Archives for posts with tag: mindfulness

There are a lot of “what not to say” to a cancer patient lists.  Although I agree with the intent, the lists rub me the wrong way. There’s nothing in them that suggests alternative, supportive behavior, and that’s one of the reasons that many people don’t respond well to people with cancer. Cancer is scary and if saying or doing anything could be on the “don’t list”, responding appropriately although not impossible, is very difficult. There’s also the issue that people are individuals and what may be supportive to one person may not be to another or even to the same person, what might be supportive at one time may not be supportive at another time.

A better version of the list was the “comfort in/dump out” diagram, first published in the LA Times in 2013. The diagram consists of concentric circles in which the person with cancer is in the center, as the person most impacted by the illness. It was a pretty good approach, much better than a “don’t” list though some people took it as license for the person at the center of the diagram to be as nasty as they want to be to everyone in the larger circles while expecting support from all of those people. I don’t blame the author for that because I think it is a misinterpretation of the diagram. An issue I have with it, however, is that for some of us, we are not able to put ourselves in the middle. For example, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, I had a 13-year-old daughter. I did very little “dumping out” at her and expected very little “comfort in” from her. I was still the mother of a child, a child who was dealing with her mother having cancer.  The parent-child relationship, at this stage, is not reciprocal. Parents give more, kids give less. To flip it around is not good for a child’s development.

My daughter lives away now at college, which has made self-care easier for me. However, my 85-year-old dad has been quite ill with an increasing list of debilitating ailments. He now has more physicians than me and has been hospitalized twice since November. This is the stage of the parent-child relationship when the child needs to step up on giving. I also have five brothers who live locally so they help, too. And my mom takes excellent care of Dad.

I had two heart attacks less than a year ago. I had breast cancer 6 years ago. Sometimes I can be at the center of the circle, sometimes not. Mostly, my dad is at the center, and to be truthful, he does his fair share of “dump out”. But also has times of incredible sweetness and gratitude, which is a support to all of this caregivers. My mom, who is on the receiving end of 99% of the “dump out”, is sometimes impatient, but mostly bordering on sainthood. The grouchiness and displaced anger do wear on her, as does responding to my dad’s frequent calls for help in the middle of the night. We’ve gotten impatient and frustrated with Dad, on occasion. He gets fixed on money, not wanting to spend it, even on things that would make life a lot easier. And then there were all of those years that he refused to get the earlier signs of illness checked out despite getting referrals from his primary care physician to do so. He was clearly at the center of the circle, but he wasn’t making good decisions. There was perhaps some “dump-in” that occurred during this period, which lasted three years as we watched Dad go from a man in his early 80’s who could still hike several miles to shuffling, to barely being able to walk, to barely being able to walk with a walker.

Life is messy. Sometimes we dump out. Sometimes we dump in. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say or do in sad and scary situations. Everyone is at the center of the circle at one time or another. Sometimes the people who say or do “the wrong things” are in the center of a DIFFERENT circle. This is a fluid process. There is no prescription for being a decent person.

In the process of accepting all of this, perhaps we can learn to do better and to be forgiving for the times we fail.

Part of being a testing psychologist is explaining results to worried parents. Parenting hits us at the tenderest parts of our heart. Recently, I was providing feedback on testing I had done with a bright 7-year-old with severe learning disabilities. There were parts of testing that were poignant, for example, the 7 minutes and 5 seconds it took her to read a 92-word-long story. She worked so hard only to make 75 errors. Imagine what this child’s school day must be like. Her parents were naturally eager to learn what they could do to support literacy development. They also had questions about how to boost their child’s self-esteem. Then I got a question I’d not previously heard in the 23+ years I have been giving this kind of feedback to parents. “How can we get her to believe that she can do anything?”

As an expert, I know that the speed of my response is important. Answering too quickly gives the impression (sometimes accurately) of not having listened. Answering too slowly gives the impression (sometimes accurately) of not know what I am talking about. In this case, I had a strong gut feeling about the answer but had not gotten my reasoning quite together. So I gave a response that gave me time to think and also framed my thoughts, “I’m not sure that is a healthy goal.”

I went on to recommend focusing on the present, namely, helping their daughter develop academic skills so that she would experience more success. Then I talked about the importance of self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses in success. I gave myself as an example. I’ve never thought I could do anything but I thought there was a lot I could do and that helped me be successful. It was a good enough response, I think, but my thinking was unfinished. I have been mulling this over.

The kids I see in my practice, by and large, have a great deal of difficulty being successful in school. They experience failure over and over. People often try to encourage them by saying, “You can do anything you want to!”  The implication is that each of us has all of the ingredients we need to fulfill infinite possibilities.

What does it mean if you can “do anything you want to do” and you still fail?

“You don’t care.”
“You are lazy.”
“You just need to try harder.”

Those are some of the top reasons that I hear from parents, teachers, and the students, themselves. It occurs to me that this is the same fallacy of the American Dream. We can all achieve economic success if we try hard enough. People who are not economically successful just are lazy, not trying, and don’t care.

These are also the punishing expectations for those of us who become physically ill. There’s a slightly different spin but it all boils down to, “your fault”.

“You didn’t eat right.”
“You didn’t exercise right.”
“You have a bad attitude.”

None of this is true. Effort, attitude, and motivation can make a difference in coping with adversity but they do not make ALL of the difference.

Believing in a just world can help us feel more comfortable and in greater control. But it is not reality and delusions can be destructive to those who are in need of the most understanding and acceptance.

We can do a lot of things, every one of us. That’s the reality and beauty of humanity. That encourages me. It works against the tyranny of perfectionism and the self-delusion of a “just world” view.

I can’t reach for things if my feet aren’t firmly planted on the ground.

Reality. Let’s do that.

 

Several years ago, I was back east. My dear friend, Cheryl’s, mother had died after a long illness, early-onset Alzheimer’s. Cheryl had been her mother, Daisy’s primary caregiver since she was a 25-year-old psychology intern. Fortunately, Cheryl lives in her childhood home in a wonderful neighborhood. When I visit her, neighbor’s come over to greet me because they know that I am one of Cheryl’s people. Nonetheless, it was incredibly difficult for her, a single woman finishing up graduate school and starting her career, to care for her mom. Cheryl has her own health challenges, which are exacerbated by stress, and required multiple surgeries during her mom’s life. After several years, Daisy entered a nursing home.  As her life neared its end, her best friend, Shirley, a retired nurse told Cheryl that her mom’s time was coming to a close. It is so hard to know exactly when someone is going to die and even harder to let someone go. Daisy had been a single parent to Cheryl and they were very close. She died before a priest could come out to perform last rites, Anointing of the Sick. The parish priest did come afterwards and performed the final Roman Catholic sacrament.

I arrived a few days later. A group of neighbors set up a repast of Trinidadian food that had been brought by caterers (Cheryl’s parents were both from Trinidad) while the rest of us attended the funeral. The officiant had been Daisy and Cheryl’s parish priest many years before and was now a cardinal and a family friend. The service was beautiful. One of Cheryl’s friends, a neighbor, sang. The cardinal also sang parts of the mass and he had a very nice voice. After mass was ended, we went to Cheryl and Daisy’s home for the repast and celebrated Daisy’s life.

I stayed on for a few days. I went to mass at Cheryl’s parish. The priest who had performed Daisy’s last rites presided over mass. The theme of his homily was “what are you waiting for?” To my horror, he used the story of being called to perform last rights on Daisy after she’d died. He went on and on. I left church humiliated and livid on behalf of my dear friend who had been nothing but a wonderful daughter not to mention the fact that he knew that she was not only a member of his parish, but one who had just lost her mother to a truly horrible disease. Both Cheryl and this priest had a story about what had transpired. They were very different stories. It is easy to call one of them right and one of them wrong. I know which one I would call wrong!

I have not written any entries in this blog for nearly a month. I have used the month thinking about the stories we tell that provide meaning to us in explaining our life experiences. Breast cancer survivors tell lots of meaningful stories. So do heart attack survivors, by the way. Not surprisingly, they are some of the very same stories about “kicking illnesses ass”, about “being given a second lease on life”, and even the perception of illness as a “gift”.  There are also the stories of “My life will never be the same” and “What’s going on? This is horrible!”. There are also national heart awareness days, including the recent “Wear Red Day” to raise awareness of cardiac disease in women, the number one cause of women.

I have been living in a particular breast cancer blogging community for nearly six years now. I find that I bristle at some of the narratives told by heart attack survivors. I have also not delved deeply into the cyber community for SCAD survivors. There is a lot of raw terror in that community. It makes sense. Most of the women are young, had a heart attack out of the blue, and they have cardiologists who don’t understand their condition. Those are the women who have a narrative of chaos and literal heartbreak. I don’t bristle at their stories. I just feel very sad for their suffering. It’s the catch phrases used by the women who by all appearances seem to be coping well. They are the ones who are more likely to use the phrases that are so controversial in the breast cancer world.

Yesterday, I thought back to perspectives of my friend and the priest around Daisy’s death. The priest’s actions were clearly “wrong” in that they were unskilled and did not demonstrate compassion for others. The stories they told were very different. I do think that Cheryl and the priest shared something very important. They were both dealing with suffering. How was the priest suffering, you ask? Admittedly, I don’t know his mind but I have some guesses, based on his job. Priests are on-call constantly. And they are on-call for decades. Not everyone is up to that every minute. I can see someone getting wrapped up in the stress of this and having a fit about an inconvenience. This does not excuse his behavior but it offers a possible explanation.

The stories we tell may either help or amplify our suffering. The helpful story I tell myself may be one that would cause suffering to someone else in a similar situation. This is why the “cancer is a gift” narrative doesn’t bother me the way it does some others. I can see that it may help some people. As long as people don’t explicitly tell me how I should view my own life experience, I am fine with it. What I have been struggling with is the backlash against these narratives. It is one thing to say, for example, “Cancer was not a gift for me” and quite another thing to say, “Cancer is a gift to no one.”  To me, that causes the same problem as the one that is trying to be solved, that is, prescriptive language that defines experience.

But really, what does it matter to me? And who am I to invalidate anyone’s personal characterization of illness, just based on the ideas? If you want to tell me that “cancer’s a gift”, that’s fine as long as you are not my husband or another close loved one. If you want to tell me “cancer’s never a gift.” That’s also fine. If you don’t like the word, “journey” or any other phrase or word that is currently popular, that’s fine. I define my own experience. And the narrative that I am putting together is dynamic and at times, very messy. I respect myself. I respect you.

As always, I wish you peace, joy, and to be free from suffering.

My great-grandfathers on my mom’s side both immigrated from northern Italy to Washington state around the turn of the 20th century. Like many immigrants before and after them, they worked dirty, dangerous, and low-paying jobs. In their cases, they worked in coal mines in Renton and Black Diamond. Although they may have had dreams of riches and the easy life before they immigrated, they soon toiled as an investment for the future of their families.

I was reminded of my Italian ancestors while having a lovely weekend away with my husband. John had arranged for this as a birthday present to me. We stayed at my brother and sister-in-law’s condo near Rosalyn, WA, in the Central Cascades. Rosalyn was a coal-mining town back when my great-grandparents were mining.

It was foggy for most of the weekend, creating an other-worldly black-and-white environment. Fog can be foreboding. I found myself, instead, to be nestled in obscurity. The world can be far too bright and more subtle beauty can be missed. John and I took a walk down an old mining road, now used as a hiking trail. It was breath-taking and my photo only hints at this.

DSC07689

This patch of serenity in 2017 is also the site of the worst coalmine disaster in Washington state history. It was 1892 and an explosion and fire killed 45 men. Can you imagine what that was like for a turn-of-the century mining town in rural Washington with a population of just over 1000 people? Devastating.

I think of my ancestors, like these men and their families, who were primarily new immigrants from European countries, who the hardships of the immigrant life, the Great Depression, and two world wars.

In the years of my mindfulness practice, I have gained a perspective of deepened connection between humanity. There is a thread that runs through us across distance and time.  I have been struggling with discouragement in the past few weeks. Some of it, I suspect is anniversary grief from the last presidential election compounded by the new assault of scary news each day. I am also adjusting to finishing my cardiac rehab, which was a wonderful structure of support both physical and emotional. Then there is getting to a new normal with my dad’s health and support needs.

This is not working the mines or dealing with wars or the Great Depression. But it does feel that we are adjusting to some kind of New World. And for many in our country and world, it really is working the mines, living through the Depression, and experiencing war, all at once.

My ancestors were strong, resilient people on both sides of my family. (Perhaps, one day, I will tell my father’s story.) Today, I draw on their strength and I see light.

 

24312673_10214298634890166_6147219282714304815_n

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. I don’t think I’ve blogged about it in years. I typically try, unsuccessfully, to ignore it. The superficiality of some of the campaigns bothers me. But if I am honest, I also don’t share the intensity of the anger some people still feel about it. This is my 6th October since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2012. There has been a dramatic decrease in pink ribbons and associated nonsense since that time. There have been high profile works of film, journalism, and even coverage on late night comedy shows that have revealed the money farm that developed to exploit and sexual breast cancer for profit. Yes, it is still a problem but progress is progress. Progress is to be celebrated. So I celebrate the pink reduction.

Between the “think positive” crowd to the “everything about cancer sucks” crowd, I feel increasingly on my own. Although I tend to have more in common with the “everything about cancer sucks” crowd, I do worry about my not-very-tightly-held secret. I’m going out on a limb here and admitting what my blogging buddies know already: Not EVERYTHING about having breast cancer sucked. There were aspects of my experience that exposed me to what is best about humanity. I was lucky enough to be very well cared for by my healthcare team, by my family, and by my friends. I learned some things about myself in the process of illness that have become what I hope to be, lifelong lessons and happier ways of being.

I was at cardiac rehab yesterday and one of the exercise physiologists commented, “You have such a positive attitude. Have you always been this way or is this new?” I told her that I was lucky in that I am a naturally upbeat and resilient person but also that I have done much to nurture these qualities since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. I also recently read my cardiologist report from the Mayo Clinic. In it, I am described as “a very pleasant psychologist.”

I don’t have to have a positive attitude and I don’t have to be “very pleasant”. But these qualities are helpful to me as I live my life, day by day. They also help me face some hard possibilities, most notably, the fact that I may not live as long as I thought I would. I had breast cancer at 46 and two heart attacks at age 51. I had few or no risk factors for either condition. Breast cancer can recur and I’m really not sure what the risk of recurrence or of developing metastatic cancer is. (I know there is the 20-30% estimate but I find no description of how it was arrived at in the original source materials, which concerns me.) There is a chance that I will have another SCAD event, too. However, there’s very little research on SCAD-related heart attacks, which makes it hard to know. The best estimate at this point is 20% recurrence over 10 years, but that is on a sample of only about 150 women. Further, since the cause/s of SCAD are not understood, there are no markers that can be measured to estimate my risk.

However, unlike breast cancer, stress is modifiable risk factor for cardiac diseases, including SCAD. Consequently, I continue to work on that through meditation, exercise, and through working a reduced work load. Cardiac rehab is going well. I just did my 60 day review. I am stronger and reassured that I am pushing my progress at the right rate. I have also made friends and being cared for by a group of excellent nurses and exercise physiologist. Even if these actions don’t extend my life, they make my day to day life much more peaceful, joyful, and balanced.

Awareness is synonymous with mindfulness. It is the state of being aware of reality, as it is. The use of the term “awareness” for October is ironic in the context of breast cancer because it is used for some dishonest purposes. Not every thing about my breast cancer is bad. Not every thing about my heart disease is bad. They are parts of my life, which include joy, pain, peace, anxiety, and all of the other experiences and feelings of my reality.

Here is a phrase I learned from Sharda Rogell, my dharma teacher at Spirit Rock Retreat Center. It is a phrase about equanimity:

“May my heart be big enough to hold the joys and sorrows without being overwhelmed.”

I’m out on a limb. I think in this moment, it will hold me.

Peace, friends.

 

After my heart attacks last spring, I signed up for a 5-day-long residential mindfulness retreat at Spirit Rock Retreat Center in Northern California. I’d never attended a residential retreat and I thought it might be a good way to increase and deepen my mindfulness practice. Further, since the retreat is mostly silent, I thought it would give me a chance to be alone with myself to see how I am doing with the whole heart attack thing. Other than one day of feeling sad and weepy, I really haven’t had a strong grief reaction. The two years I was going through breast cancer treatment were different. I had more days of “what the Hell is going on?” Another issue I thought would be good to process is my daughter’s moving out of the house for college.  Other than the first two days she was gone, I haven’t felt sad about her absence. I do worry some about how she is managing this big transition but I am mostly happy and excited for her.

After months of waiting, the retreat took place last week. I had already been on my own for a few days, having flown down early to visit family in the Bay Area. I explored San Francisco and had a lovely afternoon with my niece, Tricia, who has recently moved to Silicon Valley to start a tech company. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from NYU and has developed a technology with educational and mental health applications. To make a long story short, if she is successful, her work will be revolutionary. I also visited with my husband’s family in Lafayette, CA. We took a walk on the water and had a nice dinner together. My nieces and nephew have grown up quite a lot since I last saw them and I met one of them for the first time. They were bright children and teens. The conversation was lively.

The retreat started last Tuesday afternoon. I arrived with minor trepidation. Could I be silent for five days? Could I stay awake for the day’s scheduled activities, from 6:30 am to 9:30 pm? (Heart attacks have a way of pooping one out.) Would I have time to do my cardiac rehab exercises? Mostly, though, I was excited. I felt ready to challenge myself with a retreat.

The name of the retreat was “Empty Mind, Full Heart” and it was taught by Sharda Rogell, who has been teaching insight meditation since 1985. She is a wonderful teacher and kind person. The first full day of the retreat started at 6 am with the chiming of a bell through the hall outside of my room. I dressed quickly and walked out into the dark morning, pausing to look at the bright array of stars above. Once in the meditation room, I knelt on my cushion and closed my eyes. 45 minutes later, Sharda struck a singing bowl three times, and it was time to walk to the dining hall for breakfast. The rest of the schedule was pretty much as follows: sitting meditation, walking meditation, morning lesson and instruction with meditation, walking meditation, lunch, doing dishes in the kitchen as my work meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, dharma talk, dinner, sitting meditation, walking meditation, guided meditation, sitting meditation, and bedtime at 9:30 pm.

I may have added a few extra meditations but I will let you know that by 6:30 pm, my body ached and I was exhausted. I sat in meditation basically finding fancy reasons to get out of the rest of the meditations for the day so I could go to bed early. I thought, “I’m not going to make it until 9:30 pm!” I reminded myself that it wasn’t 9:30 pm, redirected myself to the meditation and took things one meditation at a time. The soreness was another issue. Then I realized that there were chairs available and that I wouldn’t be a huge failure if I meditated in a chair rather than on a nifty cushion that was taking away my will to live. I sat in the chair and was able to make it through the rest of the night, one meditation session at a time.

By the next day, Sharda helped us prioritize the sittings, telling us which of them were optional and which of them were not. (I was not the only one who had switched to a chair.) I took three naps that day, did all of the mandatory activities, and took two hikes up into the hills surrounding the retreat center. I felt so much better. By the next day, I could do more meditations and I kept taking walks. I did have more struggles during the retreat with meditation. Other people were, as well. For some, meditating brought up emotional struggles. For others, like me, we tended to make time pass by fantasizing or drifting off. Also, sitting still is really hard!

Meanwhile, Northern California was and continues to be, on fire. As the winds shifted, our air quality changed. One day, I could see the ash in the air. Other days were clear with blue skies. It was a reminder of how life can change in an instant.

I left the retreat feeling full of experience, of connection with the other people at the retreat center, and with a heart holding joy and heart break. I also left with my feet firmly on the ground. My heart can do a lot.

As always,

Peace

San Francisco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spirit Rock Retreat Center, Woodacre, CA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and after two lumpectomies, had a right side mastectomy. The right side of my body was plotting against me.

A few months ago, I had two heart attacks, spaced eight days apart. The left side of my body was plotting against me.

We my sides battling? What side was I on?

Both sides of my body are me. Diseases have threatened the integrity, the wholeness of my body. Body systems need to work together reasonably well in order to sustain life.

Integrity is not a battle. Battles don’t produce wholeness, healing does.

I can’t fight against myself, well I could, but I don’t want to. I want to live with the reality of myself. I will not take sides.

Yesterday in Charlottesville, VA, there was a terrorist attack on peaceful protestors, carried out by a young man who had joined the march for white supremacy. There were others who terrorized with hate speech.

This event was not born without historical or cultural context. There are excellent writings about this and one point that is made over and over is that given our history and our current culture, we must be vigilant. There are also many condemning the white supremacists and making statements that put them on another side,  noting that they came from out of town, they are not representative of Americans as a whole, and “this is not us.”

Humans, like other animals, have dominance hierarchies. Aggression is part of our make-up. It is a spark in each of us. For some of us, it is a small fire, and for others still, an inferno.

In my mindfulness practice, which waxes and wanes, by the way, I have found that through self-observation, I have found more acceptance. And in accepting more, I find it easier to change, to get past the guilt, shame, confusion, and denial that make me battle with myself.

We are connected by our humanity. I cannot deny that I do not share something important with people who identify as white supremacists. I believe that all are worthy of respect, respect for the intrinsic value of each person. What people do, that’s different. Respecting or condoning actions is different. It boils down to what I tell kids, “There are no bad kids. I have never met one. But what you do, can be okay or not okay.”

The acceptance of oneself, each of us with all of our flaws, allows us to remain part of humanity rather than running off in shame. It allows us to look closely at ourselves and make steps toward healing.

Our country has never worked perfectly but right now, all of the diseased parts are inflamed. It is time for self-examination and action.

We have a painful road ahead; let’s take the most healing path that we can. There are many things that I am against. I am against hateful ideology. I am against aggression. But I am also on the side of humanity.

Peace friends,

Elizabeth

I have been working half-time this week, following what turned out to be two small heart attacks. As I wrote previously, the current working diagnosis is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). It is infrequently diagnosed and mostly seen in women in their 40’s to 50’s, physically fit, and with few or no heart attack risk factors. The cause is unknown. It is possible for dissections to heal so I am taking a number of medications to improve my heart functioning as well as to prevent the formation of blood clots. I have follow-up tests and lots to learn about heart functioning.

This was a shock, to understate things. Just two months ago, my husband and I were in Southeast Asia. We were walking through ruins in extremely hot conditions, just as we’d done when we were in our 20’s, on our honeymoon in Egypt during the summer. During the vacation, I was really pleased by the health of my body and what I was capable of doing. I thought of trips that John and I could take in the future.

Yesterday, I had a mammogram. It was normal. My 5 year “no evidence of disease” anniversary is in two weeks. This is big news that has been upstaged by my heart. In the past, I have compared cancer to a natural disaster. It can happen to anyone, no matter how virtuous. I am re-thinking that metaphor, at least in my experience. My breast cancer was more like a failed safety inspection. The treatment was to prevent a disaster. One of the harder aspects of breast cancer treatment is that it made me feel sick when I hadn’t felt sick.  The heart attack was like a natural disaster, a small earthquake followed by an aftershock. They caused damage to my heart. The medications I am taking now actually seem to be making me feel better.

Today, I have no work responsibilities or health care appointments. I am taking care of myself. I am listening to my body. Yesterday, it told me that taking a walk with a friend was a good idea and it was. Today, my body told me to sleep in. It has also told me to spend a lot of time resting on the couch. Finally, it has told me to take pause and check in with my thoughts and feelings.

One thought that passed my mind was, “I’m still healing from the cancer and now I have heart problems.” I felt the urge to cry “foul!” (And it would have been fine if I had.) My next realization is that I have always been healing from multiple wounds.

We are all healing from multiple wounds.

Be kind to yourselves, friends.

Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

DSC04219

I attended the March for Science on April 22nd. I was also a member of the national Facebook group for the march. The page has a lot of members, from diverse backgrounds. There were mostly very interesting and supportive posts in this group. Some members had beliefs very different from my own, for example, the member who claimed “emotions aren’t real.”

We tend to separate our brains from the rest of our body and our emotions from the rest of our being. Perhaps, emotions are tied to concepts such as spirituality, which are seen to float around and exist apart from us. From a mental health/science perspective, however, the brain is very much a part of the body and emotions are very much a part of the brain and central nervous system.

Stress isn’t an emotion but it is tied to strong emotional states and certain life situations. Stress can be acute or chronic. Stress can be motivating. Stress can harm our bodies when it is excessive.

Last Thursday afternoon, while finishing up with my last patients of the day, I felt sudden achy pain along my upper back, accompanied by nausea. I was able to finish and then felt the same achy feeling under my arms, and in my chest. Although not the smartest thing to do, I drove myself home. When I walked through the door, my husband looked up, gave his beautiful smile, and said, “Hi Sweetie! How was your day?”.  I replied, “I am not well. Call 9-11.”

The fire department arrived less than 5 minutes later, closely followed by paramedics, the latter of which had a portable EKG machine. I was impressed by the professionalism and kindness of the first responders. They didn’t seem incredibly concerned about the readings but recommended that I go to the hospital E.R. rather than wait to follow-up with my primary care physician in the upcoming days. I agreed.

The achy pains had lessened some with the extra oxygen I had been getting since the firemen hooked me up to an oxygen tank at the house. It was rush hour in Seattle. The ambulance driver expertly dodged through traffic. Fortunately, an outstanding aspect of my city is that drivers are very quick to get out of the way of emergency vehicles.

I was admitted to the E.R. I changed into a gown and my blood was drawn for the first of what would be eleven needle jabs over less than a 48 hour period. They were testing my troponin levels and they were able to do the test bedside, instead of having to send it to the lab. Troponin is an enzyme released by the heart when it is damaged. When my nurse returned to the room, he saw the test results. (The test had been started by a phlebotomist.) He said, surprised, “This is elevated. Is this YOUR test?” He confirmed that it was.

Although no one said this outright until I was discharged, from this point until the following morning, the assumption was that I’d had a heart attack. By 6:30 pm, my pains were totally gone. I had an EKG that night followed by subsequent blood draws, one at midnight, one at 2:00 am, and another at 5:00 am. I was surrounded by kind and skilled medical staff. The night nurse, Lorenzo, was particularly good. He was kind, personable, and knowledgeable. (By the way, one thing I love about my hospital, Swedish Medical Center, is that I’ve always had wonderful night nurses. I’ve heard horror stories about other hospitals.) Lorenzo was also excellent at  communication with me as well as with the other services. Continuity of care is a huge challenge in hospitals and he was excellent in his efforts.

At 5:30 am,  I started having back and chest pain again. It was incredibly small but Lorenzo had told me to report any pain, however minor. It was also in the same location as previously. I was given nitro glycerin and when that did not totally eliminate it, I was given morphine. The pains gradually lessened and were gone by 7:30 am.

Due to the recurrence of the pain and my blood test results (the troponin levels had increased over night as well as another enzyme used as a marker for heart attack), I underwent cardiac catheterization. I was taken to the Cath Lab and the procedure was carried out by a cardiologist and a team of four others. A catheter (small tube) was inserted through an artery in my wrist and threaded up to my heart. Contrast dye was also pumped into my body through the catheter, allowing imaging of my heart and circulatory system. I was sedated, but alert, during the procedure. (By the way, it was not nearly as awful as it sounds.) About midway through, the cardiologist asked, “Has something really stressful happened to your recently?” I told him that something had happened. You see, although he could see that my heart was not compressing normally, there was no evidence of a heart attack or heart disease. As two members of the cath team wheeled me back to my room, they were visibly happy for me.

The cardiologist made a preliminary diagnosis of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as, Takosubo cardiomyopathy or more poetically,”broken heart syndrome”.  This diagnosis was corroborated by the results of an echocardiogram. Excessive cortisol, a stress hormone, can affect the heart muscle, preventing it from being able to contract fully. This results in symptoms similar to a heart attack. Unlike a heart attack or heart disease, the heart damage cause by stress cardiomyopathy typically heals in 1-4 weeks.

I was put on three new medications, two of which can have a blood pressure reducing side effect. My regular blood pressure is about 110/70. It got really low after the medications so I stayed another night at the hospital.

I was discharged yesterday afternoon. My treatment was top-notch but being in a hospital is neither restful nor fun. John had been by my side the whole time, spending nights at the hospital. We were so glad to leave!

It is now time to implement a new self-care program. These are difficult times in my country. I think they are causing chronic stress for many. I know it has for me and I’ve been left with a smaller reservoir with which to deal with new stresses that come into my life. I have left a message with the psychologist I saw during my breast cancer treatment. There are some things I really need to process as well as a need to return to a more consistent mindfulness practice.

Having a caring heart is mostly a wonderful thing but it can also be a burden. Life brings unwelcome surprises like chest pain and welcome ones like looking into a woman’s heart and not finding heart disease and blockage.

On the day of the March for Science, I wore a sign demonstrating my ongoing commitment to the importance of fostering caring hearts. Without them, there is no love, no laughter, no curiosity, no passion, and no motivation. We would also not work to protect ourselves from possible harm. Without emotions, there is no humanity.

20170422_100024-1

My daughter and husband are out tonight. I decided to watch something on television that might only appeal to me. I used to occasionally watch, The Gilmore Girls, a mother/daughter drama-comedy with very fast-paced dialogue. They brought the show back after many years for another season. I decided to watch the first episode.

The Gilmore Girls is a smartly written show with appealing lead actors. In other words, it is not a bad show. That’s not the point of this post. The opening scene of the show took place outside, in the town square. The first thing I noticed is that everyone in this town is white. The mother and daughter characters were drinking coffee from paper cups that were obviously empty. I realize that this is a common use of props in television and film. Without fail, I notice that the coffee cup is empty. I can tell by the way they handle it! There’s no weight in the cup! Why can’t they just fill it with water or something?

The all white town, then the empty cup. Next, they pass the sign for the town, “Stars Hollow”. Really? That’s hollow, too? It’s not a bad show but really, the first 10 minutes were too symbolic for me.

Life is full. If I take a drink of life, the weigh of the cup registers in my hand. It has flavors, colors, aromas, and sounds galore.

The fullness of life is a big part of what makes life so amazing.

A hollow cup is easy to understand. It is easy to master. There are no surprises.

But what, precisely is the point?

Yes, I am a bit agitated today but as always,

Peace, friends.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

KomenWatch

Keeping our eyes and ears open.....

Life in a Wheelchair

You never think it could happen to you!

4 Times and Counting

Confessions Of A 4 Time Breast Cancer Survivor

Nancy's Point

A blog about breast cancer, loss & survivorship

After Twenty Years Cancer Research Blog

Exploring progress in cancer research from the patient perspective.

My Eyes Are Up Here

My life is not just about my chest, despite rumblings to the contrary.

Woman in the Hat

Cancer to Wellness in 1,038,769 Easy Steps!

Dglassme's Blog

Wouldn't Wish This On My Worst Enemy

SeasonedSistah2

Today is Better Than Yesterday

Telling Knots

About 30% of people diagnosed with breast cancer at any stage will develop distal metastasis. I am one.

The Pink Underbelly

A day in the life of a sassy Texas girl dealing with breast cancer and its messy aftermath

The Asymmetry of Matter

Qui vivra verra.

Fab 4th and 5th Grade

Teaching readers, writers, and thinkers

Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

making sense of the breast cancer experience together

Telling Knots

About 30% of people diagnosed with breast cancer at any stage will develop distal metastasis. I am one.

Entering a World of Pink

a male breast cancer blog

Luminous Blue

a mother's and daughter's journey with transformation, cancer, death and LOVE

Fierce is the New Pink

Run to the Bear!

The Sarcastic Boob

Determined to Manage Breast Cancer with the Same Level of Sarcasm with which I Manage Everything Else

FEC-THis

Life after a tango with death & its best friend cancer