What I Learned By Hunting Virtual Ghosts

The drive to conquer my fears is why I insist on playing Phasmaphobia even when I dread the thought of it.

Phasmaphobia is marketed as a “horror” video game, the kind that I actively avoid. The concept is simple: you and up-to-three other networked players enter a haunted building, set up equipment and collect evidence of a ghostly presence. There are different tasks to complete but the ultimate goal is to gather enough data to be able to determine what type of ghost is haunting the premises.

Oh, yeah. And also to get out alive.

Because depending on how long everything takes you to do, sooner or later, the ghost is going to hunt you.

Sure, I’m fine as long as I’m sitting in the ghost-hunting van.

Now, there’s a lot more that I could say about this game, specifically about how it’s set up quite intelligently to be unnervingly terrifying. And there’s Articifial Intelligence involved, which means that the ghost can recognize some of the words that you say (hint: don’t cuss!) that will get it angry and on the hunt faster.

But this post is not a review of the game.

This is an observation that this silly game picked me up and threw me to the ground. It was a reflection of real life, because it perfectly reproduced ME, under acute stress.

By that I mean, tight chest, rapid breathing, elevated heartrate, shaking hands, the whole shebang. I get that gamers go through that, but for me, this meant more. These reactions were exactly the kinds of physiological responses to anxiety that have increasingly plagued me through the years.

People who can handle high levels of stress with cool distance have always impressed me. In fact, I’ve come to see that as a superpower. Being able to maintain mental space around you so that the walls don’t come closing in, squeezing breath out of your chest. That ability to think clearly when things are falling apart around you.

I have often thought, what would my experience be like if I could just dampen that physiological response. Well, Phasmaphobia has given me a chance to practice that.

I don’t do so well when I’m in a dark haunted house, getting threatening messages from the resident ghost.

I imagine myself going into that onscreen home, doing what I need to do, seeing the signal that the ghost is on the hunt (flashlight starts flashing and the front door closes and locks), and very calmly moving to a hiding place and waiting out the event. Declaring to the ghost, “You don’t scare me! I had cancer!” This is, after all, just a game. I’ve been through far worse things in my life.

But, no. Really, I’m kind of a mess. I can’t breathe, I can’t maneuver through a doorway, I drop things and do stupid stuff.

But I’m also stubborn. And playing this game with others like my husband who is unimpressed by the potential terror and shrugs off my disbelief that he’s not unnerved at all (note: he’s also played way more video games) makes me all the more determined to use Phasmaphobia as a “safe space” to practice my calming skills. I can remind myself that the fear is not real, that I’m only looking at a screen and that I walk away from the computer at any time. I don’t have to feel this way.

I am currently a work in progress. But I’ll get there. And once I do, my self-confidence will open the way to conquer other terrifying situations.

Once I stop being scared sh*tless.

Just Do It: Breast Cancer Survivors and Exercise

Following up on last week’s exercise post, I wanted to focus on two recent studies that really drive home the benefits of physical activity for breast cancer survivors. If you’re not exercising now, here’s why you should consider it.

In 2017, Hamer and Warner published a review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (Open Access link here). They analyzed 67 existing studies in an effort to ascertain what lifestyle factors were most important in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence in survivors.

Whatever you can do right now is enough to start out with. Just keep moving!

The results were striking: of all the lifestyle variables that the researchers looked at, exercise came out on top. They found that engaging in moderate exercise resulted in a 40% decrease in cancer recurrence. This included easily-adoptable, low-cost programs such as brisk walking.

I want to stress: they weren’t talking about doing crazy-high amounts of exercise, but simply adhering to the current physical activity recommendations for US adults, which are as follows (summarized by the American Heart Association and taken from their website):

Sadly, only 13% of recent breast cancer survivors actually met those exercise guidelines, and that number dropped even more as time went on. Consider how that affects overall cancer rates, when we talk about our chances as survivors: if the vast majority of the population is not engaging in a beneficial habit, the reported recurrence rates will reflect that. However, if you do incorporate exercise into your life, one could argue that your chances of recurrence are significantly improved over the numbers usually cited.

In addition, an increase of at least 10% of body weight after breast cancer diagnosis, which unfortunately happens often, increased both risk of recurrence and mortality. Again, patients who exercised were able to avoid this weight gain, improving their chances for disease free survival.

Nonetheless, while it seemed relatively straightforward to achieve the percent reduction in recurrence, the researchers stressed two very important points: (1) this reduction came after finishing treatments, not in lieu of them, so one should not assume that exercise would necessarily take the place of conventional cancer treatments, and (2) sadly, some cancers will recur even if the survivor is doing everything “right” and so if there is a recurrence, it should not be taken as the individual not doing enough. That’s the cruel unfairness of cancer.

It’s never too late to start, but it’s never too early either! Pick a sport and make it yours!

The second study was original research with high-risk breast cancer patients by Cannioto et al. (2020), published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (Open Access link here). The study participants filled out a questionnaire about their exercise habits at four time points: (1) when they enrolled in the study after diagnosis (this question asked about pre-diagnosis exercise habits), (2) during chemotherapy, (3) one year after finishing treatment, and (4) two years after finishing treatment.

Once again, exercise was shown as having a significant impact: women who met the guidelines for physical activity (150 minutes/week of moderate exercise) before, during and after treatment had a 55% lower risk of recurrence and 68% lower risk of dying than those who didn’t meet the guidelines.

Even those who only started exercising after finishing treatment still had a significantly reduced risk of both recurrence and death compared to those who didn’t exercise at all. Additionally, benefits were also seen for those who consistently exercised, even if they didn’t fully meet the guidelines. So it seems that any exercise that these high-risk cancer survivors did was still better than not doing anything at all.

The same holds for you!

Both of these studies convey the importance of engaging in physical activity. Exercise is critical for the well-being of all humans, but even more so for breast cancer survivors. Think: when we receive a cancer diagnosis, we are ready to undergo potentially dangerous treatments, risking debilitating side effects that leave us bald, exhausted and wretched.

So why not engage in something as beneficial for body and spirit as moderate physical activity to help prevent the possibility of having to repeat the cancer treatment again?

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A few more bits of information:

The easy-to-read executive summary of the US Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans can be found here.

For a plain-language synopsis of the Hamer and Warner (2017) review, see this Healio interview with co-author Dr. Ellen Warner.

For a plain-language synopsis of the Cannioto et al. (2020) paper, see this article in breastcancer.org.

Tailor your exercise to your abilities…and then keep going!

Keep in mind that terms such as “moderate” and “intense” are relative to YOU. someone just starting out is not going to be able to handle the same level of intensity as a highly-trained individual, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Start where you are–it’s okay.

Finally, Dr. Robert Sallis, chairman of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise Is Medicine inititative, has said, “If we had a pill that conferred the proven health benefits of exercise, physicians would prescribe it to every patient and healthcare systems would find a way to make sure every patient had access to this wonder drug.”

The two studies here show exactly why!

Three Pillars of Fitness: Consistency, Progression and Balance

Although this is a blog about cancer and mindfulness, I hardly think there is any lifestyle habit as effective as exercise at helping survive cancer. And what better time to discuss this than the start of a hopeful new year?

I’ve been certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for well over a decade, and although I haven’t actively taken on clients, I’ve had enough time to develop my own fitness philosophy. I must stress, this is a conceptual post and not designed to guide you to specific exercises (although I mention some modalities as examples). However, if you’ve had trouble getting your head around how to maintain an active lifestyle, these ideas may help.

In my experience, there are three critical aspects to a successful exercise program: (1) consistency, (2) progression and (3) balance.

CONSISTENCY

This is the most important concept of my three and worth spending the most time on.

Consistency is the concept that seems to be most difficult for people, and it’s usually the “make-or-break” aspect of fitness. It’s quite simple to get motivated to start a new program, whether it be signing up for classes, planning out home workouts or simply deciding to go for a brisk walk every day.

The hard part is sticking with it. But I can promise you, that’s where the magic is. Be realistic about how much time you have to devote on a daily basis and what your exercise will consist of. This should not be something far out of your realm of experience or else it will be too difficult to maintain. Make it familiar.

When starting out, pick something you enjoy doing and it’ll be easier to keep doing it!

For example, if you do not already have a consistent history with a piece of exercise equipment (say, treadmill), do not purchase one under the assumption that the high price tag will surely motivate you to use it. It will not. The greatest workout you’ll get with it is carrying it to the basement or attic after you can no longer stand the guilt of watching it gather dust.

If you can’t maintain your workouts, you will have to go through the “beginner” phase every time you summon the wherewithal to restart again.

That also means going through “beginner soreness”. Honestly, there’s little pleasure in a Groundhog Day-like experience of not being able to get past the little aches and pains you might feel after getting your body into motion again. Don’t do this to yourself.

How to avoid it? Look at exercise as a lifelong habit, not something you do just to “get in shape” for a specific event like a wedding or reunion. Take smaller bites of exercise, something very doable that you won’t dread, especially if you have negative associations with workouts. Set goals like “train 5 days a week” and plan them out, not “lose 15 pounds” or even worse “look better” (what’s that?). It’s more motivating being able to tick off a specific, finite goal than never reaching one that’s vague, arbitrary and even judgemental.

And DO consider it “training”. You are training for living the rest of your life with more ease, maintaining your flexibility, balance, strength and endurance just that much longer. As in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, starting something that seems “not vigorous enough” but that you can see yourself doing, say, every day, in a year will put you miles ahead of someone who started an ambitious and complicated exercise program and burned out in a matter of weeks.

The fitness industry is banking on the fact that people will start exercising and then give up, only to start again later. And eventually give up again.

Look at it this way: the trillion-dollar exercise industry is betting on you giving up, and so it always comes up with a new shiny object to tempt you with. Often the program is unsustainable and the promised results are unrealistic. You don’t need that. You need consistency.

Again, decide what you can do and do it regularly. Realize there will be days when it won’t be possible to get it done. That’s okay – no guilt, no shame. But then get right back to it as soon as you can. Think of every workout as something positive and precious that provides you with health benefits that no one else will be able to take away. Each day you exercise is one more step towards establishing a habit that will lead to a lifetime of fitness.

Got your exercise in? MARK IT OFF!

IMPORTANT: Put up a high-visibility calendar where you can mark off your workouts and easily see how consistent you are.

But what if it gets TOO easy? That’s when the next pillar comes in…

PROGRESSION

Once you’ve established an exercise habit, your body will eventually adapt to what you’re doing. This is a very good thing. It also means that it’s time to change things up a bit, always giving yourself permission to dial back down to what you’d been doing previously if you have a harder time getting going on any given day.

Is your walking route getting too easy? Make a detour to a set of stairs and get your heart rate up!

The trick is to maintain consistency while also challenging yourself. For example, if you were doing a walking program, incorporate bodyweight exercises (squats, modified push-ups) that you can do along the way. Climb more hills. Pick up the pace.

If you want to get a PhD, you don’t keep taking freshman-level classes. Challenge is where growth happens. We get an unmistakable sense of satisfaction putting in the work and seeing results.

This is also where your self-confidence blossoms. And that’s exactly the bouyed spirit that keeps you going.

Don’t ramp everything up at once. Add a little at a time, but definitely make it count. Be realistic about whether or not you’re challenging yourself: if you need to push it even more and can do so safely, go for it. If you honestly try but can’t do as much as you expected, halve the amount and try again. Don’t beat yourself up. You will get there. But don’t short-change yourself either.

Keep writing it down! When you’re ramping up your fitness program it’s important to keep track of your progress.

Most importantly, unlike high school PhysEd class, you’re in charge. That also means you’re responsible for your own progress. Some workouts will be better than others, but always remember, doing anything is STILL better than binge-watching Netflix with a bowl of chips on your lap. Congratulate yourself for making the decision to exercise!

Hey, why not watch Netflix while marching in place? It still counts so write it down!

So let’s assume that you’re being consistent and gradually increasing the duration/intensity of your workout. That’s perfect, but there’s one more pillar to consider…

BALANCE

In this case, I don’t mean balance as in being able to hold tree pose throughout your entire lunchbreak. I mean are your workouts well-rounded? I’ve seen runners do little else but run. If this is you, incorporate some variety into your life. Your running will improve if you are also training for strength and flexibility.

Hey, your other shoulder needs massaging too!

Here’s a simple analogy for balancing out your workouts: imagine getting a massage regularly, but on only the left side of your body. That side will feel great, but you’re missing something. Your right side needs some love too. Eventually that imbalance will affect you negatively.

Exercise programs are best when they are a melange of endurance, conditioning, strength work and staying limber. It is extremely tempting, once you become adept at an exercise modality, to keep at it at the exclusion of everything else. After all, you’re an expert in it. But you’re also opening yourself up to injury and that’s something no one needs.

Treat your body to something new just to keep things interesting.

Take the time to explore different modalities. Often a type of exercise (say, yoga) can cover a number of bases, but you will still need to supplement with other exercises to stay truly well-rounded. Even strength training (which I consider critically important, btw) can have a cardio effect, but much will depend on how your workout is structured.

Do some research but don’t over think this. Just make sure that you are supporting all your body’s needs. Taking the runner’s example again, strength training will help you maintain muscle mass that you might lose from too much running, and it, along with flexibility and mobility work, will help prevent overuse injuries.

This doesn’t mean that you have to significantly increase the number of workouts you do, just that you have to be creative in what you add to your exercise session. The idea is to incorporate what else your body needs to keep it humming optimally. And then, write it down.

BOTTOM LINE

Bottom line when you’re just starting out? Move. Even if you don’t really know what exercise you “should” do, just find a way to move. Dance. Wave your arms over your head. Break up sedentary times as much as possible. If you sit for an hour, stand up and walk in place for three minutes, swinging your arms. Don’t be afraid to work up a sweat.

Then keep doing it.

When you establsh one healthy habit, it’s easier to incorporate others to support it.

Above all, make it pleasant, so that you look forward to exercise as a break from those things in our environment that keep us sedentary. The human body was meant to move. That is its natural state. Give it the opportunity to do what it’s supposed to do, then let it recouperate and nourish it with healthy food. The idea is to start now and keep going for the rest of your life.

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Being an avid exerciser enable me to recover from cancer treatment much more quickly. Up until my last couple of infusions, I was rowing and lifting weights within a week after each chemo (mine were spaced three weeks apart). In an out-of-control situation like cancer, exercise was one constant that made me feel like I still had a grip something, and that made the whole experience better.