Pink Became My Color, A Reflection

This week I celebrate 9 years of Cancer Survivorship and I am filled with gratitude and reflection. It has been 9 years since I heard the words that literally sent me crashing to the floor, “The cells are malignant, you have breast cancer.” 9 years since I was filled with questions like, “Will my children know me? How many years do I have left with Jay? My mom had 4 years, will it be the same for me? Where do I find the strength to get though this? ”

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A sweet moment with Nate after surgery and before chemo started. I thought the worst was behind me, I was wrong.

A sweet moment with Nate after surgery and before chemo started. I thought the worst was behind me, I was wrong.

Breast cancer was not a new word for me. I knew it well. My mother died of metastatic breast cancer when I was 20. I assumed one day I would get breast cancer, I just thought it wouldn’t be at the age of 32. I thought I had more time.

Following my diagnosis I woke up every morning thinking it was a nightmare, then the reality would sink in. Reality of long days of Dr. appointments in New York City, reality of the pain after my bilateral mastectomy and removal of lymph nodes, reality of the sickness from chemo, reality of the anxiety of having triple negative breast cancer that had high recurrence rates. The reality of being a young mom and wife through all of it. Lillian was 4 months old and Nate was 2 1/2 when I was diagnosed, I was overwhelmed and anxious while trying to just welcome each day I had the best I could.

This cancerversary seems to be occupying more mind space than other years. I have such immense gratitude and there is a part of me that wishes I could talk to that scared young woman.

I remember I didn’t want my picture taken and in hindsight I am glad I have some photos of those difficult days. Sometimes I feel like I lost 2 years of my life due to cancer, but when I look through photos I am reminded of the joyful moments and smiles and beauty of life.

The only photo of me bald, spending time on a weekend away, doing one of my favorite things!

The only photo of me bald, spending time on a weekend away, doing one of my favorite things!

Photos also remind me how far I have come, how many bonus days I have had. Facing your mortality at a young age is hard and trying but also has brought many blessings. It is a true dose of perspective whenever I need it. It has made me more compassionate, empathetic, a stronger and more grounded mother and wife, and reminds me of what is important in this beautiful life we all have.

When I thought of what I would tell myself after my breast cancer diagnosis I immediately thought of the photo below. It was the night that I shaved my head. That morning I woke up to clumps falling out and knew I needed to take back some control so out came the buzzer. It was one of the most empowering moments of my life. I asked Nate if he wanted to help me and he was overjoyed to. We were in his bathroom and he was giggling and said, “Mom, you look silly.” I asked him if I could shave his and he said, “No Way!” Ha! We continued to laugh and I looked in the mirror, cue the scene from The Legend of Billie Jean and Pat Benetar…

The night I shaved my head with Nate and baby Lillian had more hair than me

The night I shaved my head with Nate and baby Lillian had more hair than me

“We are strong 
No one can tell us we're wrong 
Searching our hearts for so long 
Both of us knowing…”

What would I tell that scared young mom in the photo smiling through her fears?

Seriously though, why didn’t anyone show me how to “paint” eyebrows on?

Seriously though, why didn’t anyone show me how to “paint” eyebrows on?

First, I would tell her she is going to be o.k. “No matter what happens, you are going to be alright!" The truth is there is no other choice. We can’t choose our circumstances but we can choose our reactions and our next steps.

I GOT TO TURN 40!!!!!! Bring on the birthdays and more candles!!!!

I GOT TO TURN 40!!!!!! Bring on the birthdays and more candles!!!!

I would tell her that her children will know her! “They will know your smile, your crazy kitchen dancing, the love you and Jay have and what is important to you. They will know you like listening to Jack Johnson and your love of the salt air. You will get to annoy them by limiting their sugar and they will challenge you on why our family is so healthy. You will get to visit new places with them and they will have you there for the start of Third Grade and Middle School!”

One year post chemo in OBX.

One year post chemo in OBX.

“Yes, they WILL see you at your worst, but also your best! They will know a mother’s love and your hugs and reassurance.”

“THERE WILL BE DAYS WHEN YOU DON’T THINK ABOUT CANCER! It will take some time, years, but one day you will realize, ‘Wow I didn’t think of cancer today!’ That day you will know another layer of healing has taken place.”

I would tell her that healing isn’t linear. That there are layers upon layers of healing. “One by one they will peel back and you will feel whole again. Like you, only better.”

Healing through a Cancer survivorship camp, Camp Koru in Maui 2012

Healing through a Cancer survivorship camp, Camp Koru in Maui 2012

“You will be grateful for everyone that has been a part of your life journey. Your husband, sisters and friends will be your lifelines. You will learn kindness like you never knew and you will learn how to ask for help and to accept it!”

I would tell her that she will have other health challenges, but she will get through, as she did with cancer, one day at a time.

“You will deal with anxiety, and even some panic attacks, but will fill your toolbox with more tools than you ever though could fit in one! You will even learn to meditate and enjoy it.”

“You will know more joy than you thought possible and you will feel healthier than you ever thought possible.”

“You will learn so much about self care that you would not believe me if I tried to tell you at the moment! You will create a healthy home for your children to reduce their risk of cancer. You will be overwhelmed, but if you just slow down, you will be o.k. Take small steps, the more you force being o.k. the longer it will take to achieve healing. Embrace it instead of fighting it. Give yourself time to heal. The cancer cells are gone, but survivorship is even more challenging in many ways.”

“You will become a cancer and wellness advocate, helping and empowering other young women along the way, as you were helped by other survivors and amazing organizations! Your passion will be helping others choose a healthier way of living.”

My beautiful younger sister Dina during chemotherapy

My beautiful younger sister Dina during chemotherapy

“Your younger sister will be diagnosed with breast cancer a few years after you and you will want to shield her from the path of cancer. Watching her go through it will be harder than you think. You will learn that it is her journey, not yours, and she will be one of the lucky ones too. You will both deal with the collateral damage of cancer, different after effects, but you will both make it years without recurrence.”

“You will lose friends and see other friends deal with a metastatic diagnosis. There will not be a cure soon enough! But in the meantime stay present and continue to find peace in your own journey.”

So here I am at 9 years from that Friday night when I heard my diagnosis and my life was forever changed. I had headed into surgery a short two weeks later and chemo started 4 weeks after that. It is a path I wouldn’t have chosen but it is how Pink became my color. I feel such deep gratitude for the past 9 years, what I refer to as my bonus years.

Wherever this post finds you on your life journey I am sending out peace, love, light and healing!

In health, Katerina

Simple Ways to Calm Down Fast

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Life can be very difficult, but it is up to us how we choose to react to it.  Last week due to external stressors and chemical exposures I found myself down the stress rabbit hole. I recognized it and moved through but not without fallout on my family and physical being.  I realized I was zipping through the grocery store at too fast a pace, operating at too high of a frequency, was low on patience with my children and husband, and needed to rest more.  Post cancer I have actively worked to compile quite a toolbox of various techniques and I am always adding to it. The KEY is to reach for the tools as quickly as possible to rid our bodies of mental and physical stress before fallout happens to ourselves and our loved ones. 

Stress seems to be ingrained into American life.  As a culture we seem to pride ourselves on being busy, wanting more than we have, and not allowing ourselves time and space to just be. This puts our body into a state of dis-ease, the opposite of wellness. Stress can be useful if we need to be on alert but in today's modern society much of our physical stress is created by us.  Historically humans needed physical stress to keep them alive. If a lion was chasing someone they needed an increase in adrenaline and cortisol to escape. That person would run and through exercise their hormones would return to normal. In today's society this scenario looks much different. Our stress hormones rise, but without proper outlets stress becomes chronic. We all have various stressors in our lives (busy schedules, school stress, health issues, financial worries, aging parents, work duties, raising children, job loss) and we may feel out of control in dealing with them. 

Although we can't control situations that bring us stress,  we CAN control our response. We can consciously acknowledge the warning signs when stress physically enters our bodies and use several strategies to Calm Down Fast. These strategies may not come natural to you but practicing will make them easier to access. 


STRATEGIES TO CALM DOWN FAST

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1. Recognize the first truth of stress: ONLY WE CREATE IT.  Stress is your physical and mental reaction to external stimuli. We can't change a crazy hectic world, but we can control our response to it. We can choose to react to stressful situations with grace, calm, humor, and humility. Just like alcoholism, 50% of the cure is admitting there is a problem to work on. 

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2. Seek Connection. When you are frustrated, stressed, or at wits end, call a friend, ask for a hug, or simply share that you are feeling stressed.  Connection, both physical and emotional, is scientifically proven to be an important factor in health, wellness, and longevity.  Connection helps prevent stress hormones from escalating. 

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3. Intentionally clench and unclench your muscles. Tense your hands and feet for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 3 times. You can also tense your face and jaw and then release. Legs, butt, and feet can be tensed easily under a table or desk, but save the face clenching for home, the car, or your bio break :) 

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4. Practice Gratitude. Wherever you are, whatever you are thinking, think of or write down 3 things you are grateful for. Gratitude directly leads to hope. Gratitude replaces negative thoughts, patterns and actions. We tend to engage in unhealthy behaviors when we are stressed so before you choose something that will cause more dis-ease in your body try to choose gratitude first. Practice makes this an easier tool to reach for. 

5. List 3 things you see that you like. No matter where you are notice 3 things around you that you find interesting, bring joy, or you simply like. This will focus your brain away from stress and negative thoughts. Beauty is where you find it! 

6.  Get outside.  Look up and notice the clouds, sky or tree tops. Fresh air and nature can shift your perspective in just a few minutes. A long walk is even better.  A change in our literal view can change our perspective. 

 

WEEKLY STRATEGIES TO CREATE A LOWER STRESS LOAD

Try one at a time, practice and remember it is best to anchor new habits to existing ones. For example complete your 3 deep cleansing breaths as soon as you shut off your alarm and before you check your phone.

1. Before you get out of bed take 3 deep breaths, making sure to expand your belly. This will wake up your lymphatic system, support your nervous system and immune system. You can create a morning mantra. Mine is, "Thank you for today." Maybe you can list 3 things you are grateful. Some people start their day with a gratitude e-mail thanking someone, or a quick text or phone call.  

2. Incorporate intentional breathing 3 times a day. This can simple be 3-5 deep breaths or more focused breathing exercises. I close my eyes and breathe in for a count of 6 and exhale for a count of 8.

3. Incorporate intentional breathing, yoga or mediation into your week. You can take 5-10 minutes a day and you should notice a positive difference.

4. Plan for at least 6 hours a week for relaxation time. This is time that there is nothing scheduled. Your only task is to be. You can ask yourself, "What would I like to do?" You can rest, meditate, read a book, enjoy a quiet cup of coffee or tea, knit. GUARD THIS TIME AS YOU DO YOUR ATM PIN.

5. Eat to support your nervous system. Sip tea, eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and be aware of your alcohol, caffeine, sugar and processed food consumption. 

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Remember you can't pour from an empty cup! Self care is important, especially during this busy time of year. There are many ways to calm down fast and to live a less stressful life. Choose which options best work for you! 

Sources and additional info on ways to reduce stress:

https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

Your Brain on Nature  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/music-and-health

https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/#9bf9d7f183c0

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/

M.D. Anderson https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/december-2014/how-stress-affects-cancer-risk.html.html

American Psychological Association http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/

http://www.hsj.gr/medicine/stress-management-techniques-evidencebased-procedures-that-reduce-stress-and-promote-health.php?aid=3429