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Self Care: Part 2

This Mother's Day, I got back on my bike for the first time since the MS150 for a morning ride my mom and daughter.

A trip with my 10-year-old, Clara, to Laguna Gloria Art Museum to make robots for Family Day; a stop by the community garden to pick carrots; dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant; a good movie with Don; and a morning Mother's Day bike right with my 13-year-old, Ella, and my mom have resulted in a pretty ideal weekend. Busy, but not overly so. Productive, but fun. Quality time with many of my favorite people. Now I'm ready for my afternoon Texas Physicians for Social Responsibility board meeting and a low-key family dinner. 

 

This all ties into self-care, and below is Part 2 of my blog about my recommendations and personal self-care strategy. These questions came from a reporter who was writing an article for the New York Times. She did not end up using my answers, but I wanted to share them anyway, in case they are helpful.

 

What dietary behaviors do you believe protect your health – do you practice what you preach to your patients?

I feel strongly that I can't advocate for good health habits effectively if I don't follow them myself. I am a long-time vegetarian except I occasionally eat fish. I also am one of few Americans who actually eat more than five servings a day of fruits and veggies. Having MS has made me even more careful with my diet. I also try to set a good example for my kids, though it's led to few heated discussions about why I won't buy them Doritos.

What do you advise patients to do?

I tell patients that there is no magic to a healthy diet or to weight loss, which is often the goal. To lose weight, cut calories and exercise. For everyone, I suggest avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages, making sure that each meal contains at least one serving of fruits and/or vegetables (aiming for at least five servings a day – and even more is better), and avoiding fried and highly-processed foods. Keeping salt intake to a minimum (less than two teaspoons) is another good rule of thumb. Limiting alcohol, too, is important.

Do you take vitamins or supplements?

I don't take vitamins or supplements, except for calcium (for bone health) and vitamin D (only because I have MS). Evidence supporting most vitamins and supplements is pretty poor for those with a well-balanced diet. 

What about exercise?

I'm obsessed with exercise. I started exercising nearly every day over twenty years ago as a medical student. Exercise in my stress-reliever, my antidepressant, and helps prevent anxiety. I run or do another aerobic activity every morning just after I get up. I think exercise if the most important thing I do for my health – by far.

What are your thoughts about elective medical procedures - eg.back surgery, knee/hip/shoulder replacements?
I really try to practice evidence-based medicine. Some procedures – such as knee surgery for meniscal tears – have not been shown to be better than nonsurgical care. I do not advocate these procedures that only add to soaring health care costs and subject patients to unnecessary risks.


Tell me your thoughts about incidentalomas?

Incidentalomas are extremely common and are one driver behind escalating health care costs. Patients – and even some health care providers – often think that more screening, more testing is better. The problem, of course, is that we find things we aren't expecting, that often will never become a problem, but also can't – with 100% certainty – be safely ignored. I experienced a scare years ago as a patient when my doctor thought she detected an ovarian mass on a bimanual pelvic exam (a type of exam that is no longer recommended by many authorities in those without symptoms). I ended up needing an uncomfortable pelvic ultrasound – to the tune of hundreds of dollars and significant personal anxiety – to prove that it was nothing.


Do you watch your weight?

Yes. I have been fortunate that I've always had a healthy weight, and I've never been on a diet (except for a couple weird ones that I tried to alleviate MS symptoms), but I still work to maintain my weight through healthy nutritional choices and daily exercise. I keep a scale in my closet and check my weight regularly.

What do you do in general to keep healthy?

I strive for a healthy diet, daily exercise, daily (short) meditation, and seven to eight hours of sleep each night – usually I can do this!

What do you think are the most important things people can do?

Exercise and a healthy diet are more important than any pills or tests that a doctor can offer. However, people can still get sick (I got MS!). Having a trusted physician who can help when symptoms develop and getting screening tests and immunizations as recommended are critical as well.  

What are your hopes for medical care in the future?

I hope that as a society we can take steps to better support healthy habits and to offer truly universal, affordable health care.

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Self Care Part 1

Part of my "self care" strategy for a recent business trip to Puerto Rico was taking an hour off to enjoy the ocean and amazing scenery.

Since my diagnosis with MS in 2009, I have often felt like I'm driving a car without a steering wheel. As a chronic disease, MS is, of course, incurable. Unfortunately, the course of MS - one's overall prognosis – also is not very impactable. Other than taking my medications, there is little I can do to stop or slow its progression.

 

Initially, when I found out that my future with MS was beyond my control, I felt disempowered. I had wanted to find proof that a particular diet – no matter how restrictive – would halt MS in its tracks. Or maybe acupuncture or ten hours of sleep every day would make a difference. But that proof doesn't exist. We still don't know what causes MS or will make it go away.

 

Over the years, I have regained a sense of control, however, by prioritizing self-care.  As a family doctor, I have always tried to practice what I preach. Now self-care is an obsession. It may not make a difference for my MS, but it certainly won't hurt. And I know it will help decrease my odds of other health problems.

 

I recently had an opportunity to answer some questions from a New York Times reporter (that she did not end up needing for her story) about my own self-care habits and recommendations for others. I thought I would share those answers in a two-part blog - Part 2 will come out next week.  You'll notice there are some common self-care beliefs that I dispute (Spoiler: I don't take multivitamins or supplements). I hope this is helpful! Please let me know what you think.

 

What do you look for in a physician to care for you and your family?

I look for a physician with medical curiosity. I want my physician – and the physician for those I care about – to be smart and thorough and really get to the bottom of any symptoms or concerns. Of course, a good bedside manner and a friendly, caring attitude are essential as well.

How often do you get medical check-ups?

I have to see my neurologist at least twice a year for my MS. Besides that, I'm somewhat lax about getting regular check-ups. I take good care of myself. I monitor my own blood pressure. I do get recommended vaccines (including an annual flu shot) and screening tests, but I also don't overdo it.

What are the benefits and possible disadvantages of seeing a primary care doctor annually?

Annual visits don't really have to be "annual" for everyone. If someone is young and healthy, visiting a doctor every two or even three years might be reasonable. But especially for older adults and those at risk for or who have a chronic disease, regular care is important. I do think everyone – young or old, healthy or not - should be established with a primary care provider, in the event that something unexpected comes up.

Do you get your cholesterol checked every year?

Annual testing is overkill. I'm 44, and I've had my cholesterol checked twice in my life because it was at a healthy level and unlikely to change much over time. Even most national guidelines don't recommend annual cholesterol checks unless someone is on cholesterol medication or has another condition that makes regular testing reasonable. Testing every five years (or even less often) is probably adequate when the initial screening test is normal in those without other cardiac risk factors.

What about tests for prostate cancer screening?

Not applicable for me, but I would not recommend prostate screening for my husband or father. Overdiagnosis and overtreatment are far too common.

Which screening tests do you undergo?

I comply with guidelines for cervical cancer screening (pap smears every three years, or every five years if combined with HPV testing). I have received mammograms, but with more recent guidelines, I have reduced the frequency of screening to every other year. And I had a colonoscopy at age 40 (earlier than usual) due to my family history. I have turned down screening tests offered by my physicians for ovarian cancer and carotid artery thickening (increasing the risk for stroke) because I knew that the evidence did not support such testing. 

Do you undergo screening for osteoporosis and vitamin D levels?

I have been tested for vitamin D deficiency because it is linked with MS, but I do not recommend it routinely for healthy people. Similarly, I knew that I was at higher risk for osteoporosis because of my family history and steroid requirement for MS in the past, so I agreed to a bone density test. I strongly support women getting screened for osteoporosis in their 60s, and sooner if they have risk factors, but I am frustrated by the amount of over-screening that occurs.

Which ones do you believe save lives?

Mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, and bone density tests all save lives. No question. Many other tests have less evidence of benefit. Overtesting is commonplace, but it results in significant harms. Check out the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force website for excellent, evidence-based recommendations for medical screening tests.

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