research on your own. One of the best things I did was some special genetic testing through FOUNDATION ONE that identified some new mutations in cells. Mutations that can be targeted.
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.
Sixty is the new forty. Eighty is the new sixty. Cocktails infused with mushrooms are said to be all the rage. Small weekend trips may replace bigger vacations. I’ve heard iTunes is out. Everywhere I turn, I seem to hear about a new trend or way of thinking.
Here is one of my own: Exercise is the new sugar.
This may not be new knowledge for many, but it is for me. I have said before that I have sweet teeth instead of just one sweet tooth. I will always love sugar. I am trying to love it less these days. I would love it if I could crave exercise like I crave desserts. It works for a while and then my love affair with sugar returns. All I can do is to keep trying. This week I felt more successful in eliminating some of the refined sugar in my world.
Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start.
Exercise feeds us better than sugar for many reasons.
Exercise and Cognitive Benefits
Exercise can give you the same effects that sugar does in terms of a quick energy boost, only with exercise the effects are long-lasting and healthy. For example, exercise improves cognitive functioning. A person’s focus is sharper due to boosted energy caused by higher endorphin levels. Exercise also improves memory. Sugar does the opposite by increasing glucose levels that slow cognitive functioning. Have you ever noticed that your brain works better after exercise and the opposite is true with too much sugar?
Exercise and Endorphin Levels
There’s more about to say about those endorphin levels. Exercise increases endorphin levels. I’ve heard that your body craves exercise and movement. When your body moves a lot, it releases chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin as a reward for your efforts. The result is you feel fantastic and have loads of energy. Sugar makes you feel good for a few moments but has addictive qualities that keep you craving it without any positive rewards. It’s a vicious cycle of falling levels of blood sugar that you need to literally keep feeding more sugar because your body feels lousy if it doesn’t get its sugar fix. In the long run (or even just a solid walk), exercise will make a person feel happier.
Exercise Combats Depression and Anxiety
Reduced depression and anxiety is another benefit of regular exercise. Both high-intensity aerobic exercise and low-intensity exercise like yoga have been found to reduce depression and anxiety.
Sugar also affects mood, but much differently than exercise. It has been correlated to higher levels of tension, depression, and anxiety. Personally, it’s so much easier to reach for cookies when I’m upset or sad than to go for a walk or work out. The cookie is instant gratification. I feel comforted for a few minutes. Working out takes longer for feeling better to kick in, but I feel like I’ve accomplished something good for myself when I’m done and feel more positive.
Exercise Lowers Disease Risk
Exercise decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancers. It increases your chances of living longer. Of course it does! Sugar is associated with higher risks of health problems and diseases. There are many studies proving or denying sugar’s role in cancer formation or sugar fueling cancer. One seemingly reputable study seems to disprove another that seems as equally reputable. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind on what you already believe. I will, however, provide links to two sources where I often find research I tend to trust. Check out these articles at WebMD and the Mayo Clinic on sugar and cancer.
Is there a link? My opinion is a firm maybe. For me, I believe I’d be healthier if I consumed less sugar.
So Many Benefits
Exercise does a body good. It increases energy levels. Exercise is good for muscle and bones. Weight lifting is especially good for muscles and bones. It’s a must do as people age and lose muscle mass. As early as age 30, a person can lose 5% of muscle mass every ten years. Muscle atrophy happens fast for cancer patients because of decreased levels or lack of physical activity. It takes time to rebuild lost muscle mass.
Exercise can help with weight loss. Maintaining a healthy body weight is important at any age. Unfortunately, metabolism slows as a person ages, and regular exercise helps in those efforts to keep movement and activity a priority. Someone with cancer doesn’t need to do much to gain or lose weight. I’ve both put on weight and lost weight while maintaining the same exercise routine throughout many different cancer treatments. It’s been very frustrating to gain weight when I continued to work out, but I had the peace of mind that I was doing what I could to stay strong whatever number stared up at me from the bathroom scale. Exercise will change the way your body looks on the outside and the inside. Illness is harder to take hold in a healthy inner environment.
Sugar is good for making fat, fat, fat. Your liver makes and stores glucose depending on your body needs. Excess sugars that don’t get converted become fat. Too much refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup can attribute to liver disease. High fructose corn syrup is an unnatural sweetener made from cornstarch and found as the main ingredient in many sweet treats and foods. Foods high in sugar attribute to weight gain. That’s nothing new. I find that if I take the time the read the ingredient label listed on some of the sweets I crave before eating them that I get disgusted and can walk away. It’s a good hack.
Here is where I am: If sixty truly is the new forty, my chronological age suggests I should feel like I’m thirty. Newsflash – I don’t. I feel much older than I actually am due to what my body has endured. Cocktails with mushrooms are out for me because I cut out alcohol years before diagnosis. Alcohol ages a person. I also was just getting the hang of iTunes. I hope I can figure out whatever is next. I like the idea of weekend trips. I’m all in for those.
Exercise needs to be my new sugar.
Someone please remind me I believe this the next time I start to go a little crazy and feed my sugar cravings.
One sunny day in early April, I decided it was time to pump up the tires on my bike and take it out for a test run. Truth be told, it was just as much of a test run for me, too.
Every year I wonder how I’m going to fare with many of my sportier endeavors. Will I still be able to hike? Can I bike? Am I slower? How far can I go? What kind of energy level will I have? Will I be able to maintain it? Lots of questions bombard my mind, and I can’t answer any of them until I get out there and see what happens. I visualize doing all my physical goals effortlessly and flawlessly. Visualizing success is a healthy practice. It can frustrate me when I don’t visualize the small steps to reach my goal, but I’m getting better, slowly.
Last summer biking was tougher for me. Little changes in incline bothered me and I fatigued too quickly from the extra exertion. If I rode too far, the final stretch was interrupted with lots of rest stops. It always happened in the second half of the ride. I ended rides thoroughly exhausted feeling like an old crump. The strength and cardio work I had done in other activities didn’t transfer over to biking. Last summer was hard.
Each year it feels like I’m starting over.
I held one rule heading into this spring’s inaugural ride: Easy Does It.
I biked close to home and biked around the neighborhood. Any hills were neither steep nor long. I was ready for home after only fifteen minutes. My goal was thirty minutes, so I kept pedaling, thinking of flat routes that wouldn’t challenge me. I kept talking to myself, repeating my rule to take it easy. There was no need to push. I’ve had a tendency to push myself hard. Pushing too hard is what caused some of the hardness and disappointments last summer in the biking and hiking departments. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve had to push hard to be heard, to assert myself at school, or to travel places. No one else was going to do the work for me, nor should they.
Here on my bike, I didn’t have to go fast. Easy does it. Take my time. Remember to breathe. Coasting offered welcomed breaks to reset and normalize my breathing.
A couple other rules took shape on my test ride.
Rule #2: Enjoy It.
On that particular day, I was just out to get my bearings. I needed to do some self-assessment. I enjoy a good pace if I can handle it, but I bike more for recreation. I am not interested in doing a Tour de France. If the ride became too hard and I wasn’t having any fun, I was less likely to do it again. I do hobbies I enjoy, not those I despise.
There are plenty of parts of my life (medical parts) that I do not enjoy. I am very intentional about my choices with the rest of it. Having fun is part of my well-being.
I love biking on Wisconsin’s bike trails. There are some beautiful routes that pass alongside farms, woods, and prairies. My favorite provides a perfect mixture of sun and shade.
Rule #3: Practice Makes Perfect.
The more I practice, the better I get. It was a small sign of encouragement that stayed up as a permanent poster in my classroom for years. I will build on each small success and every ride. Greatness takes time. Professional athletes train for years to make hard work look effortless and flawless. I forget this often when so many of my attempts are filled with concerted effort and countless flaws. Failing is tough. Failing teaches us how to be better and stronger. Failing is valued practice, and practice makes perfect.
Here’s the thing – I don’t need perfection. For my purposes, I’ll define perfect as being fit enough to do the long bike rides I want with confidence and strength. It means I will enjoy the ride and relish in greatness when I get it. Repetition and practice bring me what I need for happiness, not perfection.
Maybe the saying about practice needs to shift from making something perfect to bringing happiness.
These three rules got me biking again. They will work for me when I go out on my next several rides. I hope they can help anyone who is ready to embark on a new physical activity. Maybe it doesn’t even need to be anything physical. Any new activity would work. Easy does it. Slow down and don’t go too fast or push too hard. You’ll get where you’re going. Things have a way of working out. It’s okay to take your time and get something right.
Life is meant to be enjoyed. I don’t believe we are here to be unhappy or to suffer. I want to take every opportunity for happiness that comes my way. I will seek out happiness. Some parts of life come easily. Hopefully, many things are easy. There undoubtedly will be a few flops ranging from tiny to colossal, but mine have taught me needed lessons. I keep practicing. Life is a mixture of enjoyment and practice.
I finished my ride and reached my thirty-minute goal. My body felt more than ready to be done. I worked hard, but I could still walk, talk, and otherwise function normally. All good signs I didn’t overdo. I have learned (through failure) that it’s good to stop physical activity before it stops me. My energy level was so good I even tackled a couple of tasks outdoors before heading inside.
My test run was very successful. My bike worked fine and so did I. Going on that ride made me feel empowered. There was a strong sense of accomplishment that left me feeling refreshed and energized. I had control of something in my life. I had forgotten how good I (eventually) feel after a bike ride. My heart felt stronger and each breath was fuller and deeper. I felt more confident to handle other challenges.
I still need to figure out how to handle some fatigue issues. My anxiety button gets pushed too quickly when pedaling becomes hard. Then anxiety pushes my panic button. Hopefully, my “Easy Does It” reminder will kick in at these times and keep panic far away.
Time has passed and now it’s June. I can bike from home to do a couple short bike trails. My next step is to put the rack on my car so I can do rides that gradually lengthen. As long as they remain relatively flat my enjoyment level will stay high. I plan to enjoy many beautiful rides that make me feel fit and healthy throughout the long summer.
Summer arrived right on time. Last weekend brought a picture perfect day. Little clouds scattered themselves across the blue sky. Green leaves danced on tree branches, delighted with the sunshine. Green grass swayed in the warm breeze. Frogs on the ground sang to one another but still went unseen. Birds called out to each other from branches with their song. Everything was fully alive again.
I went for a hike in Pheasant Branch Conservancy.
I enjoy hiking there for many reasons. Sometimes I enjoy the shade and protection of the trees in woodland areas. When phlox blooms, it can almost completely cover some places in shades of purple and white glory. Other parts are wide-open prairie. The watershed is of particular interest to people and wildlife alike. The area even has geothermal springs.
I love the hill the most. It offers unparalleled views of the watershed as well as of the Capitol building in the distance. It’s never crowded. After the climb and I’m on top looking out at the conservancy wetlands, I take a well-deserved rest for a few moments. I’ve even done warrior pose on the lookout platform to remind myself of my strength and celebrate my accomplishment.
The path leading to the top had been closed earlier in spring because it was too wet to have people hiking it. My understanding was there was a mix of safety concerns for walkers and also concerns to protect the trail from damage caused by people stomping all over it before it had hardened from the spring thaw.
My hike last weekend held challenges for me. I didn’t know if the hill path was going to be accessible or not, so I parked my car farther away so I could do a long quality walk if it wasn’t open. My hike wound up being a little longer than I wanted and I got hotter than I hoped. I don’t function well when I overheat. I was warm from the start but I refused to wimp out on the first truly warm day when there would be months of summer heat ahead of me. I enthusiastically convinced myself this was conditioning and I could do it.
I could do it, albeit not very enthusiastically or convincingly.
I discovered the hill path was open and thought I could manage it. I wanted to make it to the top. It’s never been terribly steep or long. However, my walk was plenty long already not including the hill. The ground was still muddy from recent rain in a few spots. There always are uneven parts and I need to watch my footing. I had about five minutes or less left to reach the top when I decided I should turn around and make sure I had ample energy to get back to my car. A tinge of disappointment tugged at my heart, but I know my body well. It was time to head back. I knew I would come back soon.
On my trek down, I met a man going up. He was about my age, give or take a few years. He hiked on crutches. He wore a boot on his left foot like you’d see on someone who had had surgery or had injured his foot. A smile on his face exuded cheer.
I didn’t need to see this man. Or maybe I did.
Crutch Man was obviously fit and strong. I was amazed by how steady he appeared. The nearest parking lot was already a good distance away to have traveled on crutches. Here he was taking on a climb. I marveled at his confidence. I wanted the kind of will power he possessed. It appeared like this hill was no big deal to him. It was too big of a deal for me to push myself with two strong legs and on two feet. The image of him accomplishing something that I wasn’t doing stuck with me for the rest of my walk. It stuck around for the rest of the day.
I felt I had invisible crutches.
How did he manage? What kind of mindset did he have? How could I get it? What was the lesson for me to learn?
Crutch Man, if you’re by chance reading this, I’d love to talk and ask you these questions directly.
What’s easy for one person is challenging for another and vice versa. I imagine I do (or have done) things that others can’t fathom. Teaching a room full of second graders could fall into that category. Living well with cancer could be another. I deal with a lot of medical stuff. I travel on my own. I support myself. We all have something.
Crutches are there to support you while you need help, not keep you less mobile indefinitely. Someone wouldn’t use physical crutches longer than what was needed. Invisible crutches are often used longer than necessary. They are comfortable and safe. They can’t be seen so the owner may not fully realize they are even using them. They are that little voice that nags we better not do “x” for any number of excuses but most of all because then there would be no use for the crutches anymore.
What are other names for invisible crutches people have that are harmful rather than helpful?
There is fear of being hurt, physically or emotionally. There is fear of rejection. Fear of failure is a big one. Failures only keep us from success if we don’t try again. Fear of change is another possibility.
Getting rid of this invisible crutch lets you live more boldly. What if you don’t meet a goal on the first try? So what? I see two possibilities. You try again or move on. What if everything does go as hoped? Wonderful! Do not fear success. Abandon worries and enjoy your moment in the sun.
Comparison is an invisible crutch if you compare yourself unfavorably to a colleague at work, another’s diagnosis, progress, another relationship, or some type of success that you haven’t experienced. There seldom is enough information to make a valid comparison. Why do we do this? I know I’m not the only one. Getting to the top of the hill may have been a goal of Crutch Man’s for some time. Perhaps he had been chunking together small successes for months. Maybe he is part bionic. I have no idea. I don’t know his story. The story I initially told myself was he was better than me and I must be a loser. He very well could have been more capable than me at that moment, but I am definitely NOT a loser.
I know I can hike the hill. I just can’t hike the hill, include a long walk, and do a little gardening all on one hot day (which is what I tried). People are always comparing themselves to others with results that usually find they don’t measure up. I need to stop. Who’s with me? The only thing I need to compare myself to is my own progress. Even then it’s silly because comparing myself to the “me” of my past doesn’t help with the “me” of my present.
Live in the now and forget about comparing.
Limiting beliefs and negative self-talk get you nowhere. They may cause regression. If you think you can’t do something, you probably can’t. If you think small, you may be successful but you might not fulfill your potential.
If you think you can, you may very well succeed. If not, you will learn something that will help you move toward your goal. A positive mindset propels you toward success. An “I can” attitude goes a long way, even if you aren’t entirely sure. How I see myself as a success or failure is part of my identity. I choose to see myself as a winner.
A few of those limiting beliefs may be opinions others have thrust upon you. I have gotten a lot better at not listening to these, but one creeps in every once in a while. Then it’s harder to give it the boot. I was told earlier this week I couldn’t do something. I did it.
Focus on those around you who are supportive. These helpers are not crutches. They are the ones who teach you to fish rather than give you fish. They teach you how to do something rather than do it for you. They encourage instead of criticize. They pick you up, dust you off after you fall, and tell you to keep trying.
Sometimes an invisible crutch is that everything is just fine. Nothing needs to change. Why push to hike a hill when flatlands are much easier? Why make life harder? Life is plenty hard already.
True, but without the hill, I don’t get the panoramic view. I don’t get to be where Native Americans chose as a location for burial grounds long ago. I don’t get the feeling of satisfaction I get from many things when I don’t do the work. Being at the top is worth the effort. The view is worth the work.
Crutch Man wasn’t there to show me up and make me feel sad about turning back early. I may not have encountered him at all had I kept going and looped around the top of the hill before heading back down.
I was supposed to see him.
He reminded me I am stronger than I think I am.
Sometimes I forget.
He was there to show me if he could do it, so could I.
A quote from the 2014 documentary Fed Up concisely sums up how diet and exercise must be thought of as partners in health: “You can’t diet your way out of a sedentary lifestyle. You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.”
It seems likely that someone who watches what they eat probably also has an active lifestyle. Eating right and moving around just helps you feel better and fuels your fun. Raw or steamed broccoli is better than a bag of chemical chips. Taking a walk around the pond is better than sitting on my duff watching TV or even, ahem, blogging.
I am not athletic. Attempts at running were always short-lived and caused me minor injury in the past. But I love to walk outdoors. Going to the UW-Arboretum or Pheasant Branch Conservancy takes care of my heart, lets me decompress, and promotes creativity. Once I build up a little endurance, I also enjoy biking. Gardening, yard work, mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, and anything functional in the line of caring for my home all count and provide that undeniable feeling of self-satisfaction.
Moving needs to become second nature. My Fitbit has helped me monitor how much I move (or don’t move) on a daily basis. Before that, I wrote down how many miles I walked in a journal. It’s important to find a way to be accountable. A while back I read that making goals wasn’t enough, but a person needed to take goals a step further and make plans. Wanting to walk more is all very nice. Scheduling to walk in the arboretum helps turn the very nice into a reality. Saying I’m going to bike more means nothing if I don’t make sure my bike is ready to go and I make the effort to do it.
Hiking is one of my favorite activities. Hiking gets me out in nature with fresh air, blue sky, and lots of trees. Getting lost in my thoughts and really giving myself time to think away from other distractions always provides me with new insight. There is something amazing that happens in my brain when I pair physical and mental work together. My brain works better and thoughts are clearer. Physically, hiking has a long list of health benefits including improved cardio and muscular fitness, lowering risks of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and also lowering risks of cancers like colon and breast cancer. It’s a great aerobic workout. Hiking also can provide better sleep quality, reduce depression, and lower your risk of an early death. Being active in general tends to lower the risk of death. Honestly. How not surprising. Psychologically, hiking can provide feelings of relaxation and well-being. Sunshine, fresh air, trees, and feelings of accomplishment all feed into better mental health.
Exercise is important for everyone, but keeping it as part of a daily routine is one of my priorities as someone trying to live well with cancer. There definitely are times I would rather sit through a dental cleaning or a foreign film without subtitles than exercise. When I’m already feeling fatigued as a side effect from treatment, it seems crazy to purposely choose to do something that will make me feel more tired. Strangely though, this is not the case. Exercise combats fatigue. I feel tired after exercising, but it’s a different kind of tired than fatigue. I have more energy after I recover from however I’ve chosen to exercise. The energy sticks around a while. Regular exercise has also been connected to increasing survival rates for women with breast cancer. I want to stay alive, hence I exercise every day.
What about when fatigue isn’t the problem? What if it’s physical pain that’s preventing movement? I experienced this the other weekend with aggravated inflammation and muscle soreness from an injection that caused deep hurt with every step. I fought through most of that day trying to find a way to keep fun plans I had that night to go to a concert. I missed my daily workout because I couldn’t exercise through the pain. I could barely walk. I don’t think exercising when you hurt is a safe idea. Pain is a solid stop sign. The up side to my story is I was prescribed some strong medication to help make my evening of fun possible. I still hurt but there were moments I forgot. The down side is the meds made me puke profusely by the next evening. It took days before I moved well again. I’m not pushing activity and I’m definitely not taking any more of those pills. My body will let me know what I can do.
How much exercise does a person need daily? The current guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services recommend that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic exercise (activity that produces a sweat). That’s a mere twenty-two minutes a day when broken down daily. Strength training is suggested at least two times a week. Click here for a short article provided by Mayo Clinic on these recommendations.
After getting through six months of initial chemotherapy in 2012, I needed to make changes in my diet. It’s still hard because of my love affair with sugar. Ideally, I should probably also be a vegetarian, but I love cheeseburgers too much. I try to keep these in check and enjoy them when I eat them. For me, a healthy diet consists of less meat, less processed foods, no alcohol, less sugar, more plant-based proteins, and more fish. More of a plant-based diet in general is a healthy winner. I order a steak about once a year on vacation, but even that is waning because of how I feel after eating it. I eat a lot of fish. My breakfast used to be a fairly tasty blend of five fruits and vegetables in my Nutri-bullet. What I thought was extremely healthy was also providing far too many natural sugars and unknowingly raising my A1C. Now I’ve switched to breakfasts that usually consist of eggs, half an avocado, and one fruit. The avocado cuts the natural sugar from the fruit.
One area in nutrition I’ve been more successful in is eliminating dairy. I miss milk. I love milk. However, it contains casein, a protein that promotes cancer growth in any stage. I know some who have read widely on this and disagree on whether that is true or not. My current feeling is I really don’t have much wiggle room to disagree. It is potentially more beneficial to me to avoid milk than to drink it. There is no dietary reason to consume milk produced by another animal. Calcium can come from plant-based proteins such as quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, white beans, kale, and collard greens. With all that said, I still will enjoy ice cream now and again, maybe a little more than I should. I like string cheese. I slip every so often and have cereal with milk. It tastes awesome, but it can’t become regular diet. I grew up and live in Wisconsin, also known as The Dairy State. Clearly, there is room for improvement in cutting out more foods made with milk. Did I mention I really love ice cream?
I have also added an Omega low-speed, masticating juicer to extract all the vitamins, enzymes, and minerals in their purest and rawest form to provide the highest juice yield. Kale, spinach, celery, cucumber, and green apples make the most gorgeous green juice I’ve ever seen, and it’s also very refreshing. The color green is both a healing and energizing color. Green juice is a great way to send oxygen and needed nutrition to unhealthy cells. Unhealthy cells don’t like oxygen. Too bad, I’m very fond of oxygen. I get to choose, not the other way around.
Both exercise and nutrition need to work in tandem together to get the best results. I am a firm believer that everyone can do something. One person’s exercise or nutritional needs are different from what someone else needs. For example, most people are supposed to get what vitamins and minerals they need from eating a healthy diet and not need these in supplement form. I take a lot of supplements because treatments make it harder for my body to absorb some things. I also still feel a bit down when I look at people hitting the pavement or trails on their bike who look like they are practically flying. I have to work hard to achieve even a slow speed. It takes time for me to build any true endurance. I do the best I can.
Click here to read the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provided by Mayo Clinic. I don’t agree with all the recommendations, but it does force me to justify my choices. As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes I feel like there is so much conflicting information on what healthy nutrition means that it’s hard not to drive myself nuts. I look for overlapping ideas from multiple sources.
I try to make the right choices for me in how I move and what I put into my body. I can’t just do one or the other to be healthy. I can’t compare my needs to anyone else’s either. Everyone has individual preferences, routines, and needs. I do learn a lot from others who share what they know when I ask for their wisdom.
My hope is that we all find a way to eat well and move well.