Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tip #40: Don't anticipate events

The quote in the picture is by  Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Almost by accident, this summer I saw the movie "The Hunger Games." I knew what the books were about, as my kids had read and talked about them, and felt that they were not for me (kids killing each other, no thank you). Still, when I saw the movie I really liked it and decided to read the first book in the series. As I was reading, I felt that I could do it because I had seen the movie and knew that the characters I liked would survive. I told my kids that I would not be able to read books 2 and 3 as, not knowing their endings, my own anguish over the probable fate of the characters would not allow me to enjoy them. My curiosity got the best of me, though, and I ended up actually devouring books 2 and 3. But this experience made me aware of something about myself. I think that as a mother (or maybe it is not related to motherhood), I always try to anticipate what will happen around me, as to prepare me or my loved ones better for possible outcomes or to avoid things altogether. Often, this is just trivial. I will start thinking about lunch and I often imagine myself already eating, particularly if it's something I like. But, also as often, it is something not so trivial. Both times I was diagnosed with cancer, my mind jumped into absolutely horrible scenarios before I had any evidence to show that that was going to happen. In the first case, I remember clearly thinking (and you can see how nutty I can be), "I'm going to die in six months. My children are so little. God is giving me six months to find another Spanish wife for my husband, as I don't want my boys to have an American step mother." OK, there are so many atrocious things about that thought, so please, everyone forgive me if you were offended by it (I am). I then went to see the oncologist who told me I actually had a great prognosis. And I did. I lived nine years after that during which time I could really wonder what the heck was I thinking. Then, for the second diagnosis, I was irrational again. As it was Christmas, I remember buying ornaments for the tree and thinking, "I will not be here next Christmas, this is just so sad," while picturing my family without me. My prognosis this time was not as rosy as the first time but, still, by visualizing that horrible Christmas scene I gained nothing, but stress and added sadness. By the way, I did go on to have a great Christmas the following year, in which I happily bought some more ornaments with my kids.

I'm also reading a book now that mentions something similar. It is Daring Greatly, by BreneƩ Brown, who has researched vulnerability extensively (if you haven't seen them, she has a couple of amazing TED talks). She mentions something that she calls "foreboding joy," and she describes it as that moment in which you feel that your life is wonderful, which means something bad is going to happen next ("the paradoxical dread that clamps down on momentary joy"). She says that we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, that, in a way we cannot tolerate the vulnerabity that may come from feeling joy. She suggests the following in ordar to combat this:
  1. Don't chase down the extraordinary, but enjoy the moments of joy (I think I will actually talk about this in a future tip, which I will call "Don't underestimate normal.")
  2. Be grateful for what you have.
  3. Don't squander joy. Although it may be uncomfortable, she says that "every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give into those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen - and they do happen - we are stronger."
I know that what I described earlier in my own life were not moments of joy, quite the opposite, but still, I did add to my anguish by having those awful thoughts. With my current diagnosis I actually have to deploy a sort of mental gymnastics in which I have to apply those three points, plus the idea of not anticipating (which goes back to living in the moment). Every time something physically hurts me in a strange way, my mind goes to the worst place immediately. I then have to say to myself, "OK, don't anticipate events. You don't know what's causing that pain. If it continues, call the doctor, but now, just enjoy watching the Simpsons with the kids." I know that my mets friends understand this and know how extremely hard it is, but my story with The Hunger Games also taught me that, if I wanted to keep enjoying the books, I had to read them, even though that would likely mean that some characters whom I loved could die. And that's life. We have to live it to experience it. Some moments will be harder than others, but, for now, let me enjoy the Simpsons and be happy.

Do you anticipate events as well? And have you read Daring Greatly or The Hunger Games? I'd love to know.

PS: Don't forget about the Meditation Challenge which starts tomorrow! I need it bad.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tip #39: Do weight-bearing exercises

Backpacks are actually great!
First of all, thank you for still reading my blog. By now, you have seen my underwear and my toilet, so I think it's time to move on to less "personal" tips. (Just joking. I'm sure I'll think of something gross soon enough). Today, you get to see my wonderful 15 year old son, Johnny. What a cutie.

In any case, let's talk about the tip. Weight-bearing exercises are essential for good bone health and, when done regularly, can even prevent osteopenia or osteoporosis later in life. Even if you already have one of them (as I do), you can still improve the health of your bones by doing them, or so I'm hoping.

What are weight-bearing exercises? It's any exercise that requires your muscles to work against gravity. When muscles are pulled, bones get rebuilt as well. Almost any exercise is weight-bearing. Two exceptions are swimming and biking. And even activities such as dancing, hiking or doing golf count. In this WebMD article, The Latest Workout Trends, you can find several more, like Tai-Chi and Yoga, and the research that's been already conducted which demonstrates the power of these activities on bone health. Here's also a nice chart from the University of Arizona's "Bone Builders" website, which divides the activities into Beginners (like walking, square dancing, yoga, gardening), Moderate (walking uphill, jogging, weight lifting, tennis), and Advanced (walking with backpack, running, soccer, or any of the other activities mentioned, but done with more intensity). I was glad to find out that I'm already doing some of them, like the walking with a backup and yoga. In fact, while researching for this post I have found a wonderful yoga program created specifically to prevent and treat osteoporosis and osteopenia. It is rather simple, just 12 poses, and I was happy to see that I already do many of them through my Yoga for cancer patients class and Priscilla Yoga Stretches (which by the way, just started running again in channel 21, PBS station in Long Island, for those of you who live around here). But the program run by Dr. Loren Fishman is actually very comprehensive and I may do it myself. I like that this is part of his research and there are already some very impressive preliminary results. This chart shows the numbers after two years of doing the exercises (yes, unfortunately I have found that all this takes a long, long time for it to work, but I'm happy that at least it seems to work). And, if you want to, you can also participate in the study. You can find the forms in his website as well.

I know that we have been told that by taking calcium and calcium supplements our bones will be fine, but unfortunately I just don't think this is the case. I believe we do need to work a bit hard at this (at least 30 minutes a day, which may really not be that hard to do if you include house cleaning and similar activities). Or, maybe you can do what this lady says, that by doing a 60 second plank a day, you may be able to reverse your bone health. I'm actually going to try this too, but I'm adding it to the rest (I do think we do need to do a bit more).

I have to say that I love the fact that I discover so many things by researching for this blog. That was one of the motivators, definitely, when I started it. But another one is to know that I have people who read it. It does amaze me every time I see the page views counter, getting larger and larger. I can never say thank you enough.

Are you already actively doing these types of exercises? Have any more suggestions? I always learn from you!

Have a great week!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tip #38: Bulk up on fiber (and get it ALL out)

The semester has started, I'm swamped with work, I need to organize myself better (maybe a future tip to myself?) and I have to write my weekly tip! What to do? I'll be very brief and to the point: Eat lots of fiber, do lots of caca. Everyday.

We all have heard of the importance of fiber.  But I have learned that it is truly essential. It not only helps you feel full so you eat less, but it also lowers cholesterol, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and very important in my case, it helps against constipation, which in turns aids the body eliminate excessive estrogen (the hormone that fuels most types of breast cancers, including mine). Here's a summary of all the benefits that eating lots of fiber (found in all plant foods) and going to the bathroom often have on your health, according to Dr. Greger (some of the videos, like the one about international stool size, are also pretty interesting on their own). It's not difficult to add more fiber to our diets. Just add more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Eliminate the white, unrefined stuff. It may be tasty, but it's not doing anything for you.

I do admit that, after learning about the relationship between stool size and many illnesses, I do look at my caquitas with lots of love, particularly if they are big, which is often, sorry to be so gross. And I always say, "good bye, unwanted estrogen!" - As you can see, anything makes me happy these days. :)

I did have lots of fun working on today's picture as well.  Hope you all like it.

Have a great week!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tip #37: Meditate

This is another case of "take my advice because I'm not using it." And, thus, another chance for a challenge. I'll talk about that one a bit later.

But, first, let's see why I think we should all mediate, when, for me at least, this used to be a synonym with wasting time. Of course, I had heard that Buddhists monks have their brains changed because of it. But, who has the time of a Buddhist monk? I started to see that maybe I should try to make the time for it after reading Anticancer, where Servan Schreiber clearly says that lifestyle changes can affect the course of our cancers. Those lifestyles changes are not just diet and exercise but he mentions a third component, spirituality, support, anything to help you reduce stress. In his last book, written right before he died, he also stresses that this third element is maybe the most important and that he himself neglected it, as he was very busy promoting his anticancer message. He urged everyone, even his (psychiatric) patients, to meditate at least twice a day, for ten minutes each time. Interestingly, Dr Block in Life Over Cancer, also recommends exactly the same to his cancer patients. A similar message is part of Dr. Ornish Spectrum program, which is for everyone, although it is particularly recommended to people who need to reverse heart disease.

When I got my second cancer diagnosis, I did feel my brain needed help to cope with the fear and sadness (and stress) I was feeling. I got an app, Mindfulness Meditation, which helped a little. I also found a guided imagery podcast from Dr. Miller (free in iTunes) which was extremely beneficial, because it really calmed me and gave me a sense of strength. In this podcast, Dr. Miller describes how your own body will destroy the cancer cells in a simulated battle that somehow I would picture almost like a Star Wars adventure (nothing like Luke Skywalker to the rescue!). Although I love his voice and that podcast in particular, and I recommend it for anyone with cancer, I am now seeking something different. This year, as one of my resolutions, I wanted to start mediating on a regular basis, make it more like an everyday activity. I bought the book 8 Minute Mediation, an 8 week meditation program, and I actually completed it for those 8 weeks. But after that, I just stopped. I liked the program, but meditation is just very hard.

So, here we are with another challenge to myself and anyone who would like to join me. Here's the document with instructions. I decided to start it in October, so I have some time to see what kind of meditation I may want to do, whether just to sit down for 10 minutes and try to clear my mind, or if maybe some guided meditation would be more helpful. I have been looking at this site, thanks to a recommendation from one of my aunts, and I think I may do the meditations they have there (which are a bit longer, at15 minutes).

I have to say that, although I have not been successful at it so far in the sense that I clearly do not set a time to do it, I still feel all the "practice" I have done has helped me be more conscious of the importance of the present moment and not to let my thoughts run too wild. When I walk to school in the mornings, I do a type of walking meditation, trying to coach my "monkey mind" to come back to the air I'm breathing, the beauty in nature, the lights, the colors that surround me. Maybe, after the October challenge, my spirit will finally resemble the child in the picture. Or I may have to call Luke Skywalker to the rescue, again.

Do you have any recommendations for me? I do hope some of you will join me for the challenge! Thanks, as always, for reading my blog.

photo credit: Beni Ishaque Luthor via photo pin cc

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tip #36: Practice Yoga

Lately, yoga is on fire. There are plenty of references on the web about the health benefits of practicing yoga (for flexibility, strength, better posture, better breathing, heart disease, concentration, mood, etc.). It is even recommended by the American Cancer Society, because it can "lower stress, increase strength, and provide a good form of exercise." You can also see an increased interest in the medial profession about it. According to, in 2001 there were 38 published studies about yoga. By 2011 that number had grown to 227.

I had tried yoga several times over the years. Sometimes, the location was not convenient, others it would be at the wrong times. The last time I tried, about three years ago, I was doing great and really loving it, when my back and right arm started giving me lots of problems (which I learned six months later had been caused by the metastases in the bones in those areas) which made me stop. All in all, I kept being intrigued by it, and I knew there had to be something there for me. Thus, after my second diagnosis I actually looked for programs that would offer yoga and/or mediation because I needed something urgently to calm my mind. I'm extremely thankful that my own hospital has a great program, the Swim Across the Sound, which provides cancer patients with many needed things including amazing yoga classes. I remember when I went to my first class, I actually could not stop crying, because everything was overwhelming and here was a group of very nice ladies that were being so extremely kind to me, even though they didn't know who I was (and vice-versa). This was called chair-yoga, extra gentle, and it really helped me mentally more than physically, at the beginning, which is what I needed. I was also lucky in that a local yoga studio, Yoga for Everybody, donated a room for the yoga for our  cancer program, so now I actually I'm able to do yoga in a regular yoga studio (instead of the hospital), with my cancer/survivors/super heroes buddies, led by our beloved Susan Kiley. This yoga is a step up from the chair-yoga, but it's still gentle. Because I had been feeling really well (no more pain in my arm or back), I decided to push myself a bit this summer and I signed up for the studio 30 day unlimited yoga for $30, a really great deal for anyone who wants to try yoga. I really used it too, going to about four classes a week. I have to say, I loved them all and I really liked how I felt. Now, I keep doing my weekly yoga for cancer patients, plus I have added about 12 minutes a day, five days a week, of a TV program I record from my PBS station, Priscilla Yoga Stretches. It is therapeutic yoga (hatha yoga) and, although I cannot do all the poses, I think they still help me with posture and flexibility. I hope I can keep up with it now that the semester has started.

And, as I would like to nudge you to do some yoga, let me show these two videos that show the remarkable effects yoga can have. The first one is from the creator of the website MindBodyGreen:

And, you probably have already seen the second one, as it was very popular a couple of months ago (and just saw that it has almost 6,000,000 views! Wow!). I love it so much, I think it is fine to see it many times. The power of the human spirit, with the help this time of yoga, it's incredible.

I do believe yoga has made my life, my body, my mind and my spirit, better. How has it helped you?