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.

Making Peace with Street Noise

Is it possible to re-imagine annoying city noises?

At the least, living in an urban area with a high level of noise pollution is annoying. At worst, being subjected to car alarms and emergency vehicle sirens at any time of the day and night is very jarring and stressful. And I’m speaking from personal experience here, as following our last move, we ended up with a bedroom overlooking a very busy Southern California street.

The stretch of road outside our apartment unit is one of those that give cars enough distance between traffic lights to really accelerate as they blast by. It also leads to one of the major hospitals in the area (hello, ambulance traffic), and this being a big city with big city issues, there’s no shortage of opportunities for the police to be called out, sirens blaring.

There are many days that I wish I weren’t where I am. But wishing doesn’t change anything.

Drawing on mindfulness helps, however, and this is how:

Re-interpreting noise as different sound elements turns an “idiot street racer” into a thunder-like rumble. Much less annoying.

Much of the stress I experience from these various car noises is due in part because I know what they mean. I know that the sounds are the constant stream of cars going down the street or a high-pitched siren wail. But what if I were to accept that I’m living in a noisy city and to define the street noises as simply various sounds?

What if I were to break down the sounds into their characteristics? Would it be easier to handle the noise if I stopped judging and explored each sound as if I were hearing it for the first time?

This is far more doable than one might imagine. Yes, alarms and loud tail pipes are decidedly unpleasant, but they don’t punctuate my soundscape nearly as frequently as do the regular cars driving by. The cars speed through with whooshes of different pitches depending on the vehicle and how quickly it passes.

Sounds of passing cars transform into soothing waves – with the occasional jarring reminder that things are not entirely pleasant.

These sounds rise up and pass away like waves on the ocean – in fact, that whoosh can be soothing, just like the sounds of the ocean can lull you to sleep. Even noisier cars and motorcycles take on a rumbling quality, like thunder. Allowing oneself to re-interpret these sounds, to let go of annoyance, makes even the more jarring noises easier to handle.

When you can’t run away from the noise, make space for it, invite it in and accept that this is what’s happening now. Inevitably, it will pass, to be replaced by another noise and another opportunity to re-imagine it.

Two Assumptions I Wish Doctors Didn’t Make About Cancer

Cancer can turn you into a stress-ball on its own, thankyouverymuch, but there are things that healthcare workers do that may worsen matters.

While there is always room for improvement in the many subtleties of physician-patient interactions (with subtleties being the operative term here, as anxious patients may be zeroing in on the “feel” of interactions and not just the spoken words), there are two big assumptions that I wish doctors would realize that they’re making:

Eat your vegetables and you won’t get cancer? I wish it were that simple.

The first assumption I’ve experienced has been made by non-oncologist physicians. They seem to be just as likely as the rest of the population to confuse correlations with causations. One doctor had been surprised that I had gotten cancer (hey, join the club) because my lifestyle “should” have been protective.

This physician, you could argue, was justified in saying what he did, as the messages we are bombarded with suggest that we have some control over our risk for cancer. However, read the fine print and you’ll see that in a great number of cases the risk factors that a cancer patient has don’t differ from those of someone who doesn’t develop cancer. But even doctors miss the fine print…

I brought this up to my oncology team which was quick to point out that as long as we don’t definitively know what causes cancer, we can’t make assumptions about whether or not someone will get the disease. So, yeah.

The other major assumption is one that I’ve gotten from the oncological community, and that is that on some level, most patients with a given cancer have the same health profile. Ironically, this concept is often mixed in with the conflicting assertion that everyone’s cancer experience is different. Granted, when you’ve seen a gazillion cancer patients, similarities emerge, and consciously or not there’s probably a tendency to pigeonhole people. Still it’s frustrating to be treated like I fit into a slot when I really don’t.

Effective communication is a critical part of quality physician-patient interactions.

My own oncologist has realized that, thankfully, but he has done a good job of listening and I do a (*cough cough*) good job of talking. Perhaps a bit too good, since he’s mentioned that it would be best if I scheduled my appointment to be his last of the day, so that we don’t face as many time restrictions. But therein lies my point: oncologists need to ask and patients need to share, otherwise, the patient remains a two-dimensional entity and it’s more likely that assumptions will be made about them.

So if there’s a take-home message from any of this, it’s that good communication is an essential part of effective treatment. This is not an easy feat, as physicians have a limited amount of time with each patient, and patients might not think that a given aspect of their experience is relevant. Believe me, it is, and the more that we talk about this and get into the nitty gritty of it, the easier it will be for everyone involved.

You know, I used to be funnier…

This is not the post I was originally going to write.

I was going to relate the feelings of loss that I’ve experienced. And if I feel them, cancer sufferers who are in worse situations are hit with a tenfold intensity.

However, I decided against that. As I noted earlier, attitude influences our perceptions of a situation. That’s certainly not earthshaking news, but the extent to which that happens constantly smacks me upside the head.

There are bright spots in cancer. My Nurse Navigator, herself a triple-negative breast cancer survivor, would say, “You’re gonna either laugh or cry,” and as patients we do find things to laugh about. It’s just that we want to be the ones to point those things out. Calling yourself Yoda because you have a few long hairs on your head can be done in a light-hearted way. Having your neighbor laugh at your bald pate after a strong gust of wind rips your head scarf off, not so cool.

Sitting down and plunking out a humorous piece used to be really easy. There were so many things in life to laugh about, and it was no sweat to find the funny in everything. But it’s a harder squeeze now with cancer in my rear view mirror.

Alright, who’s up for a Nerf gun battle?

Not that I want to hide behind doors in Groucho glasses ready to nail people with seltzer water. But being able to generate a little bit of lightness would be appreciated. And when you throw financial stressors, cancer, work pressures and gradually dissipating self-esteem into that environment, pulling out a sincerely funny post seems almost impossible.

This is not how I want to go out, as the grumpy old lady who sits by the window all day, watching the kids in the neighborhood and ratting them out for the smallest infraction. No, I’d rather be the fun old lady who brings out popsicles and water balloons and gets in trouble along with those kids.

Same old lady. Different attitude. Yeah, I can swing that.

Do Small Things with Great Love

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

Attributed to Mother Theresa

I have disappointed myself.

Thirty years ago, I would have assumed that by now I would be doing great things, making a big difference in the lives of many beings.

I would have been well advanced in my field and a person of consequence.

But life is full of twists and turns and things don’t always go according to plan.

There are obstacles along the way, and maneuvering around them can force you onto a side path. Sometimes that path strays too far from your original purpose and you end up so far away that you cannot make it back.

You may find yourself in a place that’s unfamiliar and unexpected. For me, it was a realization that I will not get to where I thought I was going.

So I cannot make grand decisions to benefit all. But perhaps I can do little things with a kind heart that will benefit someone. I may not change the world, but in a small way with great love I can do my part.

And perhaps that is enough.

Portals

The journey back to my hometown included a trip to my alma mater, less than an hour away from my parents’ house. Just like much of the Northeastern US, the school has a lot of history that is reflected in its architecture.

A rather majestic entrance to a library…

Doorways and passages hold a particular interest for me, not only because they can be works of art within themselves but also because they have a symbolism that resonates with me.

A close up of one of the library doors.

A door offers an opportunity to pass through and see what’s on the other side. It may improve our situation or worsen it, but even if it’s the latter, there’s always another door in the not-too-distant future that we can open.

What’s on the other side?

I don’t believe that we ever truly run out of portals to open and thresholds to cross.

Here’s an invitation to enter…
Doors can be deceiving. They may look foreboding, but lead to glorious things.
Some doors you want to stand and admire before opening.
And in lieu of a proper door, windows serve as adequate portals in a pinch.