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Finding Hope

What is hope, and how do you find hope when you are struggling? I was asked recently if I had a video on my YouTube channel about hope, and that question sent me into a thoughtful process of discovering and defining what hope is, and how do we find it in times of need. I asked my friends on Twitter what hope meant to them, and I dedicate this blog to those who shared their thoughts and hearts. Reading your responses and spending time in reflection has brought me to this, so thank you.  

Maybe you are struggling with cancer, the pandemic, or both. Or, maybe, something else. By reading this, I want you to be inspired to find your hope.

For many, hope can be found in the everyday-ness, like a beautiful view, or watching your children grow. But, it can also be marked by milestones, like major life events. In a broader sense, hope can be in the belief that people are working hard to make your life better, perhaps with research or treatments. It is optimism for the future, or looking forward to something in the future, but it’s found in the present moment. 

When I was going through chemo, I had hope for healthier days. In the moments of struggle, I thought about my children, the doctors and nurses that cared for me, and the friends and family who supported me, and I used them as a guide to hope for healthier days. The intangible hope in the future, lies within tangible things, people, or events of the present. 

Hope is the decision to take external factors, and make them personal – turning them into something that helps you continue forward. It is that little voice inside you, guiding you. That voice, or that message, LEADS YOU TO THE HOPE. The message might be:

  • You’re doing a good job.
  • You make a difference.
  • You have people working to help you.
  • You have people that love you.

Accessing that hope is key, and to do that you need to be a grateful, present observer in the now. I believe this is a skill that lies within each of us, a skill that needs to be practiced. By practicing gratitude of even the simplest of things, you will tune into the internal voice that brings you hope. So, when you are struggling, pause, and be grateful for something…anything. Maybe it’s a beautiful sunrise, a great cup of coffee, or maybe it’s a loved one. That gratitude will turn up the volume of your inner voice and reveal your hope. 

I know this is especially hard when you are facing your mortality, so here’s another example. Say you are going through chemo, pausing and feeling gratitude that the nurse is kind, or that there are even chemotherapy drug options for you, will turn up the volume on your internal voice telling you that you are receiving help, leading you to the hope of healthier days. 

If you are struggling with finding hope amidst a difficult time, I invite you to email me at hhckatherine@gmail.com to schedule a conversation with me to learn how I can help you find your hope.

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Not Your Typical Breast Cancer Awareness

How do you feel when you see pink during the month of October? Does it inspire you in some way, or does it make you cringe? Referred to as Pinktober in the cancer community, October can mean many things to those who have had breast cancer, or are going through treatment, as well as those living with metastatic breast cancer. For some people it is empowering to join walks to raise money, and that may provide a sense of community. For people at different stages of treatment, the constant reminders of their struggles can present emotional trauma. Additionally, Pink is not representative of all breast cancer patients, because men do get breast cancer too.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month began in 1985 with the goal to educate women about breast cancer and early detection tests so that they could take charge of their breast health. The month has also become dedicated to raising funds for breast cancer research and other related causes. In reality, however, it means different things to different people, and I want to share with you various perspectives of this well known awareness month.

Pink Promotions, while not as prominent this year during the pandemic, typically have nothing to do with raising money to find a cure, which is really what is needed. For example, pink beer at bars and restaurants, or various pink products at stores, with funding not actually going to breast cancer organizations. During October some awareness campaigns use sexualization’s or humor, with slogans such as, “save the tata’s,”  “save second base,” or “Feel For Lumps. Save Your Bump.” There is nothing sexy or funny about breast cancer. It is killing people. The promotions and humor can do more harm than good for the cancer community. It can also be frustrating to people diagnosed with other cancers to have so much awareness around breast cancer, while other forms of cancer are not acknowledged. Every person with this disease will have a different opinion on this matter, and their own opinion may even change throughout their treatment, or if the disease should progress.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. Each year in the United States, about 250,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,300 in men. About 42,000 women and 510 men in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer. Black women have a higher rate of death from breast cancer than White women.

I’ve shared with you some thoughts from other patients that I picked up on social media, so now I’ll tell you where I stand. The first October after my active treatment it was hard. It was really hard to see all the pink. I felt like I saw pink at every turn, and at that point all I wanted to do was be normal. After 6 months of treatment, I wanted to immerse myself in everyday life, not the heaviness of cancer. Yet, I couldn’t escape all the messages around me and it made my emotional recovery harder. Now, I see the value in the efforts to raise money for support of those going through treatment and for finding a cure. However, as I’ve said, the campaigns tend to be misguided in how they present themselves.

My goal is to share education in an honest, straightforward manner, not just about breast cancer, but all cancers, because all cancers matter. I want YOU to feel supported.

Admittedly, many of my social media posts and YouTube videos, especially this month, are about breast cancer. This is because it is what I know best of all cancers, and it does not mean that any other cancer is less important. What this means is that when I do put out information about other cancers, it will take more research for me because I’m not living that experience. I invite you to reach out to me and share your story if you are living with cancer, so I may learn. You can email me at hhckatherine@gmail.com.  

At the beginning of this blog I asked if Pinktober inspires you in some way or makes you cringe. My answer is both. Some of the messaging and the pinkwashing done by unrelated companies makes me cringe and is not representative of all breast cancer patients. At the same time, I’m inspired to bring back what this month was created for, and that is education, so that people can take charge of their breast health.

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Cancer Label Connotations – Insights From the Cancer Community

What do you think about warrior vs survivor vs thriver? This is the question I presented on social media to the cancer community, and the response was massive and diverse. These three little words are commonly used by cancer patients themselves, as well as others, to describe a cancer patient and can invoke a wide range of emotions.

Let’s start with the word warrior. As I write this there is a news story on the TV talking about a child fighting cancer, and what a warrior they have been through their cancer journey. The language used would make some cringe, while others embrace it. Some cancer patients are against using battle words, but for some, it makes them feel powerful. Despite that difference, over and over again cancer patients said they do not like it when someone passes and it is said that they “lost their battle” with cancer. This phrase implies that the patient didn’t try hard enough or they were a failure. Please, if you have a loved one who passes from cancer, there is no need to embellish the fact that they died. It’s okay to say they passed from cancer.

The word survivor appears positive and is probably the most commonly used descriptor of someone who is not in active treatment, but for those that know better, it’s not that simple. First, there are some cancers that have such a high recurrence rate that the patient is never considered in remission by many in the medical field. Instead, the term No Evidence of Disease (NED) has been adopted to say that the patient does not currently show signs of having cancer. Then there are those who are living with metastatic cancer, or cancer that has spread. These people may never actually survive cancer, and therefore may not feel like survivor is accurate for them.

Thriver is not as commonly used to describe cancer patients and I found many do not relate to it. For some it is because they are either currently undergoing treatment, or because the ongoing effects of their cancer are limiting their ability to thrive. Suggesting a cancer patient should thrive may be thought of as exhausting, or unachievable.

Just as we go from calling newborns babies, then kids, then teens, the labels cancer patients may use in reference may change depending upon their mood, situation, or where they are at in the process. The emotions that a patient goes through is a roller coaster, with many twists and turns in addition to the hills and valleys. I encourage friends and family to be understanding of that, and if you can, ride the roller coaster with us. Listen, pick up on what terms we use, and go with that when you offer your support. The words we use indicate our current mindset. No matter what you call us, we do know you care, and that’s what matters most. Ultimately, many in the cancer community would prefer we do away with these media terms and simply call it like it is. This might mean saying someone has had cancer, is a cancer patient, or is living with cancer.

You may be wondering how I feel about these terms, since I asked the question. I have often said, “Cancer does not define me, but I have allowed it to shape me.” Admittedly, when I was going through cancer treatment I was inspired by the tune, “Fight Song.” Now, I don’t relate to the battle words, and warrior in particular. This is because, frankly, I don’t think of myself as special. I happened to have been diagnosed with cancer, and I got through it the best I could. (See the roller coaster here.) I do use the word survivor, in context, as a short cut. For example, when talking with someone who doesn’t know I’ve had cancer, saying I’m a cancer survivor takes less time than saying that I had cancer and I’m still on medications, but I’m currently considered no evidence of disease. Thriver, I feel is a positive term, which I do like and not only for those affected by cancer. It doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with on-going side effects, or have concerns about recurrence. Rather, for me, thriver means that I am doing my best to live well. I’m thriving within the scope of my current situation. Or, perhaps, I should change that to striver. Each day I strive to fuel myself with nourishing food, I strive for fulfilling relationships, I strive for work/rest balance, and I strive for quality sleep and regular exercise.

Ultimately, all those who contributed want their caregivers and loved ones to relate to them as who they are, independent of cancer. They just want to be themselves. The BEST thing that came out of this social media conversation, for me, was that while some had very strong opinions, everyone was respectful of each other. It was a thread with different people, from various countries, with the commonality of cancer. While it is a club that nobody wants to be a part of, what I found by simply asking a question, was a caring community.

Whether you are a cancer patient or a caregiver, there is much to learn from each other, and even with cancer, you can have fun while doing so. Thanks, Cancer! is a podcast of two friends sharing stories and ideas about cancer. Their episode from May 19, 2018, Cancer Semantics: What Do We Call Ourselves, offers more thoughts on this topic.

I want to thank everyone in the Twitter cancer community who shared themselves, thoughts and hearts with me. There are too many to list, and I may not have responded to every comment, but I promise you I read them all and my heart is filled with your support.

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The Four Stepping Stones to Manage Uncertainty

According to Merriam-Webster, Uncertainty is defined as: doubt, dubiety, skepticism, suspicion, mistrust, or lack of sureness about someone or something. Uncertainty may range from a falling short of certainty to an almost complete lack of conviction or knowledge especially about an outcome or result. While you may be sick of hearing this word, it truly defines 2020. If you are a planner by nature, not being able to plan, or a constantly changing schedule can wreck havoc on your nervous system. You may be feeling a lack of control, disheartened or uncomfortable, which can lead to stress or lack of motivation.

Do you live by your calendar?

Even those of us who are ultra planners can adjust to uncertainty in the short term, but living within it for months, with no end in sight, can break the planners spirit. While you may not be able to change your circumstances, you can learn to manage how the uncertainty impacts you.

Step 1: Acknowledge, accept and trust

Uncertainty about the future and constant change is stressful and sometimes just saying that out loud is helpful. I don’t like unknowns, I admit it. I don’t think well on my feet, so when I don’t know details of an event, for example, the unknowns can stress me out. I also find I’m more productive throughout the day with a schedule, and last minute changes can throw me off. I have found it helpful to acknowledge my emotions, and avoid dwelling on what I can’t control by accepting that there are some things out of my control. I’ve also learned to place trust in myself. I have experienced significant periods of uncertainty in my life (aka, cancer) and I’m still standing. I trust that if I can get through that, I can manage anything. Trusting I can get through the uncertainty results in trusting that I can handle the fall out of whatever comes next.

Step 2: Embrace the unexpected free time

When events are cancelled embrace it and fill it with things you typically may not make time for when life is hectic. Maybe it’s binge watching a show, taking a day trip to a state park, or even cleaning out a closet. Adjust your mindset from the disappointment of change to embracing the opportunity to suddenly do whatever your heart desires. Ideas may not readily come to mind in the moment, so plan for opportunities of a changed schedule. Similar to a bucket list, perhaps create an unexpected free time list of things you’d love to do when you suddenly have time to yourself. Pull out that list when something is cancelled to bring you from being stuck in the disappointment to embracing the free time.

Step 3: Set boundaries

When life throws a curve ball, know what is important to you, and what is definite on your schedule. Imagine that you made an appointment and someone comes along saying that they need you to do something asap, which conflicts with your appointment. Hear this loud and clear: someone else’s procrastination does not have to be your emergency. If it’s important and you can accommodate, then great. You can plan and be flexible! If the request does not fit your schedule, perhaps saying, “I’d like to help (or do X), but I’ve already got something on my calendar.” Then, discuss an alternative time, or a deadline for their request. Not only is this okay, but it is healthy to have boundaries in your life with communication in a respectful manner.

Step 4: Reduce stress

When you navigate the first three steps you will naturally reduce the stress that occurs with uncertainty, but regularly managing your stress level will also help you manage the changes that pop up. Imagine in are in a bubble, calmly going about your life. Just outside the bubble is chaos…you can see it, you know it’s going on, but you don’t have let it impact you, or invade your bubble. When you practice stress reduction on a regular basis you can have a sense of calm despite the chaos, uncertainty, and changes. Yes, of course, there are times when you will feel stress or lack of control, but that’s a cue that you need to take time for self care and reinforce your bubble. Some of the simplest, yet effective, ways to reduce stress are; journaling, laughter, and deep breathing.

While I list these as steps, they are really all linked together. More like stepping stones that you can hop to in various combinations. I invite you to take a look back at a couple of older blogs I wrote, Are You on the List and The Heart of Self Care where I dive deeper into stress management. Whether you are an ultra planner by nature at any time, or trying to manage the pandemic changes and uncertainty, making decisions and re-routing is better than standing still. Step forward, my friend!

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The Cancer Shoe

There’s a saying in the special needs community that says, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. ” (And I do!) This describes the fact that there is a wide range of how autism can vary from person to person, and I believe the same can be said about cancer. I was thinking recently about how many different cancers there are, and also about cancer patients, with some receiving a great deal of support, while others do not. At the same time I was thinking about the phrase, “walk a mile in my shoes,” from the perspective that many cancer patients feel that friends and family cannot fully understand the experience. Not that the friends and family are judging or being mean-spirited, but rather they simply do not understand what it feels like to walk the cancer path and do not know how to provide support. This is when I decided the shoe is a perfect metaphor for cancer.

What size shoe are you wearing under the umbrella?

Cancer, a small word, but really it’s a big unbrella under which there are so many different kinds of shoes. There are the bigger shoes, that one one may think of as the more common cancers, and then there are the smaller ones that may be less common. Both the big and the small may appear to be a different size, but they are both under the umbrella and impact the wearer. The umbrella is so big that even if you are familiar with one shoe, others may not fit, but let’s face it, that’s a good thing.

What is the style of your shoe?

Just as each cancer is different, each person experiences it differently, and has a different support system. There are the high-heeled patients, who may receive a little lift, but largely teeter along through the cancer experience on their own. Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are the boot wearing patients, with support that surrounds them. In the middle is the walking shoe patients, with a solid foundation of support, but not an overwhelming amount.

The cancer experience can be a long one, and as with shoes, the amount of support the patient receives will vary over time. The different styles will likely get swapped in and out during the marathon known as treatment. If you are a friend or family member of a cancer patient, I encourage you to be the walking shoe – sturdy and dependable!

Even among the walking shoe there are many styles, which to me says that people with the same type of cancer and solid support, will have their own experience. The beauty of us humans is our individuality, and while we may have similarities, there will still be an individual stlye to the cancer experience.

To the cancer patient I say, embrace your style, and change your shoes if needed. Ask for, or allow support, but place healthy boundaries around times that you may need for solitude or rest, as you kick off your shoes. If your friends and family aren’t able to provide the support that you need to move forward, I’m here for you. I provide support and resources in person in Minnesota, or virtually. Although the size and style of our shoes may be different, I have walked in the marathon and I get it.

To schedule a complimentary consultation, email me at hhckatherine@gmail.com.

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Summer Fun While Living in Limbo

It’s been over three months since the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on life for many in the US. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t think all the closures would last as long as they have! Now that it’s summer, and after the months of isolation, people are really ready to get out and do things. We are in a transition phase of getting out into the world again, yet there’s also a sense of living in limbo with uncertainty about how our lives will look going forward. I know it’s nearly the end of June, but I feel like I’m just now jumping into summer, and I’m jumping in with both feet – cautiously! I’m trying to balance embracing the summer months and staying safe, so I researched, and came up with plans to keep me dancing through the limbo. Here are my tips and ideas for making the most of the rest of your summer!

Step 1: Determine your level of comfort with outings

Ask yourself if you want to continue to isolate or if you are comfortable with some social distance outside and inside. Some may be comfortable around others, or maybe only while outside, at the same time, others may feel it’s best for them to continue with strict isolation. However you feel, no matter your approach, it’s okay to do what’s best for YOU and you may find some ideas here to add more fun to your summer.

In my family we decided to put our summer fun into three categories:

  • Adventure Day – something new, or a longer activity
  • Local Outing – a shorter activity that can be done between meals
  • Home Day – less structure, but still engaging in activities.

Step 2: Create of list of possibilities

At the top of my list for an adventure day this summer is a zip line and stand up paddle board. I’ve wanted to try both of these for years, so I’ve got plans to make it happen this year. Berry picking is a fun, family activity I have scheduled and I include it in adventure day because for us it’s a longer drive to the farm, so it will take up half the day and may include packing a lunch. Visiting nature centers and museums provides learning opportunities and some museums offer free days once a month. Walking/hiking is also a priority, and I’ve already started doing some. While walking can be done in your neighborhood, of course, in this case I’m talking about exploring a State Park or a new location. Last week I posted a video on my Facebook page while I was in a park and if you haven’t seen it, you can find it here.

Local outing options will depend on your comfort level with being around people even more, or will take planning to attend during less busy times. Some ideas for both indoor and outdoor local outings include: bowling/arcade games, browsing in a bookstore or library, visiting the humane society, miniature golf, farmer’s market, having a picnic at a local park – try a different one and bring a ball or kite. One of the local outings for my family will be purchasing supplies for one of our home activities (keep reading).

Staying home doesn’t have to be boring! One of my favorite rainy day activities is an indoor picnic. You can make it fun for everyone by spreading out a blanket, making decorations or a centerpiece, making a meal together and then playing a game or watching a movie. Baking has been a popular pandemic activity, but why not experiment with a healthy recipe instead?! You could read, or listen to music and when you need to get up and move, crank the music up and have a dance party, or try some yoga. Artwork can be done on windows using window crayons or whiteboard markers and another creative activity I have planned for my family this month is to make a terrarium. These miniature gardens can be in a closed or open container, and there’s plenty of information on the internet to determine which is best for you and how to get started. Mine will be open, and we will be adding items to make it into a fairy garden. If you are avoiding travel this year, now is the time to plan your next vacation! Even if you don’t make reservations, researching locations and making plans for your next vacation can be really fun.

The best part about summer is the nice weather and you can take advantage of it even while at home. I’ve mentioned picnics in parks and in your home, but you can also picnic in your yard, or even camp out in your yard. Playing catch or kicking a ball around is a great way to move the body. On the really hot days, a squirt gun fight among your family members might be just the thing to cool everyone down. Using sidewalk chalk you can draw pictures, play tic-tac-toe, draw and play hopscotch, or leave messages for people walking by. As long as you’re not expecting rain, you can leave a bucket of chalk outside with a note inviting others to stop and draw or write their own message.

Step 3: Research and plan

Whether you are planning adventures, local activities or staying home, it may take some research and planning to make the most of your summer. I’ve learned through this process that while some businesses are starting to open up, it may vary on the type of business and where it’s located. Many websites have updated information, but some do not and if you really want to go somewhere, it’s best to call ahead. You may need to purchase supplies (My squirt guns arrived yesterday!), plan specific menus, or watch how-to videos. The preparation in itself can be a family activity. Once you have a list of ideas that everyone is on board with, or at least willing to try, then plan specific days for the various activities. If you are solo and cautious about being with others, many of my ideas can be done alone as well. Be thoughtful about pacing yourself, and know that the weather or other factors can throw things off, but by being intentional, you will be able to look back on a summer full of memories. Safety and fun is my summer wish for you!!

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Want to know a secret?

Have you ever had the potential for something big, but didn’t want to share with others until it was a for sure thing? I’m one that prefers to share exciting news when I know it’s going to happen, rather than have to retract and show my disappointment publicly. However, today I’m going to be transparent about something I was sitting on, the result, and the lessons I learned in the process.

The back story…

You may know that I have been doing some public speaking. I’ve found it to be exciting for me, and I’ve received great response from the audience. By sharing my story, I’ve been educating and inspiring others, and I had begun reaching out to people to partner in future events. The ironic thing is, I’m an introvert by nature and have to re-charge myself with alone time. When I look back, I was drawn to the stage with dancing and theater throughout my childhood, and even into young adulthood.

In late February of this year, I was contacted by a colleague, Dr. Terry Wu, who suggested that I apply to be a Tedx speaker. Many are aware of TED Talks available on YouTube, but have you ever noticed that some of the videos are labeled as Tedx? TED Talks started out as an annual conference to bring together the fields of technology, entertainment and design. As TED has grown, the mission is to nurture and spread powerful ideas. When you see the “x” in a video, it means that the talk was done at an locally organized TED event. There are groups all over that organize one day events with the TED license. Speakers apply and those chosen go through a coaching process before the big day. Dr. Wu was a speaker in 2019, and his TED Talk is, “Neuromarketing: The new science of consumer decisions.”

Talk about being on stage!

When the idea of doing a TED Talk was first brought to me, I hesitated. Internally, actually, I panicked. It felt like a great opportunity, and at the same time, the idea terrified me! Although I have done some public speaking, having a talk in front of a large audience, having it recorded, and put out into the world was scary! Plus I had a short window to submit my application before the deadline. I was drawn to express my conflicting thoughts to someone I trusted, but who I also knew would be frank with me. And boy did she call me out! She knew I gave talks about facing fears, and here I was hesitating about a great opportunity because I was scared. Don’t you just love people like this?! Elaine Goepfert of I Love Photography LLC, was the mirror I needed to take the leap, and I did, in fact, submit my application. She is also the photographer of my beautiful headshots, by the way.

Applying is step one, which is where I was at when the pandemic closed things down. If I had been chosen to speak at this particular event, it would have been held a few weeks ago, on May 9. Although I had not even been notified if I had been chosen as a speaker, it was disappointing to receive the email that the event was cancelled (due to the pandemic). When May 9 did roll around, I also found myself feeling like I was supposed to be somewhere. Once I had gotten over my fear, I had become excited about the idea of not only the talk, but the process.

Lesson 1:

Trust your instinct, but in doubt, find a mirror. When presented with the idea of applying to be a TEDx speaker I knew I should do it, and I knew I would love to do it, but I doubted myself. Thankfully, although I ignored the instinct to take action at first, I followed the instinct to talk with someone about my doubts. Our own self doubt can stop us from taking steps forward, but others have a way of showing us what we know deep down.

Lesson 2:

Opportunities may present the unimaginable dream. I had never thought about the process of applying to be a TED speaker, let alone dream about being on that stage. However, once the idea was presented to me, and I got used to the idea of it, I realized this was something I did want. To date I have no idea if my application would have been accepted, but I’m grateful to Dr. Wu for believing in me.

Lesson 3:

Disappointment doesn’t mean it’s the end of the dream. Life is full of disappointments, that’s a fact, but that doesn’t mean the dream has to end. Maybe it’s on hold or maybe it will look differently. If the disappointment is due to something falling through, perhaps the time can be used for self improvement or continuing education. Then when a similar opportunity presents itself, you are prepared to jump with both feet into the dream. Or, maybe it means a change in direction, a re-direct, which just may result in an even bigger dream presenting itself.

In my case, I’m choosing both options. I’m studying and practicing, so that if events are held again, I’m prepared to jump in with both feet. At the same time, I’m looking at all my options. It’s a matter of controlling I can control and adjusting along the way. Even though the pandemic has brought much change, uncertainty, and perhaps disappointment, there are lessons to be learned that may lead to an unimaginable dream.

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A Holistic Approach to Isolation During a Pandemic, Cancer Treatment, and Life

As I sit down to write this it has been over six weeks since school districts closed, events were canceled, and businesses closed voluntarily in my state due to the COVID 19 pandemic. A couple of weeks into the voluntary closures the state officially shut down with a stay at home order, with the hope of limiting the spread of the virus. Early on I could see parallels between the social isolation during the pandemic, and the isolation that cancer patients experience during active treatment. I wrote a blog about this very thing last month! Whether you are isolated due to the pandemic, cancer, or some other life event, it is likely an ever evolving situation. I’ve got some tips for you to maintain your health holistically as you navigate these changes, or maybe refresh your routine. First, let’s take a look at isolation scenarios.

Are you in a groove, or are you feeling quarantine fatigue?

During the pandemic, although “we’re in this together” is all over the news and social media every person may be going through a different experience during this challenging time. There are the essential workers, who may be under extra stress and putting in more hours. There are people who have lost their jobs, and suddenly find themselves struggling to pay bills and purchase food. Then, of course, a whole spectrum of people in between. Some are home alone, and highly isolated, while others are spending more time with their immediate family as they work from home. Parents are helping their children learn, while teachers are forced to re-invent their curriculum. Some may be going stir crazy, some may have found their groove, while others may be in a constant state of overwhelm. The fact is, it’s been a big change for nearly everyone, it just may look different for each individual, and we may each have varied emotions about our current situation.

And then there was cancer.

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, their life is immediately turned upside down. Their finances may change, they may end up isolated at home for an extended period, and they typically experience a roller coaster of emotions throughout the treatment plan. (See the parallels here?!) The big difference between the pandemic and cancer is that when you are going through cancer treatment, “normal life” is going on around you. This can actually accentuate the feelings of isolation for the cancer patient if they are unable to participate in activities that their friends and family continue to do, particularly if they are single. The cancer patient may be receiving some support, but the camaraderie is on a smaller scale than with a pandemic.

Life, age and accidents happen.

Have you ever fallen and injured yourself, or had surgery, or maybe you have a chronic condition? Any of these can cause lengthy down time, which may also result in isolation. While an accident can create sudden financial and emotional stress, in many cases the duration of isolation is likely to to shorter. With planned surgeries or chronic conditions, there may be pain and extended periods of alone time, but there isn’t likely the immediate fear of facing mortality that occurs with cancer or a pandemic. Again, the experiences vary from person to person, but the same basic thread of emotions can surface.

What is the holistic approach to health?

When people talk about health, often the first thing that comes to mind is either food or exercise. Your health is about so much more! Looking at health holistically takes into consideration all aspects of a person’s life, such as our relationships, finances, spirituality, sleep habits, as well as food and exercise. During periods of isolation, no matter the reason, the change will likely effect ALL areas of your life, as they are inter-connected. When finances are impacted, for example, that can create stress, which can have an impact on the way we eat, sleep, our physical health, and our relationships. Even under normal circumstances, some areas of our life may be doing really well, while others may need some work to bring ourselves into balance.

Bringing your life into balance doesn’t mean you have to check every box every day. Rather, you incorporate small, sustainable changes into your day that put you on a path of improvement. During isolation of any kind, incorporating changes can be hard, but you CAN do it! When I was going through chemo I was told to eat whatever I wanted to eat, and occasionally a nurse suggested that I get outside and walk. I ate whatever was easy or convenient, and hardly moved around. I ended up gaining 25 pounds that summer. I slept a lot during that time and struggled with lack of social connection. Not caring for myself during that time is a regret of mine. The hindsight I have about my months of chemo has now allowed me to do things differently during the pandemic isolation.

Where do I begin?

First, identify where you want to make improvements in your life to create a healthier YOU. Choose just one or two things to start. It can be drinking more water, exercise, or connecting with a loved one. Then, once you’ve decided, don’t do anything…until that night. You see, I believe the healthiest of habits actually begins the night before, with sleep. Every person needs a different amount of sleep to feel their best, for me I know it’s 7-8 hours a night. I can get by on less, but I function better when I’ve had at least 7 hours of quality sleep. I have learned that after I get a good night’s rest, all of my decisions about my health that day are so much better than when I do not get good sleep. When I’m rested I rely less on caffeine and drink more water, I make better food choices, I have the energy to exercise, I’m more patient with my children, and overall, my brain functions better. While sleep cannot help pay the bills, it can help clear your mind and give you energy to take steps forward.

So, you see, it all begins at night, but then what? Once you recognize this and consider your situation and individual goals, it’s time to take action. Maybe you are isolated with others and need some alone time before the day begins. This, of course, means honoring a realistic bed time, so that you can get up and begin your day with reflection, or whatever feeds your soul. Maybe you are isolated alone, and you miss chatting with co-workers. Consider scheduling a video coffee date, or if you are going through cancer treatment, try joining an on-line community message board. Are you grazing on unhealthy food choices all day while home? Research healthy recipes and with a good night’s sleep you’ll have the energy to prepare nutritious food. Find yourself sitting too much? The internet is full of a variety of fitness videos for all levels. One quality decision, one step at a time, will lead you to another, giving you a little control within the uncertainty of any isolation.

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Through the eyes of a cancer patient – parallels of the COVID 19 pandemic and cancer

March is a big month for me, not because of joyous events, but rather, significant cancer dates. One could argue that the fact that I am still alive to witness these dates IS joyous, and while I agree, it doesn’t take away from the fact that along with joy there can be other emotions as well. This year, marking my five year diagnosis/no evidence of disease dates in itself, made it different, and then came COVID 19. This new coronavirus that has taken over and stopped the world in it’s tracks. Much shock, stress, fear, change, uncertainty, all due to the virus, is now tied to March also (in the US), and I couldn’t help but think that the emotions that many experienced with the virus paralleled a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was, of course, in shock, had fears of my mortality, and I was full of questions. I had to navigate the seriousness of what was happening, and how it would impact me and my children. I also felt a need to prepare, and in that case, meant stocking up on some supplies and preparing and freezing some meals. This reaction of fear, wanting information and preparation is completely normal, but when COVID 19 came to the US it was taken to an extreme. People have prepared by hoarding supplies, which is a reaction to fear of uncertainty.

The next phase for my cancer experience was surgery and then chemo. During chemo I was very isolated, in part, because my immune system was compromised and I stayed away from others, or didn’t feel well. Many days I simply hung out with my children, and when I felt up to it, we went for walks. The biggest difference for me then and now is that I am healthy and productive now. This isolation phase is what our country is currently in, with stay at home orders from the government, but it’s whole families as well as individuals who are isolating in their homes. In both cases, people can be affected emotionally, physically, and financially by isolation. During chemo I mostly stayed connected with others who also had cancer, and now, because of the pandemic affecting so many, people are finding creative ways to work from home and stay connected to each other. Being spring, many are getting out and walking too. Although Zoom service began in 2013, I was not familiar with it while going through chemo. The online video platform has been popular through COVID 19 not only for businesses like myself, but also to keep families, friends, teachers and health care providers connected.

After five months of chemo and very little social contact, I was given a short time to heal before I began radiation. During radiation I was not 100 % back into my daily life, rather I was easing into it. I had to build my endurance physically, and relationships change with lack of communication, so I had to ease back into those relationships or assess the status of them. Although this phase of the pandemic is yet to happen to date, I imagine this to be the path we are on with the COVID 19 isolation, and I encourage it. I have seen social media posts asking people about the first thing they will do when they are no longer asked by the government to stay home, as if it will be like a light switch, off (being isolation) or on (back to daily life).

I propose we take a dimmer switch approach to life after isolation, when we are able to proceed. While we move back towards our prior routines, let’s hold on to quiet moments and quality time, let’s take walks, and make efforts to connect with those we cannot see in person. This is not to say our previous routines were bad, but perhaps, a blending of the two can happen if we move slowly.

As with cancer, you and your relationship dynamics may not be the same on the other side of this experience. Or you may have changed physically. You cannot go through something so significant and be unchanged to a degree and change can be unsettling. I get it. If it happens for you, know that it’s normal and I’m here to support you. Check out my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/InspiredVitalityMN/where I have been providing stress management tips, recipes and inspiration. In addition, I am providing coaching via Zoom, and if you are interested, you can schedule a consultation by emailing me at hhckatherine@gmail.com . All the best to you and your loved ones.

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Dear Cancer Center

March 5, 2015 was the date of my stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis. I didn’t choose cancer, but there are many people that devote their lives to the patients. They choose to be immersed in it, and this is for them.

Dear Cancer Center Staff:

You may be a receptionist, a volunteer, a cleaner, a nurse, a doctor, a lab tech, a radiation tech, scheduler, or social worker. You may be someone I don’t see, or forgot to mention, but this is for you. You are my village.

It was five years ago today that I received that call. A call from someone I didn’t know who told me I had breast cancer. I still remember exactly where I stood during that conversation, as my life turned upside down. After setting up appointments, my thoughts turned to my children and how I would tell them, how I would explain it to them. 

The following week I walked into the cancer center for the first time. The appointment was a blur, with so much fear and unknowns, even once I left. The place that was then so big and scary, is now so familiar and welcoming. You, who work there, you have become my village.

After all the tests and decisions about the plan of care, then surgery, I became a member of the village. This community that could not exist without each other.

I remember receptionists asking how I was feeling, as I checked in the day after chemo. 

I remember conversations with volunteers, various staff and nurses before and during treatments. Know that I loved learning about you, because in doing so, you allowed normalcy in a situation that was anything but normal. 

I remember you listening with compassion. You allowed me to vent, but also offered me ideas or solutions too. I remember the concern in your eyes.

I remember the gentle care. I know you didn’t want to hurt me with the needle sticks, or when accessing my port. I know you felt sorry when it did hurt. 

I remember that my scars did not phase you, as I lay down for radiation. 

I wonder if you knew I was shaking that day I came back for a check up, months after after the end of active treatment. As much as I cared about you, I didn’t want to be a member of the village anymore.

I remember so, so much more, but some memories are starting to fade, and that’s good. 

Now, when I visit each month, I still get the greetings, the gentleness and the care, but I am more of a visitor than I am a member. Eventually my visits will become less frequent, but today, the day my life turned upside down I wanted to visit you and tell you ‘Thank you.’ While patients don’t choose to become members, you do. You show up and care for people that very much need you. You choose to be here, and in doing so, you make a difference. 

Thank you, with all my heart.