The Anxiety Reduction Plan

outlivingit

As featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog

This blog was featured on First Descent’s Out Living It blog. First Descent’s is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer survivors (FREE) adventure trips where they learn the healing power of community and nature through participating in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. In September 2016, I attended a First Descents Surf Program in Santa Cruz, California. Read about that here. If you’re interested in learning more about this wonderful organization, check out their website, https://firstdescents.org.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that cancer is a sneaky trickster. The disease invaded every corner of my life and just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it jumps up and grabs me from behind. It’s latest surprise – anxiety.

I was diagnosed three years ago. In retrospect, it’s pretty incredible anxiety only recently crept into the equation. For some reason, I thought I would get by unscathed by this common side effect of cancer.

My relationship with anxiety started one morning in March. I woke up to a missed call from my doctor’s office. It wasn’t even my oncologists office, but the mere presence of a doctor’s number in my call log triggered a misfire in my brain causing me paralyzing fear. I could not do anything the entire day but obsess about how I was going to suffer and die. Instead, I spent my waking hours crying, clenching every muscle and felt as if my lungs were closing in on themselves. The next day, I was fine.

A few weeks later, it happened again.

I often see articles suggesting anxiety victims to relax, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, focus on the positive, etc. Admittedly, I might have even doled out some of this terrible advice myself in the past. After much thought, I realized the reason this is bad advice is because it’s not specific enough. Talking with my therapist, she explained that in the midst of anxiety, our brains do not function sufficiently where we can even come up with ideas to make ourselves feel better. She then urged me to create an Anxiety Reduction Plan consisting of specific activities I can execute when anxiety strikes. Here’s what I came up with for myself:

Go for a walk, run or to yoga
Call a friend to hang out
Memorize, write out and repeat to myself (I can now recite three Maya Angelou poems, the seven axioms of yoga teacher training and countless famous quotes)
Do a (yoga) forward fold (this pose has been proven to reduce anxiety)
Close my eyes and take 10 (or 100) deep breaths
Write a reminder message on my hand (“You’re okay,” is my go-to)
Write a list of 100 things I’m grateful for
Clean the fridge, floors, garage (I love organizing)
Go to a park with some markers and a coloring book
Send a card or gift to someone I’m thinking about
Do a random act of kindness
Paint something
Take a bath or shower (something about water and being clean makes me happy)
Create and execute a schedule (7-7:30 drink coffee and catch-up on news, 7:30-8 shower and get ready, 8-12 work, 12-1 lunch, etc., etc. Sometimes, I just go through the motions, but it’s better than obsessing all day)

Now, when I wake up and feel the walls closing in, I pull out my sheet of paper and start running down the list. As a disclaimer, I’ll admit that going through these motions does not always take away or reduce the anxiety, but for stretches of time I am redirected, which provides doses of solace.

As it turns out, my therapist and I are not on the brink of discovering a new physiological method. I recently listened to the Good Life Project podcast and later found a Ted Talk describing the approach the American Psychological Association calls, Positive Activity Interventions. Their studies also show being told or trained to “think positive” and/or confronting past trauma isn’t enough. Instead, their research revealed consistent simple actions, such as those listed above, not only make the miserable less miserable, but, over time, reinforce positive states of mind and improve levels of happiness.

So, what’s on your plan? Now, write it down, fold it up and put it in your wallet. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.

Listen to The Good Life Project podcast: On Awe, Positive Actions, Anxiety and Depression

Read the full study, Upregulating the positive affect system in anxiety and depression: Outcomes of a positive activity intervention

Watch the Ted Talk, The New Era of Positive Psychology:

The Power of Words

outlivingit

As featured on First Descent’s Outliving It http://outlivingit.com

 “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you,” was a phrase uttered in my household growing up. This was usually preceded by an insult or verbal nastiness from a cousin or sibling. With all due respect to the adults who doled out this prescription…Worst. Advice. Ever.

Words do hurt and have the power to evoke the strongest emotions. Chances are, if you’re reading this, cancer has been one of the most powerful, painful, transformative, definitive words of your life. It’s a word that takes less than a couple seconds to say, but it’s effects permeate a lifetime.

Through personal trial and error, I’ve found that after spending some time thinking about the vocabulary, it is possible to transfer some of the control from cancer to myself, which is a welcomed feeling considering how powerless cancer makes me feel. I’ve also learned that the vocabulary is different from person to person. If you’re not sure where to start, below are a few of the guidelines I’ve created for myself when talking cancer. Hopefully some of these will get you inspired to create your own list.

I have chosen to not to claim cancer. Don’t want it. Never have. Never will. Therefore, it’s not “my” cancer, but “the” cancer. “I don’t have cancer,” but “there is cancer inside my body.” Sure, it’s a play on words, but this is how I make sure cancer knows it will never be mine no matter how hard it tries. Like, ever. Also, something about the word “patient” makes me feel helpless, which is why I refer to myself as a “survivor”, which makes me feel powerful.  This is a label I attached to myself the day I was diagnosed and not the day I heard, “no evidence of disease.” There are many definitions to “survivor” but it’s pure context is, “to endure or live through (an affliction, adversity, misery, etc.)” so I am surviving no matter my current medical status.

One of the many things cancer has taught me is that most people do not know how to respond when I tell them how it has impacted my life. I can easily predict the deer in headlights look as the person searches for the right words. Naturally, they respond with a cliched, pre-packaged, canned and sometimes offensive response. I totally get it. I used to be this person. I still am this person sometimes. Cancer is so awkward and uncomfortable. However, what I have found useful is to tell my friends and family what’s up, ahead of time, if possible, through an email message, so they have time to process and formulate a response.  In addition, I’ve also found it helpful to tell them what they can say to encourage and support me. Doing this has made it easier on both of us. Our friends and family want to be a source of encouragement and support and it’s unreasonable that we expect them to say the right thing when they have no idea what we need or want to hear. Here’s a couple suggestions I’ve used in the past:

Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” I ask that they say,  “I know you have the strength to get through this,” because I do. The former invokes feelings of pity, while the latter makes me feel strong and supported. I also asked for my supporters not use battle language or tell me to beat it, stay strong or positive. My feeling towards these phrases is that they imply if I just try a little harder, then I will be healed. Being the recipient of these words only invokes feelings of guilt if I don’t beat it or have the inevitable and normal periods of weakness or negativity. Cancer is not a matter of trying hard enough. And when all else fails, I enjoy the honest simplicity of, “I don’t know what to say.”

And for the love of all that is holy and sacred in this world, please, I beg of you, to not saying that someone, “lost the battle” if they pass away. We don’t describe death from heart disease, freak accidents, natural causes etc. in this manner. Using this phrase implies if the person only fought harder, they would have not died.  Loser’s lose which is the exact opposite word I would use to describe someone who’s been through cancer treatments. Those impacted by cancer endure surgeries, toxic chemicals, crazy side effects – cancer survivors are hard core, bad-asses. The strongest of the strong. Not defeated losers. In fact, in the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore wisely says, “Death is but the next great adventure,” which seems like a fitting description for those in the First Descents tribe, who have passed on.

Again, these are the terms that work for me. Just like every cancer is different, the words we find comfort and power in will be different. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about your vocabulary and once you’ve built your dictionary,  tell your support team.

This blog was featured on First Descent’s Blog, www.outlivingit.com. First Descent’s is a non-profit that offers young adult cancer survivors (FREE) adventure trips where they learn the healing power of community and nature through participating in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing and surfing. In September 2016, I attended a First Descents Surf Program in Santa Cruz, California. Read about that here.

Cancer Camp

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As featured on curetoday.com

During treatment, a fellow survivor friend raved about her experience with an organization called, First Descents (FD). FD is a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer survivors on free adventure trips. Yes, yes and yes. I liked them on Facebook, signed up for their newsletter and went on with the business of getting well.

After surgery and completing chemotherapy, I started to feel more like my adventurous self again. Also around this time, I received an email about First Descents 2016 programs which included rock climbing, whitewater kayaking and surfing at various locations throughout the United States. All of them sounded like fun, but I chose surfing in Santa Cruz, California. I’d never surfed before, but have tremendous respect for the sport. I’d equate watching surfers to watching fire – mesmerizing. The intuition to read the ocean, defy the odds of a wave and staying calm during an inevitable wipe out are all impressive and admirable qualities. Surfing and cancer don’t sound so different.

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Stunning Pigeon Point Lighthouse (and where we stayed for the week)

Arriving at the San Jose International Airport, I was immediately spotted by the other campers. The short hair and baseball hats are usually dead giveaways for us women cancer survivors. After a curvy drive over the coastal mountains, we arrived at our home for the next week – Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a stunning location.

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Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz

The next day, we arrived at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz and were lead by Richard Schmidt’s Surf School. Little did we know then what a legend Richard Schmidt is in the surfing community. Surf Splendor Podcast even called his school, “the oldest and most prominent in the world.” Richard and his instructors were extremely kind, humble, encouraging and considerate to our motley crew and we all felt honored to be taught by masters. Once we got our wetsuits on and a beach quick lesson, we were let loose in the water. The first day, I struggled and never got up on my board. Surfing is hard for a strong, fit person, but it’s even harder when you’ve been taken apart and pieced back together by surgeons like many of us had been. We all kept at it and to my surprise, the next day and the rest of the week, most of us were able to get up and ride some pretty sick waves, as they say. A day of surfing was reminiscent of how you feel as a child after a day of swimming – happy, satisfied, starving and exhausted.

Some of my favorite moments throughout the week had nothing to do with surfing, but from being in a group where I could joke about cancer. This is not something I’m able to do too much in my regular life because it’s usually met with a stern “not funny” look from my husband or other family members. We all cracked up when someone made an origami fortune teller and joked that’s what doctors use to determine the number of rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Or demanding to see a port scar as a means of entry into our living area. Laughing about having cancer flare-ups to protesting something we were about to do. Joking that if you put all our body parts together, we made up a whole person. How refreshing it is to be in the company of people who could actually understand these types of morbid jokes and genuinely laugh with you.

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The ladies with Richard Schmidt

Another powerful moment was when us girls stood in the living room revealing our scars. Mine have never been seen by anyone other than my husband and medical staff, so this was pretty big. I saw many nipple-less breasts and they saw my ginormous abdominal scar, which is the shape of a Mercedes-Benz logo (the actual surgical incision name). It was a liberating moment and I would’ve never done this with any of my non-cancer friends.

I’ll remember this experience and the stories of my brother and sister cancer fighters forever. First Descent’s motto is “out living it.” We had all been through so much, but were still here, out living what has killed others, together, in more ways than one and that was pretty rad, as they say.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride'” – Hunter S. Thompson

To learn more about First Descents, check out their website at www.firstdescents.org

Read this on curetoday.comCancer Camp

Read all my articles with Cure.

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The “Minimavs” Team