Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Food, Glorious Food!

As the holiday season approaches and we rush around in a slight frenzy buying gifts and treats for our friends and family, it struck me how integral food is in both our holiday celebrations and in our times of illness and grief. Sustenance provides comfort when we are joyful and equally so when we are experiencing loss or sickness. I was reminded of the various delicious meals that were provided for me during my chemotherapy, which began on December 11th two years ago.

One night, before my first treatment, the phone rang during dinner. I was recovering from surgery at the time and preparing for the chemotherapy. Normally I wouldn’t have answered the phone during a meal but for some reason I did that night. “Hi Jeanne, this is Wendy H. You don’t know me but I just heard from one of the second grade mom’s that you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I am so sorry to hear of your diagnosis. I went through my battle with breast cancer a year and a half ago when I was thirty eight. Can I answer any questions for you? Also, I would love to be the first one to bring you dinner when you have your chemotherapy. I know exactly which foods will make you feel better.”

I was quite surprised. I wasn’t sure that I liked the fact that the second grade mom’s were gossiping about my cancer. It really felt a little bit invasive. On the other hand, this woman had been kind enough to pick up the phone and call a perfect stranger to let me know I had her support and she was ready to cook for me. “Sure you can bring dinner that night.” I said, sort of in shock. “My friend Sara is coordinating that.” I hung up the phone and shrugged as I returned to eating dinner.

Sure enough, Wendy H arrived at my house that night of my first treatment with a delicious homemade meal. It was simple yet perfect for my quesy stomach. She had roasted chicken in butter, made a beautiful salad, a rice dish with more butter and fresh herbs, rolls and a little cake for dessert. There was just enough for the four of us to have for dinner with a little bit left over for lunch the next day.

That same week I overindulged on spaghetti pie. A friend of mine dropped it by and it was a big hit with the kids and a bigger hit with me. It was layered in a pie pan with cheese on the bottom and then spaghetti and sauce on top. Then the whole thing was baked to form a “spaghetti pie.” My friend also sent salad, rolls and chocolate chip cookies for the children.

I will say that some of my favorite dishes were quite bland. They seemed to comfort me. One friend of mine brought over a casserole of organic chicken, brown rice and cream of mushroom soup. It was great for the nausea I felt from the chemotherapy. I ate small portions of it throughout the day and that would help me for a couple of hours.

My decorator made the best meal of all (you know those creative types). She stuffed four puff pastries with chicken breasts and wild rice and added legs, arms and eyes to each. The end result was little people who looked like gingerbread men, two girls and two boys. I popped them into the oven and in a half an hour we not only had a delicious dinner, the children had something to entertain them and get their mind off of my illness. She also sent green beans with almonds and butter, rolls and an apple pie for dessert.

So as the holidays approach and I am rushing to get all of my shopping done, I try to reflect on these meals. Because I am reminded that as simple as it seems, a homemade gift from the heart is often the best gift of all.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Taking A Break... And all that Goes with It

Anxiety can be overwhelming. It can take over your thoughts and render you incapable of moving forward. I suffer from it on occasion and when I do I try to breathe and get more centered. But how do we help children deal with this? I am away for a couple of days with my husband and I really had to think long and hard about this.
My son is an anxious child. I try to help him through his daily life with kind words and parental guidance as best I can. Now I am lounging by the pool in Florida, enjoying the last day of a short junket with my husband thinking about my little boy at home and feeling extremely guilty for not having better prepared him for dealing with life.

Most of his anxiety comes from a fear that something else bad will happen to me and that he will be left alone with my husband and his sister without his mother to guide him through the world. This is a real fear and as resilient as children are, he has difficulty with this thought. Sometimes it just overwhelms him.

We went to a party on Sunday night which was not only fun but extremely professional. We reconnected with my husband’s former colleagues and reminded ourselves that he is, in fact, one of the leading experts in brain genetics and pathology, at home here in the world of academia. It was a wonderful night, until we called home.
“How are things?” I asked my almost seventy year old mother. “Well….” Enough said. Clearly things were deteriorating. Then Luke got on the phone. His tears would not stop and his crying was heart wrenching. You know the kind of crying I am talking about, the kind of crying that forces you to catch your breath and gasp for air. I felt so bad for leaving my boy and also felt helpless because I was so far away.

Fortunately, my husband got on the phone and “talked him through” his moment of sadness in a very psychiatric way. “Mommy will be home tomorrow. Just take a deep breath and try to think of something fun that you will be doing this week.” It seemed to work, there seemed to be an audible sigh from the bedroom at home.

The next morning he didn't get up for school on time and when I called for the fourth time at 9:30 he finally talked to me.  "Mommy, is that you?"  He questioned, knowing full well that it was me on the line.  "Luke, you have to get up and go to school."  I commanded, hoping that my authority stretched across the phone line.  "Who is this?"  He continued to prod.  Finally, I suggested that he give my mother the phone and he surrendered. 
"Mom,"  I said.  "Just take him in when he is ready."  She did and he came home from school a renewed and more independent person.  I called again at the end of the school day.  "How was your day, Luke?"  I asked, waiting patiently to hear the response.  "It was good."  Came the response.  I was in safe territory once again.
When I recounted this last conversation to my husband he laughed and said, "Can you stay one more day?"  I glared at him with piercing eyes.  "One more day,"  I said.  "Are you out of your mind?"  I began to pack my bag to go back home.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Yoga for Health

The healing effects of yoga have been well documented throughtout history in the over five thousand years that people around the world have been practicing. Personally, I have just been reintroduced to the power of the mind body connection since my illness.

As a teenager, growing up in Atlanta, I remember stumbling upon one of my mother’s books in our family room/library. Interestingly, it was a book of yoga poses.  Always open minded and curious, I began to form my own “practice,” mimicking the poses on the pages of the red jacketed book on the soft gray carpet in our family room. Some things in that book still stick in my mind.  I  remember reading that doing a shoulder stand helped your thyroid and that the universal mantra is OM.  I practiced my poses for a few weeks, and then lost interest because I , like most teenagers, was busy with life and cheerleading at the football game.

After I had my surgery someone suggested that I try yoga to help with my recovery. I was too intimidated to go to a yoga studio so I purchased a DVD at Whole Foods and began my own Anusara practice in my family room. I noticed that I felt stronger and longer than I had before. I also noticed a peace of mind that hadn’t been with me previously.

One day I was looking for a yoga class to attend and I noticed that there was a class taught by a fellow cancer survivor at a local fitness studio. I called my friend Lisa. “Lisa, I found this yoga class at Focus Fitness and it is for cancer survivors. Will you go with me?” I didn’t think I could go alone and I knew that she would try it with me. “Sure, why not.” She replied. So we met at the studio with yoga mats in hand to begin the class.

I hadn’t seen Karen, the instructor, since her hair was short and I was thrilled to see her looking beautiful and poised; ready to heal our tired bodies. She explained that the class was only for cancer survivors but she let Lisa stay for that one class anyway, thankfully. After an hour of stretching, twisting and strengthening we emerged renewed in spirit and mind. Needless to say, I have been faithfully attending classes ever since, gaining a deeper mental and physical connection with each session I attend.

The class is called RePose Yoga which is, "Yoga developed to renew and restore the mind , during and after cancer."  According to the studio's website.  The class focuses on particular poses to enhance the immune system of cancer survivors and current patients. Karen is certified by the OM Women Cancer Survivors (WCS).

We begin each class with a big OM which, according to Karen, has healing qualities because of the vibration of the voice. Then we tap a little bit on our chest, right around the sternum. This supposedly stimulates the T-cells. I don’t know what scientific evidence that there is to that but it feels good, sort of like a little kitten kneading its paws on your chest.

We move on to a self massage to drain the lymph from our arms where many of us have had lymph nodes removed. This is one area that I do know clinicians have proven that movement stimulates the lymphatic system.  Not only does this feel wonderful but my arms feel lighter afterwards, my fingers less swollen.

We proceed to do many traditional yoga postures but also continue to do poses that focus on range of motion and lymphatic stimulation. We OM a little bit more and strive to become one with the universe. Inevitably I leave the session feeling relaxed and less stressed It makes me wonder what might have happened had I not had a thirty year lapse in my yoga practice. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20. Time to go to yoga…..OMMMMM.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Annual Check up

I tell myself that I am not worried but subconciously I am.  It is my second annual check-up with the breast surgeon and I wait patiently for him to enter the room.  To pass the time, I clean out my purse because I never have the opportunity to do this particularly mindless chore.
The resident comes in first.  "Are you having any problems?"  She asks.  In fact I have had some discomfort on my right sidewhere my implants meet my ribs.  "Yes," I say.  "I have been doing more upper body exercises lately and I have a pain right here."  I point to the spot and she begins to carefully feel for a tumor as I hold my breath.
I don't feel like she is going to find anything, but my intuition, while good, isn't always accurate.  "It feels like scar tissue to me"  She says, showing me how the skin in that area remains stationary as the rest of my skin moves.  "Do you see that?"  She inquires.  I do and I am relieved.
"The doctor will be in shortly."  She says as she leaves the room.  Now I am alone with my thoughts in the sterile examination room.  I go back to cleaning out my purse.
A half an hour later the doctor appears.  "So you are having some pain on your right side?"  He asks.  Now I am getting nervous because I know that he is the expert and if he finds something I am in trouble.  "Yes," I say, "Right here."  He looks and feels around the area with great care.  "I don't feel anything that you need to worry about.  I let out my breath not actually aware that I was holding it.
"So what is my chance of recurrence now that I am two years out?"  I ask, ready for the news.  "It is about ten percent in five years with the Tamoxifen that you are taking."  He replies.  My first thought is that this is a rather high rate of recurrence, then I check myself.  I had a thirty percent chance of getting pregnant naturally every month for four years and it never happened.  Ten percent is quite a bit lowere than thirty percent so when I look at it that way I am much more optomistic.
"I will see you next year."  He says.  "Have a Happy Holiday"  I think to myself that I definitely will as I pick up my purse and go home.