Monday, October 29, 2007

Forget Three Little Words, Focus on Three Little Numbers


Heading into the month of October, when our thoughts are centered on the fall activities of craft fairs, football and back-to-school activities, our attention is also called to the "pink blitz" month for breast cancer awareness.

As an eighteen-year survivor of this life-changing disease, I celebrate my own and my aunt's survivorship, and remember those who have passed "Over the Rainbow," along with my mother and Grandmother.

However, I am so distressed to read lately that the numbers of women getting their mammograms are falling. Falling? It is simply inconceivable to me.

You see, my mother was diagnosed with her first breast cancer at age 33. People did not discuss breast cancer in the mid-fifties, and no one in my mother's family had ever had breast cancer. Mother was comfortable with the lumps she assumed were "clogged milk glands" in her breast as she had also nursed her three older children. She lost her breast to a radical mastectomy in these pre-mammogram, pre-chemo days but went on to live another 33 years. My Dad was told she had a 50-50 chance of survival.

At 66 Mother was diagnosed with an all new cancer in her other breast, but this time, despite her diligence with diet, exercise and having mammograms every six months, Mom's cancer had been missed. She died at 71.

So every year in memory of Mama, I say to women as often as possible—just remember three little numbers. They can save your life. They are: 98 percent of all breast cancers are CURABLE if caught early; 75percent of all women have NO breast cancer in their family, and 90 percent of all breast lumps found are BENIGN
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I would tattoo these numbers on women's chests if I could.

No. 1--what could be more encouraging to hear that if you practice good breast health procedures, i.e., breast self-exams and yearly mammograms, you have a 98 percent chance of saving your life because you have found your cancer early?

No. 2--we must get the word out there that 75 percent of all women diagnosed do not have breast cancer in their family. Women think that there must be a history, but the reality is that only five to seven percent of all breast cancers are genetic.

No.3 – 90 percent of the time, that lump is just lumpy breast tissue, so don't waste precious moments of your life worrying unnecessarily.

These numbers are easy to remember & reassuring. Get those mammograms. You owe it to you, and to your family.

Ellen P. Stucker of Memphis, TN

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Healthy . . . and wise

Just last night I had a conversation with a friend of mine about people we both know who don't take care of their health. I probably fall into a borderline category myself. Knock on wood, I haven't suffered from any major illnesses, have had one surgery as an adult and take very little medication beyond over-the-counter sinus medication when my allergies kick in and an OTC pain med to keep my knee in gear. When symptoms develop, I research, give myself a week or so to stave off whatever's going on and then promise to see a doctor if I'm not cured.

Of course, one of my two favorite doctors used to go nuts about this tendency of mine to self-diagnose. I'd go in for an appointment and spend ten minutes not reciting symptoms, but telling him my theories about my illness. Since I worked in a hospital at the time and had access to medical journals, I "had" a lot of exotic diseases. Eventually the doctor would roll his eyes, point out that the illness I was sure I'd contracted only affected men on an island far, far away, and that perhaps it was time to give him a crack at figuring out what was going on. He also suggested I be banned from reading the medical journals.

I blame this habit of mine on a mile-wide independent streak, but I also think we all know our own bodies better than anyone else. And I believe with every fiber in me that a good diagnostician, who doesn't need to run a thousand tests, is worth his(or her) weight in gold.

However, there is a very fine line between taking charge of your own health and being in denial. The folks my friend and I were discussing had been in deep denial about their illnesses and now face an uncertain future. As terrifying as it can be to face some things head-on, how much more likely it is that early detection can lead to a cure.

In no situation is that more evident than with breast cancer. Women who do regular self-exams and have regular mammograms have a better shot at life-saving treatment and remission. It's important all year, but especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to make absolutely certain you and all your women friends are being tested.

This issue takes on added importance to me as I try to support a friend who's had a recurrence after sixteen years in remission. And it happens to be a significant part of my next book, SEAVIEW INN, which comes out in March.

Next week we'll feature a wonderful guest blog on this very subject, but until then, stop dawdling. Make that appointment for a mammogram. Call your friends and make sure they've made theirs. Don't wait until one of you faces a crisis. Stay healthy. It's the wise thing to do.

Sherryl Woods

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Handling frustration with a smile

Years ago my southern mother tried diligently to drill into my head that I could catch more flies with honey than I could with vinegar. At the time I never quite understood why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place, but eventually I figured out this had to do with an overall approach to life. Basically, you get more when you're nice.

However, it is not always easy to be sweet in the midst of a frustrating battle with some anonymous bureaucrat who's being guided by a rulebook and lacks any semblance of common sense or the ability to actually resolve your problem. You know those people. You've probably talked to them on the phone more times than you can count. Maybe even yelled at them, despite the fact that deep down you know perfectly well that they didn't actually cause the problem.

Because this kind of thing happens way too often, I mentioned it to a friend recently, someone whose career specialty has been conflict resolution. I figured she'd know exactly how to handle these frustrating conversations. Alas, Sara had her own tale to tell, though she did ultimately offer a few tips. Here's what she wrote for me:

One day last week, I caught myself yelling over the phone. Not speaking loudly, or emphatically--yelling! I was talking to a representative from the insurance company that sells the policy I buy to supplement Medicare. I'm sure that the person I was talking to must have been thinking, I'm not paid enough to put up with this----stuff.

I was trying to deal with a recurring problem: I got a bill from my doctor for a certain test which she ordered for me. Both she and I thought that the treatment was covered. I checked my insurance booklet: it stated very clearly that this procedure is covered by my insurance.

When this sort of thing occurs, the payments in question are not chicken feed: this time I was being billed for $97, an amount I won't pay without a fight. But the phone representative continued to tell me that I was liable for that bill, eventually saying that my insurance coverage was not in effect at the time I had the test.

I'm not very proud of myself for yelling at the phone representative of the insurance company. I realize that it is likely that he did not make the rules, and doesn't have much discretion about how to enforce the rules. But he was on the other end of the line, I was very upset, and so I yelled at him.

This is a fairly frequent occurrence, and you'd think that I would know by now, my yelling does not solve the problem. And then, I have a Ph.D. in Communication and I specialized in communication and conflict for many many years. No excuse for my behavior! But knowing, in theory, how to best solve conflicts does not assure acting appropriately when I am confronted with a bill which I don't think is fair.

Once I had calmed down, and the insurance rep calmed down, he looked at my records and said the my coverage was in effect at the time of the test, and that I was not responsible for the bill of $97.

After hanging up, I did what communication scholars call retrospective sense making. I started to analyze why that phone call was so upsetting to me. And while the insurance company's error was annoying, some of the problem was of my own making. I spoke to the insurance representative as if he was the problem, and of course, that is not the case. The billing error was the problem. I might have avoided some aggravation by getting him to help me solve the problem, instead of acting like he was the adversary.

Secondly, by raising my voice to a very loud level, I was communicating anger and disrespect toward the insurance representative. No surprise that he responded in a defensive manner that seemed to be focused on protecting himself rather than solving my problem. I should have taken a deep breath and paused for a moment -- listening to my internal voice that tells me I am getting angry and therefore less thoughtful.

In a calmer frame of mind, I would have used language less likely to provoke hostility. Instead, my words had been accusing, controlling and certain of the rightness of my position and the superiority of my viewpoint.

I know better than to act this way! I know that describing a problem in a way that suggests that we are on equal footing and that it's possible that I might be in the wrong will convey my desire to solve the problem rather than to attack the person.

This scenario will be repeated. The incredible intricacies of dealing with healthcare make misunderstanding and errors inevitable. But perhaps next time I get billed in error, I can at least avoid escalating the problem by treating it as a problem, and not the fault of the person at the other end of the phone line. I can calm my anger and monitor my language so that I show as much respect for the insurance phone representative as I want him to show me. And if I achieve nothing else, I will at least preserve my own health by not letting a billing error give me high blood pressure!

I have to say after reading Sara's story and knowing her level of expertise I felt a whole lot better about my own lapses. On more than one occasion I've heard the outrage in my voice and taken a moment to calm down, take a deep breath, and then say something like, "I know this is not your fault, but I am so frustrated." It acknowledges that I'm angry, justifiably or not, and makes the person on the other end of the line more likely to want to help solve the problem. It's amazing how well this tactic has worked...when I manage to calm down enough to try it. One catalog company representative gave me a nice discount on my next purchase after acknowledging how irritating their particular customer service system was.

So, it looks as if Sara and my mother might be right...honey just may catch more flies than vinegar.

If you've bumped up against these frustrating walls with insurance companies, customer service reps or anyone else, let us know what's worked for you.

Sherryl Woods

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

School's no playground anymore

Can you recall when schools were a safe haven for kids, a place to grow and learn and make friends? This week's tragedy in Cleveland and the near-calamity in Pennsylvania made me start thinking once again about how much things have changed in recent years.

When I was a kid -- longer ago than I sometimes care to recall -- we did have a safety issue in our schools. They were in the process of being desegregated, the first schools to do so in Virginia. In junior high and again in high school, it sometimes seemed as if I attended school with as many state troopers as I did other students. Yet even during those very volatile years, I can't recall a single moment of being deeply afraid.

How different it must be for today's young people in the wake of the Columbine shootings and a myriad of other fatal incidents in schools nationwide. What kind of atmosphere must there be when metal detectors are necessary in some schools, when potential danger lurks around every corner, when any child seemingly has the potential to suddenly turn into a killer?

I wish I could wave a magic wand and come up with solutions to make things go back to the days of innocence, but far more experienced educators and security experts than I have tried and failed. Just yesterday Dr. Phil and his panel seemed stumped to come up with any sure-fire way to say this student represents danger and these do not. Given that, what can a parent do to assure the safety of their children? What can teachers do to help create a safe environment in the classroom? How about principals and administrators?

The one thing that the Pennsylvania case made clear is that young people themselves can be the first and best line of defense. Lines of communication need to stay open, conversations must take place assuring young people that telling a parent or authority figure about threats is not snitching, that it's heroic. It can save not only their lives, but those of their friends. It may even save the very person they've been intent on protecting.

If this issue has touched any of you, if it's something that troubles you, or if it's something you've dealt with in your own home, in your school system, please share those experiences with the rest of us. Conversations must take place at home, in the schools, and even right here...just between friends.

Sherryl Woods

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Monday, October 8, 2007

A double blessing

One of my dearest friends in Florida had five children, including two sets of twin boys! The doctor was terrified to tell her about the second set, because she was still suffering major sleep deprivation with the first set. Over the years, though, she and her husband managed parenting all five of their kids with amazing aplomb. I was frequently in awe, even more so when I managed to lose one of the boys myself when taking just two of them on an excursion. Thankfully he turned up very quickly, but nerves remained frayed for quite some time.

All of that came back to me recently when another friend's daughter became the mother of twin boys. Since she's a writer, I'll let her share how that experience is going:

As a new grandmother of twins, I read with interest the postings from women about fielding the when-are-you-going-to-have-a-baby question. I’ve been thinking about the question of timing ever since our daughter phoned last year to tell my husband and me that she was pregnant at the age of 38 thanks to fetal implants. (Most likely, she couldn’t have done it any other way.)

For years, Andrea didn’t want children, so my husband and I assumed we would never be grandparents. That was okay with us. We believed she should make her decision about whether to become a parent without pressure from us. Then she started talking about having a child a couple of years ago, and her mate eventually agreed. (Being a parent hadn’t topped his list of most-desired life experiences.)

The thing about fetal implants is that doctors like to overplant to raise the odds of getting one that’s viable. Andrea had three implants. Two “took.” The woman who wanted one child—and one child only—birthed twins in April of this year. I held one of my newborn grandsons in my arms just minutes after his birth by Ceasarian section while his dad held his baby brother. I stayed with my daughter and son-in-law for six weeks afterwards to help out. The boys have completely stolen my heart.

When my husband and I flew to see them again this summer, I stayed on for another month—again to help out. I will never forget my first few minutes alone with the grandson I held just after his birth. He was semi-reclining in his little swinging chair and looking up at me as I sat in a chair looking down at him. For a time, we simply took in each other with our eyes. (I suppose I was smiling; it’s nearly impossible to look at him without doing that.) Suddenly, he grinned from ear to ear, waved his arms, and kicked his feet in a baby greeting of pure joy. Talk about being blessed!

Actually, everything about these births has been a blessing. My son-in-law, who didn’t think he ever wanted to be a parent, is a fantastic father. The boys are healthy, intelligent, and handsome. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is my daughter. I wondered how she would be as a mother since patience wasn’t her forté. In addition, she was used to doing what she wanted whenever she wanted. She is a terrific mom, though. She telecommutes from home so that she can breastfeed and be with the babies even though their dad is the primary caregiver during the day. Most importantly, she and our son-in-law care for them with love, patience, humor, and wisdom that touches me deeply as I watch their parenting skills unfold.

I firmly believe that one of the keys to their impressive parenting skills is that they waited until they were ready. Our daughter is established in her career. Both she and her husband have had a lot of life experience. They are much more mature and self-confident now than they would have been as younger parents. They have a happy, stable relationship and home environment. I don’t doubt that they made a wise decision when they chose not to have a child earlier, especially since the child turned out to be twins.

We live on opposite coasts and plan to move near to them next year. In the meantime, Andrea calls to tell us when one of the boys does something new and sends us pictures via the internet. She delights in her boys and in sharing them with us. Had they never become a part of my life, I would never have missed them. Now that they are, I feel so fortunate, so blessed, and so grateful for the timing.

Carolyn, who can hardly stop smiling when looking at pictures of these amazing boys!

If any of you are the parents or grandparents of twins, please share the joys and stresses of managing life with two babies or toddlers underfoot. Or if you are a twin yourself, tell us what is was like for you growing up as part of a "matched set."

Sherryl Woods

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Division of chores...what a joke!

Years and years ago, I had this absolutely insane idea that one really good reason for getting married -- no, not that one -- was having someone handy to take the car to the shop. I learned what folly this was from my married friends, who seemed to be taking not only their own cars, but their husbands' to the shop.

This came back to me yesterday as I drove to the next county and sat in the waiting room at my mechanic's while the oil was changed along with all those other vital checks that a manual says must be done periodically if the car's not to fall apart in the middle of I-95. Now, I like my mechanic. I enjoy chatting with his wife, who runs the office. I even like the dogs. But I can think of a hundred other things I'd rather be doing. And just so you know, that list does NOT include cleaning or ironing.

Way back when I thought this was a task that could be successfully delegated after signing the marriage license, I happened to mention this plan of mine to my mechanic on Miami Beach, a Cuban man who asked me to marry him every time I took my car in. Little did he know that my crush was on the younger guy who pumped the gas. At any rate, when I mentioned my personal theory of marriage, he beamed at me. "I fix your car in the driveway!" It was quite a selling point! In fact in retrospect, it was probably the best offer I could anticipate, at least when it comes to dealing with my car.

All of this got me to thinking about the division of labor in marriages. I have friends whose husbands will literally sit at home starving, rather than fixing themselves a sandwich if their wives happen to be late getting home from work. I have another friend whose husband defiantly refused to take out the trash. My friend rebeled and began stacking the bags on their tiny back porch awaiting the day he would finally tire of it and haul them to the curb. That day never came. When he could no longer walk around them, he simply started using the front door. And so it goes, the small battles over everyday chores.

How have you handle these issues in your marriage? Is it something you've talked about before the wedding day? Or has it become a bone of contention each time one of you fails to do what the other expects? Which chores matter to you? And which aren't worth fighting over? Share your thoughts with us . . . just between friends.

Sherryl Woods

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Staying safe

The subject of rape and date rape is a pretty heavy one for the type of books I usually write, but it is such an important topic for women, especially young women who are dating actively and meeting men for the first time in settings that may not be the safest. In my latest book, MENDING FENCES,I've tried to deal with the impact of date rape on two families -- neighbors and close friends. Readers can see the shattering impact on the family of the suspect, as well as the devastating after-shocks for a victim and her family.

Rather than dwell on the storyline here, I'd like to share some information from experts about how to prevent rape and date rape and what to do if, despite your best precautions, you should become a victim. For several years, I worked at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, which is home to an extraordinary facility -- The Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center. It is the first stop for many victims of rape in the Miami area and has long-standing programs of counseling as well as providing evidence for prosecution of this terrible crime.

On their website, the center provides everything from safety tips to what women and men need to know about date rape. The site also offers information about what to do should a rape occur. I highly recommend that you visit the site and encourage your daughters and your sons to read this vital information. The link is provided below.

Many of the tips you've probably heard a thousand times. Lock your doors and windows when leaving your home, even for a short time. Don't open your door to a stranger. Report abusive behavior, either to someone you trust or to the police or a help-line. Always have a backup way to get home in case a ride fails to materialize or if you sense that a date is out of control.

One tip that strikes me as critically important, especially for those out on a date, involves being extremely cautious with drugs and alcohol. Not only do these impair judgment, but they make it harder to fight off an attacker. I suspect failure to heed this one rule is a key reason for the increasingly high incidence of date rape among young women.

Tara Taylor Quinn in her earlier post mentions the high emotional cost of being raped by a trusted friend. That impact is also at the core of MENDING FENCES. Through years and years of dating experience, I've met my share of men who don't know the meaning of, "No." As an adult, thank heaven, I was able to make it clear, but young women not only may not have the skills, but if they fail, they may well blame themselves. We need to be sure that young men understand that date rape is a crime and that young women know with one hundred percent certainty that it is NOT THEIR FAULT!

Again, Just Between Friends, I encourage you to visit the website below and share it with the other women or men in your life.

www.jhsmiami.org

Put The Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center in the search box at the top right and follow the links to the various topics.

Wishing you safety,
Sherryl Woods

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