Don’t Call It “Social Distancing”

By now, I’m hopeful that we all understand the importance of putting physical space between ourselves and those outside of our household in order to avoid transmission of the coronavirus. According to the BBC and its broom trick, you should be able to hold out a broom and not be able to twack another person with it. That means about six feet of distance, as everyone’s been repeating.

But socially distancing ourselves in this time of uncertainty is the last thing we need. In fact, we need to be reaching out to others, trying to bridge the social isolation gap.

It should be easy enough to strengthen our social ties with all the technology that we have available, like Zoom meetings and FaceTime sessions. But all those require at least a little planning, especially when we’re living in comfy clothes, forgoing haircuts and not necessarily getting made up to go out. What we’re missing are all those little interactions that we have in our daily lives: impromptu water cooler conversations, brief chats with a cashier, a quick joke with the server who brings your lunch. There are many ways that we touch each other’s lives than we’re likely conscious of, and those have abruptly stopped.

So if you’re feeling a strange emptiness in your life, there’s a good reason for it.

Got the toilet paper, got the gas mask…but missing the human contact.

And this social isolation is significant. Research has shown that in times of stress, social support is particularly helpful in coping and resilience (for example: Ozdemir & Taz Arslan, 2018; Ozbay et al., 2007), and individuals who are socially isolated have negative health consequences (again, an example: Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003).

Now, consider that people are being isolated at a time when many are losing their jobs, worrying about being able to pay their bills, fearing for their health and wondering when all of this is going end. The financial and health concerns are immediate and frightening, but it’s the unknown extent of the damage that continues to keep people up at night.

This is the time when we should be reaching out to our friends and family members, checking in with loved ones and re-establishing our social connections. While “we’re all in this together” might seem like a hackneyed slogan, it is a perfect description of this new reality. As distant as we might feel, particularly those who are forced to shelter-in-place alone, we are experiencing a global pandemic. Never in my own life have I been able to share in such collective concerns, ones that are literally reverberating throughout this entire planet.

This should be something that ties us together. So as you do your best to be safe and keep your distance for the sake of health, please don’t forget to bridge the social and emotional distance that this unique situation has bought upon us.

And Now We Wait…

Last Monday night my daughter and I noticed that we had sore throats. No big deal most of the time, but we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

Of course, a sore throat can develop for a number of reasons. And we’ve been washing our hands, using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available, keeping our distance from people. Nothing much to worry about, right?

Right. Except that it seems like a sibling of mine had actually suffered through an illness resembling COVID-19, with first symptoms appearing over a month ago, with a gradual onset. At that point, like many in the United States he wasn’t in a position to get tested (and with a fever of 103.9, he wasn’t about to drive himself to the doctor).

Now, I haven’t been in physical contact with him for about a year. But since I had a sore throat, I casually asked him what his symptoms were. I mean, I wasn’t exhibiting the same COVID-19 indicators everyone talks about.

Here we go again.

Apparently, his illness also started with a sore throat, no other symptoms for about a week, at which point the cough started. That was followed by a shortness of breath and fever, including two days that the fever was dangerously high. Eventually, the symptoms subsided, with the sensation of an elephant sitting on his chest, along with a lingering cough, being the last to go.

This would be extremely disconcerting to me, if not for the fact the sore throats that both my daughter and I had lasted only a few days before going away.

Phew, right? Well, kind of. Because if this had been COVID-19, we would have been dealing with the monster head-on. Now, we’re prepped for a fight with no opponent. Back to being vigilant, washing hands and crossing fingers.

Sound familiar? Any cancer survivor will tell you they’ve been down this road. It’s all about the waiting, trying to shed the anxiety about cancer coming back. Trying to shed the hypervigilance. There is no “end date”, there’s just an “I’ve made it this far so maybe my risk is decreasing?”

With COVID-19, we experience that lack of “end date” on a smaller scale. Eventually, there’ll be a vaccine. But we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting and how long our lives are going to be so drastically different. However, relief will eventually come and we can exhale.

As a cancer survivor, I’m kind of jealous.

Musings from a Lockdown State

If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, it’s that all of us on this planet are inextricably interconnected.

In times of disease spread, this may seem like a bad thing, but it’s also an opportunity to pause and reflect that no matter where we live, we all belong to the same species. We are all vulnerable to the coronavirus, no matter whether someone is a high-profile lawmaker, a movie star, a famous athlete or the custodian at an elementary school.

So this is similarly a good time to think about the importance of sharing resources and considering the common good. I’m looking at you, Ms. “I’m-cramming-three-packs-of-toilet-paper-into-my-cart-even-though-the-limit-is-one.” C’mon, don’t be like that. Leave the stampeding to cattle herds. And the rebellious college students who feel the right to crowd beaches for Spring Break celebrations? Time to grow up.

We should be above that. And I believe we are.

As many hiccups as there have been, communities are adjusting to the changing situations at a breakneck pace. My university has ordered all “non-essential” personnel to work from home, within a week, we scrambled to move meetings online and eke out a research plan. Likewise, university courses are transitioning to an online platform, as is my kids’ high school. Restaurants have switched to take-out wherever possible. And my daughter joined her fellow fencers for a ZOOM training session with their coach last night.

This is not to say that this has been effortless. My daughter will probably lose her restaurant job, which means that she won’t have the income to continue fencing, as the classes are a financial burden on our family. But she has a place to live, food to eat and incoming college acceptance letters. Others are losing their livelihood and looking at a far bleaker future. Many of our favorite small businesses are suffering. Therefore, as much gratitude as I have for the ability to work from home and not face immediate financial consequences, I have great compassion for those who are struggling through what could be a long and difficult situation.

Blink and the numbers increase…

And this isn’t even counting the number of infected individuals, some with severe complications. These days, “hot spots” are less about internet connections and more about loss of life. Few saw this coming and we won’t see the end of it for some time to come. My heart goes out to COVID-19 patients, their loved ones and the uncertainties they all face.

At the same time, I’m concerned about a group with which I’m more familiar: newly-diagnosed cancer patients. Getting a cancer diagnosis is frightening enough; getting that diagnosis when the treatment for the disease puts you at significantly higher risk for succumbing to a global pandemic is unimaginably unfair.

This is painful, so I look for the bright spots in the world: the clothing designers distributing patterns for people to make their own masks so they don’t compete with hospitals for supplies, and the designers making gowns, scrubs and face mask covers for doctors; the local seamstresses who are firing up their sewing machines and using their skills in the same way; the alcohol distilleries and perfume producers who are switching to making hand sanitizer; the millions of dollars raised to support intensive care units. All this gives me hope that we are bigger than the virus and we’ll pull ourselves out of this.

Emergency Preparedness, Inside-Out

We have spent the last couple of weeks in various hunting-gathering trips in preparation for a possible coronavirus lockdown. Yes, we got enough toilet paper, but not multiple mega packs, as there is no place to store them. We bought a little extra frozen food, but space is limited in the freezer, just as it is in the fridge.

When in doubt, bidet!

Being a mainly vegetarian family, we consume a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, and those have to be procured on a frequent basis. Hoarding is not a real possibility at our place: we have no garage, basement or pantry. And I don’t consider a 30-roll pack of TP to be proper living room furniture.

Luckily, we have ample soap and I have the large bottle of hand sanitizer that I kept at work when I was going through chemo (think: it’s been a few years). Also thanks to cancer: a generously-sized box of surgical face masks that we will be dipping into, should one of us start feeling ill.

Finally, in a “clouds parted and a ray of light shone down”-type of serendipitous luck, we found a bag of N95 respirators in the back of our coat closet. Usually one finds old tennis rackets or worn shoes. We find items that someone might strangle us for.

One of my brothers had stocked up on the respirators during the devastating fires in Northern California, only to unload them on us during a visit here. I always complain when he leaves stuff at our place, but I’m feeling much more accepting of it now. My kids are planning to sell them to finance their college educations. (kidding!)

So we’ve prepped as much as we can, for the amount of space that we have. And while it’s not a lot, I believe it’s enough for several weeks.

But where I’m engaging in some serious “hoarding” is greedily protecting my daily meditation time. If there were ever a time to practice mindfulness, it’s now.

This is not the end.

Consider this: during a trip to Costco a week ago, people were going nuts with toilet paper, as if it were a finite commodity and if we didn’t get it now, we’d be wiping our butts with tree leaves and old homework assignments for the rest of our lives.

It’s easy to laugh, but I myself felt a sudden bolt of urgency watching people squeeze nine months’ worth of toilet paper into their cars. It was difficult to resist.

Many people were operating as if with blinders on. At that same Costco, the check-out line for one cashier stretched all the way back to the bakery section. If you’re familiar with these enormous warehouse stores, you know that baked goods are way in the back. That is a crazy-long line!

What those shoppers didn’t realize was that the lines for the other cashiers were only one or two people long. But few people looked through the aisles enough to realize that. They simply saw a line and got in it, assuming that everyone else knew what they were doing.

Clearly, they didn’t

This is a perfect example of the need to slow down, take a deep breath and spend the time to understand what’s going on. In the face of unprecedented events, panic seems like a decent option. But just doing something–ANYTHING–isn’t the same as doing something useful.

Relax. You’ll use less toilet paper that way.

Look, I get it. This is scary. As a cancer survivor, my white blood cell count remains depressed, and although my oncologist doesn’t think I’m in danger of dying from COVID-19, that doesn’t mean I can’t contract it. If I did, maybe it would tax my system more and send me to the hospital. There are so many uncertainties that I have to live with. The best thing I can do is to be mindful of what’s going on, accepting of what I can’t change, and rational about the rest.

So my wish for all of us going through surreal times for which we have no operating instructions is to listen to reputable sources, drop the conspiracy theories, pause and think. Don’t rush simply because everyone else is. Breathe. When this pandemic has subsided, there will be more toilet paper. I promise.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Mammogram

Of course, maybe not funny at the time. File this under, even the best laid plans can be undone.

I had been preparing mentally for my mammogram over the past weeks, and everything was going smoothly. I had a nice mammographer, not overly chatty, very matter of fact. There were video screens on the walls of the mammography room projecting peaceful nature scenes for me to watch as I got squooshed, as if ocean waves would make me forget that my breasts were being clamped in a mechanical vice.

Then, finally, I was done and back in the intimate waiting room. There were only two of us women there (along with my husband, who, since my breast cancer diagnosis, no longer lets me get scans alone). The other woman’s mammographer came out and told her that everything looked good and she was free to go; they’d see her in a year. She happily left.

Several minutes later, my mammographer came out and said something along the lines of, “The doctor is looking at your scans. I’ll bring you to the consultation room so that we don’t have to talk out here.”

Had I not just heard the exchange between the other woman and her technician, I would have been fine. But since I’d heard it, my heart started to pound. My husband and I were led to a cozy little room…with an array of informational pamphlets about biopsies and breast surgeries on a side table, and you can imagine where my mind went.

Forget mindfulness, forget non-attachment, forget letting go of expectations. Forget three years of daily meditation. I was terrified. I tried slowing down my breathing, but it only made me feel like I was being starved of oxygen.

I unloaded all my fears on my husband, who up to that time, was not experiencing the same level of concern.

“I don’t feel good about this. Why did they bring us into this room?”

“They always bring us into a separate room.” He was right, we always went to a consultation room for the results. But the other woman hadn’t.

“Why are all those pamphlets there?” I motioned to the biopsy pamphlets on the table.

“They’re always there.”

“Why did they tell the other woman out in the hall?”

“Maybe because you’re having a 3-D mammogram so there’s more to look at, or maybe because you’re a cancer survivor, and they probably bring all the former cancer patients in…”

Yup, I was having flashbacks.

Yes, he was giving me solid, rational explanations, but I would have none of it. I was in the middle of a “fight or flight” moment and struggling to regain composure, but it was too much.

I simply could not let go of intense feelings. They were too much like what I’d experienced three years earlier, at a time when I so desperately feared bad news. And then got it. It’s difficult to articulate what that feels like to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but if you’ve been there, you know exactly what I mean.

Throughout all of this, however, there was a small, reasonable piece of my brain that was collecting data. I had noted the time when the other woman had received her news (1:20pm), so I would have a better idea of how long this was taking. I sensed the tightening in my muscles and attempted, with difficulty, to release them. I’d been frozen into a block of ice and was trying to chip my way out with a butter knife.

Then at 1:27pm, the radiologist knocked and came in.

In that first fraction of a second that I saw her face, my brain ran a scan of it, and it told me…nothing. I’m betting that doctors are honing their “stone-face” look, so as not to give a clue one way or the other. My radiologist said hi and stretched out her hand, I shook it, and she told me everything looked good.

Just like that.

The rational part of my brain exhaled, but it took hours for my body to shake off the hype. By the evening, I felt like I’d gotten a year’s-long extension on a tenuous lease. So, I thought, I have another twelve months do something useful with my life. Go!

A week later, when I told my oncologist about this mammogram episode, he explained that as a cancer survivor, I get diagnostic mammograms from now on, and those always involve a consultation with the radiologist afterwards.

Oh. I’ll try to remember that for next time.

So Far, So Good

I had a mammogram last Thursday to ascertain whether or not I was still in remission from breast cancer.

For the record, I still am, although it’s easy to say that like it’s no big deal. Not only is it a huge deal, but getting through last week was more difficult that I anticipated.

One of the basic tenets of mindfulness that I practice, with varying degrees of success, is non-attachment. This is particularly useful when dealing with cancer because the disease involves so many scary things, and as a result, so much wishing that things were different. Of course, the more you agonize over the fact that you’re going through something you desperately don’t want to be going through, the more suffering you experience.

I can personally attest to this.

It would be great if letting go of expectations would be as simple as releasing a paper lantern, but it’s not that easy.

To counter this, I do my best to release expectations of specific outcomes. When it come to scans, every cancer patient wants to hear that tumors are shrinking and every cancer survivor wants to be told that the tumor hasn’t returned. It’s REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hard not to cling to those wants, but the harder you cling, the more painful the separation if things don’t turn out the way you hope, and even if they ultimately do, there’s fear that they might not.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been practicing letting go. It’s funny that “letting go” is so easy to type out, but so incredibly difficult to accomplish. I’m not good at it when it comes to the things I desperately fear.

To counter my clinginess, I’ve adopted a concept I call, “so far, so good”. That means that up to this point, I’ve been able to handle everything that’s happened to me. This doesn’t mean that it’s been easy or pleasant — in fact, at times it’s been horrible — but somehow I’ve made it through to this point. And tomorrow? I cannot predict what will happen then, but right now I’m still here.

This way, I can feel positive without the burden of hopeful expectations — and the fearful possibility that those expectations will be dashed to smithereens. Of course, all of this sounds great because I’m speaking theoretically. But as we know, that ain’t real life, as I’ll illustrate in my next post…

Who Knew a Grapefruit Could Create So Much Confusion?

A few days ago, I decided to eat a grapefruit. We had gone to a Korean market earlier that day, and the citrus fruits beckoned to me with an enticing fragrance. I couldn’t resist.

So as I was finishing up one of the most delicious grapefruits that I’d had in a long time, I started thinking. Back when I was taking tamoxifen, I’d come across an admonishment not to eat grapefruit because it could interfere with absorption of the medication. But I wasn’t taking tamoxifen anymore, I was taking letrozole. Could the same be true?

I started googling, first on my phone. And as the search results came in, I had to switch to my computer because things were looking confusing. Many sites said “NO” in no uncertain terms. Grapefruit can prevent the letrozole from breaking down in the body completely, leading to higher levels remaining than could be safe.

It wasn’t that the grapefruit was hindering the efficacy of the letrozole, it was that grapefruit could set up a dangerous situation of “overdose”.

Of course, googling often results in messages that are big on warnings and short on details. So I dug further and happened upon forum posts where other women were asking the same questions.

I read the following exchange: one woman said she’d spoken to two different hospital pharmacists, both of whom had given her the okay to eat grapefruit. A number of other women (like, everyone else) chimed in on how they had unequivocably been warned to stay away from grapefruit (for the above mentioned reasons). The first woman reiterated that she had been told by HOSPITAL PHARMACISTS that she could each grapefruit with impunity…and so it went.

Do I LOOK like I know what I’m doing?

What really bothers me about this is that so many websites suggest that, it really it best to avoid grapefruit due to possible interactions with letrozole. But I slogged through the entire bloody informational insert from the manufacturer of my drug and NOWHERE did it mention that I shouldn’t eat grapefruit. There was also nothing on the bottle itself, nor did my oncologist say anything about that.

However, WebMD’s grapefruit interactions webpage, while not mentioning letrozole by name, did suggest issues with estrogen and also Cytochrome P450 substrates (of which letrozole is one, but I just happen to know that; others wouldn’t necessarily). WebMD’s letrozole info pages made no mention an issue with grapefruit. I mention WebMD mainly because many people consider it a reputable site and may go there for information.

If it truly is that dangerous to eat grapefruit while taking letrozole, why is that not explicitly stated on the container? Why would any woman think to google a random fruit or vegetable, like, “I think I’ll eat an artichoke and shiitake mushrooms today, but first I’ll do an internet search to make sure they don’t affect my medication.” Who plans their meals like that?

The bottom line is, the effect the grapefruit has depends on a variety of factors. It depends on when you’re eating and how much you’re eating, and how many days in a row. But all of that is so unsatisfying to me, who wants a concrete answer. Cancer is not about answers, however, it’s about getting comfortable with living with the unknown.

So, back to the grapefruit. Spooked, I skipped the medication that evening, although I’m sure I could have taken it and still lived through the night. I’ll ask my oncologist about it during my next visit, but I expect that his answer will be, “just don’t overdo it.”

And there’s another fragrant grapefruit sitting on the counter, which I will eat at sometime in the future, maybe half at a time. Here’s to living with uncertainty!