One From the Heart – February is American Heart Month

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Image Source: Flickr

I’ll be the first to admit it. I get stressed.

Stress affects our health in many ways, but heart disease is a common result in the United States, particularly among women. As a woman, this is a stressor in itself. Worries and perfectionism aside, what are some simple, everyday ways you and I can decrease our stress and be kind to our hearts?

A plant-heavy or plant-based diet is a wonderfully heart-healthy eating plan. Personally, I switched from a vegetarian to a vegan diet 2 years ago, and everything I continue to learn about its health benefits encourages me to keep at it. Avocado and olive oil are my favorite plant-based ways to lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol while leaving heart levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol intact.

Image Source: Flickr

Image Source: Flickr

Hobbies that include movement are a low-stress way to get your heart pumping stronger. Dance class (or dancing around the house), gardening, vigorous cleaning and yoga or stretching are some relatively low-impact and low-cost ways to get your circulation up and flex your heart muscle.

But what about the mental stress? It’s the biggest factor in many of our busy lives. Mindfulness meditation is one way to change your mindset and even regulate the rhythm of your heart. Look for a zen or yoga center in your area for more information. Lucky for me, San Francisco is home to a beautiful Zen Center that hosts a variety of programs, classes and retreats.

My personal favorite fact about preventative heart health? Doing good for others lowers your stress levels.

This is something we can all do anytime and it doesn’t have to cost money – sharing time is just as valuable.

Image Source: Flickr:

Image Source: Flickr

If you’d like to find volunteer opportunities in your area, you can use our Act Locally search option and contact local charities to see how you can help. Bonus points on volunteering: It gets you outside – and being in nature is another great de-stressor.Even if you live in a city, you can likely find an urban gardening project to volunteer your time. Check out The National Gardening Association’s Kids Gardening program, which empowers every generation to lead healthier lives, build stronger communities, and encourage environmental stewardship through gardening programs.

If you’d like to support their efforts:

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The most sobering fact I uncovered in my research: women are more prone to suffer from undiagnosed heart disease. Women’s symptoms tend to differ from men’s, and women are more likely to suffer a silent heart attack.

In fact, heart attacks are responsible for the loss of half a million women per year in the U.S. alone. Heart disease is the number one killer of women even though many women are more afraid of breast cancer.

Image Source: Flickr

Image Source: Flickr

I lost a friend and community member, far before her time, to silent heart disease. After her untimely passing a few years ago, another friend organized memorial donations in her honor to WomenHeart: the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. It’s a charity that provides support and research and was started by three women who have personal experience with heart disease issues. Women Heart was the first – and is still the only – national patient-centered organization focused exclusively on women’s heart disease.

If you’d like to donate to help WomenHeart carry out its work:

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Education, information and advocacy are our greatest weapons against killer heart disease. Together, we can multiply our strengths in fighting the battle against heart disease with a unified front. We have to watch out for each other, right?

-Alex Mechanic

Customer Service Manager

Talk early, talk often: Teach your children to avoid sexual assault

As a woman, it’s hard to grow up without exposure to sexual violence of some kind. While I was lucky to get out of my early childhood unscathed, I experienced sexual harassment from several peers beginning in middle school, and was involved in a verbally abusive relationship in high school, which led to choosing a verbally abusive marriage.

Even as I was making poor decisions in partners, my inner voice wondered, “Why am I doing this?” Pushing aside our inner voice is, I believe, one of the key reasons why I and so many other women find ourselves in the less-than-ideal situations that lead to sexual assault.

Sexual Assault is an umbrella term, which includes child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact (touching or grabbing), unwelcome exposure of another’s body (exhibitionism), domestic violence, and rape. This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The ultimate goal: raise our children with the core values that help them avoid sexual assault.

Encourage healthy sexuality at a young age

An awareness of what is wrong starts with an understanding about what’s right. And this, parents, is up to you. Sexuality needs to be discussed many, many times: think of it more as a series of moments where you can educate your kids, not one Big Talk. If you’re wondering how to educate your kids about sexuality, check out this great healthy sexuality PDF from National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

It’s important to keep these conversations age appropriate, addressing different topics at each age. NSVRC offers another helpful PDF with an excellent chart to help parents understand what’s “normal” for sexual development at various ages, and which conversations to have.

A few months ago, we talked about how to protect our children from sexual abuse. You may want to revisit that post for tips about prevention.

Talking to your kids about sexuality is only part of the issue, though. My father was an OB/GYN and my mother a nurse, so I grew up knowing “the birds and the bees.” Yet, I still didn’t make good decisions.

Teach your children that they own their own bodies

At my daughter’s second birthday party, a friend tried to force her daughter to hug mine. My little girl is very shy, didn’t know this girl very well, and didn’t want to. My response? “You don’t have to hug anyone you don’t want to.” It is very important to me that my daughter knows that she owns her body and makes all decisions concerning it. This means she doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone she doesn’t want to, even if I’m worried the other person might be offended.

While well-intentioned parents have a tendency to force their kids to hug or kiss their friends or grandparents, this practice can send an unintended, detrimental message to kids: Push aside your own feelings to make someone else happy. This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so ‘he’ll like me’ and kids enduring bullying because everyone is ‘having fun.’

If your children are huggers, teach them to ask others for permission to hug (“May I hug you?”). If you would like for them to hug Grandma, you can say: “I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.” Teach them to respond with a hug, or a “no, thank you.” And mean what you say—don’t let any child feel disappointment or resentment from you. Explain your reasoning to family members, and remind them it’s not personal. Every child goes through stages where they don’t want to offer affection.

This is hardest for me as a parent, actually—I constantly want to kiss my daughter’s adorable little face, and at two, she often responds with a firm, “NO MOMMY!” Not wanting to squelch her currently strong inner voice, I usually respond with, “that’s okay, honey, it’s your body.”

Read more on this topic at CNN: I Don’t Own My Child’s Body

Understand and talk to your kids about teen relationship violence

After years of bullying during middle school, I was desperate for acceptance. When my family and I moved to another state during my junior year in high school, I became involved with a verbally abusive boyfriend. Though the relationship lasted only four months, the damage lasted much longer—and led me to a verbally abusive marriage. While it is embarrassing for me to admit I didn’t value myself, I know that I’m not alone. By talking about it, I hope to help more young girls understand the long-term repercussions of their choices.

Talking with your children about healthy relationships is extremely important—second only to modeling good relationships. If you are not in a healthy relationship, your children are more likely to choose unhealthy relationships for themselves.

So how do you teach your kids about healthy relationships? Point out loving interactions, examples of good communication, and healthy boundaries when you see them, both in the media and in life. And point out examples of unhealthy interactions when you see them, as well.

Sit down and talk to your kids, long before they start dating. Not sure what to say? Love is Respect’s guide to Healthy Relationships is a good place to start the conversation.

If you suspect that your child is already in an unhealthy relationship, check out Love is Respect’s “Help Your Child.” This can be a very tricky situation to navigate, so if you need help, definitely get it — from a hotline, a counselor, or a domestic violence counselor.

Domestic violence and teen relationship violence can be difficult to understand if you haven’t been through it yourself. I encourage you to look at the warning signs of abuse, and the Power and Control Wheel.

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Concerned and involved parents are key: what we teach our children truly can prevent sexual assaults. In addition, the wonderful charities mentioned in this post provide a wealth of information. Please donate now to help spread the word, fund research, and provide resources to parents, kids, and affected adults.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center is the voice behind Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and offers a wealth of information for preventing sexual violence. Brought to you by Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR).
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KidPower teaches positive, practical personal safety skills to protect people of all ages and abilities from bullying, molestation, abduction, and other violence.
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Love is Respect is a great resource to for engaging, educating and empowering young adults about how to prevent and end abusive relationships. Brought to you by Break the Cycle.
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—Sara Olsher, Marketing Manager

Living with the Threat of Breast Cancer

Living with the Threat of Breast Cancer

When I was two years old, my dad’s sister died from breast cancer. She was 42. Sixteen years later, my mom’s sister, age 50, was diagnosed.  These are not my only relatives who have had breast cancer. In fact, every woman in my family, with the exception of my mother, has had breast cancer.

My dad’s sister is a “first-degree” relative. And because a woman’s risk of breast cancer nearly doubles if she has a first-degree relative diagnosed with it, I have to be very conscious about breast health.

Early Detection and Screening

My aunt was diagnosed at age 39, which led my doctor to suggest I start getting mammograms at age 29. I also do monthly self-breast exams. When she died, my aunt left behind two teenage daughters and a son. My female cousins and I have had many discussions about how we are each managing the risk. Because they are over 40 now, they both get yearly MRIs and mammograms.

We’ve talked about what we’d do if any of us found a cancerous lump. Would we consider radical mastectomy? What does early intervention mean? Even though these are very hard conversations, we all feel they are important: it’s the difference between life and death, and ignoring it or living in denial doesn’t make it go away.

Having a first-degree relative is not the only risk factor for breast cancer, but it’s one of the more serious. Women with inherited gene mutations (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2) have up to an 80% risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime, and to be diagnosed younger. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you can be screened for these gene mutations. If they’re found, you can opt for more tests and begin to make some difficult decisions (like radical mastectomy).

When my dad went to see a geneticist, the doctor offered to test him for the BRCA genes for my benefit (and likely that of my cousins as well). Luckily, he does not have them.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to monthly breast exams and early mammograms, I’ve made some lifestyle changes as well. A few years ago, I was watching an episode of Oprah that featured Kris Karr, a woman living with an untreatable form of Stage 4 cancer. Her message was simple: change your lifestyle, because the products you eat and put on your skin could be killing you. I bought her book and was riveted.

Since then, I’ve read a few more books and consciously work on eating healthier. Research shows, almost unequivocally, that a plant-based diet can actually stop or even reverse cancer growth. So I don’t eat very much meat or dairy, and I include as many fruit/vegetable options as possible in my meals. Check out the documentary Forks Over Knives if you’d like an entertaining and informative introduction to treating disease with healthy foods.

In addition to dietary changes, I’m also careful about plastics and cosmetics. Chemicals such as BPA and phthalates, which are commonly found in plastics and cosmetics such as makeup and lotions, can cause cancer.  If you’d like to learn more about plastics, I recommend the documentary Bag It. The last part of the film is dedicated specifically to cosmetics and plastics we use in everyday life—it’s really eye opening. Wondering what’s in your lotion? Search this database to find out what’s in your cosmetics.

Breast cancer is an incredibly pervasive disease that has touched most of our lives: if not personally, through a friend or a family member. It’s important that all women know the risk factors, not just those of us with a family history.

Read more about breast health and self-examinations at breastcancer.org.

How You Can Help

Donate to charities that are educating women and working to find a cure. And spread the word. Here are a few of my favorites:

Breast Cancer Charities

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is committed to providing adults and children with cancer the best treatment available today while developing tomorrow’s cures through cutting-edge research. (Charity Navigator ranks it as one of the best breast cancer charities.)
Donate

Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF)
BCRF supplies critical funding for innovative research into breast cancer treatment. More than 90 cents of every dollar spent by the organization goes to breast cancer research and awareness programs.
Donate

Working to Make Products Safer

Breast Cancer Fund
The Breast Cancer Fund has an amazing website with a wealth of information about the environmental causes of breast cancer. They’re working hard to raise awareness about the carcinogens in our everyday products
Donate 

Have any questions about breast cancer or my experience? Leave them in the comments, or join us on Facebook. I’d love to continue to the conversation!

–Sara Olsher, Marketing Manager

Women role models, World travel, and Weighty lessons

An American Girl

Did I really need to wear a shoelace necklace?

As a young girl, my mom told me that I could do anything and be anything–and I believed her. I took the classes I wanted, played the sports I wanted, and wore what I wanted (much to the dismay of my future self as I look back now on old photos).

Today, as a woman in the workplace, I have yet to experience the glass ceiling or to be slighted because of my gender. The fact that I have not thought much about my “role as a woman” outside of suffragette history lessons or worried that my salary may never reach the level of a male counterpart shows I live in a country which boasts an (arguably) equal and open playing field.

Planting a Seed

Growing up, I looked to my Great Aunt Charlotte as our family matriarch: a strong woman with outspoken ideals about human and animal rights and global politics. A woman who never followed the pack.  I especially admired her sacred travel room. Floor to ceiling bookshelves were full of worldly trinkets, endless photo albums, and vials of sand from exotic beaches and terrains like the Galapagos Islands, Fiji, the Italian seaboard and more.  Each piece had a story from a different time and place, both intriguing and inspiring.

Setting Sail

With the  travel bug rooted in my genes and dreams, I gathered the funds and support to study abroad with Semester at Sea for my last semester of college. Along with 700 other students from around the US, I took classes on the MV Explorer and docked in cities around the globe. We traveled from the Bahamas and Brazil, around the southern tip of Africa, to various ports in Asia, and back to California for more than three months of compounding culture shock.

The MV Explorer

Photo Credit: Micah Diamond

A Global Education

Our weeks at sea were spent learning about the countries we would visit – their history, politics, language, art and music, and cultural nuances. Each professor would give us assignments that involved interacting with the people, visiting sites of cultural or historical relevance, and observing daily life through the lens of a particular subject matter. My human sexuality class not only discussed anatomy and relationships, but also delved into gender roles: specifically, how women in society differed from country to country and in various contexts.

  • In Brazil, to the sounds and colors of Carnival, women wear revealing clothing with confidence and empowerment.
  • Women in South Africa wear bright colors and walk tall with heavy loads on their heads and backs, standing proud amidst a painful history of apartheid.
  • In Malaysia, Muslim women wear hijabs, which inspired me and my friends to cautiously cover up in sleeved tops and long bottoms so we didn’t inadvertently offend any passerby.
  • In India, women ride behind their men on the back of motorcycles. Despite the sweltering heat, they drape themselves in traditional sarees and adorn their forehead with a glittering bindi while males almost exclusively sport ‘western’ clothing.  The vast difference in gender freedom echoes a long history of practices like arranged marriages and class pyramids.
  • In Cambodia, women fill massage parlors, will walk on your back or provide “happy endings.” A not-so-subtle reminder of the sex trade and horror stories about trafficking through Thailand, Myanmar and other parts of Asia.Tokyo-Japan
  • In Japan, young, almost cartoon-like harajuku girls contrast the rural/traditional idea of Japanese modesty with their miniscule skirts and tall stockings. My friends and I were turned away from a “pod hotel” reserved only for businessmen and we were gazed upon with disapproval as we reserved a room in a hotel normally intended for extramarital affairs.

In class, we watched a graphic documentary about female genital mutilation that still occurs in many countries in Africa, and learned about the staggering ways and alarming rate at which HIV continues to spread. Visiting a clinic in a township in South Africa, where the HIV rate was 12% of the population, was emotional and eye opening.

Bringing it Home

After visiting each port, I would write back home to my family about the experiences I had and the cultural extremes I witnessed. My Aunt Charlotte would respond with stories about traveling as a woman in the 1950s and 60s and give me her ongoing and entertaining political commentary.

Unfortunately, Aunt Charlotte passed away soon after I returned from my travels, but her life taught me to explore all that you can and to give back as much as you can. At her funeral, loved ones were asked to donate to her favorite charities in lieu of flowers. She continued to inspire even as she departed.

Life Lessons and Paying it Forward

Through the strong women in my life, messages of empowerment, and the gift of travel, I have an unwavering appreciation for my rights as a woman: to my own body, to vote, to dress how I like, to practice any or no religion, to work in nearly any profession, and to travel as I please. Not only am I thankful for being American (despite any shortcomings as a country), but also for the generation I was born into and the opportunities available to me.

It is my hope – with care, persistence and generosity – that other women around the globe may someday have the same experiences and freedoms that I enjoy. And through our time, our charity, our advocacy, we can help make it a reality! As a proud young American woman, I can’t think of any greater legacy.

Author: Michelle Koffler