I’ve not been writing much lately, but that’s because I’ve been busy becoming unstressed. It’s an ongoing project, but suffice it to say, I think it’s working. I have my moments, of course. While driving with three dogs in my car and one spots another dog daring to walk it’s person on a sidewalk nearby, the uproar of barking and screaming and gnashing of teeth as they hurl themselves at the car windows can be a bit upsetting, and I may lose my equanimity for a moment, but like all moments, these pass.
I want to write a bit more about stress in the next few months, as I am taking on a new project–that of teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to people with cystic fibrosis (and those who love and care for them) via an online portal to accommodate the need to prevent cross-infection. One of the reasons I am so passionate about doing this is that I know firsthand how stressful it is to live with CF, to watch family members and friends die from CF, and what it feels like to be depressed and anxious largely due to the toll CF plays on my psyche. As a start to the stress series I hope to write (unless it becomes too stressful), I’ll repost what I recently wrote in the CF Roundtable:
Stress is not a light-hearted topic, but given the recent findings of the international TIDES study (The International Depression Epidemiological Study), I think it is important that we talk about stress and the common effects of mismanaged stress—namely depression and anxiety.
The TIDES study spanned 154 centers; 6088 patients with CF and 4102 parents. This is a very large sample size, and the statistically significant findings are eye opening. Specifically, there are elevated signs of depression in 10% of adolescents with CF, 19% of adults with CF, 37% of mothers and 31% of fathers (of children with CF).
The consequences of depression are decreased adherence to our very complex medical regimen, disrupted family function, diminished quality of life, difficulty with sleep, impaired appetite, poor energy, and a weakened immune system. If this is not bad enough, I’m sure you can come up with a few more reasons that depression sucks.
The findings regarding anxiety in the CF world are worse. Elevations in anxiety were found in 22% of adolescents, 32% of adults, 48% of mothers and 36% of fathers.
Overall, these findings show the prevalence for both depression and anxiety in the CF community are two to three times greater than community samples. Of course, both depression and anxiety are the result of complex factors including genetics, environmental, psychological and developmental factors. But clearly, at the heart of environmental factors is the stress caused by living with CF. Knowing about the chances of a shortened life span is stressful. Not being able to do the “normal” things your peers do is stressful. Trying to fit into 24 hours all that needs to be done daily to manage your illness is stressful, because life doesn’t stop just because you have to do treatments and occasionally go into the hospital. You still have to deal with “normal” life stress. And of course, knowing that even when you do everything right, the outcome is often out of your control is stressful.
All of these stressful events are “chronic” stressors, as opposed to “acute stress” such as being chased by a hungry tiger. We have evolved to get over acute stressful events (as long as we don’t keep re-living the experience). But chronic stress is a different animal—no pun intended. Chronic stress wears on the body, physically and mentally. It is always there, ready to ruin your day if you let it. Hence the findings of the TIDES study.
So far, this has been quite a bummer of an article, and I’m sorry. But there is good news. There are quite a few things that are very effective for managing chronic stress. I’ve written about some of these before, namely getting daily exercise, proper nutrition and sleep, and finding time to relax and engage in activities and be with the people that you enjoy on a regular basis. There are also very helpful medications when these lifestyle habits are not enough. There is certainly no shame in needing additional medical attention for depression or anxiety.
But in this article, I’d like to focus on a technique that I have found extremely beneficial for handling life with CF with a modicum of balance and even occasional equanimity. Mindfulness meditation has been a practice I’ve used on a fairly regular basis for over 20 years.
I took my first eight-week course in “mindfulness-based stress reduction” when I was in my mid-thirties, very early in my career as a surgical pathologist. For some reason, up until this point I had not had major lung complications from my CF. But with the stress of a new job, a significant commute, and the necessarily busy schedule, my health began to decline. The reality of having a lung disease hit me square in the face, and I was looking for ways to help deal with it.
I saw a sign for the eight-week meditation class at the hospital where I worked, and signed up. This was one of the better moves I’ve made in my life, as I’ve benefitted from that class for the last 20 years. The practice I learned has helped me navigate through illnesses, upsetting sputum culture results, losing friends and another sibling to CF, losing my parents, and generally watching my health slowly decline. I won’t say those things have been easy, but becoming familiar with that place beyond my mind and body that never changes has proven immensely helpful.
That first class also planted a seed in my mind, though. I began to think that if it could work as well as it did for me, that maybe others in the CF community would benefit as well. This seed began to sprout about five years ago, when the opportunity to train as an MBSR teacher landed in my lap. I had a friend who had done the teacher training, and as a result, she and I began to teach a community class in mindfulness, which was a blast. That was when I knew I needed to pursue the idea of bringing MBSR to the CF world.
A brief word about MBSR is in order here. The class is the brainchild of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a PhD in molecular biology who also happened to be a Buddhist meditation practitioner. He knew the practice of mindfulness would benefit sick people, and in 1979, began to ask his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to send him their toughest cases, the people for whom they had no answers. People with debilitating chronic pain, untreatable cancer, horrible anxiety, or terminal diagnoses soon began showing up at his door. Of course, he knew he couldn’t begin to preach Buddhist theory…this was a hospital, after all. Somehow, he had to secularize what he did every day. He needed to create Buddhist meditation without Buddhism.
So Kabat-Zinn came up with an eight-week program where patients met as a group once a week to learn several different meditation techniques as well as practice gentle yoga. They also talked about ways of coping with reactive states of mind, and learned how to practice being mindful in everyday life. They were given homework of daily meditation, using guided meditation tapes provided by Kabat-Zinn.
An amazing thing happened. Terminal illnesses weren’t cured, of course, but people learned how to cope and enjoy what time they had left. Some people had pain reduction, but almost all improved the ability to tolerate their pain. Depression and anxiety lessened. Ever the scientist, Jon Kabat-Zinn collected the data and began to publish.
Now there are thousands of published papers on the benefits of mindfulness. MBSR programs are offered in hundreds of hospitals and community centers internationally. The science is fascinating. It appears that just an eight week intervention including meditation and gentle mindful movement at home, combined with the weekly group practice actually physically changes the structure of the brain. Areas of the brain associated with the control of empathy, emotions and compassion grow, while areas involved in anxiety and stress shrink. And these changes correlate with what patients report in numerous psychological tests.
Research, then, supports what I have discovered directly: Mindfulness meditation can benefit those of us with cystic fibrosis by changing our brains in ways that foster emotional balance and self-compassion while reducing the ever-prevalent problems of depression and anxiety.
It is possible to learn to meditate without taking a class, of course. There are fabulous books. There are online guided meditations. But every time I take an MBSR class (I’ve taken six now), I am amazed at how much being in a group helps, not just with accountability but because of how the group dynamics work. People share their struggles. We all learn that we are not the only ones suffering with…well, just about anything. Starting a habit like meditation can be hard. It may feel very awkward and discomforting at first. You will fight sleepiness. You will doubt that it is working. You will wonder if you are doing it “right.” You will want to give up and go get coffee. Your mind will wander off a thousand times. But, when you are in a group of people who ALL describe these same struggles, it is easier to stay on track.
With the amazing help of CFRI and the support of Vertex pharmaceuticals, I am beginning the inaugural online MBSR for CF (and caregivers) this spring. I hope you will join me. You can find out more, and sign up for the course at http://www.cfri.org/mbsr.shtml.
If you sign up (and Vertex has taken the financial burden of doing so down significantly) I can promise that you will learn a lot about what your mind does that is less than skillful, and this will prompt more healthy coping with life’s difficulties. It is worth the investment. You are worth the investment.
My Quantified Self Experiment: Can Heart Rate Variability Be Useful In Predicting A CF Exacerbation?
There is a movement afoot. It goes by a few names; quantified self, biohacking, and biologging are a few. The quantified self website has a tagline which sums up the purpose of this movement quite well, “self knowledge through numbers.” By using technology, usually in the form of wearable tracking devices, data is acquired which allows the self-tracker to understand herself better.
A simple example is the popular Fitbit, which is a device worn somewhere on the body, depending on the model, that tracks steps taken over the course of the day. It’s fancier than a simple pedometer (the original self-tracker), in that it has a built in accelerometer, so the user can wirelessly sync to her computer dashboard and record sleep, calories expended, steps and miles walked, floors climbed, most active time of the day, and of course even connect with fellow fitbit friends. It’s really amazing what you can track these days.
My recent foray into self-tracking involves first-thing-in-the-morning measurement of my heart rate variability, or HRV. I learned about the value of this measurement through my obsessive thinking about and planning my latest “comeback.” After the third bout of pneumonia this year, I guess I needed more than the usual amount of motivation, and was looking into the latest and greatest fitness gear/technologic toys to spice up the process a bit.
HRV measurement is definitely not new, but using it to enhance one’s training is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s been used for years in professional athlete circles, but easy to use cellphone apps for the masses are new. There are a few, but the one I chose is called “Bioforce.” Using a bluetooth enabled Polar heartrate monitor strap and this iPhone app, I’ve been watching my HRV steadily “improve” as I’ve slowly but surely increased my training intensity since rolling out of my room in the wheelchair (why do they have that rule?).
So what is HRV? In brief, there is a normal rhythm to the heartbeat that is a bit different from the constant “lub dub, lub dub, lub dub” that you might imagine. Your heart rate is under the control of your autonomic nervous system, which is a good thing or else you’d have to consciously contract your heart with every beat. The autonomic control of heart rate depends on a delicate balance between the sympathetic nervous system (think “fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (think “rest and digest”). As you inhale, the sympathetic nervous system is more in control, and as you exhale, the parasympathetic nervous system prevails. As a result, when you inhale, heart rate speeds up just a smidge, and as you exhale, it slows down. So when a regular heart rate monitor says your HR is 75, that is just an average of what it is over a given time period. Really, it probably ranges from about 70 to 80, depending on your breath cycle.
Now it gets simpler. A given measurement of HRV is a reflection of your autonomic nervous system, the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic input, in the moment. Increased parasympathetic function is associated with higher HRV and aerobic capacity and has been shown to correlate to increased life expectancy (in “normals,” i.e. they don’t have CF).
Why is this useful? Well, when the body is stressed, sympathetic system is more prominent. This is why your heart and breathing rate increase, why you stop digesting food, why blood shunts to your muscles to get ready to fight. It’s all automatic. When you are relaxed, parasympathetic control leads to the opposite effects. So HRV can reflect your body’s state of stress.
Elite athletes use this measurement to tell them if they are overtraining. This is why HRV apps for your phone have been created. A given daily measurement will let them know whether they should train hard that day, or take it easy because their sympathetic control is too high, warning them that they are approaching the overtrained state.
But HRV can also reflect the body’s state of inflammation, because there is a linkage between inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system. This is a bit complicated, because obviously you can have low grade inflammation and not have a flight or fight response. But remember, we are talking about measuring a fine balance here, and a significant inflammatory process (such as a CF exacerbation) could very well tip the balance a bit, and this could be picked up by a measure of HRV, especially if you are your own control. At least, this is my hypothesis.
So this is my N of 1 trial. Basically, N of 1 is a clinical trial in which a single patient is the entire trial. I am running my own case study. And N of 1 trials are what the quantified self movement is all about.
What have I learned so far? Well, for the first few days out of the hospital, my HRV was extremely low (green line is HRV, yellow line is heart rate, and blue is average). This makes sense, as I was stressed and my body was WAY stressed. Gradually, it has increased, with downward blips here and there:
The colors of the bars on the bottom of the graph have meaning if you are an elite athlete and basing your day’s training on your HRV. Green means go hard, amber means take it easy, and red means take a day off because your body is in the danger zone of too much sympathetic input.
Here is what I have learned so far: My HRV goes down (bad) if I drink any amount of alcohol the night before. This saddens me. It also goes down if I am dehydrated, which is likely related. As you can see, I am supposed to take today off from training, but my take away is that the second bottle of Fat Tire last night was a really bad idea.
Okay, so I know I’m a nerd. But I’m going to keep this up and watch what happens when I get sick the next time. Maybe I’ll have an early warning. We’ll see.
These types of experiments can be very enlightening. What would be really cool though would be if those of us with specific questions (CF related) could share with others our experiences, and get immediate feedback from others with similar questions. Do you think we could uncover some interesting results? Think of the surfers’ experiences leading to the development of hypertonic saline. More to follow!
It was a little over a month ago that I lay on my weight bench in the garage with tears of frustration streaming down my face. I had just completed a 15 minute “workout” consisting of a few unweighted lunges, some hip bridges, and 3 sets of 5 reverse abdominal curls. This was all I could do, since I still had a PICC line in my arm and couldn’t chance any upper body work (I’ve learned that important life lesson). As it turned out, the 3 exercises I chose were clearly enough, as my heart rate after the last rep was about 300 bpm and I felt like if I rolled off the bench right then, I might have to call my son in to help me up.
I was a mess.
I suppose I had a good reason for the tears. This was the third bout of pneumonia in just four months, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. It was also my first attempt at any form of exercise other than easy walking in well over a month, and my physical fragility was frightening. Normally when I exercise, I am a bit of a taskmaster. I push myself pretty hard and usually do more than I set out to do. But today was different. I was a complete wimp.
I was nearly at the end of my course of antibiotics and the PICC was coming out in two days. This meant that I had been receiving medications to eradicate lung infections for four of the the last five weeks. That is a lot of antibiotics. There was likely not a viable bacterium to be found in my body. Indeed, my cough was gone, the pain of pleural inflammation was gone, and I could actually eat again. But, where was my mojo? I still felt like crap, and this was the kicker. Normally, at the end of a course of IV’s, I am raring to go, having planned my fitness regimen for the next three months. This time was different, and I was worried.
Of course, my partner reminded me that I would get better…that I always did…and that I needed to be patient. My rational mind knew this, but my emotional self kept whispering, “What if this is it? The beginning of the end? Your 53 year good luck streak has to end sometime…”. I hate that voice.
So, ten pounds of muscle mass down (which was obvious as I watched my legs trembling as I got up from the bench), I vowed to give my secret weapon the old college try and to stop listening to emotional self until the end of the trial. Antibiotics are needed, as are pulmonary clearance and airway treatments. Sleep is king, and hydration and good caloric intake does wonders. But, the best medicine of all, at least in my experience, is daily exercise. It makes me breathe deeper. It gets me outside. It makes me cough up junk. It builds an appetite. It makes me, ahem….regular. But most of all, it feeds my soul.
So, tears now dried, I developed my plan. It was a modified version of my plans of the past…much easier…much slower progressing.
Walking is always the foundation of my recovery, and will be until the day I can’t walk anymore. But walking further than I should due to training for a half-marathon when sick was what landed me in the hospital with pneumonia number two, so I had to be cautious. I decided to cut in half the time I thought I should be able to walk, and add just a few weight training exercises only three days/week. These were front squats, kettlebell swings (only 10 at a time), and Turkish get-ups with a very light kettlebell. That’s it. I wanted to do more, but my shoulder was messed up (thanks to levoquin), and I had to be careful not to rupture a tendon.
So that’s what I did. Over time, my walks became walk/jogs, and my two kettlebell exercises proved to work magic, as I knew they would. Today, I’m doing swing intervals as easily as I was before the s&#t hit the fan back in January. My shoulder is getting stronger and I’m able to press again. I can breathe. I’m not coughing. I’ve gained back 6 pounds.
Yes, the antibiotics did wonders. Thank God (and Barb) I have insurance and great medical care! But there is no doubt in my mind that what converted me from that trembling, weak mess lying on my bench last month to today, looking forward to my get-ups and KB presses, is exercise. Exercise is medicine. Very slowly but surely, it works to build up strength and endurance, to improve appetite and thus enable weight gain, and to bring me out of the doldrums to enjoying my fantastically fortunate life.
So far, 2014 has not been my favorite year. Three hospitalizations in four months is a personal record that I do not want to break. But, the good news is that I have learned quite a bit about “comebacks.”
I am writing this as I walk on a treadmill, sucking on a nebulizer which is providing hypertonic saline to my recovering respiratory mucosa. I have to stop frequently to cough of course…that is the point, after all. But it has dawned on me that this act is a win. It’s a small win, but a win, nonetheless. For the last month, my treadmill has been motionless, as I’ve either done my treatments from a hospital bed, or from my bed, or from the recliner in the living room. Simultaneous walking was out of the question.
This is big! I will celebrate by going to go to the gym today for the first time since mid-March (I cringe as I think of the monthly fee). Even though I am forced to be extremely cautious with lifting due to the effects of ciprofloxacin on my poor shoulders, this will be a huge step in the positive direction. The energy of that place feeds my soul in a way that is hard to describe. The gym is my happy place, and I have missed her dearly. God knows, my shriveled muscle fibers need to be awakened so that I can gain back my lost weight.
I’ve discovered that one small win a day keeps the frustration at bay (that could be a bumper sticker). CF is frustrating. Any illusion of control is busted at any time, with no warning. This wears on my psyche. It taxes my patience. It drives my worrying, monkey mind crazy. There is no way to stop the relentless progression of this disease. All I can do is my best to slow it down.
Indeed, the only way to win is to find small victories…every day. Some are much smaller than others. Some are so small that I long for my old microscope to find them. But they are there. A friend flying all the way from Texas to spend time with me and try to help me out. A funny thing that my son says. A dog licking my foot. A quiet weekend with my partner. A walk, even if I can only go 10 minutes, is after all, a win over a hospital bed.
They add up, the small wins. I’ll be back to my normal Julie eventually. Or, maybe I’ll just be a new Julie, still winning. Because I won’t let CF beat me. As long as I am in charge of the battle, I win.
I worry too much. Perhaps a reasonable person would say I have a right to do so, but nonetheless, it is pointless and it pisses me off. It probably comes with the territory of being an “old CF survivor,” as I have been called. Fifty-three is not exactly “old” in wild-type years, but for a cystic (man, I hate that term) with my original lungs in place, it is ancient. Being a worrier could actually be an adaptive train. I don’t know. I know that when I catch a cold or the flu, I have an exceptionally high chance of landing in an ER, so I worry about being around sick people. When I look at my heart rate monitor and it registers 135, even though I’m barely moving and my dog is clearly doing all of the work as she drags us around the streets of Palo Alto, I know something is very wrong, and I worry. Could I be dehydrated? Anemic? Am I getting sick again? Crap. Who’s going to take care of the dogs this time? Before I know it, in my mind I am lying on a gurney and CF is winning.
I can’t count the number of times that I have wished I didn’t understand medicine. Oh, to be a retired carpenter, or chef, or lawyer! Why do I have to know everything bad that could be happening inside of me? It all started in medical school, when I started acquiring all possible disease states. I’m not alone in this malady; I think it probably happens to every budding doctor. But I took it to extremes. I was surprisingly CF symptom-free back in those days…other than GI problems which I will not go into…you’re welcome. But this didn’t stop me from imagining horrible afflictions. Having the subject of pathology as my all-time favorite course, it shouldn’t be surprising that I self-diagnosed almost every type of malignancy, barring testicular carcinomea. In fact, by the end of medical school, I had honed down every one of my many symptoms to be a form of brain cancer. It really is true…brain cancer could be the answer to any problem. It’s kind of like Kevin Bacon and the seven degrees of separation. Kind of.
Anyway, according to a recent CT scan taken to rule out a pulmonary embolism because the last freaking pneumonia hurt so much, I now get to worry about having lung cancer for three months. The CT showed multifocal pneumonia and mucus plugging (duh…I’m 53 with CF and I was sick), but the radiologist just HAD to mention that he or she “could not rule out” malignancy. ( This is totally Karma coming to bite me in the ass. If you knew how many times I have used that phrase in my path reports…). So he/she suggested a repeat scan in three months and now I get to worry. More.
The last straw happened last night, as I was enjoying the downward dog pose for the first time in over a month (PICC lines and yoga don’t mix). I noticed a very dark splotch (technical term) on the bottom of my foot. It was new, irregular in color and shape, and was in a prognostically horrendous location for a melanotic lesion…the sole of my foot. This little factoid kept ringing in my mind…”Oh God, Julie…a new pigmented spot on the sole? You are so dead.”
I rushed to find my reading glasses, because without them it looked vaguely like a tick…yes, that black…but was flat. With my glasses and under the light, my fears were confirmed. It was no tick. It looked exactly like an acral melanoma. My stomach turned and the oxygen left the room. What a way to die! Wait, CF was supposed to kill me! This was outrageous! I needed to go to the dermatologist NOW. I wondered if they had a night clinic? Ok, deep breath…at least it’s flat. Maybe it hasn’t metastasized yet. BUT NO WAY, I then remembered that acral lesions can be flat and be very bad actors. Panic truly began to ensue.
This is what happens to me. I need to cut my head off. Instead, I had the rather brilliant idea that perhaps I should see if it was dirt. So I wetted a paper towel and began to scrub. Three seconds later, my melanoma was cured.
I realize that this post does not belong on a blog titled “Sick And Happy.” It should just be called “Sick.” However, I don’t really want to start a new blog. It would just be something else to worry about.