Regaining Control Through Mindful Living

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve really enjoyed the Coursera course, “Engineering Health: Introduction to Yoga and Physiology“, which I highly recommend. One of the recurring themes of the class that I’ve found particularly relevant is that of effecting incremental and meaningful epigenetic change through yoga and meditation.

The class lectures went through the physiological mechanisms by which this happens, and this information would be reason enough to incorporate mindfulness and breath-to-movement in one’s life. But for someone who’s experienced cancer, there’s something even more important: a sense of control.

For me, the most terrifying part of my cancer diagnosis was the lack of control over what was happening to me. First, my body had turned on me by cultivating a tumor, the ultimate goal of which was to take over my organs and kill me. Then, my doctors were giving me drugs that by design would kill certain parts of me, with the intention of taking out the tumor before it spread to really important parts of me (brain? liver? heart?).

My body was a battleground in the war between my rogue cells and modern medicine. I had to sit there and take collateral damage if I wanted a chance at survival.

Disclaimer: So I feel the need to stress here that we do not yet know how to reliably prevent the formation of cancerous tumors, but there are things that we can do to greatly lessen the risk. I’m willing to bet that managing stress would have a powerful impact on prevention.

While I did begin meditation at that time, had I started learning to deal with my anxiety and accompanying physiological responses years ago, I might have been able to sidestep the disease. There is science to this which I will cover in a later post, but my doctors *hate* it when I postulate possible causes of my tumor since if we could truly pinpoint the cause, we’d be able to cure the disease. However, given what we do know about stress and inflammation, I can guarantee that my stress response did not help in keeping me cancer-free!

In the Coursera class, Dr. Ali Seidenstein (NYU) explains, among other things, how the small positive changes that arise from learning to control the stress response by applying yoga and meditation affect your genetics. And this is key. While you’re born with a certain set of genes, the science of epigenetics describes how you can affect gene activity (think, turning a gene on or off) and thereby have a different outcome from someone else with the same gene.

Finally! Something that *I* can do that provides a rare sense of control in an uncontrollable situation! For a cancer survivor, this offers a nugget of hope to hold on to in the face of continuing medications that may or may not help your survival. Medicine is tested on a variety of individuals but there’s no guarantee that their success will translate into your own (news flash: cancer = no guarantees, period). But knowing that you can engage in behaviors that, when applied over time, will actually benefit you on a genetic level…that, my friends, is priceless.

Invisible Effects: Body Image, Part 2

Oddly enough, one of the things that scared me about cancer was that it threatened all the work I’d put into my body. Being a bit under six feet tall since my teenage years, I was called “big” a lot whether or not I was overweight. At 16, I went through a phase of disordered eating. That passed, but I retained a sensitivity to how I was perceived by others. Always, I was fearful of being judged, and that pushed me towards perfectionism.

Fast-forward to 2017 and my diagnosis. When I started researching breast cancer, one thing that struck me was that the information I found didn’t mesh with my conception of what cancer was, in terms of what the treatment did to the patient. I had always thought of cancer treatment as having a wasting effect on the sufferer. But then I read of the propensity that many breast cancer patients had for putting on excess weight, not only throughout chemo, but also due to taking estradiol-blocking medications like Tamoxifen.

Wait, what? Gaining weight? But I’d always thought that cancer patients lost weight! Sure enough, google “breast cancer weight gain” and you get a lot of entries from reputable sources that warn about this tendency to pack on weight. My Nurse Navigator echoed that point, noting that many women “put on 10-15 pounds.”

Many decisions in my life have been motivated by a fear of being judged.

This provoked a lot of frustration. I had established excellent diet and fitness habits for the very purpose of building strength and endurance and avoiding the weight gain that accompanies advancing age. I had kept emotion out of my food choices (kudos to my mother for being careful about not connecting food and emotion). During my time as a stay-at-home-mom, I’d obtained a highly-respected personal trainer certification because I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about. My standards were high, but even if I couldn’t attain my version of “perfection”, I put in 100% effort and that made me feel good.

And then, cancer. Despite doing everything I could think of to maintain peak health, I still had not been able to prevent the development of my tumor. That was extremely unsettling. But for me, having my whole body shape change as a result of this was almost worse.

Predictions of the future raced through my mind: I was going to lose my lean mass, lose my fitness and put on ten or more pounds. I would be judged for “letting myself go”. None of this would be under my control. Just like the cancer, it was all happening to me, and as far as I was concerned it was bound to ruin my life, whether or not it actually killed me.

However, as with so many other things related to my cancer, this didn’t go the way statistics predicted. And that’s why there’s a Part 3 to this body image series…