Overcoming my Fear of the Sun

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, the fear is overwhelming. Fear of painful treatment, fear of the unknown, fear of death. Fear begins to creep in and take over your life. I know – I went through lots of tearful nights and inner turmoil. I wanted to be positive and my old, happy self; but how can you be happy with a gray cloud surrounding you?

After I was diagnosed with melanoma and came to terms with my fear of death, I still had another constant fear. I became terrified of the sun. Every dermatologist and every doctor uses the guilt-stick to beat skin cancer patients into avoiding the sun completely. “Wear sunscreen on a daily basis” “Don’t go outside in the middle of the day” “Avoid tanning and ABSOLUTELY avoid tanning beds” (the latter one I agree with, but the others are mostly fear-mongering).

As if my cancer fears weren’t crippling me enough, now I had to completely change my way of life. I started to super over-analyze the tiniest bit of sunshine as though the UV rays were my kryptonite.

I distinctly remember my tipping point. I was at an anesthesia conference in Orlando, Florida (PERFECT place for someone with melanoma, right?!?) and my entire group was hanging out by the pool. There they all were, in bathing suits, splashing around, having a grand-ol time socializing and sunning. And there I was, covered in sunscreen and almost all clothed, sunglasses and hat and all. The dark cloud in a room of sunshine.

I couldn’t have a good time. The entire scene was just terrifying to me. Every moment out in the sun just made me think more and more about how my life had changed. I was imagining all my moles bursting into melanomas, one by one, for every extra UV ray that was hitting my body.

After about 20 minutes, I went to my room and broke down.

That was my fear-tipping point. I knew I would never be the same, but I also knew it didn’t have to be THIS way, either.

I didn’t want to totally go hog-wild and go sun bathing or anything CRAZY like that. I just wanted to control my fear to be able to make the most of life. I absolutely did NOT want my life crippled by my fear.

So I used a little bit of mindfulness to change my thinking. Every time I was in the sun, I thought of all the good qualities it brings to earth. When I really got to thinking, skin cancer was the ONLY bad thing about the sun. The sun existed for eons before humans. It helped life form on this earth.

So during my walks, I would look at the daisies and say to myself “the sun helped give those life”. Or if I saw an amazing sunrise/sunset, I would give a little nod to the sun for creating such beauty. Even during grace, I would give a little mental thanks to the sun for nurturing the fruits and vegetables on my plate.

Consciously making the effort to bring the sun into my positive thinking was paramount to conquering my fear. It took time for me to begin to feel comfortable stepping outside without focusing on the kryptonite, but slowly it happened. It was not an overnight miracle. But slowly, using positive thinking and mindfulness, my mindset changed.

Slowly I became my thoughts; not the fearful ones…the positive ones.

As Tony Robbins (one of my personal favs) states “When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.” I took this mantra to heart – every…single…day – to conquer my fear of the sun.

And to this day, I’m happier because of it.

What are you fearful of? Have you ever used mindfulness to conquer YOUR fears? Let me know in the comments below!

 

How I kicked my cancer fear to the curb

Recently, I’ve had many people ask me one of the most important (but most overlooked) questions about cancer treatment. How did I learn to cope?

I don’t mean physically cope with getting through the treatments. Coping with treatments and healing after surgery is really just ‘grin and bear it’. There’s no secret to physically getting through treatment – you just have to put on your rally cap and fight like hell.

But how do you MENTALLY cope with cancer? How do you endure a diagnosis like stage 3 melanoma and NOT want to crawl into a hole and cry yourself to sleep?

Well, I have to admit, there was definitely a little bit of that for me – at first.

 

I’ve always said that cancer is more of a mental battle than a physical one. My melanoma diagnosis hit me very hard. I’m in healthcare – I should KNOW the warning signs. I should KNOW to take care of my own health first and foremost. But I put my changing/bleeding mole on the back burner while I worked 60 hours/week taking care of other people.

I felt a HUGE amount of guilt and blamed myself for months. I felt defeated. I felt lost. Why me? How could I do this to my family? What if I don’t make it? How am I supposed to live my life like this?

And then I gradually began to realize that this was a battle of wills. Much like any sport, the team with the best mental state wins. I was NOT going to let this stupid cancer win. This cancer was NOT going to bring down my spirit. If I was going to fight like hell physically, I also had to fight mentally. My whole being had to fight – and fight hard.

I knew the odds weren’t in my favor. I knew that melanoma defeating me was more of a likelihood than a possibility. At the age of 31, I had to come to grips with my own mortality in a very real way.

But you know what? As the old saying goes: there are only 2 certainties in this world – death and taxes. If my life was going to be cut short, I better make it a damn good one.

So I came to the conclusion: cancer may take my life. But cancer would NOT take my soul.

 

Sometimes you have to endure the rain to experience a rainbow

I have a soft spot for country music, and Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying” to this day makes me cry. There’s something about facing death that makes you realize how precious life is – and you have to soak up EVERY MOMENT. Every day is truly a blessing.

Thousands of people have survived cancer and been given a second chance on life. And since treatment that has become my new mentality – I’ve been given a second chance at life. And you can’t have a full life when you’re constantly worried.

So I permanently shut off that leaky faucet of fears and guild and questions that kept creeping into my mind.

How did I do it? Mindfulness meditation.

I began reading books such as The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh and it made me realize that meditation doesn’t have to be all granola and incense and “ohm”. Just being mindful – learning to soak in every moment – was something we could all do. Soaking in the joys of everyday life has made me more grateful and more introspective about how I want to live.

Think about it. Think about what you want to accomplish in life. REALLY TRULY accomplish. Because YOU are the only one who can make these dreams a reality. YOU are the only one who can choose to live in a beautiful state rather than living every day in fear.

Because living in fear is no way to live. And I choose living a life that’s worth living. And so should you.

So say NO to the fears. Say NO to melanoma and cancer. Put your foot down and choose to take back your life. Start LIVING your life while you still can. It’s that simple.

So get out there and start living!!

Why I don’t wear sunscreen.

I’ve had stage 3C melanoma. And I don’t wear sunscreen.

Many of my melahomies are screaming at me through the computer as they read this. I can hear the outcry of “WTF are you THINKING!!” Every dermatologist or oncologist who reads this is rolling their eyes and saying “You DO know that the best way of protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays and melanoma is sun safety. I recommend sunscreen with SPF 30.”

I hear you. I hear all of you. And I understand that you have serious concerns. And I know that you all truly believe that what you say is 100% true.

But I completely disagree with your SPF theories. Someone with melanoma avoiding the sun is like a heart attack patient avoiding exercise because it may give them another heart attack. Seriously…think about that. After my dad had a heart attack and bypass surgery, they had him on a resistance bike 3 times a week at full speed. Part of his rehab was to get that heart pumping hard again.

But melanoma patients are supposed to COMPLETELY avoid the sun – something that’s been around for BILLIONS of years and before mankind even existed – because it’s “bad” for us?! How does the thing that gives life to plants and other living things have “harmful UV rays?” Why is sunlight demonized in a way that makes us fear the sun which is NEEDED for life to exist on Earth? How does this even make sense?

So instead of following this completely nonsensical line of thought, I’ll explain to you my own “sun safety” theories.

My previous post on Vitamin D explained a very important part of my sun safety protocol. I try and get a little bit of sunlight every day. According to many sources, including this article from US News, experts suggest 10-30 minutes of sunlight on your arms and legs to get the proper amount of Vitamin D. You could also supplement this with certain foods  like fatty fish (such as salmon) and eggs.

courtesy of http://www.independentnurse.co.uk/clinical-article/is-vitamin-d-important-for-melanoma-patients/154321/

This makes sense – it’s easier for our bodies to process Vitamin D from natural sources rather than a pill formula.

A professor, a pharmacist at my graduate anesthesia program, once said that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world. We take more supplements than any other nation, and $21 BILLION is spent on supplements yearly. Yet, most Americans don’t get enough nutrients from diet alone, and only 9.7% of Americans get the recommended amount of Vitamin D. We try and use supplements to make up for our shortcomings – but rather than making us healthy, this only thins our wallets.

Vitamins when taken in pill form absorb poorly, virtually failing to do what we expect them to do, and only “supplement” as long as you continue to take them. This is similar to a trendy, “shed the weight” diet pill – it kind of works, but it’s not healthy for you long-term and as soon as you stop taking it you’re back to square one. Unless you’re trying to fill the gap for a short period of time (perhaps the winter months) what’s the point of taking a supplement for vitamin D when you can get the same thing from the sun, free of charge? Getting your Vitamin D from a supplement for your entire life in pill form just isn’t logical.

The second part of my “sun safety” thought process is that we Americans spend ENTIRELY too much time indoors. Seriously. According to the EPA, Americans spend somewhere around 93% of their time indoors.

So let me get this straight… Melanoma rates have doubled since 1973 in the US. Yet, with our office cubicle 9 to 5 lifestyles, we now spend more time than ever inside…meaning out of the sun. Meaning…away from the thing that every doctor wants to blame as the cause of melanoma.

Your sunscreen may be blocking your Vitamin D absorption! Courtesy of http://www.simplysunscreen.com/goth-sunblock-clothing.html

To top this all off, many of the ingredients in sunscreen have been proven to be dangerous! No joke! The Environmental Working Group (as quoted here from CNN) has a list of potentially dangerous ingredients used in sunscreen that can potentially CAUSE CANCER! I really wish I was joking here, everyone, but I am not. Read the article for yourself and then go and look at the ingredients in your “safe” sunscreen. You slather this stuff on your skin and then use the sun to bake all those wonderful cancer-causing ingredients right on in.

So WTF are we supposed to do?!?!?!

There are many natural oils which have a small amount of SPF – you can find a great article here on all the SPF abilities of natural oils and make your OWN natural sunscreen! Or you can visit one of my favorites – Dr. Axe – and see how to make your own sunscreen here.

Find a great recipe for sunscreen here: https://draxe.com/homemade-sunscreen/

But what if you’re not prone to becoming a DIY apothecary? What can you do?

Condition your skin.

No, not with conditioner, silly. Get enough sun every day, in slightly larger doses, until your skin is used to the sun. It’s like working out – you don’t just jump right in to a marathon without prepping. You gradually train and prepare for it. Just like your heart, you have to train and condition your skin for optimal health.

If I feel like my skin is turning slightly pink, I immediately find shade. I’m not one to “lounge” by the pool because there’s so many things I want to explore and do. But If I really need that zone-out beach-style “someone bring me a Mai Tai” time in the sun, I only do so until my body has had enough. It’s simple – listen to what your body is saying and don’t burn.

Now one thing I have to say. If you ARE going to be outside for an extended period of time (because, you know, life is fun outside) then please DO prepare. Get enough sun so that your skin is getting more exposure than normal, but DO NOT burn. Just don’t do it. Find shade or cover up when your skin has had enough.

Getting multiple sunburns over time DOES damage your skin and cause skin cancer. So if you’re going into a situation where you know there’s a chance you’ll burn, then please DO seek shade and wear sunscreen. But make sure it doesn’t have any of the nasty cancer-causing ingredients!

Do YOU wear sunscreen? Tell me why in the comments below!

Melanoma Monday

I know that May the 1st (Melanoma Monday) has come and gone. The whole month of May is Melanoma Awareness month, and it brings with it some very strong feelings about my journey. I look back on my diagnosis like many a patient and ask “What did I do wrong? Did I deserve this? How do I prevent a relapse with this horrible disease?”

These are the daily life questions of ANYONE diagnosed with melanoma. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about how far I’ve come since my diagnosis and my goals of life-long remission.

Thankfully, treatment for Melanoma has really come a long way. The odds of surviving my diagnosis of Stage 3C just a few years ago were NOT in my favor – something like 24-29% five year survival rate. That meant that I had a one in 4 chance of making it 5 years before dying of the disease.

5 years!! I was diagnosed at 31 years old – if I reached the ripe old age of 36, I’d be lucky. VERY lucky. To compare this information to another deadly disease, I looked into the prognosis for breast cancer – stage 3 breast cancer has a 72% survival rate. Now, I’m not saying that breast cancer is a walk in the park – quite the contrary. And yet having breast cancer has a better chance of surviving stage 3 cancer than I do according to these statistics.

But with immunotherapy, these numbers have changed dramatically. It’s no longer a “roll of the dice” to see if you make it 5 years with a Melanoma diagnosis. Immunotherapy has changed the landscape of treatment options – and added some much needed flexibility with treatment. The statistics I have listed for melanoma are no longer valid thanks so these amazing new treatments.

However, immunotherapy isn’t a magic bullet. Many patients don’t respond to immunotherapy, and due to the way these drugs work, they can’t be given to everyone. Not to mention that the HUGE list of side effects can make these treatments hard to tolerate for a lot of people.

I have every intention of avoiding these side effects and NOT going back on immunotherapy. So what the heck can I do to prevent a recurrence?

If you’ve ever googled “cancer prevention” there are a MILLION trendy diets and tips and tricks. But if you boil it down to the major proven methods, here’s a small list:

1 – Eat more cancer-fighting super-foods such as berries and cruciferous vegetables

2 – Exercise more

3 – Stress less

4 – Get more sleep

5 – Get enough Vitamin D and DON’T avoid the sun

Whoa, whoa that last one can’t be right…can it? I mean, melanoma is CAUSED by sun exposure! But Vitamin D is created THROUGH your skin’s exposure to sunlight – and it’s a necessary vitamin to fight many cancers, including melanoma.

Map of Melanoma in the US – many northern states have a higher rate of melanoma

Yes, the sun plays a major roll in all skin cancers. But melanoma isn’t like basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma, which are directly linked to sun-exposed areas. Some forms of melanoma have been proven to NOT be linked to UV radiation at all!  And there have been plenty of studies all over the world PROVING that people with lower Vitamin D levels (and thus too little sunlight exposure)  have a poorer prognosis at diagnosis (and also written about here and here and here too!).  With all these strange connections between Vitamin D and melanoma, there are now even trials to test Vitamin D as an adjuvant treatment for melanoma.

Yet, every melanoma patient is told to AVOID THE SUN at all costs. Every dermatologist and doctor playing by the ‘rules’ will also say the same thing. Avoid the sun. Wear 30+ SPF. But then many will also say that you need to take Vitamin D supplements in the same sentence. Why avoid the very thing that can help PREVENT melanoma and then take artificial supplements to try and make up for it?

A map of the sun’s UV radiation in the US. Could there be a link between the lower UV rays (and lower Vitamin D levels) of the states with higher rates of melanoma?

We have a billion dollar supplement industry, and this is a prime example. Avoid the sun, and take a supplement to give you the necessary vitamin that the sun provides free of charge.

Now, with all things in life, moderation is key. I’m not telling you to go out there and fry yourself to get your daily Vitamin D intake. Quite the contrary. I’m telling you to think about your skin’s daily intake of UV radiation. Both avoiding the sun entirely and sunbathing for hours are toxic. Why not aim for the moderate middle – daily sunlight, avoiding burns on extended days outside, and if you’re in the winter months, consider vitamin D.

No, I’m not an oncologist. I’m not a dermatologist. I’m just someone who’s been researching these interesting connections since my own diagnosis. Sometimes doctors insist on hard proof for the smallest connections when, really, just using common sense is all that you need.

So during this month of Melanoma Awareness, make sure you’re aware of the things YOU can do to prevent melanoma. Do your own research. Make your own healthcare decisions – they may change your life.

New status!

Last week, I met with my oncologist and got the results of my latest PET/CT scan. It’s always so nerve wracking to meet with the doc – it involves so many important decisions and information that just prepping for the appointment can make me nervous. Walking in the door of the hospital is like walking into the unknown…I can always feel my heart racing as I try to stay calm. Deep breathing exercises usually help, and closing my eyes and using mindfulness meditation also helps to bring down my heart rate.

I didn’t expect to hear any change in treatment plan in this visit. I was hoping, at best, for no change in my scans.

But I was pleasantly surprised!! NED. No evidence of disease. The best three letters I’ve ever heard!!

My cancer is completely gone. No uptake on the PET scan. Nothing visible in the CT scan.

NOTHING! It’s like it all melted away!

I’m over the moon. All the craziness that I’ve been through, all the poking and prodding, all the infusions, for now, are done.

Would I go through it again? Honestly…yes I would.

Cancer really does something to you. I feel like being so young and looking at death is like a mind altering drug. I’ve become more patient. More sensitive. Less judgmental and more caring. I celebrate the little things and stress less about the big things. I’ve become closer to my family and friends…close in a way that I could never have predicted.

I’ve changed my whole outlook on life.

So to me, all the hardships for the past 20 months were all worth it. Giving up my career as an anesthetist in Florida, moving cross country for the BEST care at Mass General, building a greenhouse and a garden for my sanity, going back to work as a surgical neurophysiologist, all of this was a journey. It wasn’t a pleasant journey at times. But it was a journey that has changed not only my body, but also my mind and my soul.

I hate to say it. But I’m a better person thanks to cancer.

 

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