Starting 2020 with Compassion: Random Acts

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight the idea of service to others. The possibilities are endless, as are the rewards.

The need is great all over the world so it’s not difficult to find a place to begin. Having said that, I’d like to bring “Random Acts” to your attention.

Random Acts is a non-profit started by actor Misha Collins (of “Supernatural” fame) and it operates as a clearing house of goodness. The organization raises funds and then distributes money to a broad range of causes. What sets this organization apart from others is that it enables individuals to apply for small (>US$500) grants that can be used to support a kind act, perhaps too small to attract the interest of major charities. (Larger Random Acts are also a possibility.)

Engage in random acts of kindness, no matter how small. Even if no one is looking.

I really like this idea, because kindness doesn’t have to be large-scale to make a meaningful difference in someone else’s life. We often overlook the “little things” that we can do in favor of making a huge impact. And that usually means that many of us will do nothing because, we tell ourselves, one person will not make a significant change.

Kindness doesn’t have to attract news cameras or go viral on the Internet in order to be a beautiful act of charity.

Starting 2020 with Compassion: The Dogs of Chernobyl

(Featured Image Photo: Jorge Franganillo from Barcelona, Spain [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] – cropped image)

My kids and I got hit with the flu right New Year’s Day, which meant mandatory rest and time to browse the Internet. After randomly clicking through websites, I landed on a story about the stray dogs of Chernobyl.

This touched me deeply because I hadn’t realized that animals were abandoned during the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. When people evacuated the area, they were told to leave their pets, that they’d be able to soon return. Obviously, that didn’t happen, so animals that had been used to being fed, watered and otherwise cared for were suddenly left alone. To make matters worse, the Soviet government sent soldiers into the disaster area to kill the homeless animals in an effort to contain the radioactive contamination.

Amazingly, some dogs and other pets survived in the exclusion area, even through harsh winters, lack of food, threat of predation and possibility of rabies. Given that it’s been over 30 years since the accident, the current “dogs of Chernobyl” are several generations away from the original dogs, but their circumstances are still dire.

As I’ve gotten older, gone through cancer treatment and now menopause, I find that stories like cause me to disintegrate into a mushy mess. It breaks my heart that these animals were serving as companions to humans, and then were left to suffer from a human-made disaster when it was deemed too dangerous for the humans to stay there. These cruel twists of fate seem too much.

However, this post is not about agony or anger against humans, it’s about hope and compassion. A charitable group called Clean Futures Fund was established, as their mission statements reads, “to raise awareness and provide international support for communities affected by industrial accidents and long-term remedial activities”. Among other projects, they sponsor the ogs of Chernobyl effort: veterinarians and other experienced personnel who care for the descendants of abandoned pets by spaying, neutering, vaccinating, providing first aid and whatever else needs to be done to keep the animals as healthy as possible.

The Clean Futures Fund provides people an opportunity to virtually adopt the dogs and cats of Chernobyl, thereby using those funds to support their rescue program. But there’s also a sense of satisfaction to be found in simply supporting them through their GoFundMe page.

And the best news is, after years of people being told that all the animals were radioactive and therefore unadoptable, that presumption has been shown to be a myth. How? Because the radiation found on the animals can be washed off – it comes from the environment, not from the animals themselves. Finally, puppies are being removed from the exclusion area and sent to loving homes.

There are many more animals still left, but there are also many dedicated and courageous volunteers who are determined to make sure that these furries are not forgotten. While this story isn’t over yet, it promises a happy ending.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 2

There’s more to the story I began in Part 1 and what better time than the start of a new decade to relate it?

I have a monkey. Those of you aware of your monkey minds know exactly what I mean.

But at this moment, “I have a monkey” means something more tangible. After giving it some thought, after going through struggle after exhausting struggle over all the negative chatter in my head, it was clear that I needed to change my strategy.

A quick Amazon search provided the result I needed: a gloriously soft, appropriately small, unbelievably cute plush monkey that would serve as my previously-maligned nemesis. It is a physical representation of my MonkeyMind (my little MoMi), but not one that I’d want to stay away from. This one begs for soft cuddles.

(To be clear, I bought a stuffed toy from the Amazon site, not an actual primate from the Amazon!)

How can something so darling be a nemesis? It shouldn’t be.

This is not about avoiding thoughts or wrestling my mind into submission, which I’d been trying to do. This is about acceptance of something that is a part of me.

Instead of tossing and turning at night, instead of succumbing to anxiety, instead of frantically trying not-to-think about what’s bothering me, I take that comfy manifestation of my worries and shower it with affection. I hold it gently, and then I hold my thoughts gently too.

Spread the love in 2020. We desperately need it.

The best part of this is that MoMi, a representation of that which upsets me, is actually so easy to hold and love.

What does my MonkeyMind need? The same thing this world needs a lot more of: LOVE.

May this New Year bring you lots of it.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 1

This post was inspired by Smilecalm’s beautiful combination of words and pictures. He has a very insightful monkey!

I got thinking about my MonkeyMind. Most of the time it’s doing a lot of chattering, distracting me from the present and keeping me up at night. I meditate in an effort to shut it up, but that’s a struggle.

We have had a tumultuous relationship, MonkeyMind and I.

I’ve tried to wrestle it into submission, but WOW does it put up a fight! We stand at odds, I in one corner and my MonkeyMind in the other, dukes up, gritting our teeth.

Headaches result. This is tiring. Something needs to change.

After numerous fruitless boxing matches, I decide to try something else, something I hadn’t thought of before. I invite MonkeyMind into my home. While I had, in the past, taken it by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it outside–an exercise in futility–now I’m opening the door…

We stare at each other. MonkeyMind looks a lot smaller sitting on the rug by the front door than when it’s screaming in my ear at 3am. Gentler and less menacing. Even a little scared, unsure of what’s going to happen.

MonkeyMind doesn’t look so scary there on the ground by itself. You mean, this is the little guy who’s been giving me so much grief?

I pat it on the head. Its fur is silky soft! I expected a rough, bristly coat, but it’s nothing like that. I can’t resist, I pick MonkeyMind up and then, as I look down at its anxious little face, I’m struck by an overwhelming urge to hug the little bugger, so I do.

And then something new happens: MonkeyMind burbles contentedly. I’ve never heard that before!

Then again I’ve never held MonkeyMind before. I’ve never given it the attention it required to make its needs known, never been sincerely patient with it, never cuddled it. I’ve just tried to push it away.

This is so much nicer.

Now when I wake in the middle of the night and notice MonkeyMind chattering in my ear, I take it in my arms and rub its tiny feet. I stroke its little back and feel the softness of its fur against my face. We take a deep breath together.

I feel grounded and present. MonkeyMind settles down. We both go back to sleep.

(Read Part 2 of this story here.)

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, On Letrozole We Go

Starting up again…

After giving me a six-week respite from tamoxifen and then running bloodwork that revealed I was postmenopausal, my oncologist made good on his threat to put me on letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor. This breast cancer medication is supposed to block “the enzyme aromatase, which turns the hormone androgen into small amounts of estrogen in the body. This means that less estrogen is available to stimulate the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer cells” (breastcancer.org). It’s also better suited for postmenopausal women.

Perhaps it’s more correct to say that the journey is BACK on. I enjoyed my time off tamoxifen, but I really didn’t notice much of a difference in myself whether I was taking it or not, suggesting that maybe what I thought were side effects, weren’t. So I’m willing to humor my oncologist and try an aromatase inhibitor.

Not gonna lie, I really did not want to go on yet another medication, but for this appointment, I left all the journal articles at home and put away the boxing gloves. I promised my oncologist that I would stay off the forums, stay off PubMed, quit overthinking things and give letrozole a chance.

The reason? My oncologist thinks that my earlier frustration with tamoxifen was, to put it bluntly, in my head. And my clinical counselor suggested that what I complained of could be explained by anxiety. But I swore that my memory and focus issues started with tamoxifen.

You know what? I’m not so sure now.

The fact is, everything that I was experiencing could have been caused by anxiety (or menopause). And even more striking were the things that I didn’t experience. Not only did I not have significant hot flashes (maybe a “warm flush” here or there, easily countered by taking off a sweater), I never had night sweats. Heck, I had more night sweats before my cancer.

No weight gain, either, which had been another big concern of mine. I’ve been disciplined in maintaining healthy fitness habits throughout my adult life, probably to the point that most people wouldn’t tolerate. Tamoxifen didn’t manage to mess with that, which was extremely gratifying.

While I really want to peg the concentration problems, distractability, flagging libido and other negatives on estrogen-blockers, a retrospective look at my emotional history suggests that (1) I’m highly suggestible (I need to stay off the internet!), (2) there have been loads of anxiety-amplifying events in my life, even before cancer, that I haven’t handled well, and (3) I would be better off shutting up, taking the pill and working on getting my mental state in order.

I mean, I already knew most of this. But some things need to hit me between the eyes a number of times before they actually register.

Wow, dizziness and impaired ability to drive are bad enough to merit a prominent place on the label? Yay! I’m going to pretend that this is a sleep inducer that will leave me better rested. I’ll let you know if that works.

So, while my oncologist warned me about “a little joint pain” (eek!), I’ve avoided anything but a cursory glance at what I might experience on letrozole, besides what reactions would necessitate calling the doctors.

We’ll see how bad these side effects really are.

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A FINAL NOTE – According to what was written on the bottle, this stuff can cause dizziness and impair my ability to operate a vehicle. Seriously? I didn’t expect that, but here’s what I’m going to do with that tidbit of information: I’m going to view letrozole as a reason to get to bed earlier, since I’ll obviously have to take it in the evening. And I’m going to tell myself that this is going to help me sleep. Who knows, maybe it will?

What No One Told Me About Cancer and Hair Regrowth

More than two years after finishing chemo, after being afraid my hair would not grow back, and after being delighted with the way it did…I’m experiencing follicular drama, once again.

Once chemo was over, my sleepy follicles took their time getting roused into action. To say that I worried would be an understatement. I was still caught up in the unfairness of being smacked down by breast cancer. Confronting the possibility that after enduring the nastiness of cancer treatment, I might not get my hair back? That was too much.

Well, if you’ve read my posts on hair, you’ll know that my hair finally did come back. And there was much rejoicing.

And that’s where my hair posts stopped. But as happens with these kinds of things, that wasn’t the end of the story.

While still bald, I had been fed reassuring anecdotes by well-meaning supporters about hair coming back even better than before, lush locks that served as well-deserved rewards for undergoing the anxiety and strain of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

But as much as cancer patients feel like they don’t know what’s going on, those around them have even less of an idea. They want you to “stay positive” at all costs, so they overload you with lots of good news.

The forest isn’t as dense as it used to be.

By now you can probably guess where I’m going with this. Because in Spring 2019, things started changing. Within a few months, my uber-cool spikey rockstar hair lost fullness as my strands thinned. Then, I saw “bald spots”.

So, let me explain how I define “bald spots”: these areas have hair, but due to the color (um, WHITE) and thinness, the hair seems translucent, even transparent. And along the part? You can’t see the roots well at all.

My reward for enduring cancer is invisible hair.

My hairstylist confirmed that the hair that comes back in after chemo is different from the hair that eventually settles in. And mine had settled.

Tamoxifen also played a role, since choking off estradiol and moving into menopause will age both you and your hair, particularly if you are premenopausal going into treatment, as I was. So this should have been expected, but in the hustle and bustle of all the other little things, like, oh, wondering if you’re going to survive the ordeal, no one really talks about the fact that there will be other changes that take place.

And now, I’ve been off tamoxifen for almost six weeks, but can’t tell whether there’s been any regrowth, not that I expect any. I meet with my oncologist this Tuesday and you can bet your panties he’s going to prescribe an aromatase inhibitor for me, so the pharmaceutical depression of estrogen will continue.

I am dealing. Mostly. Am I happy about this? Of course not. The last few years have felt like running a gauntlet of misery, but one where I’m only hobbled and not completely taken out. Given that, I’m ashamed of complaining, as there are many others doing so much worse. But not ashamed enough to stop writing about it, as this is my reality and it affects me. If I’m going through this, there’s a good chance that many others are too.

I’m supposed to be moving on and leaving cancer behind me, right? But like an annoyingly nosy neighbor, it keeps waving at me through my kitchen window, reminding me that it’s living next door.

A New View of Stress That Can Save Your Life

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a history of not handling stress well.

A recent PubMed search on the connection between stress and proliferation of cancer didn’t help, as I found sufficient evidence to show that the two may be closely linked, and that is a disconcerting thought for a cancer survivor. Finding ways to relieve everyday stress has become one of my highest priorities. But would I be better served by focusing on stress as a positive force?

In her 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a new view of stress, not as a horrible experience, but instead as a state that primes your body for better dealing with hardships.

This is a novel and intelligent way of looking at something that, unfettered, could otherwise harm us. Why not turn it into a positive instead?

McGonigal points out that our attitude towards stress is critically important. A study from the University of Wisconsin (Keller et al., 2012, Health Psychol) demonstrated that people who experienced high levels of stress and were convinced that stress was harmful to their health were 43% (!) more likely to die during the eight-year study period. Note, these are correlational (not causational) findings, although it was striking how that belief predicted an earlier demise.

McGonigal describes research at Harvard (Jamieson et al., 2012, J Exp Psychol Gen) to discover whether changing someone’s attitude about stress can change their response to it. The study was designed to invoke anxiety in the subjects via a “social stress test”. But one group of participants was primed with information about how sensations associated with anxiety were actually beneficial for their performance: pounding heart = preparing the body for action; breathing faster = getting more oxygen to the brain for clearer thought.

Test subjects taught to reappraise their responses reacted differently to the stressors than might have been predicted. They felt energized, more confident and ready for the challenge. But what was even more surprising was that their physiological response was more positive, because they didn’t experience the tightening of blood vessels commonly associated with chronic stress and thereby with cardiovascular disease. Rather, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, as happens during periods of “joy and courage.”

What if effectively dealing with stress is as simple as changing the way you view it?

This is a much healthier physiological reaction. As McGonigal puts it, “How you think about stress matters.” It may make the difference between a long life and an early death.

McGonigal goes on to describe another positive benefit of a healthy stress response: the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which results in people seeking out social support during times of stress. Says McGonigal, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how to you feel, instead of bottling it up.” In addition, this results in an increase of empathy so that you are more likely to help someone else who’s experiencing stress.

Further, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory and protects the heart from potential negative effects of stress.

But most telling is a study (Poulin et al., 2013, Am J Public Health) that examined the connection between high levels of stress, risk of dying and amount of time that people spent supporting those around them. As might be expected given the above information,”people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. …Caring created resilience.”

For me, McGonigal’s talk stood my belief about stress on its head. Can I learn to view the stress response differently? Yes, I believe I can. And what about social support? That is the path my life is taking: finding a more meaningful existence though supporting others.

This is a “win-win” of the highest degree.