Don’t Overpink It

If you have been living under a rock or have pink color blindness, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

I know I shouldn’t disparage the color pink (after all, my hair is currently pink), but there is a downside to all of this “pinking.” Actually there are two.

Awareness is important, but has the inundation of pink made the month lose it’s meaning?

First, after some point, there’s so much pink that it starts becoming meaningless. Whereas it used to be loads of fun for pre-adolescent boys to go around with “save the boobies” t-shirts in the name of cancer awareness, and then make a social media stink about it when their school sends them home to change, I’m not really seeing that kind of enthusiasm anymore. Kind of like when something that was cool and forbidden becomes legal…it loses its luster.

Which is not to say that breast-saving have gone out of style. A quick search of local events in my area does result in a number of fund-raising events. After all, we are still being diagnosed with breast cancer and in ever-greater numbers. But maybe it’s because of the pandemic, maybe it’s because of my current state of mind, I’m not hearing much about spreading the word of breast cancer prevention (not simply screenings) anymore.

But there’s another part of the pinkness that I’ve struggled with. And that’s the pink everything around this time of the year. I mean, if we want people to be aware, I guess they’re aware. But those of us who have lived the diagnosis may need to turn our awareness elsewhere.

That may sound ungrateful of me because all that awareness has translated into dollars for research, potentially at the expense of other cancers. And even though I will tout breast cancer awareness at this time of the year, it also stings.

I’ve lost friends to breast cancer. And I lost a year to breast cancer treatment, not to mention a good amount of my direction in life. Yes, I’m recalibrating, but no, things are not back to “normal”. Cancer still means people and things that are gone and will not return.

Consider taking your breast cancer friend out for coffee…with no pink in sight.

At times all this pink feels like loud cheerleaders shaking pink pom-poms in my face. And for many cancer patients and survivors, being constantly reminded that it’s BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH can be overwhelming. We may need to ground ourselves in where we are right now, being present and grateful for each minute and away from all the pink noise.

So I agree that with 1 in 8 women being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, and the mortality rate still unacceptably high, it’s definitely important to spread the word about risk factors and urge that women do the oh-so-critical self-exams and not forgo screenings.

But it’s also a great opportunity to reach out to a friend or relative who’s a patient or survivor and offer to take them out for coffee or a walk…and let them forget what month it is.

Working Out the Brain Fog

So if you needed yet another reason to exercise before, during and after your breast cancer treatments, I’ve got one for you.

A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (Salerno et al., 2021) found that early stage (I-III) breast cancer patients who were meeting the US minimum physical activity guidelines both before and during their chemotherapy displayed better cognitive function then did those patients who did not, and the effects were apparent both at the time of chemo and also six months after its completion.

Cognitive impairment is a relatively common complaint of breast cancer survivors–and can be improved with exercise.

This follows along the lines of other things we already know about exercise and cancer, such as increased survival rates and reduced rates of recurrence. It’s not a big stretch to say that exercise (and for the purposes of this post, I’m referring to the US national guidelines) is possibly one of the best things you can do for yourself, whether you are already a cancer patient or don’t want to become one (again).

What are these guidelines?

It’s suggested that adults do (1) at least 150-300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or some combination of the two intensities, the more the better; and (2) strength training activity involving all the major muscle groups at least two days a week at moderate or greater intensity (see specifics at Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition).

Notably, similar guidelines hold across age groups and health conditions, with some modifications, although what exactly constitutes moderate to high intensity for different people will vary according to their conditioning and abilities. Take home message: If you can’t meet the guidelines, do what you can. It will still benefit you. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

The benefits of exercise for cancer survivors have been well-documented.

While there’s been a considerable amount of research done on the benefits of exercise as a whole, we’re only now beginning to focus on cancer patients and survivors as the test subjects. And new research is being conducted on different aspects of exercise to learn what effects they might have on cognition.

I’m going to be watching for the results of two clinical studies regarding exercise and cognition of cancer survivors. Both are currently recruiting participants.

The first, being conducted by the University of California, San Diego, is entitled “I Can! Improving Cognition After Cancer” and will be a randomized trial that examines whether physical activity improves cognitive function. You can read about it here: A randomized trial of physical activity for cognitive functioning in breast cancer survivors: Rationale and study design of I Can! Improving Cognition After Cancer, funded by the National Cancer Institute. Want to learn more? Go to https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04049695.

The second, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh and entitled, “Aerobic Exercise in Improving Cognitive Function in Patients with Stage 0-IIIA Breast Cancer”, will explore the effects of aerobic exercise specifically and will involve neuroimaging and the examination of pro-inflammatory biomarkers. You can read about it here: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search/v?id=NCT02793921&r=1. Again this is funded by the National Cancer Institute. Interested in learning more? Go to https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02793921.

If you’re not exercising yet, the important thing is not what physical activity to choose, it’s to make the decision to begin.

If you have any interest in participating in either of these studies, contact info for the research project is available above in the posted clinical trial links.

So you might be thinking, “I can barely deal with the diagnosis…and you want me to EXERCISE???” I promise you, physical movement will only make you feel better. However, if you don’t have an established exercise routine and don’t particularly enjoy the experience, consider what you can manage.

We’re not talking about training for a marathon or a powerlifting competition. But if you can do something, ANYTHING, you will still see greater improvements in your cognition–and quite frankly, many other aspects of your physical and mental state–than if you hadn’t done any activity at all.

It is worth it and you are worth it. So lace up your shoes and give it a go.

Making Meditation Easier

So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.

And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?

A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.

The breath is a wonderful point of focus because it moves through our body and elicits sensations in a number of places.

Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.

But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?

Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.

What really matters is just that you make it back to the present.

And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!

The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.