Most of us know what it's like to grieve the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of our healthy selves to a disease like breast cancer. Sometimes, however, our grief runs so deep that it’s difficult for us to heal and move on. An external force has made it nearly impossible for me to heal after James’ death and regain my footing. Guided Imagery, however, is helping me turn my darkness into light. For the first time since our family dissolved, I think I’m finally able to let go of my hurt and my anger.<PREVIEWEND>Guided Imagery is a powerful relaxation technique that helps us engage our breathing while we create healing images in our mind. This technique has been clinically shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, pain, the effects of chemotherapy, to promote healing and more. Thanks to a blog written by Britta Aragon, I remembered what Guided Imagery did for me this time last year when I was the target of a sinister, high speed chase down 10 miles of a dark, deserted, dead end country road. After 10 days of drowning, reliving the terror, I sought the help of a certified Guided Imagery therapist who helped me create a mental shield to stop my recurring thoughts and to reassure myself I was safe. From that moment on, whenever I began replaying that terrifying night, the mental shield came to mind, and within days, that night no longer held any fear for me. Once again I am using Guided Imagery to help me stop reliving every sentence of my hurt, the same hurt and disappointment James felt and cried over in the days leading up to his death.
By this time, tears are flowing down my cheeks, onto my pillow. “The pain within your heart feels as if something has been ripped from there, leaving a gaping hole, heart tissue all tender and torn. I promise you, this pain shall pass. Even this pain shall pass.”
How many of us take a good night’s sleep for granted? For the first half of my life, I didn’t have a clue what it was like to lay in bed, desperately hoping for sleep. I always went to sleep within seconds after my head hit the pillow. Since then, however, sleep seems as illusive to me as finding Bigfoot in my backyard. While I know the root cause of my chronic insomnia, finding a way to fix it may be more impossible than turning lead into gold.<PREVIEWEND>My first husband, Philip, was an electrical engineer, physicist, organic synthesis chemist and National Security Agency operative who couldn’t stop problem solving and was unable to get to sleep without taking Valium. Neither of us knew that the day he ran out of Valium would change our lives forever. We had no idea that after a few days without Valium, he would begin to rock back and forth and beat his head against the wall, or that it would land him in a straight jacket in a psyche ward.
Leslie, I give you the floor……
From Leslie Aun, Director of Marketing & Communications, Komen:
Yes we know that some people feel there is pink overload. But as long as a woman dies of breast cancer every 74 seconds, we don’t think there is enough pink. And despite the criticism that we often hear, most people are very comfortable with the amount of pink they see. In a recent study we conducted of the general public, 87% said there is not too much pink, while 85% say they are more likely to buy a product or service if they know it will benefit the battle against breast cancer.In terms of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, that pink represents hundreds millions of dollars that go directly to fighting breast cancer. We funded nearly $70 million in research this year alone (including 18 grants looking at the causes of breast cancer) and another $93 million in grants to educate and provide help to low-income women in thousands of communities across the U.S. who are uninsured and don’t have resources for basic medical care, much less cancer care. Women who can’t afford things like wigs and co-pays and trips to the doctor—not to mention groceries and childcare. Despite those efforts, there is a tremendous amount of need that still goes unmet. It would be wonderful if we could raise that money by direction donations, but despite best intentions, not everyone will (or can) write a check, and will support the mission through their purchases. So we’re not going to apologize for the pink.
Despite what you might hear, real progress has been made in terms of detection, treatment and survival. The five-year relative survival rate for early-stage breast cancer (cancer that hasn't left the breast) is now at 98%. In just the past 20 years, breast cancer mortality rates in the U.S. have dropped by 31%. It’s not at all unusual anymore to meet women who are living strong and productive lives long after their diagnosis.
Leslie Aun, Director of Marketing & Communications, Komen National
After church today some of my girlfriends and I stayed to commiserate about the collective, catastrophic changes all of us have encountered this year. Like Queen Elizabeth, who publicly referred to her “annus horribilis,” we all agreed that in many ways, we too, have had a horrible year. In reference to a year of stress, one of my friends matter-of-factly stated that she’d “lost her glue” to which I responded, “My glue died.” While our individual stories prompted serious thought, the real question for most of us is how do we change what we don’t like about our lives? How do we get our mojo back, and perhaps most importantly, how do we become our own glue?<PREVIEWEND>The glue that keeps us on the right track, or binds us together as a family, is one of the most essential ingredients of life. For me that glue has been James and God, but when I step back and look at my life before I really knew either one, I realize I’ve always been my own glue. From the day I was born, six weeks premature and the first Rh-negative baby to survive a complete blood transfusion, I’ve been a survivor. My friends have always said I have guts. My glue, or what strengthens me, is a combination of the ying and yang of guts and fear, a sassy determination and a moral code. Together with James, whose glue was God, country, family and doing the right thing, we were an indestructible team. Now that he’s gone, I know I’m still the same gutsy, determined woman, I’m just having a hard time writing the script for the next chapter of my life.
1. Be your own best friend. Most of us instinctually know when we’ve gone down the wrong path. Don’t wait for permission before you make changes to your life. Instead, give yourself permission to act in your own best interest.
2. Focus on the solution not the problem. Step back and look at the big picture. How did you get here and what’s the best way to get out or lessen the problem?
3. Know when it’s time to ask for help. While we may like to think we’re Wonder Woman or Superman, none of us always manage to find our way out of the maze. Find a counselor or a trusted friend who can help you think through your options.
4. Don’t move on without healing the problem. Just because you don't work through your grief and anger doesn't mean it's not there. Resolve problems before they stack up and become cumulative.5. This too shall pass. Visualize the life you want. While it may not come to pass, it may motivate you to make the changes necessary to move through this time in your life.
My girlfriends at church are a wonderfully supportive group of women. Our love of God and one another makes for our own powerful, healing glue. Thank you, sweet friends, for leading the way. You always manage to lift me up.
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“Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of…” The writer of this popular children’s rhyme forgot a key ingredient, estrogen, the hormone that turns sugar and spice into curvy hips and breasts. Estrogen is great until it runs out, as in “I’m menopausal, out of estrogen, and I’ve got a gun,” or when it turns on us and is linked to some breast and ovarian cancers.
Many breast cancers are fed by estrogen, so if you’ve been diagnosed with estrogen-positive (ER+) breast cancer, you may want to block all forms of estrogen. It’s interesting to note that women who have a recurrence of ER+ breast cancer have higher levels of estrogen in their blood, even if they’ve taken estrogen-blocking drugs. If you’ve been treated for ER+ early-stage breast cancer, here are some dos and don’ts to reduce your risk of recurrence:<PREVIEWEND>
• Because exercise lowers blood estrogen, be physically active every day. Try and walk 30 minutes, six days a week.
• Even if you’re past menopause, excess weight around a woman’s waist often turns into excess circulating estrogen in the body. Therefore be as lean as you can, within normal body weight, but not skinny. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer can often make it difficult to keep weight on, but do not use this time as permission to diet. Your body needs lots of healthy, colorful low fat foods to fight your cancer.
• Research has shown 30-50% of cancers are nutrition-related. Reduce consumption of high-fat meats, cheese, whole milk, fried foods, processed foods and fast foods. Trim fat and skin from meats.
• Limit red meat and processed meats as well as chicken, eggs and dairy that may contain added hormones. Look for products that say “Hormone Free.”
• Cancer is an “obligate glucose metabolizer” which means its preferred food source is glucose. Since sugar is 50% glucose, it seems logical to minimize refined sugar found in cookies, candy, soda and desserts. Limit refined white foods like bread, pasta and rice, which easily convert to sugar.
• Look for the word “whole” on the label when purchasing cereal, pasta, crackers, bread, tortillas and rice. Use brown rice instead of white.
• Eat a diet primarily of fruits and vegetables, including berries, nuts, seeds and “whole” grains, which provide powerful and important phytochemicals that protect cells and stimulate the immune system.
• A big portion of your immune system is in your gut. Keep it regular and running smoothly by drinking a daily probiotic. Whole grain breads also bring added fiber to the diet.
• We’ve all heard soy is a breast cancer inhibitor, but once you’re diagnosed with ER+ breast cancer, soy is thought to produce phytoestrogen effects, or they act like the hormone estrogen. While this is controversial, many oncologists suggest women with ER+ breast cancer avoid all soy products, soy supplements and soy isoflavones.
• Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol has been shown to increase estrogen metabolism and circulating estrogen levels in postmenopausal women. Because research on the amount of alcohol consumed per day is mixed, it is suggested alcohol should be limited to 3 to 4 drinks a week.
• Avoid body and skin care products containing soy and all forms of parabens. Parabens are used as preservatives and produce possible estrogenic effects when absorbed by the blood stream. Unfortunately most of the shampoos, lotions, skin care creams and sexual lubricants on the market contain methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isopropyl and isobutylparabens. You might consider shopping for all natural products at Whole Foods, or online at BreastCancerSisterhood’s Retail Therapy.
• This is probably obvious, but avoid all forms of estrogen creams, patches and yes, bioidentical hormones. As the Today Show’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman told me, “Hormones are hormones are hormones.”
And finally, don't become obsessed trying to follow, to the letter, all of these dos and don'ts. As with everything in life, do all things in moderation, including moderation.
This week one of my best friends was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m devastated for her. The news that she will be hurled into the same ugly fight I’ve endured has rocked me to my core. Naively, I hoped I’d taken the “hit” for all of the women I love, but cancer doesn’t work that way. Cancer is indiscriminate.<PREVIEWEND>
After two suspicious mammograms and an ultrasound, my friend had a needle biopsy. For the next three days we waited for the results. Thursday her doctor left a voicemail saying, “We need to chat. I’ll call you, again, tomorrow.” Tossed out like a line from a bad “B” movie, I wondered what kind of doctor leaves such a thoughtless message. Surely the doctor knew the implications of her words, that they would hang in the air like bold letters etched in stone. At that point it was hard for me to throw out positive lifelines, and even harder for my friend to catch, and so we steeled ourselves for the worst.
Since high school my two best friends have been Gayle and Lee. They are smart, funny women who’ve seen me through good times and bad. Today it’s my and Lee’s turn to be there for Gayle, because Gayle is the one who’s been diagnosed with estrogen positive breast cancer. To say we’re shocked is an understatement and to say we’re angry doesn’t begin to describe the anguish and devastation we feel.
At the same moment Gayle called me on my landline to tell me her biopsy results, Lee was calling my cell phone to see if I’d heard from her. In a weird kind of conference call, I put Gayle and Lee each on speakerphone, and held the two phones together, while Gayle told us the results. I think we were all prepared, but hearing it and having it confirmed was sobering. I stared at the phones, imagining each of my friends on the other end. I could see their faces, the same faces I’ve loved since we were 16. Our conversation was punctuated by silence, then tears, followed by laughter and more tears.
Yesterday when I told Gayle I might start writing blogs with information I wanted her to have, she suggested I go ahead and use her name. Perhaps by personalizing her breast cancer journey, it might help someone else in ways we have yet to imagine.
Next week Gayle is having a lumpectomy. This will tell us a lot about her cancer and the kind of treatment she’ll need. At this point, we believe her cancer was caught early; Stage 1, and she may need radiation but no chemo. I can’t help but think of when Gayle and Lee and I went to an outdoor Sting concert, in 100 degree plus Texas heat, eight days after my first mastectomy. I wore white linen and my turkey basters, as Lee called them, the temporary drains attached to where my breast had been. Our seats were in the last row and Carrot Top could have been lip-syncing Sting songs for all we knew, but I didn’t care. I was there. I was alive, with my two best friends, singing and clapping like my world hadn’t been condensed onto a glass slide two inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide.
As I looked at the thousands of women in the audience, I thought of the one in eight women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer. I looked from woman to woman thinking, “She’s had it, or she has it and doesn’t know it.” If each of these women had known about my bandages and my turkey basters, where the week before my breast had been, many wouldn’t have agreed with me that life doesn’t get any better than this. I wanted to hug each one of them and tell them to keep singing, keep laughing. Pull from each moment the things you want to remember. Savor them. Laugh at them. Live your life with joy.
So now I’m telling these things to you, Gayle. I love you, sister girl. This won’t be easy--I know--but you will get through this and emerge on the other side stronger than ever. You will be all right. Of that, I am certain.
And to Gayle’s breast cancer, “You’ve raised your ugly malignant neoplasm in the wrong breast, and we’re fixing to kick your ass to the curb!”
If you’re a woman and a cancer survivor or a cancer provider, you have until September 30, 2011, 12pm CTS, to apply for the Living Well, Getting Well, 2011 Life Beyond Cancer Retreat at Lakeway Resort and Spa in Austin, Texas. Forgive me for not posting this sooner, because I want all of you to come and experience this life-changing event.
This year’s Retreat takes place November 18-20th, 2011. Because space is limited to 150 participants, you must submit your online application by this Friday, September 30th.<PREVIEWEND> Applications will be reviewed and those applicants who are selected to attend will be notified via email by October 7th. Here’s a link for you to APPLY TODAY. Did I mention I’m one of the speakers? Hurry, girlfriends, and fill out your application. I can’t wait to meet you!
Here’s the BRENDA’S BLOG about last year’s Retreat. Sunday, November 21, 2010: I just returned from four amazing days at the Life Beyond Cancer Retreat. Held at Lakeway Resort in Austin, Texas, 130 women with all types of cancer, as well as oncologists, nurse practitioners, social workers and world class speakers (many of whom are cancer survivors) met to recover, restore and reenergize.
One of the definitions of “retreat” is “a place of refuge.” To that I would add: A retreat is also the people who share the refuge with you. Together you “re treat” one another again and again, nourishing your spirits and inspiring your souls. I don’t know of another environment where total strangers become instant sisters who understand and mirror one another’s deepest hopes and fears before they’ve even said “hello.”
Women from around the country with all types and stages of cancer came to this retreat, and one, as she put it, was beyond her “expiration date.” There were women, who thought they were the only ones in the world with cancers no one could pronounce, who met other women with their exact same cancer. We shared our pain, our hopes, even our sadness that some of us may not be here this time, next year, but there was no pity; no loss for words. Each of us came from the same place of unspoken understanding.
We danced; we cried. We cried a lot, but there was more laughter in these four days than many people experience in years. How do I explain cancer humor? Perhaps by giving you a quote from cancer superheroine Heidi Adams, founder of Planet Cancer and Senior Director of Grass Roots Engagement for LIVESTRONG asked: “Is it OK to be buried in blue jeans?”
Each time we came together, whether at meals or to listen to speakers, we met new women and shared our stories. After dark, some of us gathered around an outdoor fireplace in our pajamas, made smores, laughed “samore” and talked with oncologists who, at that moment, were knowledgeable friends with answers. At the end of four days, our collective stories were as healing as any surgery, chemo or radiation. Each of us left with tears of joy and thanksgiving for having met others who shared “our same aquarium,” and who empowered us and gave us hope.
Started by US Oncology, Inc., the largest community-based cancer care and research network in the nation, the Life Beyond Cancer Foundation’s primary purpose is to financially assist cancer patients with many of their everyday living expenses. In addition, US Oncology, along with other caring companies, underwrites most of the cost of the Life Beyond Cancer Retreat, making it affordable for many women who want to come. I think I speak for everyone at this year’s retreat when I tell Dr. Lloyd Everson, Vice-Chairman and Board Member of US Oncology, that Living Beyond Cancer may be one of the best decisions US Oncology will ever make. The executive director and her planning committee created an event none of us wanted to leave. Even after we’d checked out of our rooms, we sat on sofas and chairs, camped out on the lobby floor, not ready to say goodbye.
If you’re female and have/had cancer, whether you’re Stage 1 or Stage 4, mark your calendars for next November and go to next year’s Retreat. If the Life Beyond Cancer Retreat doesn’t open a door in your heart that helps you embrace life, I’m not sure anything will.
Do any of you know a man who’s had breast cancer? For the majority of you who answered “no,” please allow me to introduce Allen Wilson, this year’s Chair for the Houston 2011 Komen Race for the Cure®. A two-time breast cancer survivor, and an adventurer who embraces life in every sense of the word, Allen is a cautionary tale for every man. Yes men get breast cancer, too, and just like women, men need to do regular self-breast exams.<PREVIEWEND>
Even though Allen Wilson had been aware of the lump under his right nipple, it took colliding with his son while playing basketball to get his attention. “That really hurt,” he told me. “Two days later I had a mammogram. It’s amazing what those technicians can do with so little tissue to work with.” Shortly there after, in 2003, Allen had a mastectomy.
When Allen told a woman he worked with that he’d just had a mastectomy, she thought he said “vasectomy” until he raised his shirt, showed her his bandages and his drainage tubes and grinned. Like everything else Allen Wilson does in life, he’s handled his breast cancer with humor and determination. After his hair began to fall out during his first go-round with chemo, his sons, Robert and Michael, gave him a Mohawk and painted one side of it red and the other side green for their family Christmas photo.
After his mastectomy and prescribed rounds of chemotherapy were over, Allen began training for his climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro where, in 2006, he placed pink ribbons as summit markers. The same year, Allen’s breast cancer returned in the location of his mastectomy scar, and another surgery and some really “serious chemo” and radiation ensued. “Maintenance,” he calls it, with no reference to the word “recurrence.”
Allen’s cell phone is a breath-taking photo album of not only his climbs on world famous mountains around the world, but of he and his wife, Lisa, skydiving and their 2010 participation in the second Egyptian Komen Race for the Cure® around the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The same year, Allen also spoke at the inaugural Komen Race for the Cure® in Jerusalem.
Allen is only the second man I’ve met who’s had breast cancer. The first male breast cancer survivor I met was actor, Richard Roundtree, better known for his role as super-cop “Shaft,” the ABC miniseries Roots as well as Desperate Housewives and his recurring role on Gray’s Anatomy. In 1993, Richard found a lump about the size of a pencil eraser in the shower while filming a movie in Costa Rica.
“When I was diagnosed, nobody gave me any information about breast cancer or how to get through treatment. No pamphlets, no cautions about what to eat, what not to eat, how to take care of myself, nothing," Richard told me a few years ago when he wrote a piece for my book, Breast Cancer Sisterhood, A Guide to Practical Information & Answers to Your Most Intimate Questions. "I was only told I needed a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, so that’s what I did.”
Richard Roundtree and Allen Wilson are great role models and reminders for every man to do monthly self-breast exams. Even though less than one percent of breast cancers occur in men, the incidence is on the rise. Because men delay seeing their doctors if they notice a lump or something unusual in the breast area, their breast cancers are often diagnosed when the disease is more advanced. As a result, their prognosis may not be as good had they found it earlier.
To Allen and Richard, from the men you've helped, along with the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters who love them, we thank you.
“In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York,
These streets will make you feel brand new,
Big lights will inspire you,
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York
One hand in the air for the big city,
Street lights, big dreams all looking pretty,
No place in the world that can compare,
Put your lighters in the air, everybody say yeah, yeah,
In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York,
These streets will make you feel brand new,
Big lights will inspire you,
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York”
This moving tribute to the people of New York City and the 911 first responders has touched my heart in ways I couldn’t have predicted.<PREVIEWEND> It’s reminded me of the collective pain our nation still feels and the selfless ways total strangers put the lives of others before their own. It’s also made me think about breast cancer families and the strangers who became our caregivers, men and women we came to rely on to keep us alive. In no way do I mean to compare 911 to having breast cancer, or vice versa, but all of us have been touched in small every day moments by loss, illness, war and death.
Profound loss changes who we are: We approach the future with the knowledge our life will never be the same again; we realign the way we see ourselves not only in the context of our own lives, but in relationship to our communities and those who share our common experiences. While we can never return to the days before the terrorist attacks on our country, or the cancer that ravaged our bodies, these tragedies sharpen our determination to survive.
Where were you when you heard about September 11th? Where were you when you were diagnosed with breast cancer? How did September 11th change you? How did breast cancer change you? Did they make you stronger?
As a whole, Americans and those who gravitate to the opportunities and freedoms our shores represent are resilient. It takes a lot to get us down and on our way back up, we grab the hands of those next to us and bring them up with us. A loss of the magnitude of 911 or cancer is incalculable, but generations to come will bear witness and take inspiration from our stories. They will use the lessons we’ve learned as the basis and strength to survive their own crisis.
While my thoughts are of those brave 911 men and women and their families, as well as my breast cancer sisters and their families, I’m also thinking of my own recent loss. My precious James. May God bless you and your families each and every day, and may you take time out of each day to be there for someone else. I thank you for being there for me.
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