Living Well with MPNs – The Power of Diet & Exercise

The Power of Diet & Exercise: Advice From MPN Experts

Living Well With MPNs: The Power of Diet & Exercise from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

The expert panel featured renowned MPN specialist and researcher Dr. Ruben Mesa and was joined by other experienced clinicians and patients on the broadcast, to share knowledge and advice about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle when dealing with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs).


Transcript:

Andrew Schorr:

And hello, wherever you may be. Welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. We’re going to discuss the power of diet and exercise, and get advice from MPN experts. We want to thank Insight Corporation for their support. We’re gonna cover the country – the U.S. country – today with our experts. I have my own experience with an MPN, myelofibrosis, diagnosed in 2011, and I’m an avid runner, and I like to go to the gym, and I certainly like to have my weight be just right. Some of this has been a challenge along the way, and we’re gonna get advice from the experts on that. We’re also gonna meet a patient from New Jersey, and we’re gonna meet a noted expert from San Antonio, and a dietitian who’s an expert in oncology diet, and she’s in North Carolina.

So, let’s get started. And remember, you can send your questions to MPN@patientpower.info. And if you have some favorite recipe or some exercise tip, send that too. All right, let’s go first to Westfield, New Jersey, about 19 miles from New York City, meeting someone who grew up in Brooklyn but now lives with her family in suburban New Jersey, and that’s Julia Olff. Julia, welcome to the program.

Julia Olff:

Hi, thank you very much.

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you, Julia. Now, Julia, you and I have met a couple of times. We did a Town Hall event in New York City near Grand Central Station, and you were there. And then a few weeks ago, we were all at Cornell Weill, and across from where you used to work for five years at Memorial Sloan Kettering. So, as I understand it, nine years ago, you were diagnosed with ET, and then a year later, it became what I have too, myelofibrosis. How did it start?

Julia Olff:

It really was diagnosed incidentally through a physical – annual physical exam and routine blood work.

I think in retrospect, I had symptoms. Probably like other folks, I had thalamic migraines over the years and some blood abnormalities, but it was really a physical exam. And I was not symptomatic that I was aware of at that time.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. And it didn’t worry you, at that point.

Julia Olff:

I mean, I know we’ll talk more about it. I worked in health education. I worked on patient education materials at the time. When I was told I had ET, I was sort of thrown because I was one of those people that were always healthy, always focused on health. And it concerned me, but I was not yet worried.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay, so here comes myelofibrosis.

Julia Olff:

Right. That worried me. So, that also was diagnosed at that point then through bone marrow biopsy, and they were able to determine some initial mutations related to myelofibrosis.

And I saw a local oncologist, who was now more serious about this as the more serious form of the illness, and looking on the Internet. And now this is actually about 2008. You know what kind of information was available at the time. It was pretty dire. So, that kick started my getting more serious about it.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Now, you’ve had some hospitalizations, too. So, it’s been up and down, right?

Julia Olff:

Yeah, I think it’s a real ebb and flow. I feel, in a lot of ways, fortunate that it’s nine years out, and I have not had some of the hallmark symptoms that others have. But I have had these strange, sort of out of nowhere; I can feel fairly good, barring fatigue and some pain. And then out of the blue, I had a TIA. I’ve had a few hospitalizations for colitis. And those set you back, you know?

They take a good six to eight weeks to recover. And if you saw me in August, you would see the really lethargic, slow-moving me.

Andrew Schorr:

So, what’s your exercise routine?

Julia Olff:

Well, I know we were talking earlier. I had two dogs, most recently one, and he just passed away. That has been my exercise routine. So, I don’t feel energetic enough to do things like biking, even though I have a lovely bicycle. But I do try to walk every day. And right now, I’m feeling well enough that I push myself to walk a little longer. And I think as it gets darker in the year – I’m on the East Coast. As it gets colder, I do really have to push myself. But I wholeheartedly advocate for having a pet, because you need to get out, and that really helps a lot. So, walking is key for me.

Andrew Schorr:

And diet, I know. So, you’ve got a high school kid at home and a college kid who’s coming back. And you’ve had five children in a blended family, I know. So, it can be a busy place. What do you eat, and what do you eat consciously that you feel helps you as you’re living with an MPN?

Julia Olff:

Well, I think the thing that’s helped me the most is actually following Weight Watchers. And I know we were talking earlier that being on Ruxolitinib or Jakafi has added pounds. And it has. And that sort of prompted me. I finally got fed up with myself, and I joined Weight Watchers. And I think the most important aspect of Weight Watchers is, one, portion control. And then the other part is eating fresh food. So, that changed or really pumped up my diet. So, one, I started to receive organic groceries delivered to the house, which also helps a lot when you’re feeling fatigued. So, I try to eat as many fruits and vegetables at every meal. And I feel like that’s helping me.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. All right. We’re gonna get more from you along the way. And I want you to chime in with questions. Let’s meet one of the best-known experts as a physician devoted to treating MPNs, and that’s Dr. Ruben Mesa. He recently moved from where he was with Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and now – you’ve got a long title, Ruben. I’ve got to give it. It’s Director of Mays Family Foundation, Distinguished University Presidential Chair Professor of Medicine at the UT Health San Antonio Cancer Center. I’m so glad I got it right. Ruben Mesa, welcome to our program. It’s great to see you again.

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Hey, it’s always a pleasure to be on these Patient Power events.

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you so, much. And Patient Empowerment Network program. Thank you so much, Ruben. So, Ruben, we’re gonna come back to you and have you really put diet and exercise in perspective.

And I know you’ve seen thousands of patients. And I’m sure patients have shared with you every diet, every kind of exercise. You’ll have stories to tell, won’t you?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Absolutely.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. All right. Let’s skip over to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and meet someone who’s been on other programs we’ve produced. And that’s Julie Lanford. Julie is a registered dietitian, nutritionist. But beyond that is at Cancer Services, a nonprofit in North Carolina, Julie is an oncology dietitian. Julie, welcome to the program.

Julie Lanford:

Thank you so much.

Andrew Schorr:

Let’s get started. So, first of all, Ruben, we’ve heard you talk a lot about the differences in MPNs. And so, really, there’s not a one size fits all, even really the diet and exercise, Ruben, is there?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

There truly is not. I mean, certainly, with MPNs, we really have to think about diseases that people live with. They live with, for long periods of time, many even the rest of their lives – with their MPN. So, again, I try to frame it for folks. For many, it’s really about managing a chronic condition. And being a chronic condition, the things that we do in terms of our lifestyle are very important, both in terms of what we eat, how active we are, how well we sleep. There are many key parts that are related, without question.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. I gotta ask one question off the top. Julie referred to it, and I wonder about it, too. So, I’ve been taking Ruxolitinib for five years. Julia, for four, I think you said, Julia.

Julie Lanford:

Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

And so, what I wonder about, Ruben, is there anything about that medicine that some of us take, some people for PD as well, that lends to weight gain, scientifically?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

It’s difficult to know. Clearly, people gain weight, at least on average, to some degree, with taking Ruxolitinib. Now, part of that reason for weight gain is that an MPN causes weight loss overall. And MPNs in general burn more calories than if you don’t have an MPN. The activity in the bone marrow, all those cells being produced, and turning over that burns more calories than it does otherwise. So, part of the weight gain may be turning off that extra calorie burn that the MPN caused. So, part may be, again, you’ve kind of adjusted your diet, etc. In the past, you were able to get away with eating more. And then if the disease is quieter, you gain some weight. Now, I’d say even though that’s part of it, it does seem that people do gain a little bit more weight than even that with the Ruxolitinib.

And it may well have to do in part with some of the secondary effects of the Ruxolitinib. Ruxolitinib inhibits JAK2. That’s one of the key reasons it was tested in MPNs. And with that, helps to shrink the spleen, helps people feel better. Maybe help even avoid progression of the disease or decrease that likelihood of progression. But it has an impact on a whole bunch of different proteins that circulate in the blood that we call cytokines. Cytokines can be involved with inflammation, but they may be involved with other parts that kind of control how things are working in the body. And it may be blocking of some of those cytokines that may account for a little bit of that change in weight.

Andrew Schorr:

Hm. Okay. And related to the other medicines that we take, some people take interferon, some people take hydroxurea, depending upon where they are – maybe just aspirin, depending on where they are with an MPN.

Are there other common things that affect weight related to any of those medicines?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

It’s a good question. In general, the weight gain has been much more specific to the JAK inhibitors. I can’t say it’s specific to Ruxolitinib, but it really is an effect with JAK inhibitors. Most of those other medicines, hydroxyurea or interferon, don’t have a big impact on weight in terms of gain. Whether that’s in people with myelofibrosis who have lost weight related to the disease, even if they’re on hydroxyurea, they don’t tend to gain some of that weight back. So, myelofibrosis, we do view that some of the weight gain might be beneficial, because some of that weight loss in myelofibrosis is not just fat. It can be muscle. But again, there may be some part that is an extra effect of weight gain from the impact of the drug.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Julie Lanford, so let’s talk about managing weight. So, I’ve been – and Julia mentioned it earlier. I mean, I’ve been – no more cookies for me. And I love chocolate chip cookies. So, I’ve had to make changes. How do you coach people through changes, if, let’s say, maybe there’s something related to inhibiting whatever in their body, we have to make changes.

Julie Lanford:

Yeah. So, I will say, I don’t actually keep a scale in my office because I think that a lot of times, you can get kind of distracted on the number. You do know, though – I find many patients know by how their clothes fit, by how they feel. And I think what’s important also is what type of weight is it? Is it muscle weight? Muscle weight’s good, right? Or is it more excess fat? And so, I think balancing those things and really keying in on what are the behaviors that we want you to have, as opposed to what the number on the scale, per se.

But are you able to be physically active that helps maintain muscle mass, and are you choosing those really healthy foods for you? Like Julia was saying, lots of fruits and vegetables, which are really important, not just for weight maintenance, but for overall feeling well and helping to support your immune system, and just overall good health.

Andrew Schorr:

Hm. And so, with this belly that I’ve developed, I had to make a change. I used to have a toasted bagel every morning, Julie. I’m not doing that now. And I put chocolate syrup in this latte machine thing. No more of that. I mean, these are things I’ve had to give up. But I’m having jelly with no sugar in it on a whole wheat waffle, and I’m eating a banana. Am I doing okay doing that?

Julie Lanford:

Yeah. I think – and sometimes, we discount the little things. But I think the little things are sometimes – they make the biggest difference. Because if they are things that you do on a daily basis, and you make a change, it’s gonna have a big impact. Now, you’re talking about your cookies. If you just had a cookie or two once a week, it’s not that big of a deal. But if you were having a cookie after lunch every single day –

Andrew Schorr:

I was.

Julie Lanford:

Then changing that habit – okay. Well then, approved. You can cut back on that. It’s a good choice, right? We don’t want you to completely eliminate it. But really keying in on what are you regular habits, I think, is the most important place to start. And I always encourage people to really pay attention to what they have on their plate, what are the ratios of food that’s on their plate, so that they are getting enough of the nourishing nutrients. And sometimes that helps to, when you make those changes away from the less healthy things; you don’t notice it as much when you’re focused on including more of the healthy things.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, I just want to make one comment. We lived in Europe, some people know, for three years. And the first thing that hit us when we came back to the U.S. is the much bigger portions. And there you are, Ruben – you’re in Texas. Texas-sized food. Or even in California. My mother used to say, “Clean everything on your plate,” but I’m rethinking that, so. Julia Olff, I want to go back to you. So, related to – so, what kind of fruit are you eating? What change have you made? You said fruits and vegetables and organic stuff, too.

Julia Olff:

Well, I have a question in relationship to the conversation that we just had that I wanted to come back to. But I think because of Weight Watchers, my awareness of both weight and nutritional value of food has just heightened. So, one of my big questions in relationship to myelofibrosis that I have tried to adjust but haven’t eliminated – I’m a foodie. I live for food. To me, life – I’m not sure I want another year of life if I can’t have a cookie.

And so, I’ve tried to reduce the amount of fat I take in. And I think I have a lot of questions about salt, sugar, and fat as it relates to having a myeloproliferative neoplasm, being at risk for bleeding, blood clots, etc. But I would say, like you, I have a more structured – my meals are more intentional. So, like you, I have a bowl of fruit for breakfast every single day, and then I try to have something that’s – if I’m going to have a carbohydrate, I try to make it a better carbohydrate. I make use of hardboiled eggs a lot, so I get a little protein, and try to have greens at dinner every night. And a few of them – as a matter of fact, my husband said to me the other week, “Sure, make me a plate.” He was on his way home.

And he came home, and he looked at his plate, and he said, “That’s such a big plate of food.” I said, “Look at the balance. Half of it is vegetables. It’s really not so – it’s not like I’ve stuffed you.” “Oh, okay.”

Andrew Schorr:

So, Ruben, are there some things that in the clinic, you warn people to stay away from? Do you have some general advice, or certain foods, or if somebody’s worried about sludgy blood, where they’re at risk of a stroke, that certain kind of foods or salts or whatever that you warn people about?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Well, when it comes to diet and MPNs, I mean, I think there are several levels. And one, let’s say, the general U.S. diet. People kind of eat whatever they want. And that’s probably not healthy for anyone. High in salt, high in fat. It’s a risk for us all in terms of cardiovascular disease, etc. And when you have an MPN, all of those standard risks with cholesterol and sugar and high blood pressure, they’re even a greater concern with MPNS, without question.

But that’s kind of diet one. Diet two, and we can definitely dig into this, regards just trying to eat a healthier diet. And that has different values, whether it’s straight weight loss, or a just a general healthier diet, I think, of which there’s a lot of discussion as to a lot of variations within there. But even just the effort of trying to eat healthier, both in terms of quantity and what you’re eating, has an impact. And there’s finally, the third group, really kind of subspecialized diets, of which I think there is great discussion, but I don’t think that there’s near conformity of should it be gluten-free? Should it be high in protein? Should it be low in protein? Should it be paleo? Should it be this? Should it be that? I think that is more mixed.

But I think for MPN patients, the most particular thing is at least trying to not be in that first group of just kind of the general U.S. just kind of eat food as it comes, fried, salted, really without regard to diet. So, even if MPN patients just followed the diet that we’re all supposed to be following, they probably are in dramatically better shape than just if they’re eating just a general U.S. diet.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. I want to ask you a couple of things about exercise. So, some people with high blood counts worry that they are certainly at risk of stroke. Should that, during that time, limit the amount of exercise they do for fear that the stuff pumping ever faster through their body is gonna end up with a big blood clot somewhere?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Sure. No, that’s a very good question. One, overall, exercise for MPN patients is a very good thing. But clearly, it should be done with kind of the awareness of their physicians. And that in periods of time where the disease is not stable – the counts are too high and uncontrolled, there’s just been an event such as a blood clot or bleeding, clearly there might be times where exercise is not appropriate until things are more balanced and in control. But I’d say once things are balanced and in control, and as long as your healthcare team is aware, appropriate exercise is helpful and important. I think, like any approach to healthy exercise, it’s about gradually working yourself into a specific exercise program. With an MPN, it’s probably not good to do what happens on January 2nd every year, where everyone has a New Years resolution.

And they go from, okay, I’m not exercising at all, to I’m gonna go to Lifetime, and I’m gonna exercise an hour and a half on January 2nd, and absolutely dehydrate myself and exhaust myself, so by January 4th, I’ve quit because I pulled a muscle and I feel terrible. So, it’s clearly about kind of working yourself up to an appropriate level of exercise, in combination with what your doctor feels is appropriate and healthy for you, both in terms of your overall health, but also in terms of where you stand with your MPN.

Andrew Schorr:

Mm-hmm. So, Julie, you’re nodding your head. How have you carried on with exercise? Walking the dog, but what other kinds of things?

Julie Lanford:

Well, I wanted to add, as I’m listening to Dr. Mesa, that pacing is so important. Because I find it catches up with me. I could sleep, on average night, nine, ten hours, and I have to push myself out of bed in the morning.

 So, yesterday, I had an evening meeting. I took a long walk. And in the moment, I’m okay, but by the evening, I start to feel achy. I need to put my feet up. The bone pain in my hips starts to kick in. So, there’s that balance of trying to get out as much as possible. So, for me, it’s taking advantage of the sun outside my window. And I’m already thinking, as soon as we’re done with this call, I’m gonna take another short walk. But it’s also trying to balance it, because too much activity when you have constant fatigue just catches up with you. And I find I end up having those acute bouts of illness when I’ve done too much for a sustained – like for a couple of months.

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

If I might just add one additional thing. That pacing thing, I think, is so important.

As I told you, I’ve had many patients over the years who are very Type A. Some of them will be on this webinar as we speak.

Julie Lanford:

Yup.

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

And they’re very hard on themselves because they remember, well, before my MPN, I was able to exercise this amount, and beat themselves up because they just don’t have the same stamina that they did before. And it’s okay. It’s okay to realize that the new normal does not necessarily mean that you have 100 percent of the capacity that you had before in terms of your exercise capability, and that even though it’s modified, or less, or adjusted accordingly, it’s still great that you’re doing it.

Andrew Schorr:

Right. I have a story about that I’ll just share. So, as we do this program, it’s just after Thanksgiving. So, there was a Turkey Trot, as there were in many places around the country, in Balboa Park on the north side of LA.

My son, Ari, won it. He’s a really fast marathoner. But Esther and I ran it, and Esther and I were running together slowly. And I found I was huffing and puffing, and I’ve run eight marathons, many years ago. And I just said, “You know, I just want to finish.” And Esther went ahead. She did really well. Congratulations, Esther. And then my son who ran the race came back and ran the last mile with me. So, it was a 5k, so a little over three miles. I felt great that I did it. I felt disappointed that I couldn’t do what I used to. But I did it. And I think it’s exactly what you’re saying, Ruben. So, Julie Lanford, are there certain foods or things we can do that will give us more energy, and some things that are just a waste?

Julie Lanford:

So, I would say that we do want to focus on foods. There’s no supplements. Unless you’re deficient in a nutrient, there’s no reason to take pill forms of nutrition.

So, we do want to focus on the foods. And there are certain patterns of eating that we know are particular healthy, and certain patterns that are not so healthy. We’ve talked about the typical American kind of eats a pattern that’s not so healthy. And when it comes to fatigue, I would say similar types of foods as we want for an overall healthy diet. But I think it’s really key that people not wait too long to eat, so that they’re – just like your pacing, everything else in your day, you want to make sure that you are eating regularly throughout the day so that you never get real low on energy in terms of nutrition.

And also, really making sure that you have a good balance of foods at your mealtimes and at your snack times. So, you want to make sure you have a healthy carbohydrate, because that’s what can really give your brain and your muscles energy. You want to make sure you have a good balance of proteins. They can come from plant proteins or animal proteins. But make sure that your meals and snacks have an adequate amount of protein.

And then, of course, some fruits and vegetables and other things. But really getting that balance, and also not going too long between when you eat, so that you can consistently give your body that energy that it needs. Even if it’s smaller amounts at a time, it’s spread out throughout the day regularly.

Andrew Schorr:

So, when I went to summer camp as a kid, they had us eat candy bars if we were low on energy. And we’re talking about carbohydrates. So, kick off a couple of specifics that you would recommend that we should – snacks, for instance.

Julie Lanford:

Yeah. So, probably wouldn’t recommend a candy bar, per se, on a regular basis. But things like peanut butter crackers, if you can buy just good old whole grain crackers and peanut butter and put them on there, that can be easy. Even a peanut butter sandwich is really simple. Peanut butter and banana. People around here eat that. I think it’s delicious. Soups can be easy things that are kept either in the fridge – that’s easy to heat up.

Because that’s the other thing with fatigue. You don’t feel like cooking, so you want to make sure that you have sort of meal-sized portions in your fridge ready to eat. That’s what friends and family can kind of do for you. So, even just small meals. If it’s spaghetti, if it’s a piece of pizza that you put lots of vegetables on. I think fruit is great as a source of healthy carbohydrates. If you had fruit and a cheese stick, or even if you made yourself some sort of healthy smoothie, just something that’s going to give you that balance of nutrients.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah. You mentioned something, and Julie, I don’t know if you do it. We had started to – I love leftovers. And so, we’ve been trying to make healthy stuff, put it in the fridge where I can grab for lunch. Or this morning, Esther made a big thing of steel-cut oatmeal. And so, now I can have that as part of my breakfast. So, Julie, is that – are we on the right track?

Julie Lanford:

Yeah, that’s great. And something that’s really popular right now is overnight oats. So, you can soak your oats in milk or whatever or whatever you want to use for a liquid, and it’s in a jar, or it’s in a container in the fridge all night, so it gets soft, so it cooks really quickly in the morning in the microwave. So, yeah, I think that’s a great way – there are lots of grains you could use for breakfast cereals, too. Barley is another grain. Quinoa. And essentially, you cook it the same as you would oatmeal. Flavor it the same way, and it just gives it variety if you’re looking for something different.

Andrew Schorr:

Julia, how’s that sound to you?

Julia Olff:

I’m not a big hot cereal fan, so I have two breakfasts that I go back and forth from. One is – I love Cheerios, and I just read how much sugar there was in Honeynut Cheerios, so I’m mixing plain Cheerios now with Honeynut Cheerios, and then I add a lot of fruit to it. Or I do a whole grain muffin with half a hardboiled egg, which makes me miss my dog, because I always gave him the other half of the egg.

Andrew Schorr:

I have a blood count question for you with myelofibrosis. How are your platelets?

Julia Olff:

For me?

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah.

Julia Olff:

They are – since I started Jakafi, they’ve controlled like they have never, ever been, or not in a decade. So, they’re probably between 250 and 300, I would say.

Andrew Schorr:

Oh boy. Okay.

Julia Olff:

Yeah. I’ve got platelets to spare.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, I would take some. So – and Ruben knows this about me. So, my platelets have traditionally been low, and they got as low as a few months ago, 40,000. And now I’ve been doing through treatment, actually, for this other condition I’ve had, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and they were up to about 100. Ruben, one of the things I was told by my doctors was don’t do contact sports, because my spleen was getting larger, and also, I had low platelets.

So, what about the kind of exercise you do if your platelets are lower? What’s your thought about that?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Well, I would say that, barring extremely low platelets, i.e., under 15,000, most routine forms of exercise that are cardiovascular, that are elliptical machines, that are weight-lifting, others sorts of things – all of those sorts of things are fine. I think the sports that one would probably avoid with either of those situations is truly kind of contact teams sports – rugby, football, etc., where there’s very significant contact. Down here in Texas, I certainly have seen people riding the mechanical bull. I’m not sure that’s a good idea for anybody, but those sorts of extreme things. There is a bit of a misperception regarding the spleen and it being fragile with MPNs.

It sometimes makes people a little too fearful of doing exercise. The spleen enlarged with acute illnesses from a virus, most commonly mononucleosis or mono, is an area where the spleen grows very quickly. It’s very fragile. And constantly, you hear about people having their spleens rupture with playing volleyball, or football, or what have you. And in MPNs, that really is much less of a case. It’s not nearly as fragile. And it really – it’s not a concern for rupture with all the sorts of normal routine things one would do as an individual with exercise.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. So, Julia, have you had any worries about the kind of exercise you would do related to your condition, whether you’re gonna have a stroke, or bleeding, or maybe not bleeding, but other complications?

Julia Olff:

I think right after the TIA, and I can’t remember for how long, but maybe for a few months, I was feeling cautious about movement. And my platelets were not yet under control, so I was dizzy. And then they put me on Plavix as well, so that was sort of making it hard to do a lot physically anyway. Since being on Jakafi, having my counts much more controlled and having more energy from Jakafi, I don’t think I – I’m frankly jealous of other people that can do real exercise. I see people run past my window, joggers, etc. But I don’t feel like I have the energy to do that. So, for me, walking is really – walking and walking up steps are my physical activities. And the trips that my husband and I have taken really involve walking and the occasional swim in places that – you’re in sunny California, so maybe you have a pool. But, you know.

Andrew Schorr:

I have an ocean.

Julia Olff:

Yeah, and an ocean. That’s a lot of – to go into an ocean and deal with the forces of the waves, etc. To me, that would be too exhausting. So, I’m sticking with walking. That’s . . .

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah. Let me make a comment about exercise, just because I’ve been doing it for many years. So, yeah, after the marathons and all that. Esther and I go to the gym every day. And we joined one of these ones that’s open day and night. And we go, whatever our schedule is, and I get on the elliptical, and I do what I can. I watch the news, which maybe is a good thing or a bad thing. But at any rate – and I don’t beat myself up about how I did compared to the day before, or the month before, or whatever. But I just do it. And then sometimes, we run, and then we work in biking. So, that’s what we do.

And I would really urge people, because Julia, wouldn’t you agree, there’s a whole psychological benefit to just exercising or getting out there too?

Julia Olff:

Absolutely. And I know Dr. Mesa will – I’ve heard him talk about this, and I certainly read about, try to keep up to date, just talking about the news, about health information sources that reiterate things like getting yourself out. There’s something about stepping outside, and if you have some sunshine, and feeling that that helps, even when I don’t feel well. So, I feel like I always want to get out and move a little bit. And I just try to pace myself. And Julie was saying earlier, and I was thinking about there’s the physical activity, and there’s the amount of time I stand. I love to cook, so for me, being in the kitchen at 4:00 in the afternoon and making a two-hour recipe is a lot of fun.

But it starts to wear on me. And so, standing is a kind of form of exercise that you forget about.

Andrew Schorr:

Do you have a recipe you think – you enjoy making, and it’s an affirmation of better health for you? Something that you feel –

Julia Olff:

Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

What’s that?

Julia Olff:

I think the roasting vegetables. So, every vegetable tastes better roasted, I think. And I roast just about everything. And it’s so easy, because you can flip the oven onto 400 and go about your business. Once you’ve mixed with vegetables, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, different kinds of earthy potatoes, sweet potatoes, and olive oil. Light on the salt, pepper, garlic. And it’s good stuff, and it’s easy.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay, Julie, I have some questions for you, because again, it’s in my daily life, maybe others.

And if you all out there in online video land have questions, please send them to MPN@patientpower.info, and our producer Jamie’s gonna forward some to me, and we’ll pose them before the end of the hour. So, Julie, we cook some things in a wok, and we cut up vegetables. And but my wife has started us using a little bit of something called ghee, which I think is clarified butter. So, how do you feel about that? Or should we be using some other oil instead?

Julie Lanford:

So, when it comes to fats, we like for people to have more of the unsaturated, sort of heart healthy fats, is what we think of, and less of the saturated animal fats. Less of doesn’t mean none. And so, there’s certainly room. I would say ghee and butter are similar in terms of their saturated fat content, as is coconut oil, which sort of has this health halo right now, but it’s still a saturated fat.

So, what I would tell you is it depends on the recipe. If it requires that you use a solid fat in order for the recipe to work, then I would use it. If you can use olive oil instead, or canola oil, or peanut oil, I would choose those. And so, as long as you’re getting a variety. But if you’re always using butter or coconut oil, or if you are somebody who heard coconut oil was healthy and switched from olive oil to coconut oil, we wouldn’t really recommend that. So, it’s really more about the balance, and also how much of it you use. Now, if people are using it so that they will eat vegetables, I think that it’s still an overall gain, because we want people to eat vegetables. And talking about roasted vegetables, nobody’s gonna eat something if it doesn’t taste good. I don’t care how healthy it is. So, we need for you to figure out ways that make healthy food taste good. And so, we try to balance that when we’re giving those recommendations, but you know.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. I’m gonna skip back to exercise for a minute, related to sort of mindfulness as well. So, Julia, you told me that you were actually in a yoga study. Is that right?

Julia Olff:

Yes, one that Arizona State and Dr. Mesa’s team was running. I was in a control group, so I didn’t get to initially participate, but they were – and hopefully, Dr. Mesa will share the results, but they were looking at the benefits of yoga for people with MPNs.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. What about it, Dr. Mesa?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

So, yoga is something that has been found to be helpful in a variety of diseases. And in particular, it’s been primarily studied in breast cancer. So, we wanted to help to demonstrate really several things as an evolving arc with my colleague Jennifer Huberty that leads kind of this exercise research activity at Arizona State.

So, one, we wanted to prove that yoga can be helpful, that yoga has several components, both physical activity as well as a meditation component. And we wanted it to be something that people could utilize really at their homes. And much of the yoga research done in cancer patients or others has been a bit artificial, with people having to travel into the city to go to a center that wasn’t very feasible. So, we’ve completed two studies and seek funding from the National Cancer Institute for the third. The first study, we developed a series of yoga modules to be done at home, in partnership with an online yoga instruction company called Udaya. And what they do is they develop yoga modules to have people do yoga at home. Well, we taught them about MPNs over a couple day period of time. And they created some modified yoga specific for MPN patients.

So, the first study we had was a feasibility study, which we published in the medical literature, where we showed that in about 30 patients, we found that they could figure out how to use the modules, that they used them, that they could use them safely. But whether there was really feasibility – is it feasible? And in that small group, we were able to show that there was also some benefits. They felt better, they felt better, they slept better, they had improvements in fatigue, etc.

The second study was the study that she just mentioned, that was yoga versus a control, where people were on a waitlist, and then after the period of time, they then could use the modules.

And in that study period comparing the two, in addition to measuring the impact of the yoga, we also were measuring blood levels of different levels of inflammation-related proteins or cytokines in the blood to see what sort of impact, in addition to sleep, fatigue, symptoms was having on the biology of issues of inflammation. And we’ll be presenting next week at the American Society of Hematology some of those results. But what we found is, one, not surprisingly, we think yoga is helpful. And it helped with fatigue. It helped with issues of mood and depression. And I think consistent with what’s being seen in other areas, one of the major benefits of yoga might be enhanced sleep. It is one of those potential benefits of yoga. Two, there are, again, the two components. There’s really an activity part with the poses and things of that nature, and is that better or worse than doing an elliptical machine? I don’t think that’s been studied.

But there’s that part. But then there’s really also a meditative part that includes breathing, balance, etc. So, I think there’s a variety of parts, and we’re working to study these different parts. We’re looking to study, how do we take people who have really not been active before? How do you get started in yoga is a little different than having people that have already been fit in the past, and really look to better understand these things so that we can really move to a place where they can be a resource for MPN patients, but also so that physicians know how to recommend or utilize tools like yoga for appropriate patients.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah, I can’t wait to hear more about it at the ASH conference that’s coming up. And we’ll be covering it, so we’ll look for that. So, we started getting some questions. This one’s from Susan. In recognizing that there will be some patients who will need a stem cell transplant with myelofibrosis, we might progress to that.

And certainly, I know people like that. Julia, you may too. So, two questions about that, Ruben. One is, is there some physical conditioning you should do if you know you’re gonna be headed for a transplant? And second of all, what about recovery? In other words, will you do better with a transplant if you’re in better shape, and how can exercise be used to help you recover from the transplant?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Both are very good questions. Without question, physical activity with transplant is important. And people that go into a transplant stronger are clearly better off. But that clearly needs to be balanced with their physicians. What we clearly wouldn’t want is someone kind of wearing themselves out or trying to tackle too much in terms of exercise before a transplant either. You really want to go in kind of the best shape that you can.

Second, most transplant programs now really do try to, even during the process of transplant, try to maintain people’s strength the best they can. That might include everything from activities that are there in the hospital room or at the hospital. I’ve seen everything from kind of modified elliptical machines that you do while sitting down to other things. Without question, there will be days during the transplant people just don’t feel well enough to do that, and that’s fine. But the more days that people are active, really probably the better off they are. And on the backend, without question, whenever you have a very significant health intervention – I don’t care whether it’s a surgery, clearly a bone marrow transplant, anything that’s very dramatic like that, the process of active recovery, it’s a real process that, again, you’re starting a bit from scratch because you’re set back a bit with clearly going through a process like that.

But active recovery is key. People sometimes think, well, I had this big surgery, and it could be breast cancer. It could be a bone marrow transplant. And they think at the tail end, when they’re done, that they’re just gonna kind of bounce back to be exactly the way they were before when they started. And unfortunately, that’s not the way the body walks. You really have to kind of build that level of fitness back up again.

Andrew Schorr:

Hm. Okay. We’re getting questions about being a vegetarian. Grant wrote in and wonders – and I’ll pose this to you, Dr. Mesa, and also to Julie – Grant wants to know, is there any benefit to being a vegan or vegetarian when you have PV?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

So, it’s a good question. I’d say, in short, I don’t think that there’s any evidence to suggest that you’re better off being a vegan or a vegetarian versus having a good healthy diet.

Are you better off being a vegan or a vegetarian than kind of a general U.S. fatty, salty, fried diet? Oh, absolutely. But compared to a general diet that has appropriate meat, and fish, and eggs, and other things, I wouldn’t say that there’s necessarily a big difference. Now, with PV, there’s always the issue of iron. When we do phlebotomies, part of the reason phlebotomies help to keep the blood counts controlled, specifically the red blood cells, is by making an individual iron deficient. And medicine sometimes can alleviate that, but it’s making people iron deficient. So, if you eat a lot of iron in your diet, particularly iron supplements, you’re really working at cross-purposes. You’re taking iron out by phlebotomy, but then you’re giving iron back in by a supplement. Doesn’t make a lot of sense. The amount of iron in the normal or a healthy diet is modest enough that we have not recommended the individuals to specifically avoid meat or natural food-based sources of iron.

We’re not trying to build their iron levels up, but nor do they need to have draconian avoidance of meat or iron in their diet. But no iron supplements.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. And just so we know, Julie, was it spinach? Or what are some of the foods people often eat when they’re trying to boost their iron?

Julie Lanford:

So, the typical foods that we think of as really high iron foods are going to be more animal-based. Clearly, liver is sort of one of the top sources. Not many people eat a lot of that. But even clams, mussels, oysters, cooked beef tend to be the things that people think of. When it comes to the plant sources of foods and iron, they’re just not absorbed as easily. And there’s usually other factors that sort of inhibit the absorption of iron.

So, cooked spinach is usually picked up on as well, because you know what happens when you take a lot of spinach and you cook it, and it’s like down to nothing. Well, you’re eating a lot of spinach when you eat it when it’s cooked. So, those are things that I wouldn’t be particularly concerned about, unless your doctor has said you need to pay attention to your iron sources. What I would say when it comes to vegetarian diets, vegetarians tend to have better health outcomes because of that eating pattern of having more vegetables and plant foods in their diet, which has a lot of great nutrients. I think you can eat a plant-based diet that still includes meat if you want to. You don’t have to. It’s a pretty wide range of what we would consider to be healthy eating. But you would want to make sure that you’re getting labs checked. Plus, the nice thing about going to the doctor all the time is that they do kind of stay on top of your labs, so you would pick up if you’re becoming deficient in something.

For vegans, we focus on B12. It takes a long time to become deficient, but that can also sort of play into anemias and things. So, you would just want to keep an eye on that. I don’t promote a vegan diet, but I think if somebody wants to follow a vegan diet, I’m perfectly happy for them to do that, as long as they’re monitoring their labs.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Dr. Mesa, and well, Julia, I’ll ask you first. Julia, did you make any changes when you were diagnosed with what became known as a cancer? Like in my case, Esther had us getting distilled water at the house. But I mean, did you do anything like that? She had me stop drinking coffee. I don’t mean to blame Esther. We lived in Seattle, where Starbucks came from, but we made challenges. Oh my god, does that have something to do with the cancer.

Julia Olff:

Right. I don’t remember then making any significant changes. I do feel like over time, and the more often I’m hospitalized, the more kind of militant I get about avoiding things that make me sicker, like cigarette smoke. Hate walking down the street and having to suck in someone else’s smoke. But dietarily, I just try to have organic vegetables. We have a filter – we do have a filtered water system in the house. Just try to avoid poisons or toxins as much as possible. You mentioned coffee, though, and I wondered what – there’s more research in general out there about the benefits of coffee. For me, coffee, I consider it to be part of my medication regimen. And I’m barely functional until I have that first cup. I literally come down and have a cup of coffee to shower. And I wonder if there’s – if others feel the same way.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Julie, what about caffeine? And also, could you say something about wine, too? Because beer – so many different things. Drink wine, don’t. Red wine, white wine. This leads to cancer. Who knows?

Julie Lanford:

Yeah. Everything, right? So, when you look at actual data – and I rely a lot on the American Institute for Cancer Research, who reviews every study that’s been done. And so, they come up with great recommendations and very commonsense, so I like that. They have tea. So, a lot of people have heard green tea is really good. So, yes, it is. But they also have coffee on their list. Now, the way you have the coffee – Andrew mentioned earlier, syrup in it – that’s why I tell people, if you go to Starbucks and you get four pumps of syrup in your whole milk with whipped cream on top mocha, that’s a dessert. But if you just brew coffee at home, and you put a little bit – I just use milk for mine – that’s perfectly healthy.

And it does have plant nutrients that are good for you. So, I consider it healthy. If you’re sensitive to caffeine and you know that it keeps you up, or whatever, you can get decaf. Or if you just don’t like coffee, drinking tea can give you great benefits as well. When it comes to alcohol, we do know that alcohol increases risk for cancer. I will say, that’s when you drink it regularly. So, that’s when we see people exceeding what we recommend as moderation. And so, if you don’t know the definition of moderation, I’ll teach you that. One drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men. I know, it seems not fair to us women. But that’s what we would say is moderation, and you don’t get to save those up for the weekend. Just because you’ve missed it all week, you don’t load up on the weekend and expect that to also meet the definition of moderation. But if you’re less than that, we consider it to be fine. Although when they said that red wine was good for the heart, they sort of backed away from that more recently.

 It’s the skin of the red grape that’s really good for you. So, it turns out, you can eat grapes. So, that’s my point on that.

Andrew Schorr:

Good advice. Dr. Mesa, we’ve gotten in a couple of questions I wanted to pose to you. One is from Dave and Karen. It says, does exercising affect blood test levels in any aspect? So, let’s say you were a runner, or biked, or went to the gym or something, on the day you were then gonna come to your clinic for a blood test, would the blood test be accurate or changed based on the exercise you just did?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

It probably does impact it to a modest degree. Probably not to a significant degree. So, it might slightly increase the white cell count or the platelet count in kind of that immediate post-exercise period. And clearly, if someone were to be dehydrated, that will make the red blood cell count seem a little bit higher as well.

So, it can kind of both concentrate the blood a little bit, if you’re dehydrated, as well as if it’s really significant exercise and leads to any inflammation, might slightly boost up the white cell count or the platelet count. But again, talking modest levels. A 350 platelet count going to 400, not 350 going to 1.2 million. So, modest increases.

Andrew Schorr:

Right. And all the doctors have told me, you all look at the trends.

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Correct. Correct. Absolutely. And for most regular spurts of going to the gym exercise, probably it’s not even noticeable. But if somebody again did an Iron Man triathlon, you’re gonna notice changes in the blood.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Well, here’s a guy who’s pretty busy. Mark writes in. He says, I do an hour and a half every morning, stretches, planks, yoga, and even sun salutations. Sometimes I feel slight strain in my large spleen, but it’s never severe and always goes away.

So, he says, on a one to ten scale, Dr. Mesa, how much am I endangering myself, if at all?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

You know, probably a two out of ten, from what it sounds like. Again, it may be more muscle strain, and it probably really isn’t injury of the spleen. But again, this particular activity that really causes muscle strain in that area, I would probably just modify the activity. Again, a very enlarged spleen is different anatomy than even we were kind of built to have. It’s much larger than normal. It’s asymmetric, so accommodating your exercise for that is appropriate. I would probably look at modifying the stretches if the stretches are irritating that.

Andrew Schorr:

Mm-hmm. Okay. So, one of the things I’ll just point out to people – and you mentioned it earlier, Dr. Mesa – is have a conversation with your doctor about where you are, how you’re feeling, what medicines you’re taking, what you like to eat.

And there are people who can help – now, Julie, you have a website where people can send in questions to you. What’s that website?

Julie Lanford:

Yeah. It is cancerdietitian.com, and it’s part of our nonprofit, so there’s no fees or anything.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Now, that’s very helpful. So, Julia, do you recognize that we with an MPN are sort of a moving target? That whatever is normal or feels good to us may change over time. We have to accept that, but that’s part of our dialogue with our healthcare team as to exercise, diet, medication, what’s right for us at that, point? It’s not static.

Julie Olff:

Absolutely.

Andrew Schorr:

I feel that. And that’s where my dialogue is with my doctor. So, just one last thing. I want to make sure I heard you right, Ruben.

So, contact sports – so, should I worry about biking if my platelets have been lower? That I’m gonna have some accident and I’m gonna bleed to death on the road or something?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

Well, I would say, with 40,000 platelets, I probably would not do kind of the off-road trail cycling with high likelihood of running into rocks or things like that in Arizona, where it can be a bit treacherous. But if you’re really thinking about more gentle cycling, road cycling, particularly if you – and appropriately – are wearing a helmet, it’s probably fine still at that range. At 40,000 platelets, most individuals, even with fairly significant trauma, will still have the same reasonable clotting as other individuals. One probably could have emergency surgery at that level, barring really extreme trauma.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. And the reverse is, if you had really high platelets, and you’re worried about stroke and other things like that, you’re still not worried that somebody’s gonna run around the block, and that’s gonna put them over the edge?

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

I think that’s highly unlikely, without question. Again, whether they’re high and they need treatment or don’t need treatment, clearly it’s a discussion between the patient and their physician. But in general, appropriate exercise with adequate hydration, or clearly exercise that people have really evolved into, as opposed to a dramatic change in activity level, is usually quite safe.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Well, I’m gonna try to work yoga into what I do. My balance is terrible, but I’m gonna try to do – what is it, downward dog, if I can. And they do it my gym, so I’m gonna try that. And Julie, just as far as diet goes, people can write you.

And again, cancerdietitian.com, right?

Julie Landon:

Yup.

Andrew Schorr:

And I think, again, I mean, it sounds like a broken record, but we talk about the healthy diet, fruits, vegetables, some protein, some meat balance, and not crazy about supplements, right?

Julie Landon:

Right, yeah. Unless there’s a reason that you would need a supplement, I don’t think that the general person just needs to be on one. If you like the idea, a multivitamin that should not break your bank would be fine, and you could even do that every other day, and still, it’d be fine. But it’s not necessary, as far as I’m concerned.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, I want to thank both of you for being with us. So, Julia, as we wrap up, and you’ve been listening as a patient as well and living it, what do you take away from this?

Julia Olff:

I guess I’m thinking about it very personally, that I feel like I’m on the right track. I’m trying to do as much as I can to be well,  and to be well around a disease that we can’t control.

Andrew Schorr:

Right. Well, I have a great – I think, for all of us. I have a good medical team. People like Dr. Mesa, people that may be at your clinic, like Julie, who can help with diet. Social workers as well. And also, you said it earlier, Ruben – accept that normal for you changes, that we do have a condition. I mean, we even refer to people with extreme interventions like a transplant, that you’re in a recovery mode, and you do what you can. And but doing something is a benefit.

I want to thank you all. Dr. Ruben Mesa, I’m gonna see you at ASH coming up. And Ruben, thank you so much for joining us, once again.

Dr. Ruben Mesa:

A great pleasure to be here. Thank you. Great discussion.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. And Ruben, thanks for your devotion to all of us and to research. We really appreciate it. Julie Lanford with Cancer Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I spent like 12 years of my life, in North Carolina, thank you so much for being with us, once again.

Julie Lanford:

Thank you for having me. It’s been great.

Andrew Schorr:

And Julia, I’ll see you back in New York City one of these days.

Julie Olff:

All right.

Andrew Schorr:

But I want to wish you all the best. And you and I are on a journey with myelofibrosis now. But every day is special. But we hope we have a lot of them. And enjoy your family and your grandchild. What is her name, Elaina?

Julie Olff:

Elaina. Yes, I’ll see her for the holidays.

Andrew Schorr:

I’m looking for grandchildren, so you can give me pointers. But all the best to you.

Julie Olff:

It’s fun.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah. Thank you so much.

Julie Olff:

You get to give them back.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah. Thank you so much for being with us. And I just want to mention to our audience, Dr. Mesa referred to it, the kind of World Series of blood-related conditions is the American Society of Hematology. And there’ll be 25,000-plus people there.

And we’ll be there with our team, getting the latest information and bringing it to you, even some live broadcasting. So, if you are not a member of patient power, go to patientpower.info, sign up for the ASH daily updates. And whatever there is about MPNs, we’re gonna bring it to you. And there will be a replay of this Patient Empowerment Network program coming soon that you can share and go over again. Thank you so much for joining us. We wish everybody the best of health. Go out there and do what exercise that you can. A little more is probably better. And think of yoga, and also that balanced diet. I’m Andrew Schorr in Carlsbad, California, feeling good about things. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease

It’s my great pleasure this month to interview Carolyn Thomas, journalist, blogger and heart health advocate. Her popular Heart Sisters blog was recently turned into a book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. As a heart attack survivor Carolyn is on a mission to educate women about their heart health.

Hi Carolyn, can you tell us a little more about why and how you decided to create your blog Heart Sisters?

C.T. I launched Heart Sisters in 2009 as a static 3-page site for local individuals and groups wanting to book my presentations about women’s heart health. I had no clue that anybody outside of my hometown of Victoria here on the west coast of Canada would ever read it.  At the time, I’d recently graduated from the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women with Heart Disease at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, and I was very busy sharing what I’d learned during my Mayo training at these local presentations. I called these weekly talks my “Pinot & Prevention” events (booked at least three months in advance!) A reviewer at the time described my talks as “part cardiology boot camp, and part stand-up comedy!” I felt overwhelmed by the response, and I was also a heart patient living with ongoing cardiac issues! But there clearly seemed to be growing public interest in this topic! I started the blog using a free WordPress template mostly to share info about how to book one of my talks so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the phone! A few months in, it struck me that perhaps I should add some meaningful value-added content too, covering some of the more popular questions women were asking me during my heart presentations.  And here we are now, eight years and over 700 blog articles later, with over 12 million views from 190 countries!

That’s impressive! What do you think are some of the benefits for patients who blog?   

C.T. I suspect that many patients who start a blog do so for its therapeutic value. I’ve seen you describe it as “writing to heal”. We’re trying to somehow make sense out of a life-altering diagnosis that makes no sense. It’s also been said that when something terrible happens, the only good that can come of it is if you’re able to make things better for others because of it. And I love the remarkable sense of community that can emerge over time between my blog readers and me, and (even better!) between each other!  When I wrote in 2015 about the birth of my first grandbaby (our darling Everly Rose), I was moved to tears by comments coming in from so many women I’d never met, who were so happy sharing in my own joy.

Not everyone is comfortable with the term “survivor” to describe their experience. I’m curious to know what you think. Is there a “survivor mentality and/or personality”?

C.T.  Sometimes people who are introducing me at a conference or at an after-dinner presentation ask if I mind being referred to as a “survivor”. Considering the alternative, I don’t mind at all. I did survive. I survived being misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home from Emergency. I survived what doctors still call the “widow maker” heart attack (notice they don’t call it the “WIDOWER maker” when it happens to women like me!)  I survived what many do not.  But I didn’t survive it because I thought positive thoughts or had a better attitude than those who didn’t survive what I did.

We hear about the Survivor mentality (good) when it’s typically contrasted with the Victim mentality (bad). This makes some sense when we’re talking about human resilience, but honestly, there are few things less motivating or inspirational to me than listening to some chirpy survivor brag about doing triathlons or climbing mountains despite having survived ______ (insert horrific medical diagnosis/procedure here) while everybody applauds his/her spunk and winning attitude. Nobody supports wallowing in self-pitying victimhood, but the distressing implication when believing in a survivor mentality is that if only those poor unfortunates who died of the same horrific diagnosis had somehow tried more, been braver, worked harder, thought happier thoughts, etc., well, they might still be alive today. Heart disease last year killed about six times more women than breast cancer did – and those women who died (some of whom were my friends from our Mayo class of 2008) are no less brave than those, like me, who have been lucky enough to survive. So far.

Do you see any commonality in the experience of surviving a heart attack when you read cancer survivorship blogs?

C.T. I can’t speak for all survivorship blogs, of course, but I can say that the sense of not being the only one feeling this way can be a huge relief when we read somebody else describe what we’ve been going through, too –  especially for those I like to call the ‘freshly-diagnosed”.  One of my blog readers left a comment, for example, that simply asked: “Oh my God! Are you ME?”  Another important theme is that many patients facing a catastrophic diagnosis – no matter what that diagnosis might be – are suffering a sudden and profound loss of self, complete with an awful sense that my old self, who I was and how I identified myself in this life, has somehow crumbled away, but leaving nothing in its place to replace it yet –  that stark Before Diagnosis and After Diagnosis difference. I once described it as being like taking a trip to a foreign country we never, ever wanted to visit.

I agree with you – that sense of not feeling so alone in our illness is powerful. Do you think that the reach of our blogs can extend further, perhaps even influence the practice of healthcare?

C.T. I sure hope so!  For example, I’m a person who likes evidence, so both my Heart Sisters blog articles and my book contain detailed medical journal references to support research that I mention. I think it’s one of the reasons that Johns Hopkins University Press first asked me in 2015 to write a book for them based on my blog articles. I’m not a physician, but I include hundreds of citations in my book so that the women who show these to their physicians can feel comfortable sharing science-based medicine – not woo-woo snake oil.

I also have a couple of pet peeves I love to write (and rant!) about:

  1. the shockingly low rates of doctor referrals of eligible heart patients to life-saving cardiac rehabilitation programs
  2. the alarming failure of our healthcare system to implement mandatory reporting of diagnostic error

My fondest hope is that if I keep ranting about these two areas, and quoting every emerging study that validates the rant, someday both of these appalling situations will be finally addressed.

But I must tell you that one striking example I’m aware of on how my blog has influenced medical practice is a comment I received from a senior American paramedic who teaches emergency medicine to trainees. When I wrote a blog article about how women heart patients are treated differently in the back of the ambulance en route to hospital compared to their male counterparts experiencing identical symptoms, he wrote to me: “Carolyn, this stops today. With me! No more!” adding that his teaching curriculum would be immediately changed to reflect the study findings I’d written about. Something I wrote hit home for this man, who happened to be in a position to influence the education of future care providers. Wow!

Wow that’s incredible. It makes me so happy to know that there are health professionals out there who are paying attention to what we have to say online. I would also hope that in reading patient blogs they would come to a better understanding of the psycho-social aspects of serious illness. Do you think health professionals often ignore those aspects of illness which lie outside of the physical?

Yes. Next question?

Seriously, some physicians (particularly specialists) seem to forget that there is a whole entire person attached to the organ they happen to be focused on. As cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes, founder of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic, once explained: “Cardiologists may not feel comfortable with touchy-feely stuff. They want to treat lipids and chest pain. And most are not trained to cope with mental health issues.” I wrote a lot about this reality in my book, starting with wishing that I’d know before hospital discharge that post-heart attack depression is not only common, but also temporary and treatable. Mental health researchers call this ‘situational depression’. But not one person in that hospital – no doctor, no nurse, no janitor – nobody had warned me about the emotional and psychological fallout of such a life-altering medical crisis. It was five long months later when I showed up at Mayo Clinic that I finally learned that up to 65% of women with heart disease experience debilitating mental health symptoms after hospital discharge, yet only 10% are appropriately identified and treated.

That’s a sobering statistic. I believe we need to address these issues right at the point of diagnosis. What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed with a serious illness?

C.W. That’s a frightening and surreal time for most of us. Let me quote my Alaska friend, Dr. Stephen Parker, who is both a cardiac psychologist and a survivor of multiple heart attacks himself, who says it beautifully when he talks about the “swirling emotions” that surround the freshly-diagnosed:

    • relief at survival
    • disbelief and anger that it happened
    • grief for everything that was and will be lost
    • gratitude to those who helped
    • extreme vulnerability in a previously safe world
    • fear of what the future might bring

So much depends on the diagnosis, the prognosis, the treatment plan, and the patient’s support community (if any). It can take a while for protective denial to wear thin so that we can begin to grasp, little by little, what is actually happening to us. It can feel like a roller coaster of ups and downs (mostly downs) in the early days. What I tell my own readers is this: your only job now is to become the world expert in your unique diagnosis. Knowledge truly is power, especially for women. And also – go outdoors. Spend as much time as you possibly can walking in nature. This won’t change your diagnosis at all, but you’ll be breathing fresh air and feeling the wind on your face.

We both share a low tolerance for certain metaphors used to describe illness. What are some of the metaphors you dislike the most? Do you think the language we choose to describe illness is important?

Thanks for asking about this. Language IS important!  In cardiology, for example, doctors talk blithely about the condition they call “heart failure” – as if they are utterly unaware how devastating those words can feel to a patient who hears them. Your heart is FAILING. Many  report that they feel unsure if they can even walk to the car after that. Doctors will also refer to patients who “failed” their treadmill stress test” or “failed the medication protocol”. Doctors use combat metaphors (“battling cancer” or “she’s a fighter”) which can make patients whose conditions decline feel like they’re clearly not fighting hard enough, or are somehow doing this wrong.

Do you think that patients sometimes don’t challenge their doctors because they fear they risk being labelled difficult? What advice would you give them and the healthcare professionals who treat them?

C.T. I believe this fear of being labelled a “difficult” patient is an overwhelming reality for far too many patients, and especially for women who have been socialized to be nice, to not make a fuss, to put the needs of others ahead of our own.  I like to quote landmark research published in the journal Health Affairs on this very subject.(1) This study was on how patients approach shared doctor-patient decision-making; the participants studied were wealthy, highly-educated residents of Palo Alto, the centre of Silicon Valley and home to the prestigious Stanford University. Yet the astonishing conclusion from researchers was the “fear of being categorized as ‘difficult’ prevents patients from participating more fully in their own health care.” Yes, even wealthy, educated, capable confident types!  And we are wise to avoid being seen as “difficult”. It turns out that another study last year suggested that diagnostic error rates actually go up if your doctor considers you to be “difficult”.(2)

How to get past this reluctance? I like to ask my Heart-Smart Women presentation audiences to guess what I would have done had it been my daughter or my sister or any other woman I love experiencing the same cardiac symptoms I was having? Like me, they agree that they’d be screaming blue murder to get the help this other person deserved, with no thought whatsoever of being labelled as “difficult”. We need to be as strong and as diligent about getting help for our own medical needs as we’d be if we were trying to get help for our loved ones.

Finally Carolyn, your blog has captured hearts and minds across the globe – and now it has been turned into a book! Do you have any advice for any of our readers who might like to turn their own blog into a book?

C.T. I’d never even dreamed of writing a book based on my blog – right up until I was approached in September of 2015 by the Executive Editor of Johns Hopkins University Press (JHUP – the oldest academic publisher in North America!) who asked me out of the blue if I’d consider writing a book with them based on my blog articles. One of the many follow-up conversations I had with her over the next few weeks included this question: “Why would anybody buy a book when they could get most of the content for free by visiting my blog?”  That’s a good question for bloggers to ask themselves about their own project. I know a number of bloggers who have self-published their own blog-turned-book. There are pros and cons of each option: self-publishing vs. being published by an established traditional publisher. One thing I felt strongly about was that, even though my book is based on excerpts from hundreds of my original blog articles, I needed a very clear 10-chapter table of contents outline that carefully outlined the specific focus of each unique chapter.

What you don’t want to see is a series of disjointed chunks of your blog that look like they’ve been lifted willy-nilly and then tossed together like yesterday’s salad. Prepare to write lots of new transition sentences/paragraphs that will seamlessly link otherwise separate excerpts. This is much harder than you’d imagine! Also, as another blogger-turned-author Alice Callahan told me about writing her own book based on her “Science of Mom” blog: Don’t lose the unique ‘voice’ that you use in your blog writing.

Thank you Carolyn for taking the time to share your experience with our readers. It’s been a pleasure to interview you and learn from your story.

About The Book

A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease by Carolyn Thomas is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. It’s available in paperback, hard cover and eBook formats. Readers can save 20% off the list price by using the code HTWN when ordering directly from JHUP: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/womans-guide-living-heart-disease


Refs

  • Authoritarian Physicians And Patients’ Fear Of Being Labeled ‘Difficult’ Among Key Obstacles To Shared Decision Making. Dominick L. Frosch et al. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0576 Health Affairs. May 2012; vol. 31 no. 5 1030-1038.
  • Do patients’ disruptive behaviours influence the accuracy of a doctor’s diagnosis? A randomised experiment. S. Mamede et al. BMJ Qual Saf doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2015-00410. Online March 7, 2016.

How Cancer Patients Can Get Better Sleep

Cancer can make it difficult for you to get a good night’s sleep. In fact, between 30 to 75 percent of cancer patients experience difficulty with sleep. And even in remission, 25 percent of survivors continue to have trouble with sleep.

Pain, fatigue, and discomfort may be to blame for your sleep difficulties during cancer treatment. With cancer, you may experience insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, or restless legs syndrome.

When you can’t sleep, your quality of life suffers. Sleep deprivation can weaken your immune system, and it can make your symptoms or side effects worse. It is especially important that you get adequate sleep during cancer treatment.

Tips for Better Sleep

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. With good sleep hygiene, you’ll go to bed and wake up around the same time each day, encouraging your body to fall into a regular sleeping routine that is predictable and can make you feel tired at bedtime each night. You should avoid screen time, heavy meals, caffeine, alcohol, and exercise in the hours before bed.
  • Choose cool bedding. Night sweats or hot flashes at night can interfere with sleep. It’s a good idea to lower your bedroom temperature, but bedding can make a difference, too. For example, the Purple mattress has a unique buckling column gel that sleeps very cool compared to memory foam and latex, so it may be a better choice if you get hot at night during cancer treatment.
  • Treat sleep disorders.: Addressing sleep disorders may be low on your priority list during cancer treatment, but it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about how you can treat serious sleep struggles such as insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, or restless legs syndrome. Treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, including relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.

Alicia Sanchez is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com with a specialty in health and wellness. A Nashville native, Alicia finds the sound of summer storms so soothing that she still sleeps with recorded rain on her white noise machine.

Notable News

All cancer, on a very basic level, is the same. It is the uncontrolled growth of cells. However, each type of cancer varies greatly and that is why early detection and individualized treatment is so important for patient health and survival. Fortunately, research breakthroughs come along every day that help pave the way to successful, individualized treatment.

A breakthrough in breast cancer research has come from an unlikely place, reports al.com. For his winning science fair project, high school senior Kenneth Jiao researched breast cancer and made a discovery that may help stop the spread of the disease to other organs. Through his research, Kenneth discovered that the CHD7 gene and it’s molecular processes may prevent metastasis. Kenneth’s project was inspired by a breast cancer scare his mother had a couple of years ago. His mother’s tumor turned out to be benign, but the worry and fear Kenneth felt during that time motivated him to look for ways to prevent the disease. Kenneth earned a $3,000 scholarship for his win and is moving on to the final round of competition in Washington, D.C. where he could end up winning $100,000 in scholarship money. You can learn more about Kenneth and his science fair experience here.

Researchers may have found an easier way to find successful, individualized cancer treatment by experimenting on tiny replicas of unhealthy cancer cells called tumoroids, reports economist.com. The tumoroids, which were developed from the cells of eight liver cancer patients, are unique in that they contain only cancerous cells. Traditionally cultured cells are often mixed with healthy cells, which can affect the results of the genetic analysis. Along with gaining a better understanding of the cancerous cells, the research team is using the tumoroids to test anti-cancer drugs. The hope is that, eventually, replicas will be made of individual patients’ cells which will then be examined and tested to determine personalized treatment options. Find more information about the tumoroid research, here.

About 70 percent of women diagnosed with the most frequently occurring type of ovarian cancer are diagnosed with an advanced stage of the disease, but according to cancer.gov new research may help to change that. A new study reveals that the most common ovarian cancer, known as HGSOC, may begin as lesions in the fallopian tubes several years before the start of ovarian cancer, which means there is a potential for early detection. The new study supports and expands on a study done ten years ago that identified fallopian tube lesions in women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. The evidence now shows that HGSOC originates from the fallopian tube lesions whether the BRCA mutations are present or not. Not all ovarian cancers originate from the fallopian tube lesions and more research needs to be done, but there is hope for the possibility of early diagnosis and prevention. More details about the study and further research can be found here.

There are thousands of species of bacteria that live in and on our bodies and the ones living in our stomach, our stomach microbiome, may be a major factor in the risk of tumor development, according to new research reported by worldwidecancerresearch.org. The study shows a link between the microbial diversity of the stomach and varying health conditions — some cancerous and some not — and while many factors are involved in gastric cancer development, the study shows that the stomach microbiome may be one of those factors. Understanding and being able to change stomach bacteria may one day lead to the prevention or treatment of stomach cancer. Learn more about the exciting microbiome discovery here.

Check back next month for more exciting breakthroughs and in the meantime, keep up with the latest at PEN here.

Storytelling and Medicine

“Tell me a story.”

That’s something that any adult who’s spent time in the company of kids will have heard. Stories are how humans connect with, and make sense of the world, in childhood and beyond. Storytelling is how people communicate. “Here’s who was there, here’s what we did, here’s how we felt, and here’s what happened.” Language evolved to help humans tell stories.

When people are in an exam room, or a hospital room, their story is what matters most to them – their symptoms, their pain, their hopes for relief – and what is most important to the doctor or nurse hearing that story. Turning that patient story into a story of what to do next, and what might happen after that, is the clinician’s purpose in the relationship.

A medical history is a story

When you tell your story in the exam room, you really want the person listening – the doctor, the nurse, the physician assistant – to hang on your every word, right? Of course, the necessity to document that story in an EHR (electronic medical record) does mean that, too often, your audience will be multi-tasking, but that’s just a fact of 21st century life. The important thing is that your story is heard, and recorded, so that your health condition is properly addressed.

Have you ever prepared your patient “story” ahead of a healthcare visit? If you’re a medical professional, what storytelling skills have you worked on to make sure your patients understand, and can take action on, your treatment recommendations? Being face to face with another human person in this most human of settings is a great opportunity to put all your human-storytelling skills in play.

Storytelling 101 (in healthcare)

There are five elements to a good story:

  • What’s happening?
    • Why is the patient in the office/clinic, and what does the clinician already know about the patient – is there past history, or is this a new relationship?
  • What’s the conversation like?
    • In the case of the patient, that’s what his/her body is “saying” via symptoms. For the clinician, that’s asking clarifying questions about the “what your body is saying” conversation to correctly identify the source(s) of the patient’s condition.
  • Description. What are they see­ing, hear­ing, touch­ing, tast­ing, and smelling?
    • This is what both sides of the dialogue above contains: descriptions from the patient, repeated and clarified by the clinician, to nail down the specifics of what brought the person to the office/hospital.
  • Inner Monologue.What are they thinking?
    • This is where body language and non-verbal cues come in for the patient/clinician storytelling duet. How each side of the conversation picks up on cues from the other’s body language, eye contact, and facial expression adds nuance and contact to the clinical “story.”
  • Exposition / Narrative.What other infor­ma­tion does the nar­ra­tor (in this case, both patient and clinician) want us to know?
    • Have all the bases been covered, with all the symptoms described and all the questions asked by both sides of the story?

Taking your show on the road

In this case, the “road” is the clinical conversation. Preparing for the two-way clinical storytelling session is important for both sides of the equation (by the way, this is true in telemedicine and electronic messaging, too).

For patients, putting together a tight set of action and description items ahead of the conversation will help the clinician they’re telling their story to ask the questions that serve up the exposition and narrative that leads to the best treatment options.

For clinicians, be aware that body language and eye contact can reveal additional information about the patient’s condition. That means actually making eye contact, and directly observing the patient’s body in action (the physical exam!), to make the right diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Presence of evidence

The science of medicine runs on evidence. There is an emerging practice of teaching storytelling principles in medical education that is serving up evidence that story is a key piece of the medical relationship. I’d say it’s foundational to shared decision making, since the information exchange that is central to that practice is all about the stories that both sides tell each other. Doctors are writing journal articles about storytelling, too, which add to the “science” of story in medicine.

Tell your story well. Your life (or the lives of your patients) depends on it!

Caregiver Profile: Heather Cimino

In recognition of National Family Caregivers Month, we are using this month’s Patient Profile to profile a caregiver. You can learn more information about National Family Caregivers Month here.

Heather Cimino’s father died in 2008. He had mesothelioma and lived only six weeks after his diagnosis. So, when Heather’s mom was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in April 2015, Heather became her caregiver. Fortunately, her mom lives just down the street so Heather can check on her regularly. “I sit with her on chemo days, visit with her, and make sure she has food,” she says. “I’m pretty experienced in this now.”

You see, this isn’t Heather’s first go around as a caregiver. Her first began in January 2012 while she was in the operating room undergoing a Caesarean section. She and her husband Nick were anticipating the arrival of their third son. Except, Heather says Nick wasn’t there. He was in the ER with a possible blood clot in his leg. Nick had been complaining of leg pain during her pregnancy, but Nick and Heather, who had been married seven years, were busy people. They had two sons under the age of five, another on the way, and both worked and attended school full time. He’d been told by doctors that the pain was probably just residual from a long-ago injury so Nick ignored it until that day when he couldn’t ignore it anymore.

The pain wasn’t from a clot. It was a tumor and, within a week, Nick was diagnosed with High Grade Spindle Cell Sarcoma. Treatment began immediately and, for awhile, things were okay. Heather managed to care for her three sons and Nick, who was confined to the first floor of their home: the tumor in his leg broke the bone so he required a walker to get around. Heather was even able to return to work some of the time so that they could keep their insurance. Despite the surgeries and blood transfusions and hospital stays and travel to different treatment facilities, Heather and Nick wanted to provide a sense of order for their boys. “We tried to make life as normal as possible,” says Heather who organized Nick’s pill schedule around her breastfeeding schedule. After eight rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation five days a week for seven weeks, Nick’s scans were good. “But then,” says Heather, “the tumors sprouted up and ten months in, he was terminal.”

Nick and Heather, who both had medical backgrounds, looked for any possible hope. “We would sit up all night researching,” she says, “but there was no good outcome.” They went to New York and tried a different chemo treatment, they reached out to facilities all over from Texas to Europe but nothing worked. So, they scheduled family pictures and made sure to get lots of photos of Nick with his sons.

Nick died in May 2013. He was 31 years old. Their boys were 1, 3 and 6 years old and Heather, who had not slept for more than two hours at a time since that day in January 2012, had no time to grieve. “It’s all a blur,” she says looking back. “I was so worried about the kids.” She put the two older boys in an art therapy class and found a church that embraced her family and offered her support. “It was like we started a whole new life,” she says.

Like many caregivers, Heather didn’t have time to think about her role as caregiver, she simply took it on and did what had to be done and it wasn’t always easy. “When Nick was sick he yelled at me a lot,” she says. At first, she was surprised by the behavior from her mild-mannered, soft-spoken husband, but one of his doctors told her not to take it personally. Sometimes the medication can cause the behavior, but so can the emotion. Heather equates it to a child who has to hold in his fears and angers all day in front of others and then lashes out when he feels safe.

While Heather would like to advise other caregivers to take care of themselves, she says it’s just not likely to happen. There’s no time and even when people offered to help, she never wanted to leave Nick’s side. But, she did take some advice from another caregiver. “She told me, ‘Smell your person, touch them, look at them, pick something to focus on so you will remember it’,” says Heather. “It will go so fast, so take the moment.” Heather says she is grateful for that advice. “Even now I can close my eyes and I can see the freckle he had between his brow.”

Remembering the moments keeps Nick’s memory alive.“He’s always there,” she says. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but it has.” The boys are 11, 8 and 5 now and all in school. Though, she is moving forward carefully so as not to overwhelm her sons, Heather has begun a relationship with a man she describes as very patient. And, of course, she’s caring for her mom. “We just keep trucking through,” she says.

How Do I Stay Strong During Lung Cancer Treatment?

How Do I Stay Strong During Lung Cancer Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How can I stay strong during lung cancer treatment? Can I tackle fatigue, nausea and anxiety through lifestyle changes? Two noted experts, Dr. Christine Lovly, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and Dr. Ishwaria M. Subbiah, Assistant Professor of Palliative, Rehabilitation & Integrative Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center both discuss how they work with lung cancer patients and their families daily to address effective evidence-based interventions that can be used to help patients stay strong during treatment.

National Family Caregivers Month 2017

National Family Caregivers Month began in 1994 as a week-long event inaugurated by the Caregiver Action Network (National Family Caregiver Association). Now it is a month-long event – celebrated each November – as a time to recognize and honor family caregivers across the country. The theme for this year’s National Family Caregivers Month is “Caregiving Around the Clock”. Celebrating Family Caregivers during NFC month enables all of us to:

  • Raise awareness of family caregiver issues
  • Celebrate the efforts of family caregivers
  • Educate family caregivers about self-identification
  • Increase support for family caregivers

In this country alone, 43.5 million people have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child in the last 12 months. The majority of caregivers (82%) care for one other adult, while 15% care for 2 adults, and 3% for 3 or more adults. The value of services provided by informal caregivers has steadily increased over the last decade, with an estimated economic value of $470 billion in 2013, up from $450 billion in 2009 and $375 billion in 2007. So, what can we do to support caregivers manage the emotional and physical demands of caregiving? Here are 10 top tips for family caregivers from The Caregiver Action Network:

  1. Seek support from other caregivers. You are not alone!
  2. Take care of your own health so that you can be strong enough to take care of your loved one.
  3. Accept offers of help and suggest specific things people can do to help you.
  4. Learn how to communicate effectively with doctors.
  5. Caregiving is hard work so take respite breaks often.
  6. Watch out for signs of depression and don’t delay getting professional help when you need it.
  7. Be open to new technologies that can help you care for your loved one.
  8. Organize medical information so it’s up to date and easy to find.
  9. Make sure legal documents are in order.
  10. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can in one of the toughest jobs there is!

Below are some of our most popular caregiver information and resources.

Importance of Caregivers 

Caregiving Tips

Caregiver Awareness at the Patient Café®

Treatment Diaries – anonymous diary entries from caregivers


http://caregiveraction.org/resources/10-tips-family-caregivers

AML Genetic Testing and Me

AML Genetic Testing and Me Webinar from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Genetic testing can help physicians to better understand an individual’s AML and help guide treatment decisions. So which genetic tests should AML patients have and when? In this Patient Empowerment Network program, in partnership with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), an expert panel discusses essential genetic testing for AML patients. Dr. Lee Greenberger, Chief Scientific Officer at the LLS is joined by AML specialist Dr. Amit Verma and patient advocate Kuldip Ahluwalia as they explain this complex topic and share tools for patients to help ensure they get the best care.