Lifelong Lessons From Route 3

lessons learned from route 3

Route 3. A dirt road in rural Leake County, Mississippi that holds fond memories of visiting my grandparents’ farm making mud pies with my cousins, playing on the swing on the front porch, and returning to Chicago with tennis shoes covered in red clay dirt. I suppose if I wanted to get really sentimental, I could cue the violins and say something like, “Those were the good old days.” But currently, I am choosing not to refer to anything in my life as old.

It was on Route 3 that I learned the basics of life on a farm. My grandparents taught me that it was important to grow your own vegetables, work hard to prepare for the slow times, and that farm eating was healthy eating. Unfortunately, I didn’t really appreciate those lessons during my yearly visits like I should have. At the time, I just thought that that’s the way people in the south lived.  Continue reading “Lifelong Lessons From Route 3”

The Dirty Words I’ve Insisted My Kids Learn

dirty words

Three years ago when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, one of the first things I did was commit to talking about the disease. I wanted other people to know about the thyroid gland and what it can do (or not do). Once I starting talking more, I learned something.

On one side of my family, there was a history thyroid disease in my family. On the other side, cancer was very prominent.

Family medical history is important. Knowing your family history is even more important. And being part of a family willing to talk about those medical issues is of utmost importance.The information that I gained during my personal cancer event proved to be more valuable than anything my doctors could have told me.  After I recovered, I decided to dig a little deeper and I found some other health issues that I needed to be aware of.  Continue reading “The Dirty Words I’ve Insisted My Kids Learn”

Three Years Later, Cancer Still Sucks

CANCER

How do doctors do it? I’ve always wondered if there’s a class in medical school that advises them on what to say when they have deliver a questionable or bad diagnosis? How are nurses and other medical professionals able to keep doing their jobs with kindness and grace when they see the chart and they know you’ve just been hit by a blow. A blow that in many cases, you had no ideas was coming your way?

January 2013 was life-changing for me. A routine trip to the chiropractor led to some concerns. Those concerns led to some tests. The inconclusive results of those tests led to more specialized tests. And the specialized test results led me to the office of a surgical oncologist.

All of this occurred in about 10 days. It was a whirlwind. After that initial diagnosis, I then had to undergo therapies  and treatments while waiting for a surgery that would happen six months later.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1.6 million people were diagnosed with cancer between 1998 and 2012.  About 64,000 of those diagnoses were for thyroid cancer, with women outnumbering men in having the disease at overwhelming statistics. The survival rates for thyroid cancer in particular are 97 percent. But the numbers are not that optimistic for other cancers. An NBC News report noted that the 10 most deadliest cancers are 1. Lung and Bronchial Cancer, 2. Colon and Rectal Cancer, 3. Breast Cancer, 4. Pancreatic Cancer, 5. Prostate Cancer, 6. Leukemia, 7. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, 8. Liver Cancer, 9. Ovarian Cancer, and 10. Esophageal Cancer.

One of my college classmates who is now a doctor recently updated his Facebook status to remind us that there is a lot each and every one of us can do to protect the precious lives that we have been given. And this advice y’all, he says is pertinent to anyone older than 35. Anyone. Ouch.

  1. Sitting is the new smoking. We should not be sitting still more than 3 hours a day. We should be going for more walks, choosing to take the stairs, parking in one of the last spaces in the parking lot and walking. All of this is in addition to our daily exercise of zumba, cross fit, or whatever our cardio hearts desire.
  2. Only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary, and most definitely only when prescribed by a doctor.  According to the website for the Mayo Clinic, antibiotics have been proven to impede the natural work of our digestive tracts. If you’ve taken antibiotics, you undoubtedly know that diarrhea is a side effect. This happens because antibacterial medications tend to upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. Only take them when needed.
  3. Physical Exercise is a must. Regularly. Like every day. As much as possible.
  4. We take care of our bodies by what we put in it. Stop eating crap. Period.
  5. Cognitive Training is a plus. As we age, we should exercising our brains. The official term is neuroplasticity or something like that, but here’s the bottom line.  Start up a new game of Words With Friends, keep playing Candy Crush Saga, and host occasional game nights with family and friends. It’s all good!

In other words, as adults our charge is two-fold. Now is the time for us to be doing the things that we should have been doing all along. And as parents, it is critical for our children to learn how to take care of themselves properly. And what’s really interesting is that when I had cancer, I felt much better when I ate the right foods.

I know I am not a medical professional, I am an avid reader. I’m sharing this information from credible sources and my own opinion based on my medical diagnosis. This should not in any way replace the advice of your own doctor.

While I don’t do anything to officially commemorate the month of January as my cancer diagnosis month, (I prefer all commemoration happen in June, the month I was actually deemed cancer free) I do use the month to reflect on how that diagnosis three years ago has changed my life.

  1. I have finally realized that to my parents, I am and will always be their baby. My parents did a fine job of raising me to be a very independent person. I am an only child and even though I am in my 40s, I have found that no matter where I go, or what I do, I am always their baby. And for the record, my kids are a very thin extension of that. All four of us are their babies.
  2. Nutrition and exercise are critical to good health. I know I wrote that above, but it’s amazing when you come to the revelation on your own.
  3. Be a family that talks about things. Talk about family medical history, talk about how you are feeling, talk about it all. Talking about things regularly before a crisis occurs sets the foundation for how you and your family will cope when the going gets rough.
  4. Life after cancer does not return to normal, life after cancer is the new normal. The sooner I could accept that, the better off I was. My cancer-free life consists of bi-monthly doctor visits, medicine every day for the rest of my life and sometime painful side effects of not having a thyroid.
  5. It’s sometimes the smallest things that have the biggest impact in our bodies. I’m still amazed at how a small glad that is shaped like a butterfly has such a profound impact on the body.
  6. Second opinions are okay. They are more than okay, they are necessary. Get as much information as you need and take the amount of time that you need so you can make the decision that best for you.
  7. Every day, do something you absolutely love. A happy heart is a healthy heart. When your mind, body, and spirit are aligned, your chances for illness are lessened greatly. Doing more of what you love equals less stress. Less stress equals lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, and no more obscure aches and pains.

And if someone you know and love is diagnosed with cancer, this is what you can do:

  1. Offer to go to doctor’s appointments with them and take notes.
  2. Coordinate a Meal Train for them from diagnosis to recovery.
  3. Say a special prayer for them each morning and each night.
  4. Give them the time they need to process what’s happening to them. Don’t bombard them with questions, and don’t get mad if it takes them some time to open up to you.
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As a patient. I felt like I was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

And finally, if you ever have to deliver the news to friends and loved one about your own health diagnosis, these are the lessons I learned from my experience.

  1. Start talking about the affected area.  For example, here’s how a conversation went with a coworker after I was only able to work part-time once I was diagnosed. “Toni I haven’t seen you in a while, how have you been?” “You know, I’ve been off because my thyroid has been acting crazy and giving me a lot a problems.”

This is good because it sets the stage. The listener can decide if they can handle more specific news, or if they are done. Let’s continue, shall we?

“Really, Toni? What’s it doing?” “Well, it bounces back from hyperactive to hypoactive and I have a goiter. It appears that the goiter has an underlying malignancy, which means I have thyroid cancer.”
2. Give them a moment to respond in the way they are comfortable. I usually end up saying something like, “See I told you it was crazy.” Telling someone you have cancer is 10 percent about you, but 90 percent about them. They will instantly remember their uncle, or cousin or friend who has had the disease and no matter what your prognosis is, their mind will travel.
3. Relate the news to a celebrity. I am very thankful that Brooke Burke-Charvet announced her thyroid cancer when she did. Once I announce my condition, I follow up with, “Did you see the lady from Dancing With the Stars on television? You know she just had thyroid cancer too?”
This helps because our society loves celebrities, and we tend to think they are invincible. But in reality, they get cancer too.
4. Tell them how you will keep them informed. Once people get over the initial shock, they need to know how they will keep up with your progress. Tell them they’ll see you at work until surgery, they can read your blog on Caring Bridge, or that a certain family member will keep them updated. If you don’t have a plan to keep them informed, they will stalk you and pressure you and make your life more miserable than cancer already is.
5. Let people see you “live” with the disease. I know that with any medical condition, you have good days and you have bad days. Some days, I remember wishing I could say, “I have cancer so I’m staying in bed all day.” But I couldn’t. My kids were in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades at the time of my diagnosis. There were tonsils that had to be removed, middle school hormones, and a Presidential Inauguration that we had to attend. Continuing to “live” is just as important for me as it for everyone around me.

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During my cancer experience, I made sure that others (especially my children) would see me actually living with the disease. Our trip to the Presidential Inauguration was an example of that.

 

While my diagnosis was scary and I was fortunate enough to have a great prognosis and an ever greater outcome, that cancer event led me to be even more appreciative of the life I have instead of trying unsuccessfully to force the life I thought I should have.

When the Doctor Says Sit Down…

one mom's mandated medical leave was for the bestBecause of my previous thyroid issues, every 6-8 weeks I have to do routine blood work. I’m used to both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes my doctor will send me a quick email that says, “The numbers look great, see you in three months!” (In the two years since my thyroidectomy, i’ve only had that happen once. Most of the time, the email reads, “Your numbers were a little low (or high) so we’ve changed your prescription.”

About three weeks ago, I needed to get a refill but the doctor recommended that I come in for an appointment first. This past spring, I had a super crazy sinus infection that somehow affected my eyesight for about a week. I was seeing double, y’all.So he wanted to follow up with me on my sinus issues and talk about my low vitamin d levels, which have been a problem for the past 6 months or so also.

So in a very happy-go-lucky routine trip to the doctor,  I was ready to skip away with my new prescription, a discussion about sinus infections and seasonal allergies, and a quick update on the kids and how they’ve grown. He’s our family doctor, and has been so for 10 years, so a question about the kids is normal.

But that’s not quite how it went.

When the nurse took my blood pressure, she said, “Hmmm….I think I need to take it again.” I took a deep breath but was still not too concerned. I always tend to be on the upper limit of the normal range.

She took it again and said, “Hmmm….a little bit better. Let’s see what he says.”

Uh oh. This didn’t sound good. Especially since her next sentence was, “Oh, he’s got a lot to talk to you about.”

“A lot? How are my thyroid levels?” After all, that was the main reason I was there.

“He’s probably going to change your medicine, but your blood tests show you have some other things going on too.”

“Other things?”

“Yes, many other things,”

And from there, my happy little appointment with my family doctor who I love went downhill.

So, without me turning this into a crazy medical post about all the things wrong with my body, I’ll share the highlights of that visit.

I left with seven new prescriptions, a strict vitamin regimen, and very clear instructions regarding my eating habits. I am also taking some time of work indefinitely and no longer drinking caffeine.

Dumbfounded did not even begin to explain how I felt. Especially since the last two things he said to me as the appointment ended were, “You’ve got to eliminate some stress from your life and you’ve got to do it now.”

“Ummm, hello family doctor who I used to love so much…I am a divorced mom of three. How am I supposed to eliminate stress?”

“Well lovely patient who I still love so much…you can’t eliminate the kids, but you can eliminate some other things. And maybe this time off work will help you figure out what needs to go and what needs to stay. And by the way, you’ve been a mom for 14 years and divorced for 7 years, your numbers have not been like this before.”

So, like any good (and scared) patient would do, I got the prescriptions filled and start googling blood levels and medicines and interactions. Y’all, I discovered something.

Some of this is a result of my thyroid disease. But the dreadful truth is that most of this could have been prevented. The stress plays a part, nutrition plays a part, sunlight plays a part. And the fact that it all snuck up on me in two months is even scarier.

And I’m now doing what I should have been doing all along — sitting down — at the house. For those of you who know me well or if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that August is probably one of the busiest months of the year at my full-time job. And I feel bad, because I have co-workers who I love and miss.


But the reality is, my body needed this. I’m also taking this time to rest (the meds make me sleepy), create fun end-of-summer memories with my kids, catching up with old friends over more than text messages, and reading. Which I’ve found in the past three weeks, is what really matters when it’s all said and done.

Thank you family doctor who I still love so much. You helped me see what really matters. Even if it is disguised in a low-carb lifestyle with no caffeine.

Has the doctor ever told you to sit down? Did you?

Cancer Remembered: Eating Healthy

This post is part of a month-long series on my cancer experience of 2013. They originally appeared on my blog at http://www.caringbridge.org.
I originally wrote this post last weekend, but I waited to post it until after Valentine’s Day. See how thoughtful I am?

So here’s the deal. When I started this journey, one of the best pieces of advice that I received was to eat healthier. And I’m here to tell you, that is correct.

Healthy eating gives you energy. Healthy eating boosts your immune system. Healthy eating leaves you feeling fuller, longer. And if you aren’t careful, healthy eating eliminates your cravings for unhealthy food.
I have the added benefit of also eating a low-iodine diet. But I will honestly tell you that doing the following allows me to feel amazing despite the 13 cm mediastinal mass in my thoracic region. (Yes, I have say something medical at least once per blog post.)
1. Start your day with green juice.
I typically don’t eat vegetables for breakfast, but I need at least 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Green juice gives me at least 2-3 servings. That way, I can drink my vegetables in the mornings, eat a salad with my lunch, and eat another salad and at least two sides of vegetables with my dinner. I will also usually have one or two more cups of green juice throughout the day.
Green juice does look weird, but it tastes amazing. You can make it yourself by making smoothies, or you can buy it already prepared. My favorite green juice is made with broccoli, kale, spinach, kiwi, and green apples. See, everything is green…hence the name, “green juice.”
2. Make a modified, healthier version of the one junk food you love. For me, it is french fries. I am a french fry connoisseur.I have always known that fries are bad for you, but I was addicted. I have been known to get dinner from one place and get the fries from another, because of the quality.
So that I don’t give up fries completely, I now enjoy baked sweet potato fries. And they are so very tasty. One serving is more than enough for me. And I’ve gotten my fry fix.
3. Drink a lot of water. 8-10 glasses a day is not necessarily going to do it. You need to drink one-half of your body weight in ounces of water each day. If you weigh 160 lbs. then you need to drink at least 80 ounces of water. That’s a lot more than 8- 8 oz. glasses of water.
4. Take some kind of vitamin supplement. For most of us, a multivitamin will work. If you have certain medical issues though, you will need to take supplements for those issues. I have to take additional iron, vitamin A and beta-carotene supplements each day. If you have high cholesterol, you need to take fish oil. If you have high blood pressure, take garlic pills. If you need help with your digestive system, take acidophilus.
5. Whole grains are your friends. I like bread and rice. I have found that when I eat whole-grain bread and brown rice, I don’t have that stuffed. bloated feeling that I get when I eat white bread and white rice. Nutritionally speaking, I don’t know what the difference is, I just know I feel much better when I choose whole grains.
6. Exercise. I can’t to this one too much right now, but you should. Even if the only thing you can do is go for a brisk walk. Like the Nike commercial says, “Just Do It.”
7. Stop cooking. Well not really. Increase the amounts of raw vegetables you consume. Raw foods are nature’s goodness. If the ingredients have something you can’t pronounce (including the pesticides), don’t eat it.
8. Change where you shop. I have been loyal to Walmart, Kroger, and Albertson’s over the years. However, I get a better produce selection at Whole Foods, Central Market, and Sprout’s. I know those stores are more expensive and the type of produce I’m buying (organic) is more expensive, so I compromise. I buy the organic produce I need, and then I do the rest of my shopping at Aldi. Then I’ll also pick up a good deal or two at Tom Thumb if I use their “Just For You” app to do my shopping, so I do that. It is a bit more time consuming, but that time is well worth it if I’m eating cleaner and healthier.
9. Learn from the experts. One of the best healthy eating blogs I read is called, “Crazy, Sexy Kitchen.” (Thanks Amy!) The woman who writes is a cancer survivor and she is a clean eater. I can relate to her story and she is inspiring. Find someone in Blogland, or on tv, etc. who can inspire you.
Well, that’s all I’ve discovered for now. Do you have any healthy eating tips you’d like to share?