Dodgeball

I was consistently the next to last child to be picked for teams back in grade school when that was still deemed an acceptable way to form teams in physical education class. I’m not sure what great minds came up with it or chose to enforce it year after year, but I was reminded a few times weekly of my low skill level with little intervention to teach me what I failed to figure out on my own.

Dodgeball was always a popular game back in my youth. I never lasted very long as a player. I wasn’t expected to, and it was a group game where no one expected much of me. It was a game for the tough boys who took no account for their classmates as they knocked others out one by one. The game incorporated agility, coordination, running, jumping, catching, throwing, and of course, dodging. I did none of these things well. I quickly was pegged out and spent most of the time watching those who the game was made for strut their stuff and whip balls at one another with a force and meanness that communicated you better not mess with them.

There were two sides. Catching balls or hitting someone with one sent the intended person to the prison. There were three bowling pins that needed protection. These marked the far border at the end of your team’s side. The game was over when either the opposing team had knocked down those three pins or all of the players had been knocked out due to their lack of dodging or thrown balls had been caught. Those in prison could be set free if someone lobbed a ball over all the others and someone on your team in prison caught it.

There is one distinct memory I have of dodgeball in gym class from about the sixth grade. Somehow, I was the last player standing on my side. It wasn’t due to skill on my part. I just hadn’t been knocked out yet. The other team had everyone still playing. None of their players were in prison. The sides usually weren’t ever that uneven. How was this scenario possible? But I was alone and had to guard the one remaining pin. I was an underdog if there ever was one.

Most of the balls were on my side. The other side had two left. Out of kindness, they waited for me to get into position before deliberately firing a ball at me. It wasn’t a great strategy on their part, but whatever. Although not an athlete, I was a smart cookie even in my youth. I positioned myself in front of the remaining pin and squatted down like a catcher behind home plate. I was going to protect my pin and in doing so make myself a smaller target. I held out my arms and waited for the incoming balls.

They took turns throwing the ball straight at me. Why? Dodgeball is not a polite game! Another tactical error on the other team’s part. It prolonged the game. I wouldn’t be able to catch two balls at once, let alone one. Ball one came straight at me. It hit me and my arms instinctively wrapped around it. I caught it! Unbelievable!

There was only one ball left. The gymnasium was quiet as the second ball was thrown straight at me.

By some miracle, I caught it again!

All the balls were now on my side. Two of their players were in prison. One pin was left standing. It was up to me. My next move would either free everyone on my side and extend the game or end it by another player catching my attempt.

The game ended.

I learned a few things that day.

Use my head.

Play strategically.

Never give up.

Do my best.

I learned I could catch things other than colds and drifts.

Fast forward to the present. Lately, I feel like I’m in a game of dodgeball with a few stressors that inconveniently want to converge all at once. Appointments. Scans. Social opportunities developing all at the same time. A broken water heater. Appointments rescheduled. Several excellent fundraising opportunities and all the work to put into their details to favor their success. Any moments I think I have carved out for me, somehow disappear. Keeping up with regular household responsibilities frustrates me because they just never end.

I dodge.

As soon as I dodge one something, another two or three materialize. I never get ahead.

More dodging.

I have learned how to dodge like a professional.

Dodgeball isn’t a team sport. It never was for me. My memories of it, of physical education class in general, showcased the natural athletes without really taking time to teach the rest of us.

I can dodge today until the cows come home. I have acquired high skills in avoiding topics I don’t want to discuss by switching topics, diverting attention, and being honest that I don’t want to talk about something and won’t talk about something when dodging fails. Dodging doesn’t get me where I’m going as quickly if I’m ducking to avoid being hit by incoming matter.

Dodging isn’t my game. I don’t like people throwing things at me. I am not a runner. I am still a pretty good catcher. Time should not be spent dodging or preparing to be hit by intentionally thrown objects whether those objects come in the form of words, behaviors, or round rubber gym balls.

Dodging doesn’t give me what I need.

I need more uninterrupted time for me.

How?

I work out. I can focus on self-improvement one hundred percent whether strength training, working on flexibility, agility, balance, functional movements, and other realms of fitness. I build on what I know how to do, challenge myself, meet goals, and repeat.

My friends, reading, writing, exercising, and delegating tasks are all effective moves I have to dodge stress. Even doing something new is a way to reset. Giving myself some structured quiet time, watching a candle flame blur, listening to music, and meditating are almost forgotten luxuries that simply need to be prioritized again.

We all need to find ways to dodge life’s stressors and find that priceless time to dedicate to our well-being. Being on guard in a perpetual game of dodgeball is not a healthy choice. Waiting to be taken out by the next ball cancer whips at me is not how I am planning to spend time. I will not be tense, stressed, and feel like I am always dodging some unknown or dreaded event. It is tough for me to escape mentally. My fear reflex flinches almost daily. I have better things to do. Dodging keeps me away from what I want to do.

It’s funny when I think back to that moment in gym class when it was up to me to decide what would happen next in the dodgeball game. I really thought I had a chance to get the ball to my teammates. I did have a chance, just not a good one. Many instances mirror that in real life, especially when living with cancer. I believe I still have a chance. Belief motivates. Belief sees me through. No longer a child, I am stronger now and not as afraid of being hit with an incoming ball. I hope not to flinch as easily as I move forward. Sometimes I will dodge, and sometimes I’ll hit my targets with precision and force. It’s time I hurl balls at a few things I’d like to knock out of my way. Offense is a good defense.

A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?

 

Scanxiety

I have had more MRIs in my life than I can count. Some yielding good news that spots were getting more and more difficult to see. Others showed minimal growth, which medically was read as consistent and stable. Sometimes I stayed with the current treatment protocol and sometimes it meant beginning something unknown to me.

Almost every MRI for me brought on its share of anxiety because I have some degree of claustrophobia. Waiting for results also brings its share of stress. The machine itself is long and tubular with enough room to slide an average sized body in and out. It doesn’t look too impossible when I’m standing outside of it and plucking up my courage. Things change when the technicians strap me in, give me a panic ball to squeeze since they’ll be in a different room for the test, and roll me into the tube. Suddenly, I am alone. My vision is limited to sterile white and I can see only an inch or two above my face. I can’t get out on my own and that’s when the trapped feeling starts growing. The strapped in part is so unsettling for me. Breathing is going to be impossible in there, especially when I am to listen to instructions on when to breathe, hold my breath, and then relax. A contrast dye is shot into me that makes my heart and pulse race. It makes me feel a little sick, and then I hear the “take a breath” prompt. Sometimes I just can’t get it done in time because of my racing heart, which makes me feel like I’ve screwed up the most informative part of the test. Panic, panic, panic. I’m stressed out. It goes downhill from there. Much to my surprise, the test always gathers usable information.

I have heard from a few people lately who have been nervous about scans and various tests. I doubt how I’ve described things for me has lessened those feelings for them. Sorry. Others haven’t been reassuring or helpful either from what’s been shared. Instead anxiety levels have risen as “friends” have told them how awful these things are. Do they really feel this is helpful? Newsflash – it isn’t! Saying something is hard is honest. You can still be honest by providing a couple of reassuring comments.

My hope is something that I share about how I’ve dealt with scans, tests, etc. will be helpful for anyone with scanxiety. Scans have gotten easier with each passing one. I know that it’s going to be tough to catch my breath after the contrast injection and I can mentally prepare for it. If it takes me an extra second or two to start a breath hold, that’s what I now do and I don’t worry about it. The following are things that work for me, and they may work for others.

Tip #1: I like music piped in to relax me. This is a common practice. However, if music is unavailable I know what songs I can sing through in my head to pass the time.

Tip #2: I like a washcloth over my eyes with just a peeking place available so I still know where I am without having to be reminded the whole time.

Tip #3: Lavender essential oil on gauze placed on my chest provides enough aromatherapy for a calming effect. I suggest bringing your own if you are unsure if your facility provides this for patients.

Tip #4: Having the same technicians has a calming effect on me, too. My favorite tech actually hugs me when she sees me and that lets me know I am in a safe place. I also like a lot of communication and encouragement while I’m in the machine. It’s good for me to know when I’m halfway done and when I’m close to finishing.

Tip #5: Sometimes I try to reframe the overwhelming, closed in, trapped feeling with one where the machine is my own little personal cocoon where I am kept snuggly and protected for a short time. It’s a great place for prayers. I call on loved ones, spirits, and angels to be with me and protect me. Those are very warm and comforting thoughts.

Tip #6: It goes a lot easier if I take the time to have my port accessed beforehand than just settle for multiple arm pokes that are more like a hit and miss game of find a vein. Using my port doesn’t make my heart race or feel sick when the contrast dye is administered.

Tip #7: In general, the breath holds go much better if I count very slowly in my head until they are done. Some holds are short, some are up to thirty seconds. The long holds do get hard for me, but the counting lets me know that they have to be almost over.

Tip #8: Lorazepam. I have proven that I can get through MRIs without any extra drug help at all. I know I can do it if I have to, relying only on my other tips. The lorazepam relaxes me enough so I am both calmer, fully functional, and happier feeling in general.

Tip #9: I don’t find it helpful to tell people about upcoming scans. There are too many questions. It is so much easier for me to relax on my own before and after the test, and if anything needs to be shared later, later it is. There really isn’t a need to share when nothing really changes. If you get support from sharing scheduled tests with a lot of people, that is your choice based on the kind of support system you have.

Tip #10: Remember the goal of an MRI is to provide information about your health. I need the information – good or not so good – because either way it determines what choices are best so I can maintain a healthy lifestyle. My mother wasn’t open to MRIs and many other tests because of claustrophobia. I believe there also were other fear based and avoidant based thinking happening. Not knowing sadly didn’t work out well for her. I miss her terribly. She and I have many similarities, but as hard as it is for me, I have to get the tests so I know what’s what.

I know what to expect after so many of these. This is a place where I’ve become very vocal about what I need – the music, the lavender, the washcloth, the encouraging words and announcements throughout. I always take extra good care of myself afterwards, whether it’s a treat on the drive home, or a long walk where I can decompress and appreciate being free from the MRI machine.

All these scans would be a much better time if I could find a way to make sure every scan provides the kind of results I need and want. In the meantime, I have found a way get through them with less dread and a little more ease.

Scans are just one example of what causes people anxiety. Everyone has something that they find difficult to do or causes them to worry. Anxiety is often worse than the event itself. After you’ve done it, you realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe you’ve even developed a few hacks on your own that help you cope or dismiss your anxiety and stress entirely.

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Whether brought on by medical stuff or other anxiety triggers you have in your life, what helps you lessen anxiety?