Octobre Rose

I’ve always hated pink.

Not just the colour, but what it represents. Pink for girls, blue for boys. Berk, as they say in my adopted land. Yuck.

But I’ll make an exception for pink this month. It’s ‘October Rose’ in France, Pink October. And breast cancer prevention is worthy of even the most vile of shade of rose bon-bon, candy pink or my most-hated fuchsia.

I guess I hate breast cancer even more.

My mother died of breast cancer in 1989. That will make it 30 years ago next March. I was pregnant with her first grandchild at the time. Her grandson, Elliott, born the following September, helped me get through that first year.

There is something especially cruel about breast cancer. Cancer du sein. It attacks the very heart of motherhood. That maternal breast that nourished us as babes in arms is eaten up by cells that grow haywire, out of control, that harden and metastasize. In my mom’s case, it went into her liver.

That was after the chemo. First came the trauma of a mastectomy, then the nauseating treatments and hair loss. But she rode out that first wave. Came to Paris for our wedding in 1986. By then her hair had grown back. A few years later so did the cancer.

While research has made great strides in understanding the genetics of the disease, and therapy has become more targeted, detection and prevention of breast cancer have not advanced much. Aside from those with a genetic predisposition to the disease, particularly that ticking time bomb of BRCA mutations, the only ‘prevention’ widely used is early detection by mammogram.

Essentially this means that, beyond living a healthy lifestyle, eating well and not drinking too much, our only option is irradiating our breasts to find out if we have a tiny tumour in the making. I have been getting biannual mammograms since the age of 35, which adds up to a lot of radiation over time. Now there is considerable controversy over whether that is, in fact, a good idea.

Some countries, like Switzerland, have opted out of routine mammograms. It seems they consider the risks, between radiation exposure and over-diagnosis, outweigh the benefits. Yet what choice does someone with a family history of breast cancer have? You are damned if you don’t and, possibly, damned if you do.

Not to mention how unpleasant it is to have that particular part of your anatomy squeezed flat between two pieces of glass, pinching the skin of your arm pit while the technician orders you not to breathe or risk having to do it all over again, doubling the dose of radiation. I remain convinced that if men had to submit to a similar procedure for testicular cancer, they would have found a better way long ago.

Still, it is better than the alternative. And I can only imagine how grateful one would feel when such a test picks up a cancer very early on.

That was the case for Caitlin Kelly, a fellow Canadian and a journalist who shares her recent personal experience with breast cancer on her blog, Broadside. Happily, her prognosis is excellent. This week’s post also includes a link to Caitlin’s story, published in the New York Times, about the importance of touch in medical care. Check it out: https://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/exposing-oneself-to-millions/

So, pink it is for this month at least. Let’s hope that increased awareness will save lives and that research will get us a better way to detect and prevent this terrible disease.

I’ll raise a (small) glass of rosé to that!

Has breast cancer touched your life?

Du poil de la bête

I’ve often heard it said in French, ‘Il reprend du poil de la bête’. This means to feel better after having been ill.

It never occurred to me to equate it with the hair of the dog. The idea of taking ‘a hair of the dog that bit you’ in the form of an alcoholic beverage to cure a hangover is the so very English expression. Quelle surprise!

Yet it seems they have the same etymology. At one time it was thought that applying a hair of the animal that bit you to a wound would literally hasten a cure.

My Frenchie is almost back to his old self following last week’s operation to remove an obstruction from his large intestine. Snorting, burping, farting and giving in to occasional moments of pure bulldog folly. Makes me remember why I fell in love with the breed in the first place….

Higgins took a hair of the dog and actually came very close to a second incident when he managed to crack open the small hard plastic bit of a vet-approved rope toy. Verdict: he is not to be left alone with any toys, period. As the vet pointed out, rightly so, there is no safe toy in the jaws of a determined dog. So we’ll reserve these objects of his affection for play time.

Speaking of hair, we are in shedding season. Between two cats and two dogs, you need a powerful vacuum cleaner to keep the floors from wearing shag rugs.

The above photo is the amount of hair removed from one of our cats following a recent trip to the toilettage. Finding a professional cat groomer wasn’t easy but it turns out there is a crazy lady ‘toiletteuse pour chat’ only half an hour away. My two kitties had never been groomed before but the experience of removing knots not to mention handfuls of hair seems to have given them a new lease on life. And my vacuum cleaner too.

So that just leaves me. After my series of blood tests and checkups and hair-raising encounters with loud machines, it seems it’s all systems go. As my Beau-père likes to joke, ‘on va mourir en bonne santé’. It’s reassuring to know we will die in good health.

A thought for those who are not so fortunate, however. Having been there before, it is easy to forget the suffering – physical and mental – of all those who are not well, be it with serious illness or chronic pain. Keeping one’s sense of humour is vital, but that’s a lot easier when you have the greatest gift of all.

Here’s to your good health. Santé!

Piqûre de rappel

Dave/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Somehow I manage to get through the year without a trip to the doctor’s office. Then it’s time for a booster shot. And suddenly it seems I have a check-up or an appointment of some kind for several weeks running.

Keeping a body in good health is like a car, especially us older models: you keep it fueled, check the air, go lightly on the brakes, but every now and then you have to do the maintenance. Seems I’m in for a full oil change at the moment.

Maybe because he doesn’t see me so often, my GP tends to pull out the big guns whenever I go in with a minor complaint. This time it was nagging lower back pain that had started in the summer. He was off for a month’s holidays when it started, so by the time I got an appointment, it was almost better. Still, better safe than sorry. I got sent for blood work, urine analysis, x-ray and – okay, why not save time and get it now? – an MRI.

I also got a few prescriptions for minor ailments, and when I go back with my results next week, I’ll probably get a flu shot. Seems this year’s bug is looking like a humdinger, and although the medical community agrees the vaccine is a bit of a crap shoot, as they can only guess at its actual makeup, worst case is you only get 35% sick. I’ll take it.

The anti-vaxxer movement is starting to gain momentum France. I remember questioning the need for my kids to get so many shots when I first arrived. But immunization is obligatory here, and if you want your children to attend school you have to go with it. After a bit of fact-checking, I decided to put my faith with science.

Now France’s new government is boosting the number of ‘obligatory’ children’s vaccines to 11: polio, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis b, influenza, meningitis and pneumococcal disease. Most of these were recommended anyway but the difference is that now they will be mandatory, and therefore, I assume, reimbursed. I get that people are concerned, and if I had young children would probably question the need for them too.

But the return of diseases like measles that were virtually eradicated in France is a legitimate public health concern for both young and old. Even though we oldsters survived many of them — in my case, measles, mumps and chicken pox. But hey, I also grew up a cloud of cigarette smoke.

This week I had an appointment for the dreaded MRI. You have to go to the hospital for this, and as I arrive I can’t help but notice that they always have a funeral parlour just across the street. Isn’t that a little pessimistic? Not to mention insensitive?

I’ve had MRI’s before, and figured this time would be a picnic as it was only for my lower back. Surely, given the fact that I always tick ‘claustrophobic’ on the questionnaire, they’d let me have my head sticking out of the tunnel? No such luck. The nurse pointed out that my head was almost at the end, and handed me a headset to block out the noise of the machine. The screech of obnoxious commercial radio combined with the strange magnetic noises of the imaging created a cacophony that made the whole experience even more unpleasant. But after a few brief moments of panic, the 15 minutes only felt like 30.

So far so good, although I’ll only get all the results back in a few days.

Hopefully now I’ll be good for another year.

Will you be getting a flu shot? Or avoiding the doctor like the plague?

Six milles pas

Walking in Paris
Photo courtesy of Tristan

The revelation came last week: the French must walk 6,000 steps each day. Mais bon dieu! What has the world come to when even le Président de la République uses a step counter?

Under medical advice from French TV personality, Michel Cymes, it seems that François Hollande is counting his steps to keep fit. If he already had an image problem thanks to his yo-yo dieting and being driven around on a giant tricycle to see his paramour, I’m not sure that using a step counter is going to help. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity to get the healthy lifestyle message across to the notoriously resistant French

I’m not sure what possessed me to get a fitness tracker. I saw all those cool wrist bands people were wearing and thought, why not? Maybe it will inspire me to go a bit further in my regular if uninspired workouts. So I got one for my birthday last year.

My Fitbit (pronunciation in French: Feet-beet? Really?) has now been gathering dust on my dresser for the last few months. Essentially, it is more work than it’s worth. When it’s not buzzing to announce another milestone (10,000 steps!), the stupid thing requires constant charging and syncing and updating. It is yet another form of digital slavery. It doesn’t work on a bicycle or an elliptical trainer and you can’t wear it swimming. At the very least I thought it would have a GPS chip. When I mentioned this to my two tech whizzes (business intelligence husband and software engineer son), I was informed that I am naïve and overly demanding. Yep, that about sums it up.

As for the French, it seems their battle against inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle has just begun. Contrary to their reputation for biking around with baguettes under their arm, my compatriots don’t actually get out and about so much these days. Like most of us, they spend their days sitting in front of computers and in transport, not to mention at table.

6,000 steps is only about 30 minutes of walking a day. It may not be enough to combat all that food and wine but I’m willing to bet we see more French people counting steps.

What about you? Do you use a step counter or other fitness device?

La crève

La creveJ’ai chopé la crève.

Caught a nasty cold. None of your average, run-of-the-mill sniffles for me. I do things with gusto.

Interestingly, this French slang word for ‘rhume’ finds its roots in the verb ‘crever’, meaning to pop or burst (as in a flat tire) as well as to pop one’s clogs or kick the can.

It started on Christmas Eve. A low-grade flame in the chest, nothing more. I was fine for the first couple of days, amped by holiday spirit and frequent doses of champagne and single malt. But by Monday last week I was flat out. Coughing up a storm and a head so injected with fluids I had to breathe through my mouth while applying multiple tissues to my nose. It felt like I was drowning.

I hadn’t had a cold like that in years. What the heck happened? Random bad luck or the year-end flushing out of various demons? A few days before I had been to a concert in a church, a place where I would normally never set foot unless to sightsee. I am a sucker for Christmas music, though, and was also scouting out a choir to join in the new year, one of my resolutions to do more things that bring me joy.

Next to me in the crowded church sat a woman who was snorting and hacking away, clearly in the throes of a miserable cold but oblivious to the fact that she was spreading germs while ruining the concert for others with her coughing. It is not done in France to avoid people with colds but after half an hour I couldn’t take it any more, so I got up and moved to the back. The damage was done, however, as 48 hours later I came down with the same symptoms.

The French don’t suffer sickness in silence. They run to the doctor at the first symptoms for a prescription and then to the pharmacy for a boat-load of drugs. Unfortunately they also don’t keep their cold germs to themselves. People go to work and social events with full-blown symptoms which they’d be better off hiding under a blanket for a few days.

I didn’t go to the doctor, nor take any drugs beyond a bit of paracetemol. I am no martyr but I don’t believe in miracles. La crève requires bed rest and plenty of fluids, which is what I gave it (mostly without alcohol). A week later it is almost gone.

So I am starting out the new year with renewed health, and a determination to stay that way. A couple of dry weeks, plenty of garlic and ginger, early to bed and lots of exercise. And if any of you have colds, please stay the hell away.

How’s your health this season? Please share your tricks and tips for keeping the cold germs at bay!