Living With ITP: “I Cut My Stress and Took Back My Life!”

Three days a week, Joan Young dances. Ballroom. Argentine tango. West Coast swing. To watch the light-footed moves of the 67-year-old on the dance floor, you’d never guess there was a time she struggled. Literally. Struggled to breathe. To walk. “I couldn’t even make it out to the mailbox,” she says, recalling the extreme fatigue.

When she was diagnosed with the platelet disorder, ITP, in 1992, it turned her world upside down—but she couldn’t let it stay that way. The mother of two was determined to one day hold and cuddle her grandchildren. So she faced her medical challenges head-on, working with her healthcare team and figuring out what else she could do to take charge. Joan’s “aha moment” came one winter night while at home. Feeling overwhelmed by her ITP diagnosis, frequent doctor visits and hospital stays—“There were times I felt like giving up,” she recalls—she realized something had to give. “I said, ‘I’m going to be better in the spring.’ So I changed everything—my job, my relationships, my diet and more. The way I looked at myself and at others.” And these stress-busters helped bring immune-boosting calm to her life:

Guided imagery. Joan listened to tapes and learned this exercise from her nurse: Close your eyes and pick an image to represent your platelets (Joan often chose a field of daisies). Then picture your image growing—Joan imagined the daisy “platelets” multiplying to signify her blood count was improving. Skeptical? A review in the International Journal of Neuroscience found guided imagery can reduce stress hormones and improve immune response when cell-specific images are used.

Belly breathing. “Your abdomen should rise when you breathe in, and fall when you exhale,” explains Joan. “My nurse said, ‘If your breathing is smooth, deep and controlled, you will be smooth, deep and controlled.’”  Why? It stops the stress response and signals the body to relax, says stress researcher Esther Sternberg, MD,
University of Arizona, Tucson.

Observing beauty. Today, Joan also crowds out worrisome thoughts by hiking the stunning trails of nearby Red Rock Country in Sedona, AZ. Research at Stanford University suggests why: Looking at something awe-inspiring—whether in person or in a picture—is so uplifting, it makes time “slow down” and creates a sense of well-being.

Update: Joan went into remission and in 1998, she founded the Platelet Disorder Support Association.

Published October 2013

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