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.

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!

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.

“Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air”: A List of Breast Cancer Risk Factors

After some intense research on the risk of developing breast cancer, I’ve come to the conclusion that the factor with the greatest causal relationship to the disease is, quite frankly, life. In fact, I sometimes wonder how people manage to NOT get cancer.

For your reading pleasure, I surveyed a number of reputable sites to compile a list of commonly accepted breast cancer risk factors (links to the info): American Cancer Society, Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Centers for Disease Control, National Breast Cancer Foundation, World Cancer Research Fund and WebMD. There are some emerging risks that most sites didn’t list and although I have seen the research studies in support of those factors, I opted to exclude specifics for now. Perhaps that’s for a future post.

Here you go, not in exact order of importance:

  1. Being born female (well that covers about 50% of us)
  2. Getting older (um, inevitable…)
  3. Drinking alcohol (even moderate drinking has been shown to be harmful – find a different hobby)
  4. BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which everyone talks about, but certain mutations in the following may also increase cancer risk, although to a lesser extent: ATM, TP53, CHEK2, PTEN, CDH1, STK11, PALB2
  5. Personal history of breast cancer (get it once and you’re a moving target)
  6. Family history of breast cancer (including both close and distant relatives)
  7. Personal history of breast lesions (even stuff that seemed benign-ish)
  8. Radiation exposure, specifically to the face and chest, before the age of 30
  9. Obesity (but mainly for postmenopausal women, see here; it’s complicated)
  10. Having dense breasts (sometimes this is considered a top risk factor)
  11. Beginning your period before age 12
  12. Going through menopause after age 55
  13. Having your first child after age 30
  14. Never having kids (remember that when you’re paying for their college)
  15. Taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  16. Certain hormonal birth control methods
  17. Family history of ovarian cancer, especially before age 50.
  18. Being white (at least in the U.S., although the rates of African-American women are catching up, often with a worse prognosis)
  19. Having received diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriage, given either to you or your mother
  20. Being inactive (honestly, exercise is critical – don’t overthink it – MOVE!)
  21. Not breastfeeding (not only does nursing lower your risk, if you do get breast cancer, you’re less likely to get the aggressive triple-negative type)
  22. Being taller (this may have to do with faster growth at an early age)
  23. Doing night shift work (this may affect your hormone patterns, not to mention make you cranky during the day)
  24. Smoking (the evidence for this has been deemed “suggestive, but not sufficient”, but inhaling smoke sounds like a bad idea regardless)
  25. Exposure to cancer-causing chemicals (that’s, like, just about everything out there, and the connection remains unclear)
  26. Diet choices (this is unclear, although there have been some links drawn to both macronutrient proportions and some vitamins, but more research must be done)
Oh, for the day when we can be guaranteed that what we’re doing is helping (or hurting) us!

In a word, we really don’t know, but living a healthy lifestyle gives you the best chance for survival.

Finally, the things that seem to have no reasonable link (per WebMD and echoed on other sites):

  1. Antiperspirant (no need to stink)
  2. Bras, underwire and regular (feel free to support yourself)
  3. Abortion or miscarriage
  4. Fibrocystic breast changes
  5. Multiple pregnancies
  6. Coffee/caffeine (raise your mug in celebration!)
  7. Hair dye (unless it’s really radioactive, but come on, that would be silly)

Judging from the above info, it can feel like cancer is waiting around the corner to pounce on the next unsuspecting victim that wanders by. I thought I had ZERO risk factors, but I can easily pick out several there. At the same time, I know people who seem like they’d have a gazillion risk factors and they never get zapped. So.not.fair. But that’s cancer for you.

And the more we find out about the disease, the more we see how complex it is. We are all different, reflected by our DNA, so it’s not out of the question that we might be affected in unique ways by these risk factors. Research is uncovering new connections all the time, and it may be that in order to find a cure for cancer, we’re going to have to look at the disease in ways that we never have.

Pre- vs. Postmenopausal Breast Cancer Risk: There’s a Difference, But Does It Matter?

You’ve probably seen those plastic breast self-exam cards you hang on your showerhead as a reminder to feel for lumps on a monthly basis. I have one myself, and would read it over and over when I was trying to decide whether my lump was worrisome, reviewing the “reduce your risk” tips the card offered.

However, there are two points that I wasn’t aware of at the time that I was diagnosed: (1) we know little about causal factors, as most studies that examine risk are only correlational; and (2) there’s a difference between being premenopausal vs. postmenopausal when talking about breast cancer.

Okay, there’s a third one too: (3) risk factors don’t mean squat when I’m talking about my personal diagnosis.

First, a well-known fact: postmenopausal women make up the majority (approximately 2/3) of these cancer cases, so it’s not surprising that the focus is on them.

I, however, was premenopausal when I felt the lump in my left breast.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that while being overweight or obese is a significant risk factor for postmenopausal women, being overweight as a premenopausal woman seems to offer protection against the disease. Whereas I thought I didn’t have any risk factors for breast cancer, as suggested by that plastic card in my shower, perhaps I did.

There’s not much talk about that protective element of weight for premenopausal women. You would be hard-pressed to find a popular website that mentions it. And no doctor would encourage a premenopausal woman to carry extra weight on the off chance that it might lower her risk of breast cancer; it’s too much of a liability for other health issues, including other cancers.

This explains why, if you’ve gone to a gathering of newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients, you’ll see some younger, remarkably fit women looking a little dazed and wondering what they’re doing there.

The weight risk factor is often posed in the following way (from the Mayo Clinic site): “Overweight and obese women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause.” Well, that’s not wrong, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.

Harvard Health Online puts it differently, with a caveat: “Being overweight or obese has been linked to breast cancer risk, especially for women after menopause, but the relationship is complicated. It may be that risk is increased in women who gain weight in adulthood but not in those who’ve been overweight since childhood.” That seems even more confusing and less reassuring.

It’s true that everything about cancer is complicated. If it were straightforward, we would have found a cure by now. Furthermore, when it comes to guidelines to follow, people don’t want details, they want sound bites. But simplification cuts out information. For example, this CDC webpage about what you can do to lower your breast cancer risk posts recommendations geared for older women, including maintaining a “healthy weight”, but the photo that’s shown is clearly of two younger women.

Even a cursory glance at the research reveals what a difference menopausal status makes. In addition to extra weight seeming to have a protective effect in premenopausal women (Cold et al., 1998, Eur J Cancer; Lahmann et al., 2004, Int J Cancer), it’s also been determined that greater red meat consumption in adolescence is significantly associated with increased risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women (Farvid et al., 2015, Int J Cancer). Interestingly, higher quality diets have a more beneficial effect on the risk of postmenopausal women and seemingly no effect on premenopausal ones (Haridass et al., 2018, J Nutr). I would expect that a more exhaustive search would yield even greater differences.

Live as if your life depends on it.

So what does this tell us? This is less about the specific differences between pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer risk, and more that there simply is a difference. At this point in our knowledge, we are still putting together pieces of the cancer puzzle.

Additionally, many studies that offer preventative guidelines are based on other studies–they may be meta-analyses of previously collected data from a broad range of subjects. The data may be self-reported, which may result in recall error. And when you have a sample size of ~30,000 women, you’re talking about general risks for populations, not a specific risk for a specific, and very unique, individual: you.

All this sounds exasperating, but one concept holds true: no matter what your risks, the healthier you are before you’re diagnosed with cancer, the better your outcome compared to someone with less healthful habits, should you get the disease. Instead of obsessing about possible risk factors, give yourself the respect you deserve–put the effort into improving lifestyle habits to grant yourself the best chance for survival. In the end, that’s what matters.

Falling Back Asleep: Nighttime Relief

As calm as I may be during the waking hours, nightfall poses a unique challenge. How many of us have struggled in the darkness, surrounded by those scary thoughts that we thought we had dealt with during the day?

The darkness seems to make us more vulnerable to flying thought-gremlins. They creep in at night when our brains can’t reason them away. I’ve fought those little buggers for much of my life and they’ve been responsible for many hours of lost sleep. It wasn’t until I got serious about meditation that I developed means of protecting myself against them.

These are my best recommendations for returning to dreamland:

Drop into your bed. After waking to Dementor-esque anxieties circling you, realize that they’re flying, ephemeral creatures. And if you’re up there with them, it’s time to come back to Earth and settle into your bed. That is where you really are and you are safe. Focus on how it feels to have your body contact the bed, how the bedclothes feel against your skin. Rustle the sheets and listen to the sound. Take three deep breaths and listen to the exhales. You’re not “up there” with the swirling thoughts. You’re down here where it’s calm.

At times when there’s too much noise in my head, I will put a soothing voice in there from a meditation app like Calm, Plum Village or Insight Timer. Sometimes a guided meditation is enough to quiet the negative clamor.

Practicing stress release during the day will make it easier to do the same at night.

To support nighttime attempts at falling asleep, establish a sense of calm during the day. Practice being present — as opposed to chasing thoughts down rabbit holes. Pay attention to your reaction to various stimuli. Take conscious breaths, meditate, and use whatever tools work for you.

For instance, I have associated certain images with a calm state and I use them as anchors during the day (e.g., setting up a safe space). I have them pinned up by my bed and at work so that as I work to release stress I look at them, and as I look at them I release stress. The more I do this, the more powerful the association. I draw upon those images and feelings at times when things seem out of control. Practice during the day and you will have more peace at night.

Appreciate the nighttime wakening. Odd as it may seem, this can be a positive opportunity. Each such interruption allows you the chance to ground yourself and learn how to gently drop off to sleep. Stressing about being awake does you no favors and only adds to your wakefulness.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad or frightening things actually happening in your life — sometimes there are and they can be very serious. I struggled with this when I got my cancer diagnosis. But at that moment in the middle of the night, lying in your bed, you have a temporary reprieve. Your only responsibility then and there is to go back to sleep. There’s nothing on fire.

Unless there really IS a fire, in which case, RUN. But most of the time, it’s just our fiery thoughts. And we can learn to douse those flames.

This will take practice – it’s not a one-time pill. But once you have done this enough times, you’ll find that not only is the relief wonderful, so is the knowledge that you are capable of determining how you react to things. That provides a satisfying sense of strength and a peaceful sense of control over what may seem like an out-of-control situation.

“Dropping Down”: A Meditation Analogy

One of my greatest obstacles to meditation is distraction. I’m particularly susceptible to having my mind wander off because of the drug tamoxifen that I’m taking for breast cancer, the side effects of which include difficulty with concentration and focus.

A wandering mind, however, is not limited to those with cancer medication side effects. If you meditate, you’re pretty much guaranteed to struggle with focus at some point. I use the analogy of a cave to describe what this feels like and how to deal with it.

I sit in a darkened cave, warm and comforting, the only light coming from a hole far up above, where the noisy world buzzes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but right now is the time to devote to my meditation cushion. I focus on my breath. As I sit, a thought emerges and I notice a rope hanging down from above. Before I realize it, I’ve grabbed hold of it and start climbing.

These thought-ropes are so tempting to grab onto, pulling us up and away from the meditation cushion.

The further I climb, the easier it is and the louder the world gets. My surroundings brighten, but I’m no longer meditating. I’m actively engaged in what’s going on up above, perhaps agitated, perhaps excited. I’ve lost track of my breath.

“Drop down,” I tell myself gently. And I slide down the rope, into the welcoming darkness below, until I find my place back on my cushion in this womb of Earth. One deep breath and I’m grounded again, calm and rooted.

I can’t stop what’s going on in the world above, but I can choose whether or not to climb a rope.

This experience repeats itself, like a flowing dance between the meditative breath and wandering attention. Another thought catches me and I reach for its rope, making my way back up swiftly.

“Drop down,” I tell myself again patiently. I let go and return to my place in the cave, surrounded by the supportive darkness. Another deep breath and I’m calm again.

So many thoughts, so many tempting opportunities to climb out of my cave too soon. Some days, I swing from rope to rope, only hovering over my cushion, never quite managing to ground myself. On other days, it’s easier and the path to a peaceful meditation session is straightforward. The darkness of the cave soothes me and reminds me that I am safe, and that I can choose whether or not to cling to a thought.

My distraction is a constant, but that doesn’t matter as long as I can drop back down. And I can always drop back down.