Protection Against Doxorubicin’s Cardiotoxicity: Exercise?

One of the strongest chemotherapy drugs used for breast cancer is doxorubicin, a drug in the anthracyline family that you might know as Adriamycin. It’s called “The Red Devil” due to its bright red color and tendency to temporarily dye the bodily fluids of its recipient red, but also due to its toxicity.

While it is highly effective, its use is limited by its potentially serious side effects, including damage to the heart. According to Drugs.com, “[b]ecause of its heart toxicity, doxorubicin has a maximum cumulative dose that can be given to each patient. The higher the total dose you receive over time, the greater your chance of heart side effects.”

Doxorubicin is a highly effective chemotherapy, but carries with it a considerable risk of heart toxicity.

There has been interest in discovering other drugs that can decrease the cardiotoxicity of doxorubicin, particularly since in addition to breast cancer, it is used against a variety of other cancers.

But as with so many things cancer-related, the drugs given to protect against chemotherapy side effects themselves have side effects, so it’s useful to explore other means of achieving protection from the toxic effects of doxorubicin.

Can Exercise Help?

In a webinar for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) that I attended on May 18, 2023, University of Florida, Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology researcher Dr. Ashley Smuder and her lab presented research about the protective effects of exercise on the heart and muscle doxorubicin.

Importantly, Dr. Smuder’s lab was able to demonstrate that exercise-trained rats who were then given doxorubicin showed a decrease in the amount of drug that accumulated in the heart and diaphragm compared to sedentary rats, echoing the results of Parry and Hayward (2015, Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol). Those results had suggested that exercise didn’t diminish and even increased the amount of doxorubicin that made it to the cancer tumor while decreasing the amount of the drug that went to the heart (left ventricle) and diaphragm.

Exercise keeps rodents healthier, even under a punishing chemotherapy regimen.

While the actual mechanism of this protective effect is still being researched, once again these studies show the benefits of exercise in a cancer situation.

Additionally, a doctoral student in Dr. Smuder’s lab, Brendan Nguyen, reported on work that he’s done showing the differences of exercise on fat mass and lean mass in rats administered doxorubicin using the same infusion schedule that a human patient would received (4 doses, 3 weeks apart). There were four conditions: (1) a sedentary group that received saline injections, (2) a sedentary group that received doxorubicin, (3) a moderate-exercise group that received doxorubicin, (4) a high-intensity exercise training (HIIT) group that received doxorubicin.

  • Moderate exercise: rats ran on a treadmill 3 days/week at a speed of 30 meters/min for 60 min/session.
  • HIIT exercise: rats ran on a treadmill 3 days/week, four 4-min bouts at 45 meters/min with 3 minutes of active recovery in between the bouts.

Not surprisingly, the exercise training had a significant effect on the body composition of the animals. Sedentary rats in both groups had an increased risk of obesity. Both groups of exercising rats (both moderate exercise and HIIT) saw a decrease in fat mass during this time and were able to avoid doxorubicin-induced cardiorespiratory weakness. Also, the HIIT exercise animals showed a significant increase in lean mass in addition to the drop in fat mass.

For reliable protection from the negative physiological effects of chemotherapy, exercise is still your best bet.

These findings in rats reflect similar results that have been obtained in humans (Battaglini et al, 2014, World J Clin Oncol; Lee et al, 2019, BMC Cancer; Lee et al, 2021, Support Care Cancer). Brendan noted that particularly HIIT exercise “may prevent unfavorable changes in body composition” compared to a sedentary condition.

The take-home message here remains the same as it’s been in my other posts. If you don’t currently exercise, start now. And then don’t stop. It’s easy to keep laboratory rats active and fit, but humans find many reasons not to challenge themselves with physical activity. If you needed a reason, these studies provide a little encouragement to find your favorite movement modality and make exercise a life-long habit.

REFERENCES

Battaglini CL, Mills RC, Phillips BL, Lee JT, Story CE, Nascimento MG, Hackney AC (2014) Twenty-five years of research on the effects of exercise training in breast cancer survivors: A systematic review of the literature. World J Clin Oncol, 5, 177-190. https://doi.org/10.5306/wjco.v5.i2.177.

Lee K, Kang I, Mack WJ, Mortimer J, Sattler F, Salem G, Dieli-Conwright CM (2019) Feasibility of high intensity interval training in patients with breast Cancer undergoing anthracycline chemotherapy: a randomized pilot trial. BMC Cancer, 19, 653. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12885-019-5887-7.

Lee K, Norris MK, Wang E, Dieli-Conwright CM (2021) Effect of high-intensity interval training on patient-reported outcomes and physical function in women with breast cancer receiving anthracycline-based chemotherapy. Support Care Cancer, 29, 6863-6870. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00520-021-06294-7.

Parry TL, Hayward R (2015) Exercise training does not affect anthracycline antitumor efficacy while attenuating cardiac dysfunction. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 309, R675-83. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00185.2015.

Smuder AJ, Nguyen BL (May 18, 2023) Cardiorespiratory muscle response to chemotherapy and exercise. ACSM’s From Around The Field webinar.

Can Meditation Fight Cancer?

While it seems like a pretty fantastical concept, a group at the University of California San Diego just received a five-year, $10M grant to examine just that.

Specifically, the InnerScience Research Fund will support ongoing research at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine to determine the biological effects of meditation. Researchers led by Dr. Hemal H. Patel (Dept. of Anesthesiology) are exploring whether meditation can modulate the progression of serious illnesses.

From the UC San Diego Today press release (May 16, 2023):

Researchers are gathering a variety of information from a large group of participants.

“As part of a continuing study entitled “QUest to ANalyze a Thousand hUmans Meditating,” or QUANTUM, Patel and his team are assessing the impact of meditation on nearly 2,000 individuals undergoing intensive meditative experiences. The goal is to capture a depth of unbiased information from a large cohort of healthy and non-healthy individuals to gain insights into the impact of meditation.”

Study participants are contributing a plethora of biometric data obtained via wearable technology, “including heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep, activity and more. That data is then coupled with health survey results and “omic” studies being conducted on blood, microbiome, urine and tears.” Brain activity has also been measured and analyzed.

Perhaps the most unexpected statement in the entire press release was the following: “Early analysis is showing promising results from meditation in impeding serious illnesses such as cancer.”

This is quite an announcement coming from a highly-respected research institution, so I am particulary intrigued.

It would be wonderful to find that the benefits of meditation go far beyond improving one’s sense of calm — lotus position optional!

On the one hand, it’s not difficult to believe that harnessing the mind through meditation could have a dramatically positive impact on one’s health. As I reported in an older post, researchers have elucidated the biochemical pathway by which stress can lead to cancer recurrence in breast cancer survivors. So if we’re able to do the opposite–inviting in a sense of peace and keeping stress at bay–it stands to reason that we affect disease progression. After all, we’ve known for a long time about the benefits of meditation on one’s mental well-being, why not one’s physical health too?

On the other hand, it’s important to understand that meditation alone should not be considered a treatment or cure for cancer. But as my last post on complementary medicine pointed out, cancer patients are increasingly turning to practices such as meditation to help them navigate the cancer experience as they undergo conventional treatment. The added benefits of helping halt the proliferation of a tumor would make meditation an important adjuvant therapy.

This is one story that I will be keeping a close eye on!

“Not Going It Alone”: Complementary Cancer Therapies

With as much sophisticated research as has been done on cancer, it still remains a confounding disease and much of the treatment may seem to be, for lack of a better word, medieval.

So it shouldn’t seem surprising that cancer patients also reach out for less conventional therapy to help themselves through the treatment process.

First, a clarification of terms used in this post:

Acupuncture is utilized as a non-standard treatment (for those who can take more poking)
  • Conventional medicine: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, immunotherapy, etc., prescribed by your medical team.
  • Complementary medicine: non-standard treatment used in conjunction with conventional treatment; also called Integrative Medicine.
  • Alternative medicine: non-standard treatment used instead of conventional treatment.

Therefore, generally speaking, what distinguishes complementary from alternative medicine is whether it’s used with standard medical treatment.

According to a study (Crudup et al., 2021) that was presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), 73% of breast cancer patient participants stated that they employed complementary therapies in their treatment. However, while oncologists were supportive of such therapies, they were not aware of the extent to which their patients utilized them and thought that only 43% of their patients did.

Patients get more benefit from spiritual practices than most oncologists realize

Furthermore, oncologists felt that counseling, support groups, exercise, etc. were the most effective non-standard therapies, in contrast to patients who found great benefit in meditation, mindfulness and spiritual practices. While two-thirds of both patients and oncologists felt that complementary medicine improved quality of life, a majority of patients also felt that it improved their outcomes.

Wayne Jonas, MD, a co-author of this study, says: “Cancer is a complex disease that affects every component of a patient’s life. While conventional medicine is effective for curing disease, it can fall short in helping patients heal. Patients are turning to these therapies to look for hope and to improve their quality of life and well-being after diagnosis… .”

What types of therapies do these include? The website “Cancer Health” provides examples of some complementary treatments (see here for an explanation of each):

Acupuncture
Aromatherapy
Art Therapy
Biofeedback
Cannabis
Herbal Therapies
Labyrinth Walking
Massage
Meditation
Music/Dance Therapy
Qigong
Spirituality
Tai Chi
Traditional Medicine (Ayurvedic, Chinese, etc.)
Vitamins and Supplements
Yoga

[This list is by no means exhaustive.]

I used a number of these complementary therapies myself and can attest to the important role they played in my recovery. As Dr. Jonas points out above, conventional treatments “can fall short in helping patients heal” [emphasis mine], whereas non-standard therapies seem to focus on that aspect.

I believe that these additional therapies, particularly more spiritual ones, are what give us hope throughout the cancer experience. Patients should be encouraged to seek out additional, complementary therapies to help themselves move through treatment, fully supported by their oncologists and ideally also guided by them.

Did you rely on complementary or alternative treatments to help you through your cancer journey?

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REFERENCES

Original Research

Abstract for presentation:

Crudup et al. (2021) Awareness, perceptions, and usage of whole person integrative oncology practices: Similarities and differences between breast cancer patients and oncologists. Presented at 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), https://meetings.asco.org/abstracts-presentations/200685

Published research article:

Crudup et al. (2021) Breast cancer survivorship and level of institutional involvement utilizing integrative oncology. J Clin Oncol,  39, no. 15_suppl. e18588,
https://www.doi.org/10.1200/JCO.2021.39.15_suppl.e18588

Synopses

The ASCO Post Staff (June 7, 2021; updated June 15, 2021) Use of integrative medicine by patients with breast cancer. ASCO Post, https://ascopost.com/news/june-2021/use-of-integrative-medicine-by-patients-with-breast-cancer/

Tien C (June 28, 2021) Oncologists Underestimate the Number of Breast Cancer Patients Who Use Complementary Medicine. Cancer Health, https://www.cancerhealth.com/article/oncologists-underestimate-number-breast-cancer-patients-use-complementary-medicine

Descriptions of complementary therapies

Living with Cancer: Complementary Therapies. Cancer Health, https://www.cancerhealth.com/basics/health-basics/complementary-therapies

Mindfulness 101: Noticing the Qualities

The main reason why I started a meditation practice was because I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was, to put it mildly, freaking out.

As a naturally anxious person, the diagnosis blew the roof off my ability to cope and plunged me into a nightmarish situation. Anyone who’s ever dealt with severe anxiety will tell you that nothing is more important than making it stop.

Over the years, my anxiety gathered enough power that it was able to blindside me. Cancer anxiety practically wrecked me.

When my radiation oncologist recommended mindfulness meditation, I felt empowered by the thought of gaining control of my runaway anxiety without the need for medication.

I was hoping meditation would enable me to sit in peace in the midst of chaos. But I imagined that as feeling no stress, as in, being numb to anxiety-provoking stimuli.

That simply doesn’t exist. I wanted to not experience any stressful situations, but there is always stress. We can’t change that. Mindfulness meditation was only going to help me change the way I reacted to it.

So here I am, more than six years after initally starting a daily meditation practice and guess what? I still have stress, I still feel anxiety.

However, what did change is that I can define it now. When I become aware of agitation and anxiety, I know to pause and bring attention to how it manifests in my body.

What does it feel like? Tightness, heat, rapid breath?

Where does it show up? Face, temples, chest, stomach?

Is there a color or sound or smell associated with it? Does it have a “texture”?

Does anxiety have an odor? Next time stop and take a whiff.

I can relax my muscles, sink into the earth, breathe deeply and notice the qualities of anxiety. By pulling apart what is happening, I slow time down. Instead of being hit by a locomotive full force, I walk around the train cars. I can notice how I feel as I pass through the experience.

Is it pleasant? No. Does it always work immediately? No. However, I can see it coming, and as a result, I relax into it. It is the awareness of the anxiety that helps me through it, not a numbness to it. This leads me to acceptance of the situation instead of bracing against it.

On one level, it’s a little discouraging to still be dealing with the unsettling nature of stressors. But I am heartened by the empowerment that mindfulness offers. I have evolved enough that I know I don’t have to go back to being thrashed by the whirlwind. I can sit inside it and watch it swirl and pass through. Every time I do this, it gives me more confidence for the next time.

Is this something that might help you too?

Things I Wish I’d Known About Breast Cancer, Part 2

This post continues what I started in the last post…a few things about breast cancer that I wasn’t aware of at the time of my diagnosis. Knowing the following would have made things a little less stressful:

1. Lumpectomy is a relatively uncomplicated surgery. I wish someone had explained this to me because I was a total wreck going into surgery (which happened to be the only surgery that I had ever had up to that point, making everything 10 times worse). Although I had decided against a full mastectomy, I was still so afraid of what a lumpectomy would entail, what I’d look like and how long it would take me to recover from losing a chunk of flesh.

The reality was…I was back at work the next week. No drainage tubes, no need for heavy analgesics — just a couple of ibuprofin the night after surgery because skipping coffee that morning resulted in a headache, but that was it. It was even hard to tell that I’d had my lump excised. Wish I could go back to my earlier self and tell her not to worry.

Stethoscopes are emotionless. Oncologists can seem to be too, but that’s by design.

2. Doctors are not in a hurry to give you good news. I think there’s a general feeling among medical professionals that there’s so much that can go poorly during cancer treatment that your doc isn’t going to go out of their way to pump you full of optimism. They probably practice keeping an emotionless face as they deliver all sorts of news, both good and bad. As a patient, however, I watched every flicker on my oncologist’s face for an indication of how things were “really” going. I feared that there was something he wasn’t telling me.

It wasn’t until perhaps a year or so later when I was expressing my fears to him about possible abnormalities inside my body that he uttered the phrase, “but you have your health”…and I was taken aback because I had never heard him sound so positive. It was almost a shock to hear him confirm that I was actually considered healthy.

3. Don’t expect things to be the same as before. Accepting that part of your life has changed will make it much easier to go on. This took me a while to appreciate because I was expecting to get back to doing and feeling everything the same as before my diagnosis.

But chemo (and eventually, age) pushed me through menopause, and I had to come to grips with, say, a high-intensity interval workout requiring more recovery time and that I had trouble remembering people’s names. Once I got to that point of acceptance, life after cancer treatment became easier, although it did take a number of years to get there.

4. Hair takes a while to grow back in. The reason I created posts with photographs that illustrated the cancer journey that my hair went through (here and here) was because I could not find good photos on the internet documenting the process. I did see images of a woman a few weeks after stopping chemo with little stubs already visible, but that was not my experience and it made my anxiety over my slow regrowth even worse.

Walking around with no hair was getting old and I was getting more desperate by the day to see evidence of sprouts!

If you’ve ever googled your chemo drug name + “hair loss”, you understand the fear: the first search result is usually a law office gathering info on behalf of cancer patients whose hair never grew back!

It took a number of months before my folicles woke up and actually started growing. I remember the moment that I finally saw growth on the front of my head and it was as if the heavens had opened up and divine light poured out onto me. Seriously. I would have avoided a lot of stress if someone had just told me that it’s gonna be a while.

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Ok, ok, to be fair, my oncologist did urge patience with the regrowth but I was a jumbled mess of nerves and was feeling overwhelmed. All the internet propaganda about both (1) other women having much faster regrowth, or (2) other women never getting their hair back terrified me. Note to self: when feeling desperate, stay off the internet!

Things I Wish I’d Known About Breast Cancer, Part 1

Cancer, perhaps more than any other disease, has a formidable reputation that precedes it. Because of this, cancer “lore” can affect your expectations of treatment effects and anticipated prognosis if you are unfortunate enough to receive a diagnosis.

There were a number of things that I didn’t realize about breast cancer that might have made my experience, if not better, at least slightly less harrowing. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:

1. Breast cancer research remains more highly funded than that any other cancer (source: 2019 Northwestern University estimate) and is therefore the best-studied type of cancer. As a result the treatment plan is solid. While this does depend somewhat on the type of breast cancer you have (Triple-Negative, Triple-Positive, Hormone Receptor-Positive, Inflammatory, etc.), the fact remains that there is great interest in “saving the boobies”.

We are living in an era where research in breast cancer is churning out valuable findings at a break-neck pace.

Your treatment plan has likely been well-tested with ample positive outcomes. Combine this with the tendency for this cancer to be diagnosed at earlier stages due to the relative ease in finding a tumor (I mean, you can feel the lump even if it’s not very big), survival rates tend to be very good. Understandably, that might not be very comforting at the time that you’re hit with the news that you have breast cancer, but it is a blessing that you’ll appreciate later.

2. Getting breast cancer is not your fault. I struggled with this one for a loooong time. If you’ve read some of my earliest posts, you know that I not only had a hard time getting my head around my diagnosis, but also a lot of anger about everything I did that was considered “protective” that seemed not to make any difference.

The reality is, as much as we do know about cancer, there’s still a lot we don’t, which means you can be doing everything right — even “perfectly” — and still be diagnosed with breast cancer.

The message I got from cancer-prevention campaigns was that there was so much you could do to avoid the disease. I checked off all those boxes and thought that I was at very low risk. I was “the fit one”, the vegetarian, a dutiful breast-feeding mom allowing myself no indulgences — the last person you’d imagine this happening to, but it did.

I felt ashamed about the diagnosis, even feared that I would be accused of lying about my healthy habits. I was terrified that my healthy lifestyle had somehow backfired. While this sounds ridiculous now, feeling so out-of-control about my own health was demoralizing and depressing.

3. A healthy lifestyle goes a long way in making recovery easier. While I felt dejected about not being able to avoid breast cancer, my exercise and dietary habits helped me recover from treatment side effects faster and not gain weight afterwards. And as I learned later, by maintaining an active lifestyle, I was significantly decreasing my chances of cancer recurrence. I wrote about those findings in this post.

So all my efforts were not for naught. Word to the wise: if you don’t exercise regularly, start now. If you do exercise, keep going!

In the darkness I found a little light.

4. There is light in dark places. I must stress that cancer isn’t some “great” thing that happens to you and it carries with it big side effects and an ever-present risk of death. I lost two friends to breast cancer who were both diagnosed about the time that I was and they were far too young to die.

But given that I had to go through this, I had the option of “sink or swim” when it came to how I would view my experience. Eventually I found the light in the darkness of the cancer tunnel, but it did take a number of years and many ups-and-downs before I was able to appreciate the lessons that the disease taught me: being able to accept and live with uncertainty, identifying a clear purpose in my life, finding gratitude in small things, even coming to grips with my own mortality. These lessons were difficult but also valuable, and I admit that I wouldn’t have learned them if I had not gotten cancer.

Perhaps some of the most important of these were identifying that I had suffered from anxiety for a good part of my life and understanding how it had shaped my decisions. Yes, it took cancer for me to realize all that! This led to incorporating mindfulness and meditation into my daily routine.

And that is a very positive thing indeed.

Again, the Mammogram

It feels like it wasn’t all that long ago that I had my five-year 3-D mammogram…and here I am with my six-year scan.

I’m writing this prior to the scan and will follow up with the results at the end of this post, but I find it useful to write while I am still experiencing the little uncertainties that come with scans. Like a Schroedinger’s-esque situation, I am both a cancer survivor and a cancer patient right now, since no matter how small a chance that another tumor will be found in my breast, survivor and patient are my only two possible modes of existence.

For this short period of time, I’m both survivor and patient.

For my own sake, I try to release all expectations at this time. I don’t want to relax and tell myself that I’m sure that the scan will be clear, because the drop down from that back into “cancer patient” state would be too fast and steep, so I breath deeply and anticipate nothing. But that’s hard to maintain.

At the same time, just a few weeks after seeing my oncologist who skillfully performed a clinical breast exam and found nothing, it’s very unlikely that a mammogram would bring up anything life-changing for me at this time. In fact, if anything were found, it would be a tumor in its nascent stages that would be much easier to treat than the one I had in 2017. Or so I tell myself.

To be frank, it’s not locating another tumor in the breast that constitutes the scariest scary outcome. No, it’s the not finding a tumor in some other part of the body — perhaps a lone sleeper cell that evaded chemotherapy’s effects and circulated through my body before grabbing onto a vital organ and silently beginning to grow.

That’s the real bad news…but it would not be the news I’d get today.

This brings me back to that situation that all cancer survivors face: accepting that there are no guarantees.

The waiting is the hardest part.

For the next hours before my mammogram I will focus on work, think of nothing to do with cancer and take deep conscious breaths. As I sit in the waiting room I will gently distract myself, submit to the squishing of the scan and hang in the stillness of the present moment until I get my response…and hopefully go on for another year. Maybe.

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So, I’m back now with the outcome that I was both hoping for and (to be honest) expected: All clear for one more year!

And even though I always play it cool before and during the scan, the difference in my state is really noticible after I get the thumbs-up sign. Those minutes of sitting and waiting for my results [note: as a cancer survivor, I get my answer on the spot, which I really appreciate] are a little uncomfortable — I float, trying to focus on my breathing. But to this day, even when I’m “not expecting bad news”, I cannot shake that tickle of unease.

And that’s just another part of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Still working on it…

Finally Normal: My Six-Year Oncological Visit

I hit another cancer journey milestone this past week: my six-year oncology appointment.

Like my last few appointments, this one felt commonplace and unintimidating…and if the nurse had let me sit down for a couple of minutes after coming into the exam room, my blood pressure would have been lower. As it was, the reading was not that far from normal.

For the first time since cancer, my bloodwork is all normal!!!

One other thing that was strikingly normal: for the first time in six years, since all the cancer madness began, all my bloodwork, both Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Comprehensive Metabolic Profile (CMP), was completely normal. Nothing that would suggest a year’s worth of cancer treatment in the past.

This is so curious because for years, nothing felt normal.

Now everything is.

Ironically, it was my oncologist who was experiencing illness and I had to switch my appointment time so that he could get to his doctor.

I was hit by the realization that everything that had felt out-of-control and hopeless six years ago no longer existed. I was the one who had kept the idea of cancer alive in myself. I still defined myself as a cancer survivor because perhaps I needed some way to justify what I considered to be my shortcomings, as in, “I used to be able to do this, but…”.

This was a battle I fought in but only memories remain. In the present moment, there’s only silence.

Returning to the cancer center for this appointment felt like I was visiting a battlefield from a war that I had fought long ago. The echoes of battle cries…just the wind. The clashing weapons and falling bodies…not there anymore. This may sound like such an overly theatrical description, but that’s exactly what it seemed like.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve got the rest of my life figured out. There are still so many unknowns, including an increased chance of cancer recurrence — and I still need to schedule this year’s mammogram, something else that slipped my mind as I was basking in the idea of being “normal”.

But that tortured soul who, on top of all the other stressful things going on in her life, was hit with a cancer diagnosis…she doesn’t exist anymore. If I’m so unfortunate as to have the cancer come back, she won’t be experiencing the aftermath.

I will. And I feel like I’m so much better equipped to handle all that uncertainty than she ever was.

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I still call myself a cancer survivor. But it’s only one of a long list of “skills” that I have on my resume.

Six Years and 2 Days Ago, Panic

On Feb 8, 2017, I finally went to see my nurse practitioner about a breast lump that I’d originally noticed six months before, the previous August.

From the split second that the expression on her face shifted as she felt the lump and sent me off with an order for a diagnostic mammogram, everything changed. I went from hemming and hawing about spending the money on a copay for a doc appointment for something that would obviously turn out to be nothing…to a downward spiral into despair like I’d never felt before.

Memories of this period in my life are not very pleasant, so instead of loading up images of frightened faces and horrible possibilities, I’ve decided to post only peaceful pictures here.

Looking back on that time, knowing all the self-calming techniques and meditation methods that I currently practice, if I were going through this now one thing is very clear: I would still have panicked.

It bears mentioning that on Feb 8, 2017, I did not get my diagnosis. That appointment simply opened the door for scans that I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go through, but it devastated me regardless. In the two weeks that it took before I could actually go in for the mammogram and ultrasound, I died many times over.

The fact is, nothing ever prepares you for a cancer diagnosis. No matter what sort of mental calisthenics you practice, cancer is still CANCER. And even the idea that cancer could be a reality is terrifying.

There is no “alternative wording” that makes this easier. Sooner or later, you’d still bump up against that six-letter word that, for someone in my generation, meant a distinct possibility for a very sad ending (which arguably is an outdated and potentially irrational view, but that’s what you get).

Yeah, nothing stressful here. Just a sleepy kitten.

So rest assured, if you ever find yourself in this situation, no matter how you’re handling it, you’re doing a good job. Because you don’t really “handle” the news, you just splash around and try to keep your head above water.

Doctors, I’m told, practice delivering the news in a calm but empathic manner. Trust me, that’s kind of lost on the patient. Since my lump was clearly cancerous on the diagnostic ultrasound, I actually got the news broken to me twice:

My radiologist (after the ultrasound): “I have two things to tell you. One, you have cancer. Two, you’re going to be okay.”

My general practitioner (after the biopsy): “It’s as we feared. It’s cancer.”

See, whether the delivery is kind of upbeat with an attempt at a positive ending or whether it’s more reserved, anticipating the patient’s fear at hearing this, it doesn’t matter. Because once you cross that threshhold, you can’t turn back to “it’s nothing, have a nice day”. You are literally propelled forward into the next steps, and there will be many of them.

Room for one more image? How about tulips? I love tulips.

But there are a few things to remember. Being thrust headfirst into the world of cancer means that at least you’re not standing still like you are when you’re worrying about a diagnosis. Recalling Churchill’s famous quote, “When you’re going through hell, keep going”. Of all the times in a cancer journey, the point right around the diagnosis is the most terrifying because you know you have cancer but not necessarily how “bad” your situation is or what the next steps are.

There is relief in the movement of information and the passage of time. If there is a way to focus on the next step, always the next step, without getting overwhelmed by the tidal wave brought on by the concept of having cancer, you will be able to gingerly find yourself a path through which to navigate the cancer journey, and there is peace in that.

And if there isn’t peace…you’re still very normal. ❤

2023: Thriving at Last?

Some of our greatest strengths are born in our lowest moments.

Unknown

While I try not to keep returning to stories about “how far I’ve come” since my breast cancer diagnosis almost six years ago, for the start of 2023, I wanted to do a teensy bit of navel-gazing and take stock of how different everything looks compared to how it did after my 2017 diagnosis…and even from just a year ago.

My breast cancer story started the same way as it does for most of those diagnosed with cancer, with a lot of shock and disbelief. There’s nothing new or special about that.

However, for me cancer had been my ultimate health fear, the worst thing that I could image happening, particularly because I grew up during a time that cancer patients had poor prognoses and I had lost dear family to the disease. My exercise, dietary and lifestyle habits were in part driven by health concerns and that’s why my eventual diagnosis felt all the more “unfair”.

I have survived almost six years! But I had been so angry about my diagnosis that it took several years to appreciate how much of a victory that was.

The absolute worst health catastrophe that I feared could happen to me actually did happen…and I was too bitter to appreciate that I survived it.

Not only did I survive the treatment, I have slogged through lasting side effects. Trapped by fear and anger, I lost the initial positivity that I’d experienced right after completing chemo and radiation — I mean, after all that almost anything is going to feel better — and became mired in frustration.

When I finally managed to get through my head that there are many bad things that happen to people who do not deserve them, and many far worse than my own, I was able to move past my preoccupation with myself. That took longer than I’d like to admit.

But allowing that time to work through anger and fear until I got to the point of acceptance was so important for me. And the magical part of this is that acceptance was followed by an unfettering of my thoughts. Holding that bitterness had taken so much energy that little remained for other, more important things.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was fearful and bitter. A mere year ago, I was still angry. But in 2023, I have given myself the gift of freedom from that negativity and that allows so much space to breathe deeply and turn my attention towards better things. It was that release that took with it a nice chunk of anxiety that had likewise held me captive.

And now, instead of being just a survivor, I am finally feeling like I’m thriving.