Thank Your Kids and Teenagers Today for Their Essential Service!

I’m so glad you’re in my bubble, said Varjak to Cleo.

We are collectively holding our breath here.

Over the last 3 weeks or so, we have physically distanced ourselves for the good of our fellow citizens. We have been told by the prime minister of Canada and the premiers, chief medical officers and health ministers of all provinces and territories to do this, and most of us are doing it. And now we are waiting, to see how well it works.

There have been memes floating about which compare the sacrifices of past generations to the sacrifices of this one: “Our great-grandparents had to go to war, but all we have to do is sit on the couch.” It’s funny, it really is, but it’s disparaging, too.

We are all starting to realize what the sacrifices are, and they are huge. So let’s take a moment to acknowledge the strength that is being shown by so many.

We have asked our teenagers to stay away from their friends and activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for an unknown period of time. For most kids this isn’t easy, but they are doing it without complaint, because they know the stakes.

People on the internet are saying this is easy. But it isn’t. It’s really hard.

A teenager I live with

We have asked our children to digest the news that there is an illness being spread and they have to stay home in order to avoid contracting it and passing it on to people they care about. No matter how carefully we choose our words as parents, no matter how nonchalant our children appear in the face of these conversations, they are thinking about it on some level.

What’s up?

I’m wondering how long this is going to go on for, and how many new people got infected today.

A conversation with a teenager I live with.

We have asked our parents and grandparents to maintain physical distancing, which sometimes means spending a whole lot of time at home without the usual family connections and social interactions and support.

Normally I would be making Sunday dinner for the family right now.

Nan

We have asked many of our small business owners to shut down, and a large part of our workforce to accept a lay-off or reduced hours at work. Yes, our federal and provincial governments have responded with financial support to individuals, families and businesses, as they should. But surely this support will not make up for all the revenue and income that will be lost. And we, the tax payers, will shoulder the burden of debt that our province and country will amass during this time, as we must.

We have asked our health care providers and first responders to potentially expose themselves to a devastating virus, again and again, in order to care for our sick.

We have asked our essential workers, some of whom do not make a living wage, to report to work every day and interact with possibly infected members of the public as they complete their essential tasks.

Almost everyone has risen to the occasion.

The whole scenario that is playing out in our country is a testament to the good of humanity. We are watching, and waiting, and most of us are doing our parts. We are teaching our young people that sometimes you have to do the hard thing in order to do the right thing.

We are not wavering, and our leaders are not wavering, and we have managed to mostly put aside politics and embrace the common good, as we can see from the unlikely friendship that has been forged between Chrystia Freeland and Doug Ford. If you haven’t read about it, google it. It’s really sweet.

The word sacrifice implies that something will be lost as something else is saved or gained. I do not want to even begin to reflect on the losses that individuals and families and businesses will tally during this time, in terms of money or mental or physical health. But it has struck me that, although capitalism is alive and well here, we still can see a bigger picture. The elderly and the vulnerable – our people – are the most important thing.

Many of us have lamented the fact that so many decisions in this world are made as a result of the view through an economic lens. Well, the lens has flipped for now.

Most of us right now, in our concern for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, are seeing the world through the lens of humanity and compassion and genuine care.

By thanking health-care providers and essential workers loudly and publicly, and by adhering to their pleas to stay at home, we are opening our hearts to the good.

Let’s keep up this trend and give our teens a pat on the back when they wake up this afternoon. They are doing their part for the common good of their fellow human beings, and it is a worthy lesson to learn.

Want to get lucky this year? Drink your beer at home.

Some of my girlfriends and I recently ordered St. Patrick’s Day shirts from a local clothing company. Our plan was to paint the town green as we took in some local entertainment. This St. Paddy’s Day, we were going to celebrate life!

Of course, things have changed in the past few weeks, and we will not be venturing out to any pubs tonight.

I did have occasion to wear my special shirt, though. Our hospital, like so many others, is in preparation mode for the anticipated spread of the covid-19 virus, but I was fortunate to be one of the last elective surgeries completed when I had my port-a-cath removed. I wore my special shirt to the hospital and joked with the nurses that it was my St. Paddy’s Day outing. Atavan instead of green draught beer… I mean, really, what’s the difference?

T-shirt by Meghan Ashley Designs

Yesterday, as I recovered from the procedure, I watched my daughter and her friend play “Family.” This is a game they play with dolls. Sometimes the dolls fall victim to terrible accidents and the game transitions to a more disturbing one called “Hospital.” I have often seen these girls wrangling dolls wrapped in slime-soaked gauze casts and intubated with drinking straws into a makeshift ICU. Sometimes extra orange-crate beds must be brought in to accommodate the carnage. The girls have also discovered that our unusually relaxed cat, Varjak, enjoys being dressed in a tiny housecoat and tucked into bed between the dolls. He is always the most popular patient in the ward and the girls can be seen transporting him about the house on a stretcher.

I listened to the kids as they played, my ears perked to see if they would mention covid-19. They didn’t. I was glad. Their imaginative play was the perfect break from the world around them.

This can be a stressful time for us and our children. As parents, we talk to our kids about the virus and about how to stay safe. We teach them to wash their hands properly and maintain a safe distance from others. We encourage them to be good citizens by explaining that they have to protect their elders and other people who may be susceptible to complications from this virus. These are lessons that will serve them well throughout their lifetimes.

We also have to find a way to help children deal with the anxiety they may be feeling. It is important to be honest with them while keeping things light and manageable where possible. My kids have had to shoulder some terrific burdens in the past year or so. It helps when they know that they are not helpless in the face of pain, suffering or difficult circumstances. So, when I was sick or recovering from chemo or a procedure I tried to give them ways to help me. They would bring me some water or a blanket, or we would watch a show together or read a book. We all feel better when we can be of assistance. Activity eases our fears and helps us to work toward the good.

So, what are we going to do now? What actions will we teach our kids to take as responsible citizens in the face of a global pandemic?

Our job right now is to listen to our public health experts. They have told us that we must avoid large gatherings to limit the spread of covid-19. Kids will stay home from school and adults will work from home when possible.

Let’s be honest, this is not going to be easy for a lot of families. Child care issues and economics aside, I’m not even going to pretend that my kids are going to gather happily around the table daily to pursue their school lessons before engaging in a quiet but fun-loving game of monopoly.

If you are lucky, the worst things you will deal with are cabin fever, cranky toddlers, and grumpy in-laws. You will try to make silly dad jokes while your teenagers roll their eyes and sullenly crash about the house. The family walk to get some fresh air that sounded like such a great idea an hour ago will leave you feeling like the last one voted off on an episode of Survivor. You will break up sibling fights and cancel your spring break trip. All of this will make you long for malls and movie theaters, pubs and airplanes.

But, hopefully, these measures will keep you and your loved ones healthy. If we slow the rate of the spread of this virus so that we have a flatter curve, lives will be saved. And if there’s something I’ve learned in the past year, it is that health is everything.

So let’s do this small thing and distance ourselves from one another for a while. Sometimes the tiniest acts remind us of the importance of our place on the wheel.

And if there’s green food colouring in the cupboard and beer in the fridge, well, even better.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, my dear readers! Stay safe.

Varjak and the kids send their thanks to our
ever-important healthcare providers!

New Information for Women. Period.

Dad forwarded an article to me recently that set me on a path of learning about hormone therapy. All women should have access to this information so that they can talk to their doctors about their health.

I remember when the results of a large randomized trial called the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002. The results showed that hormone replacement therapy caused health risks such as a slightly raised chance of breast cancer after five years and cardiovascular disease. Some of my female colleagues and relatives were very distressed by this news. Many of them had been taking HRT to relieve the symptoms of menopause, which can be debilitating and afflict up to 80% of women in developed countries. HRT was the accepted treatment for these symptoms, and had been for decades. Within a few years the number of women receiving HRT dropped from about 20% to about 5%. Understandably, most doctors became reluctant to prescribe hormone therapy.

A new understanding of the results of the WHI has emerged in recent years, however. It turns out that the median age of women who took part in that study was 63. Many of them already had health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and were smokers. Women who were experiencing symptoms of menopause were screened out of the trial. So a treatment that was meant for younger, healthier, symptomatic women in their 40’s and early 50’s was tested on a largely different group.

According to The Economist, a re-examination of the data showed that the women who were between the ages of 50-59 who took hormone therapy were 31% less likely to die of any cause during their five to seven years of treatment than women who did not. It turns out that hormone therapy protects bone, brain and heart health and lowers the risk of colon and uterine cancer. There is a small risk of increased incidence of breast cancer after 5 years of use, which was described as “lower than the risk of working as a flight attendant.”

For younger women who have experienced premature ovarian failure, which can be naturally occurring or as a result of medical treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy, hormone therapy is now recommended by The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada. It offers long-term protection for bones, hearts and brains, and eases distressing symptoms.

The Managing Menopause Clinical Practice Guideline 2014 published by the SOGC recommends that doctors offer HT in the appropriate dose, and for the duration necessary, as the most effective treatment for troubling menopause symptoms. Current research confirms that HT is both a safe and effective way to treat symptoms of menopause in women within ten years of natural menopause. There is no absolute limit for the length of time you can take HT.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada

As with any medication, your healthcare provider will need to help you weigh the risks and benefits of hormone therapy. Breast cancer history, liver problems and other issues need to be taken into account, and there are certainly women who should not take this therapy. It is important to note that women with an intact uterus must take progesterone as well as estrogen, as unopposed estrogen has been linked to a higher risk of endometrial cancer.

The symptoms of menopause and premature ovarian failure include hot flushes and sweats, joint pain, cognitive issues, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. They can interfere with work and family life, and cause suffering that may be needless.

There are many sources of information out there. I did notice in my reading that there are still websites espousing out-of-date information. My doctor recommended the resource “Menopauseandu.ca,” which has proven to be excellent.

There are a couple of articles which provide a good survey of the information in the December 12th edition of The Economist. I think you have to have a subscription to view the articles in their entirety but I will provide the links here:

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/12/12/more-women-should-take-hormone-replacement-therapy

https://www.economist.com/international/2019/12/12/millions-of-women-are-missing-out-on-hormone-replacement-therapy

The world of medicine is always evolving. We can listen to the experts and review information from studies, but I do realize that statistics only go so far. Sometimes it is very hard to know what to do when making decisions that affect one’s health. My doctor reviewed the literature and feels that I am a perfect candidate for hormone therapy. So I am giving it a try, for my bones and my heart and my brain. If it relieves my other symptoms you may hear me singing in happiness from way across town.

As always, feel free to share, dear reader. There may be a woman out there who needs to hear this information, just as I did.

Thanks, Dad!!

Even when it comes to women’s health issues, Dad’s got your back!!!

Getting our Facts Straight

We made a new friend.

My daughter and I had the most wonderful day yesterday. We went out for lunch, did a little shopping (and laughing) at the mall, and went bowling with some friends. I honestly did not think about cancer once. Why? Because at this moment, my cancer is gone from my body, thanks to modern medicine.

After I got home from our wonderful girls’ day, I was resting on the couch checking Facebook. I noticed an article being shared around. As I read it, my heart started to pound and my hands started to shake. I wanted to scream at my innocent little phone screen. For there it was, another article about cancer survival rates being the same as they were a century ago and the “cancer industry” being all about making money and not about curing cancer. The author makes reference to a documentary that refers to the treatments I’ve had (radiation, chemotherapy and surgery) as “burn, poison, slash.” They make a claim that if people would only use natural approaches to cure their cancer, the rates of survival would be higher.

I am not a medical doctor, nor a scientist, but as a cancer patient I have done a lot of reading and research. When someone looks you in the eyes and tells you that you have stage 3 cancer, you sit up and you take notice.

When my cancer care team came up with a treatment plan for me, I researched it. The decisions they made were based on years of clinical trials and millions of dollars of research. If I had grown these tumours in my body 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, I would be on my death bed at this point. But here I am, bowling with my little girl and taking silly pictures at the mall.

When I made the decision to undergo 12 heavy rounds of chemotherapy after already having gone through so much, I did the research first. My oncologist explained to me that the chemo would reduce the risk of a recurrence of my cancer from about 65% to 25%. I read the journal article that laid out the research that was done in clinical trials with my chemotherapy regime. The people who took part in these trials had the same cancer as me. And their outcomes were better because of this course of chemotherapy. Thankfully, now I will get the same benefit. So I will be forever grateful to the researchers, doctors and nurses who ran these trials, and the clinical trial participants themselves.

These days, I’m following immunotherapy research. If my cancer does come back in the future I may benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, I have met people online, many who are living with stage 4 cancer, who are being kept alive today by new, cutting-edge methods of treating cancer such as cyber-knife technology, targeted drug therapy, or immunotherapy.

Image result for nobel prize for immunotherapy
Allison and Honjo were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 2018 for their work in Immunotherapy Research
Image result for nobel prize for immunotherapy
A little breakdown of Immunotherapy research by Allison and Honjo. Many patients’ cancers have been put into remission with this therapy. Some of them were only days from dying at the time.
https://www.cancerresearch.org/immunotherapy/stories/patients/emily-whitehead

I take a holistic approach to my health, and always have. Before my diagnosis I ate well and exercised and generally tried to take care of my mental, physical and spiritual health. Throughout my cancer treatment I have been going for massages and acupuncture treatments to relieve my symptoms and help with my general well-being. I use mediation, yoga and visualization to calm myself and deal with the psychological toll of this experience.

I believe that integrating Eastern medicine approaches into my treatment plan has helped me immensely in my recovery, but there was no “natural approach” that was going to shrink my big tumour and its’ little sidekick deposit. Cancer got radiated and shrivelled and cut out of me just before it ran rampant through my body. My insidious little batch of mutated cells were marching their way into my lymph nodes, but my surgeon and her team halted their progress. These people are my heroes, and I can’t help but get upset while reading an article that suggests that they are only in it for the money.

The article I read yesterday suggested there was no cure for cancer. But, in fact, cancer is entirely curable if caught early enough. Researchers and medical professionals know this. This is why we have screening for colon, prostate, breast and cervical cancer to name a few. Again, years of research and a lot of money has gone into developing screening tools and treatments for pre-cancer or early stage cancer, as well as approaches to prevention.

If you are interested in reading about cancer rates, treatment, or research globally, I’d suggest you start with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). One of the recent articles posted there discusses the recent rise in survival rates in wealthy countries for certain types of cancers. Of course, their information is based on properly conducted scientific research.

https://www.iarc.fr/news-events/new-iarc-study-reports-increasing-cancer-survival-and-progress-in-cancer-control-across-high-income-countries-since-1995/

I hope this post helps to explain to people that, when they donate to cancer research, they are really making a difference. I also hope that, if your life is touched by cancer now or in the future, you have access to the kind of care and treatment that I have had. My doctors and nurses have been nothing but compassionate and informed. They made, and continue to make, educated decisions for me and my health, and here I am.

I still have a way to go in my cancer experience. I am not the same as I was a year ago, but I am alive. I am bowling and writing this post. I am kissing my daughter’s cheek during funny moments at the mall.

And to the “cancer industry” that yesterday’s article presented in such a scathing light? All I can say is “thank-you.”

Waiting for a scan in this classy get-up. MRI machines are just one of the amazing technological developments that help diagnose and treat cancer.

Cutting Through the Food Noise

Fresh seaside calamari at Sansome’s Lobster Pool in Hillgrade… not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure!!

I clearly remember the first time that I started to think about my food consumption. I was eleven years old. I had gained a little weight, as many kids do during their pre-pubescence, and my pants were tight. I was sitting in class and I coughed, and the button popped right off my pants and flew across the room.

It could’ve been an embarrassing situation, but I don’t recall anyone else really noticing. I just remember an arrow of a thought deftly skewing my happy childhood oblivion – You have to lose weight!

Like most kids of the 80’s, I sometimes ate cheez whiz and chips ahoy. We barbecued regularly in the summertime on charcoal, and on Sundays we happily filled a brown bag with penny candy at the neighbourhood shop to enjoy after leaving family swim at the Y. But we always had plenty of fresh local seafood and home-cooked meals every night, and Mom usually drew the line at sugary donuts, chips and pop, unless it was a special occasion like a long car ride. We almost never had fast food, because my father refused to eat it. He referred to it as “cardboard.”

In my family, I was the one who loved food the most. Mom says that on those long road trips, when I would get cranky and fight with my brothers, all she would have to do is ask, “Where should we stop for lunch?” and I would instantly drop my fists and cheer up.

So, at age eleven, when I first started worrying about my diet, my parents helped me to make healthy choices and limit myself to eating three meals a day, reminding me to eat when I was hungry. My mom encouraged me to listen to my body. As I grew and stopped eating whole sleeves of crackers out of boredom after school, my weight leveled off. But after that moment in grade-six, I was always wary of food. I think most of us are.

We are now bombarded with “information” about food, and sifting through it can be exhausting. There are so many different types of diets, many of which advocate removing whole food groups from your life. Throughout my thirties I was dealing with bowel issues, and I spent a lot of time reading about food and adjusting our family’s dinners to make them cleaner, more plant-based, higher in fibre, more organic, and on and on.

After my diagnosis, I read that cancer cells love sugar, and that diets such as the keto, which are absent of sugar, can help slow the growth of cancer. Now, the keto diet is generally high in animal protein and red meat consumption has been linked to bowel cancer, so I didn’t know what to think of that. Most books I read that specifically detailed an anti-cancer diet promoted a plant-based diet that is chock-full of fruits and veggies, legumes and whole grains. These are some of my favourite foods. But, after my surgery, I developed stomach issues and even the thought of a raw fruit or veggie made me really sick. This has continued throughout my chemotherapy regime. Raw food sometimes makes me feel gross, and if it is cold it causes nerve pain in my throat. For the first number of weeks of chemo I ended up eating a lot of immuno-bark and white things, so thank goodness for my friend Vi’s tea-buns.

So there I was, eating chocolate and white things and wondering whether I was doing enough to discourage the growth of cancer in my body. I was trying to avoid dairy, meat, and sugar, while eating lots of vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains, but I was failing miserably.

And then one day, a conversation with my friend Robin turned it all around for me. I was telling her about my food difficulties and she said, “What makes you feel good?” I stopped and thought about it, and I wasn’t sure. I told her all the conflicting nutritional information I’d read and she said, “You need to forget about that, and eat intuitively.”

Basically, she said to listen to my body and give it what it needs. She said that if I eat something and it is no good for me I will know. And she gave me some really great tips about easy snacks to prepare.

It sounds so simple, but I’d spent so much time reading and digesting information and trying to make sense of it that I’d forgotten the basics. Eat intuitively. Your body is wise.

Food is one of the pleasures of life and I am fortunate to have access to affordable, healthy food. I thought about my grandparents, who worked so hard to feed their families simple, nourishing food. I remembered the basic guidelines I’d been teaching my kids as I’d been taught – cook fresh food for your family and eat together at the table and don’t eat when you aren’t hungry. I decided then and there to eat mindfully and enjoy my food as much as I could and to stop feeling guilty about it. My choices have been mostly healthy since then, but when I have a treat I delight in it and I tell myself it’s okay.

On a recent getaway to Knight’s Landing in Moreton’s Harbour, my friend Jenn delivered Asher and I a lovely, healthy breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

To lead healthy, mindful, fulfilling lives, sometimes we need to cut through the noise that is all around us. The food noise is big, and looms large on the internet, in book stores, and on television. I’ve cut food research out of my life for now, and I am happier for it.

Is there anything you’ve had to stop investigating, dear reader, for the sake of your own mental health and wellness? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

If you drop it, we will eat it. And we won’t feel bad about it at all!!

Old Man Cancer, My Ass!!

Look how young my brother and I look! I had no idea I had cancer.

Each year at our local high school the grade-twelve boys and girls are taken in separate groups into the library by the school nurse so that they can learn the steps for completing self-examinations of the breasts or testicles.

Teaching people screening tools such as these that they can use at home has surely saved hundreds of lives.

There has also been a campaign here in Newfoundland and Labrador in recent years encouraging women to get pap smears. I’ve seen the posters all around town and they have certainly reminded me to head to my doctor for my pap test.

But I’ve never seen a poster listing the symptoms of bowel or colorectal cancer. And I’ve never heard anyone say, “Check your poo.”

I think people assume, as I did, that colorectal cancer is an affliction that affects older people, most of whom are male. And we assume that, since screening is in place (usually encouraged in people over 50) the problem is more or less looked after.

But, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada for men and the third leading cause for women. It is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada. Colorectal Cancer Canada notes that colorectal cancer and rectal cancer are on the rise in young people:
“By 2030, colorectal cancer incidence rates will be up 90% in people between ages 20 and 34, and 28% for people between ages 35 and 49.”
https://www.colorectalcancercanada.com/more-young-adults-getting-dying-from-colon-cancer/

The FIT test has been rolled out in Newfoundland and Labrador and this has encouraged increased participation in the colon cancer screening program. According to
Dr. Jehan Siddiqui, clinical chief of the cancer care program, this will “translate into better outcomes for our patients as screening will result in earlier diagnosis and, therefore, more effective treatment of colorectal cancer.”
https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/new-report-sheds-light-on-newfoundland-and-labradors-cancer-statistics-280694/

I would encourage anyone, regardless of age, to complete a screening if you feel that something isn’t right, or if you have a family history.

I wish I had been educated about the symptoms of colorectal or bowel cancer, or that I had realized that my lifelong bowel issues were a risk factor. I may have been more vigilant and asked for screening earlier. I may have seen my doctor last spring when I started having mild symptoms instead of waiting until after Christmas when they were more advanced. I had no idea that I could be harbouring cancer, and I did not know what to look for.

If you notice blood or mucus in your stool, a feeling of pressure or a feeling of not completely emptying your bowel after a bathroom visit, changes in bowel habits or a change in the size of the stool that lasts more than a couple of days, have pain or cramps in the abdomen, feel tired or lethargic, or lose your appetite / lose weight, you need to see your doctor. Do not be afraid to ask for a rectal exam and a colonoscopy. This is what saved my life, and I am fortunate that my doctor examined me when I went to her office.

So, remember, check your poo! It’s not sexy but it might save your life 😉