Five Years Plus

{July 18, 2010}   Six Months

This week marks the first 6 months of this blog. That’s 26 posts, 2,269 views and 78 comments. In this time I have learned to insert hyperlinks, pictures and do internet research at lightening speed (lol). I decided it was a good time for a review to provide a summary for my regular readers and introduce new readers to the discussion thus far. Hopefully the links will easily direct you to the posts you want to read or reread.

It was a lot of fun to review, as I clearly remember writing and the events preceding each post. It ended up taking quite awhile to read through all of the posts and make some kind of order out of the smorgasbord of my life. As such, I want to thank my #1 supporter, my husband Chuck. He initially set up the blog and is my editor and problem solver. He also patiently endures the times (like now) when I spend “our” Saturday night at the keyboard.

I began Five Years Plus in the dead of winter, on the eve of the five year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. The act of starting the blog spun me into a period of over-excitement and sleep deprivation which I chronicled in Good Night Sweet Princess.  The response to this on and off-line was striking, with people sharing their own mood issues so openly and honestly. In my third post I introduced my struggles with over-eating and the constant vigilance it takes to feed myself properly.

The subject of eating is a big part of my life and has likewise been featured in a number of blog posts. In Special Breakfast I introduced the general idea of food as medicine and that eating well is an act of self-love. At times I included recipes which reflect the changing seasons, such as cabbage soup in winter (a reminder of the simple good things in life) and coconut ice cream in summer. I have written about foods that I use, like eggs or the sugar substitute stevia, and those that I’ve moved away from for health reasons, such as soy.

With the coming of spring I got fired up about eating locally, writing a series on this topic and coming up with four keys to get started:

  1. shopping at local farmers’ markets
  2. sourcing local pasture raised meat and eggs
  3. subscribing to a CSA (community supported agriculture)
  4. supporting local foods restaurants

As summer and berry season rolled around I think it’s appropriate to add a fifth key: pick local (organic) berries

Currently there are further options for both budding and experienced “locavores”. Tomorrow is the first day of Madison County’s “Buy Local Week” which includes an opportunity to discover some of the 33 local farms that are opening their gates to visitors on Saturday, July 24. There is also a new I-phone app that directs one to local foods in upstate New York.

In addition to being dedicated to eating locally whenever possible, I am committed to the Paleo diet that features meat, fish, eggs, plenty of vegetables, fruit and some nuts and seeds, thereby resembling what our Paleolithic ancestors may have eaten. Although I was a vegetarian for many years I now choose to include meat in my diet. I have to admit, I find it an ongoing challenge to eat in accordance with my intentions, especially when eating out or on vacation. Even so, I have managed to lose 10 pounds and am maintaining a comfortable healthy weight. One of my most enjoyable eating journeys and something I would like to explore further was a period of paying deep attention to the way I eat.

When we think about taking care of ourselves, diet and exercise come to mind first. Moving my body is fundamental to my own well-being and my work outside our home is dedicated to teaching others to be present in their bodies through yoga and tennis. I credit tennis with helping me “get back into life fully” after my breast cancer treatment and continue to better myself through competition. The desire to play tennis well helps fuel my motivation for working out two or three times each week. I am so happy every time I effortlessly move from a deep squat to standing, as this is an improvement that is a direct result of working out.

Although my experience with breast cancer has infiltrated every aspect of my life, I see that only a few posts relate specifically to cancer or medical issues. I outlined ideas for getting started on an alternative path when first being diagnosed and written some advice about do’s and don’ts when dealing with friends who have been diagnosed. I touched on iatrogenic (medically) caused illness and the uncertainty of imaging techniques through a story about my beloved cat. I am also well aware that I have not settled my inquiry into breast screening techniques and that my next oncologist appointment is approaching. I have already started researching the effects of ionizing radiation (i.e. mammograms) on breast tissue health, so you can expect to see this soon.

Writing this blog does take a tremendous amount of time and determination. In return, it helps me to live a more examined life and to believe that perhaps through my efforts I am making a difference. As I reflect over this past six months I recognize that I have made positive changes in my life. My diet has improved, my workouts are regular and my sleep and moods are in equilibrium. At the same time I see there are areas where I continue to struggle and need more awareness and self-love.

I really appreciate you reading Five Years Plus, commenting and passing the link along to others who might enjoy it. If you want to have each weekly post automagicallly delivered to your Email inbox, fill in your address and click on “Email Subscriptions” on the right side of this page. Beware though, you need to open a confirmation Email which may end up in your “junk” folder. I believe we all have a great deal to share with one another and I intend to continue to learn to harness the power of the internet to benefit all of us.


{May 8, 2010}   Eat, Love, Sit

Have you ever been in the grocery store or some other public place when an overwrought mother is yelling derisively at a small child for some minor infraction? I know I have and it makes me cringe inside. “How can a parent talk to her child that way?” I say to myself, “I would never be like that!”  But of course I am regularly and instantly brutal to myself when I don’t measure up to my own exacting standards. Is my harsh inner critic really so different from the hapless mother screaming at her 4 year old in aisle 9?

For example, when my 30 day Paleo Challenge didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, I gave myself a hard time. The beginning went great, but I began to falter by day 13 and didn’t really recover my enthusiasm until day 25. In that difficult period wine, cheese and sweet foods, which I had intended to avoid, found their way regularly to my mouth. Once I moved beyond my disappointment in myself, I saw that perhaps I didn’t have the support I had needed. So the Paleo Challenge is a do-over, restarting on Monday with an online support community. Upon reflection I realize that the inner-critic comes into so many areas of life and actually undermines my best intentions for health, happiness and spiritual development.

Shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis I began having sessions with Carolyn Dell’uomo, a therapist who combines psychological techniques with a strong spiritual component. Over the two years I worked with her I learned a lot about myself and how to be more fulfilled in life. She taught me to hold the intention for self-love and simply notice and accept when my inner dialogue becomes negative. By self-love, I’m not talking about being conceited or self-absorbed – just gentle and kind. Even though I still have to constantly remind myself to be compassionate, I feel like I really get this both intellectually and in my heart. Self-love is just treating myself the way an ideal parent would treat a child – accepting mistakes, letting go of disappointments and supporting unconditionally while non-judgmentally reflecting areas where I need work.

As a tennis player and coach I know that my inner dialogue on the court  is not always so pretty. However, I am sometimes flabbergasted by the level of self-contempt some players publicly express. I tell my students that you should not say anything to yourself (out loud or internally) that you wouldn’t say to your doubles partner. With this awareness some students are shocked to discover how extremely hard they are on themselves, even in the game of tennis where we are supposed to be at play. This can be extrapolated to life by noticing how often we give others the benefit of the doubt while chastising ourselves for the same sort of mistake.

I have found the practice of meditation to be fundamental in learning to live with my inner critic. In its most simple form meditation is the practice of sitting quietly so that we can notice the mind, allowing thoughts to arise and pass without following them. Many techniques use a focus point (such as the movement of breath) to represent the present. Each time we notice the mind has drifted we gently bring it back to paying attention to the breath. This is the knack, catching that moment when we stray. It is a small success each time we can come back from a journey into the past or future.

I find some days I am lost in thought for minutes before noticing I have drifted, while other times I am more able to catch myself before traveling too far. Occasionally  the contents of my mind are so turbulent and disturbing it feels almost impossible to continue sitting. With practice, meditation does get easier. But meditation is not something to be good or bad at, it is a practice – a practice that has benefits in many areas of life.

Whether we’re sitting, eating, playing tennis or doing something else we love, doing so consciously makes it better. Eating can become an eating meditation, playing tennis a tennis meditation and yes there’s also the sitting meditation. Remember that the practice is to notice what you’re doing without judging and to keep coming back to the present. Make it a practice to come back to being kind to yourself and be compassionate when you notice that you’re giving yourself a hard time.

{April 3, 2010}   Losing weight is a beach

Who doesn’t love to go on vacation? Well me, sometimes. I have always been particular about what I eat and drink, even more so since facing cancer. Eating healthy (i.e. the right foods in appropriate quantities at the right times) is even more challenging when away from home. Growing up in my family, special foods were associated with being on holiday. As a child, I delighted in having multicolored Fruit Loops for breakfast and stuffing roasted marshmallows into sandwiches of graham crackers and chocolate[1] while sitting around the campfire.  Perhaps these childhood memories feed the idea that being on vacation means taking a vacation from healthy eating and drinking. Who hasn’t gotten into “vacation mode” and wound up overeating on unwise foods only to feel lousy and come home depressed, bloated and having gained two, three or more pounds? So this is the challenge: “Is it possible to go on vacation, have a fabulous time and still lose weight?”

This week was my annual girls’ trip to Hilton Head with ten other women who have at least one thing in common: love of tennis. This trip has been happening for about 25 years, though I was first invited to join shortly after my cancer diagnosis five years ago. Chuck bought me the air ticket as a Valentine’s Day present to give me something to look forward to after my surgery. I’ve been going every year since to celebrate with friends the beginning of spring and outdoor play.

My doubles’ partner Anne Marie and I conceived and participated in this year’s eating challenge. While we don’t always choose the same foods, we have similar goals and the ability to develop strategies and analyze what is working and what isn’t. We decided on three basic principles for losing weight on this trip:

  • Eat regularly to keep blood sugar stable
  • Avoid bread and other high-carb items like crackers, chips and desserts
  • Be physically active

It’s easy to be active and prepare most of our own meals, as we stay in condos that back onto the Har-Tru courts where we all play doubles each morning. We spend the afternoons in smaller groups biking on the beach, watching tennis on TV, reading by the pool, golfing (not me) or shopping (that’s me and Anne Marie).

The first few days of the trip I am extremely tired. Perhaps it is being outside all day for the first time in months. I accept the tiredness, give myself time to rest and stay with my eating plan which begins with Special Breakfast at least an hour (ideally more) before tennis. During the second hour on the court I usually drink a low-sugar sports drink that contains some whey. Sometimes I nibble on a few nuts. After tennis I make a low-carb lunch of salad and hard-boiled eggs, perhaps with avocado and once with left-over steak – yum. We also eat some of Anne Marie’s blended veggie soup which provides additional vegetables and hydration.

The second half of the day is trickier, as part of the tradition is to eat together at home or a carefully chosen restaurant, usually around 7:30pm. With six or seven hours between lunch and dinner, there is a risk of getting overly hungry and overeating. I employ the tactic of conscious snacking mid-way through the afternoon; perhaps I eat an apple or half of banana with almond butter. Now here is the key: before going out to dinner I snack on veggies prepared at lunch – cucumber, radish, carrots, celery and red pepper – dipping them in salsa or hummus. This helps me to avoid the very tempting crackers and high fat dips. Since I am not starving when I get to the restaurant it is more likely I will be able to resist the bread. One evening I helped myself to a little bread because I wanted to taste the interesting looking bean dip. “Hmm,” I said to Anne Marie, “once I start its hard to stop.” Without saying a word she discreetly slid the black candle holder between the bread and my eyes. It worked – out of sight, out of mind.

Ordering at a restaurant takes awareness and a little luck. Usually a salad followed by a small plate or shared entrée is about right for me. If my entrée is going to be rich, I avoid a salad with cheese and nuts. Otherwise I choose whatever salad I want. I might ask the server to substitute the starch in my main course for extra veggies while other times I want to try the dish as conceived by the chef. If there is a lot of starch on my plate, I aim to leave some of it, though having grown up with parents in the Clean Plate Club generation, this is difficult.

Drinking alcohol or not is a very individual choice. I like to drink, especially good wine. The downsides include the additional calories of the drinks themselves (20 for each ounce of wine) and the fact that drinking increases the likelihood that I will overeat, leading to a good chance of disturbed sleep and feeling lousy the next day. I decided to limit myself to one drink before dinner because when I am eating cleanly, I am much more susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

I had an absolutely fabulous time on this vacation, enhanced by the fact that I didn’t feel the guilt or physical symptoms of overeating or being over-served. On the third afternoon, I felt inspired to do some yoga on the beach. This practice was a turning point and I had a lot of energy for the remainder of the trip. Another high point occurred the second to last day on court when I experienced a renewed sense of strength and flow throughout my body. During the week I stayed healthy and slept well without any pharmaceutical or herbal support. For the record, I did not lose weight. Anne Marie did though, and I didn’t gain any! Regardless of the outcome, I’m reminded that it is the journey that is important, not the destination. Setting goals gave us direction and I enjoyed the trip much more as a result of not overeating.

[1] Isn’t is interesting that S’mores embeds in its name their inherently addictive quality?

{March 21, 2010}   Breakthrough

I spent this week in Toronto competing in the Canadian Eastern Senior Nationals tennis tournament. I visited with old friends, met new ones and learned to play with a magnificent new doubles partner. Toronto is such a great city and Chuck and I had many adventures including finding the trendy health food restaurants, drinking green beer in an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day and getting our car towed! We ate delicacies such as an organic salad made from carrots, sunflower sprouts, avocado and grilled tempe, a raw “live” pizza as well as a spelt-crust pizza with five kinds of organic meat. We drank fresh organic juice, hot chocolate from cacao beans ground by bicycle power in Mexico and Chuck sampled the single-malt Scotch collection at the Granite Club with a new friend. My brother and sister-in-law came up for the weekend, treated us to a sushi feast and shared our adventures. I organized a family get-together on Friday night, hosted by my cousin and his wife, who were so gracious to adapt to unfortunate tournament scheduling by starting the party early. Afterward my “entourage” of six, including my nephew Thomas, came and supported me through a two-hour see-saw singles battle ending at 10pm.

I came to this tournament with very specific goals. In childhood I was a natural competitor, entering myself in a tournament at age 10 and two years later becoming the youngest player invited to join the British Columbia provincial team. I competed for eight joyous summers and played two years of Division I college tennis before hanging up my racquet in pursuit of the wider world. Coming back to tennis competition as an adult has been unexpectedly challenging both mentally and physically. First, I experienced a level of nervousness I had never known in my youth. Although I appeared calm on court, inside I was extremely tense, resulting in play that fell consistently below my potential. Second, as my regular readers already know, I developed a persistent case of tennis elbow two years ago which had until now, limited my competitive aspirations. This tournament was my re-entry into competitive singles, which is the event in which I experience the greatest anxiety and the most susceptibility to injury.

I decided to use this week to reorient how I manage a tournament and set priorities in this order:

  1. have fun
  2. stay healthy
  3. stay relaxed and play my best.

I absolutely had fun, both on court and off. I played five matches in four days and am happy to report that I also stayed healthy. In fact, traveling home today I noticed my back felt better than it did on the drive up.

I know that many of you are probably wondering “did you win?” After all, this is usually the first (and sometimes only) question asked after a match. I won two and lost three which strictly speaking is my second worst result in this type of tournament. Although I am not coming home with a trophy, I am glowing with a new understanding that comes from my heart, not my head. While it is great to win, my real accomplishment this week was finally playing from a place of relaxation and joy, thereby playing my best. This is the breakthrough I was looking for when I worked with a sports psychologist throughout 2008. It’s funny how life has a way of giving us what we want once we have stopped struggling for it.

{March 13, 2010}   Passion for Life

Passion for Life

I am particularly excited by the coming of spring this year. Perhaps it was the many days of dreary weather followed by a huge dump of snow, or perhaps it is because I have created a little more time in my life to enjoy the changing season. In any case, when the temperature rose and the sun began to shine, I knew it was time to tap the maples.

Chuck tapped two trees which dripped steadily since Saturday and produced much more sap than last year, around 2 gallons per tree per day. We gathered a little information from the Web and began to boil it on the stove. To my delight, the resulting syrup (about 1/2 cup for every 2 gallons sap) was rich and woodsy in flavor, the best I’ve ever had! We celebrated by eating some of the fresh hot syrup poured onto snow. As I ate the sweet sno-cone, I felt such gratitude for my life. It took a long time to get to the place where I am today: active, relaxed, contented and inspired.

On the morning after my mastectomy a little over four years ago, I lay in the hospital bed, unmoving, not even able to get myself a drink. I heard a knock on the door and when I looked up, a graying man with kind eyes stood before me. In my drugged and near sleepless state this hospital pastor seemed to me an angel in the flesh. We talked for awhile congenially, but his parting words sent a chill to my very bones. “Take your time to heal and then get back into life – fully.” The chill was because I was afraid. I couldn’t imagine what my life could be like or what would come next.

In the nine months since my initial diagnosis, I had given up my massage practice to focus on healing, yet my days often felt without purpose as I struggled to figure out my place in the world. I had read Cancer as a Turning Point and knew that my zest for life, or lack thereof, had an important impact on my survival. I desperately wanted to be someone who was successfully transformed by cancer, but my day to day experience was not easy.

It would be another year before the reconstruction of my breast was finished; the reconstruction of my life would take much longer. It seems obvious now, but at the time I didn’t expect that my childhood passion – tennis – would be a major vehicle in my transformation. It started as a personal challenge to see how quickly I could get back on the court after each surgery. When the surgeries were finally behind me, multiple opportunities appeared and I began to coach and compete, eventually winning the Canadian National Championship in doubles in my age group in 2007.

By 2008, when I was asked to join the Canadian team at the World Senior Championships in Turkey, tennis was my full-time obsession. I was working out, studying with a sports psychologist, playing once or twice a day, competing regularly and coaching a women’s USTA team. I was blind to the fact I was pushing too hard until almost overnight I was struck with tennis elbow, a damaged forearm tendon that made even everyday tasks like lifting a pot or brushing my hair painful. The injury was tenacious and was likely exacerbated by the sentinel lymph node dissection I had had to test for cancer spread during my initial surgery.

It seems to me that any illness or injury provides a great learning opportunity if we take the time to discover the lesson. I realized that I had equated tennis with survival. Deep down I believed that if I couldn’t play tennis, I would lose my will to live and therefore be susceptible to the return of cancer. I would like to say that after this realization the tennis elbow was immediately cured but it was many more months before I would fully accept the injury and turn the corner.

Now my arm is strong and I feel like I can play properly again. Next week I am competing in the Canadian Eastern Senior Nationals in Toronto. It’s been awhile since I have played both singles and doubles in a tournament and I am nervous how my body, elbow and mind will handle it. To ensure that I am healthy going into the event I have focused less on playing and training and more on keeping my eating and sleeping on an even keel. This week I added in some extra yoga as my back got tight and sore from spending so much time, you guessed it, sitting at my computer.

I am grateful to have a passion which keeps me physically active, mentally challenged and connects me with so many amazing people. As I prepare myself for the upcoming tournament, I know that I would find expression, happiness and purpose even without tennis. But for now, I’m really excited to compete. Wish me luck!

et cetera