A Mother and her Two Daughters

07 March 2011

The Medicine of Mind & Body

A longtime friend battling another disease, not cancer, called this past week.  She asked, “how did you keep a positive attitude during the worst days of cancer?”  I’ve spent the past several days thinking about that, reflecting and trying to put it all in perspective, and in writing.  So, for the next several days, I’ve decided to write about the mental state of battling disease.  I’m not a psychologist, nor a student of this topic.  Everything I write is based on my own personal experience this past year, and in years past. 


I’ll always remember the first day I met Dr. Makhoul, my UAMS oncologist.  After the initial diagnosis, I spent almost ten days having a variety of tests to find out more about my particular cancer.  With a full report in hand, Dr. Makhoul spent almost two hours with me sharing the details of the results - Stage III-B Inflammatory Breast Cancer, which had also spread its nasty self into my lymph system.  He then walked me through his recommended treatment protocol and my likely medical schedule for the months to follow.  There was so much and it was difficult to remember it all.  But how Dr. Makhoul closed our initial meeting I will never forget. 

He said to me:  “I want you to trust me with your medical care, and know that I’m going to give you my very best to cure your cancer.  What I need from you is to work in partnership with me.  Your job is to focus on your mind, your attitude and your spiritual approach to the fight.  This cancer will require both of us doing our very best, giving 110%.” 

I left his office that day knowing what I was in charge of.  Dr. Makhoul would take charge of the conventional medicine for my body.  I would be in charge of my mental state, my attitude, and my outlook on life and the cancer.  Dr. Makhoul empowered me to own and perfect the “medicine” of my mind. 


Some call it Mind-Body Medicine.  Others call it Psychoneuroimmunology.  Bottom line . . . it’s the study of how the mind, thoughts attitudes and beliefs affect the body and your physical well-being.

Do not be confused.  This is not alternative medicine.  Instead, it is often referred to as complementary medicine, or integrated medicine – techniques that are used WITH conventional medicine. 

The list of what has been referred to as mind-body medicine is endless – guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, yoga, biofeedback, tai chi, meditation, and much more.  All of these techniques are designed to help the body and mind relax, to enjoy times of inner calmness and freedom from obsessing thoughts.  They can also serve as a conscious commitment to direct your energies toward health and healing, rather than obsessing with the negative circumstances of life. 

My friend Laura, a cancer survivor, shared with me the great sense of power over disease she felt through guided imagery.  In her practice she would imagine a battle going on between her body and the cancer cells, and would picture Pac-Man characters chasing and eating and destroying the cancer.  For Laura, she believes this was a magical tool in her battle to defeat what was a very aggressive cancer that has now been in remission for several years. 

For me, I was trained in Mindfulness meditation in 2004.  Some have described it as the art of stillness, sitting quietly and observing without judgment or evaluation.  Since I began meditation, I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful in creating a sense of calm in my life, alleviating stress, reducing pain, accepting what cannot be changed (but still trying to change what is possible), giving up anger and frustration over inconveniences, appreciating solitude and quiet, and so much more.  I’m a believer in it, so glad that I was trained and practiced before cancer entered my life.  It’s mental mastery, freedom from restless and negative thinking. 

How do we make “mind-body focus” work for us?  It has to become a part of your daily life practice, a natural habit, not dependent on the day’s events.  No doubt, some days are easier than others to pay attention to the connection between mind and body, to carve out time to master the art of this connection.  But we have to remain loyal to the practice, during the good, the bad and the ugly.

Finding a daily exercise that creates a sense of peace and tranquility – you can’t go wrong.  Inner peace creates outer peace.  I’m a big fan, consider myself still in training, and highly recommend everyone find some avenue for relaxation, finding a place of calm, the complementary techniques of mind and body medicine.

The mind is everything. What you think you become.


A few books and DVDs that have been helpful to me:

Return to Wholeness: A Mind/Body Approach to Healing Cancer
Led by world-renowned wellness doctor Deepak Chopra, M.D. along with psychologist Stephanie Simonton Atchley, founder of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the UAMS Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he was founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, and founder (in 1979) and former director of its world-renowned Stress Reduction Clinic. He is internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society.

In 2004 I studied his method of meditation at the UAMS Center on Aging.  To find out more about Jon Kabat-Zinn:  http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/author.html

Two books by Kabat-Zinn that are the core of his mindfulness meditation:
Full Catastrophe Living:  Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain & Illness
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn can be purchased form his web site: 

His books can be purchased or ordered from your local bookstore.

05 March 2011

A Tribute To Hair - With or Without It

Yesterday was a mini-celebration of sorts as it became necessary to buy a hairbrush to manage my new short locks.  While the whiskery mane has slowly been growing back, it’s been so darned short, making it easy to manage with only my fingers – until the past several days.  A hairbrush became very much in need.  Yeehaw!   So yesterday I drove to the Walgreens store and painstakingly shopped for a brush.

My new brush is shiny red, a very stunning hairbrush for someone like me.  And as I sat on my sofa last night, I looked back at my entire escapade with hair this past year.

This is how my hair used to look before chemo.  There wasn't anything stunning about it, except that it was mine and I was quite used to it.  Like all women, I complained about it, wish I had somebody else's hair, that is until my hair would be obliterated by Adriamycin, a.k.a. the “red devil."  It only took about two weeks for red devil chemo to do its dirty work on my hair, while cleansing my body of the cancer.

This is a photo taken in my courtyard, the morning my hair really began falling out in big clumps, 20 March 2010.  My dear friend Beth came to my rescue, as she did so many times this past year.  She brought over her “hair scissors” and helped lesson the pain by just cutting the long locks off.  When we finished, she honestly told me she thought I looked younger.  Nice friends say things like that to hair-challenged friends like me.

This was me a few weeks later, with a completely naked head, wearing my pink pajamas from Susan, trying to smile while knowing I look like a freakazoid from another planet. Losing my hair and being bald was a big loss, a very devastating feeling some days.  I think that's especially true when you’re a woman.

This is my first real fancy outing – the Oxford American’s Best of the South Awards Gala.  I was doing my best to feel elegant wearing a black floppy hat on my head, a gift from my friend MaryKay who now lives in China. The hat made me feel like I was wearing fairy wings, but it would be Tim and Morgan Freeman who led me to believe I was the most beautiful girl in the room that night.  We enjoyed our time with him so much, especially a conversation to always be remembered about life and bucket lists . . . "Have you found joy in your life? Has your life brought joy to others? "

I became the perpetual shopper of wigs, never finding what I wanted, never satisfied that I had found the perfect rug to hide the nakedness on my head.

I only had one request to wear a wig, not a hat.  Allyson and my Mom asked me to wear a wig for Allyson's college graduation.  This is me wearing the wig at Mizzou's graduation.  Only a few hours, at a party with Allyson and friends and family, I would totally scare one mom to death because my wig was hanging halfway off my head, and I didn't know it.  I hated that wig! To wear a wig or not to wear a wig is a very personal decision for everyone who goes through this. I simply hated the wigs, felt much more comfortable in the hats.

As time went by, it was the cancer that really weighed on my mind, not the hair loss.  It would be later that I would attempt to have some fun with being bald.  Here I am enjoying my blue beehive hairdo, with many thanks to my crazy friend Gary who adorned me with several funny wigs enjoyed by the girls and me.

In August, I was gently nudged by a dear friend to take off the hats.  He told me I looked healthy without them, that the hats reminded him of the cancer that I had successfully managed to kick its butt.  So I did.  I took off the hats and I never looked back.

The old hair was brown, usually cut at the shoulders.  And it never changed from the time I was a born – always baby fine with very little body. My new hair – well it’s grayish, a much different texture, much thicker; thick enough to have “bed head” which I’ve never had before.

Yesterday I bought a hairbrush, and right now that $5.95 purchase is probably the most special thing I own.  It’s my red wonder brush.

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.
Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer.
Here baby, there momma, everywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it, my hair . . .

03 March 2011

Continued Awareness about Inflammatory Breast Cancer

I’m not a big fan of Dr. Oz, probably because I’m not a daytime television watcher and that’s when his show is on – I think.  I also worry about takeaways from his show I hear other claim, simplistic things like drinking cherry juice every day will keep you from getting cancer.  Not true, but it may be more about viewer interpretation versus what the famed medical talk show hosts actually promotes.  He's probably a great guy, but again, I’ve never watched his show. 

However, I was told this week by a friend that Dr. Oz recently discussed the misunderstanding of breast cancer, more specifically the myth that all breast cancers present themselves as a lump. 

I did a little research and found that on February 3, Dr. Oz had a guest on his show to discuss the many myths surrounding cancer – the name of this episode being “The Biggest Lies You’ve Ever Been Told About Cancer.”

One of his guests was Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, Executive Director of Susan G. Komen For The Cure of Greater New York and a 13-year breast cancer survivor. 


Regarding Lie #3 The Only Place To Check For Breast Cancer Is Your Breast

Regarding Breast Cancer Prevention:  Dr. Richardson strongly advocates physical activity and stress management. This decreases your risk of developing breast cancer and other cancers. She also advocates self-awareness, mammography, and prevention. Dr. Richardson mentioned that getting Vitamin D is very important for breast cancer prevention, and can reduce your risk by as much as 50%.  If you don't get it from moderate sun exposure, you should take at least 1000 IU of Vitamin D a day. She stressed that you need the active form of Vitamin D in Vitamin D3.

Regarding Inflammatory Breast Cancer:  Dr. Richardson said, “There’s a very aggressive type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer that does not present a lump at all. In fact what you find is a change in the skin, it’s dimpling similar to the skin of an orange, thickening of the skin and dimpling of the skin. This is so important because one it is very, very aggressive and the big part is a lot of doctors don’t recognize this and women are treated as they have a breast infection and that is horrible and I urge every woman if you get an irritation in your breast that does not go away you must go an see your doctor. Even say ‘can this be inflammatory breast cancer’, use the words because this is so deadly it is more common in African American Women and it’s a very, very serious condition women need to know about”.

I’m sharing this with all of you dear readers, especially women.  Remember:
  • There’s more than one kind of breast cancer, and the IBC-kind isn’t packaged up in a lump.
  • Mammograms usually don’t detect Inflammatory Breast Cancer. 
  • Make sure your doctor is aggressive with an ultrasound or biopsy in the event your breast becomes swollen, warm, itches, changes colors or the texture of the skin or areola begins to thicken.  And watch for nipple discharge or retraction too. 

 Get in touch with your body, including your breasts.  

Oh yeah -- P.S.  I don't want to sound like a nag, but have you had your Vitamin D levels checked recently?  
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