Pelican Lessons

Sanoviv Medical Institute is situated on the Baja Peninsula in Rosarito, Mexico. It’s built on a cliff looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Every day seems sunny. A lulling symphony of rolling and crashing waves repeats itself over and over. It’s a small hospital that specializes in functional medicine and both integrative and alternative treatments. Many guests visit for a health retreat. A smaller group of guests are patients with more serious health conditions. Research there focuses on how immunity can be supported at the cellular level in fighting disease and optimizing one’s best health. The physical, mind, and spirit are all important components of a healthy individual.

I left Wisconsin for Sanoviv almost as soon as my school year ended in 2016. My goals included strengthening my immunity, detoxing my body, and learning more successful ways to deal with stress. I was open to hearing what they recommended in terms of treating cancer. My oncologist at home was curious and doubted anything would interfere with my current protocol. I wouldn’t be missing any treatments at home by going. Neuropathy had taken a toll on my poor feet. I was also suffering from painful hand-foot syndrome. Of particular interest to me were the options for treating disease from a cellular level after disease had already happened. I signed up for a three-week cancer support program. If nothing else, I was off to Mexico in an idyllic setting and getting away from my life at home. It was even better if my health improved.

There are many moments from that trip etched away both in my memories and in a book that exists in a forever state of revision. I met people from as far away as Nigeria, Australia, and China, and as close to home as Chicago. My days were scheduled from 6 AM to about 7 PM. Some of it was not pleasant, but many parts of it were filled with beauty, purpose, and deep lessons. What I want to share briefly are my memories of the pelicans.

Pelicans flew along the coastline daily. I had never held any affection for these birds. I thought them big, ugly, and dirty looking. If a bird could be fishy, pelicans were fishy as well. My opinion transformed at Sanoviv watching these strong and graceful birds. I admired how they would pass by in single file while floating on an air current. It was like each bird was connected to another with an invisible string. They reminded me of bikers drafting behind a lead bike so as to block the wind and use less energy, an idea which bikers got from birds no less. At other times the pelicans arranged themselves in groups of four like in fighter jet formation. Wings tucked in for increased speed, yet they still managed to stay in unison with each other. These birds had an unspoken quiet beauty no matter how I saw them.

I had a very special pelican sighting on my last full day. I was sitting up in a special care area receiving IVs, looking out at the ocean in a bit of a daze, lost in thought. Far out on the hazy horizon, I saw a somewhat shapeless form. I wondered if they were pelicans, but they were too far away. Whatever it was resembled the v-shaped way a child draws birds flying in pictures. As the shapeless form drew closer, it moved off to the left and changed shaped, now reminding me more of a swarm of bees. From where I sat, I temporarily lost sight of the changing shape and figured that was the end of it.

But it was not. The shape was a small group of about four or five pelicans who were just hugging the coastline. Soon enough, they came back into view and flew by my window in a single file in one long, continuous silent flow. It was as if the pelicans were saying goodbye and purposely saluting me with their waving wings. It was a beautiful and peaceful moment that I will never forget.

Here is one of those perfect times where everything fits together magically. In the animal spirit world, pelicans symbolize regeneration and resourcefulness. I was at Sanoviv to heal and re-energize. The pelican population had dwindled in the past but presently has bounced back. Pelicans also represent resilience and determination. My spirit is filled with this same resilience and determination. My mindset is of one determined path just like the single line of the pelicans’ flight. A greater force was absolutely at work in bringing pelicans to me day after day after day. Signs are always there. I don’t believe it’s all a coincidence.

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted at Sanoviv. I arrived home feeling healthier than I had in a long time. My energy was better, my cholesterol was lower, and I felt happy. New scans were scheduled at home. These showed that returning to a more traditional form of chemotherapy was in my best interests. I would have had the same results if my scans had been scheduled before I went to Mexico. It’s interesting that one of the things I’m currently receiving today is what they suggested as my best option almost three years ago. The drug was not being used in the U.S. in exactly the same capacity as in Mexico, so I got a big fat NO from my oncologist at home. It was an FDA thing. Now it’s FDA approved.

I quickly made decisions and turned my life upside-down once more. Nothing was how I wanted it. Very little seemed the same. Life looks very different to me now. I have been resourceful, resilient, and determined, just like the pelican. Where everything isn’t perfect, I am still here. I am finding a way.

Lessons of resourcefulness, resilience, and determination are important for all of us. We all have stories where life hasn’t turned out as we planned. Many events are outside our control. We almost always think we have more control over events than we actually do. How we respond when life becomes hard is important. There is always a choice to respond positively or negatively. We all have opportunities to adapt, regroup, and come back to either try again or go in a new direction. We rest and give it another go, approaching challenges from new angles and perspectives. We all have more grit, strength, and determination than we think we do.

We are an awful lot like pelicans.

Many times we glide with grace.

Other times we need to be in fighter jet formation.

 

Consider responding:

  • When have you needed to depend on resourcefulness, resilience, and determination?

Van Gogh and Hope

Did the Impressionist Movement only give us artistic masterpieces and inspire other artists for years to come? Please note I use the word “only” loosely. My answer would be an emphatic NO. These artists also gave and continue to give us hope.

Vincent van Gogh may not initially stand out as a hopeful figure. He struggled with both his mental and physical health. His most famous paintings will always be his main contribution to the world. Starry Night is one of my favorites.

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 10.06.50 PM
Van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889 during his stay in an asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Today’s post combines my love for inspiring quotes with blogging. Lately, I’ve come across several quotes from Van Gogh that have blown me away. I do not know in what context he said them or really if they were significant to him at all. I tend to believe they were significant to him based upon their content and some of his paintings. These are some of his words that have inspired me.

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”  ~ Vincent van Gogh

Life is enchanted. It’s easy to get wrapped up in its day-to-day minutia. There’s a repeating cycle of laundry, groceries, cleaning, yard work, and for me, medical appointments. The time I spend trying to live well with cancer feels so far away from noticing moments of infinity on high. There is always something health related even if it’s a little something. Daily medications are a good example. I see my port bumping out from my chest every day. My wig. These all are routine things but constant reminders of how my life is different. Making time to recognize and take in infinity is a must because it provides balance and perspective to life in my medical world.

It also sometimes feels like everyone is so focused on their own lives that moments where we interact with one another in meaningful ways are fleeting. Stores are understaffed. Customer service has all but disappeared in some businesses. Friends are in a rush. I treasure time with them. Social media, texts, and emojis replace conversations. Living life through social media is not very enchanting. I live in this world, too. Emojis are quick, effective, and sometimes highly amusing.

Looking up at the stars reminds me how big the universe is and that all my big problems are really small. People don’t make time to gaze at the stars and wonder anymore. Unless you live in the countryside far away from man-made light, getting to see a true starry night where shooting stars are common and a person can witness infinity on high is hard. City stars are not the same as country stars. I remember a geography course for graduate credit I took in Ecuador around the year 2000. It was in the jungles off of the Napo River where darkness closed in all around me where I saw the best starscape of my life. Utter darkness met me in every direction except upwards. Stars bedazzled the dark above. I only took them in for a few minutes because we were encouraged not to stay outside very long in the blackness for our own protection. Large cats stalked unseen and unheard in the night. Yet, for a few sacred moments, I saw the heavens like never before. It stays with me as a singular moment I’ll remember forever.

“I confess I do not know why, but looking at the stars always makes me dream.” ~ Vincent van Gogh

Dreams give us hope. We wish upon stars. Stars awe us. Songs are sung wondering what they are made of and comparing them to diamonds. My dad sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star nightly to me. Starshine has always mesmerized me. If light from stars can travel trillions of miles to reach us, then can’t we also believe our dreams may come true? Can I wish to live? Can I wish to be completely healthy again? So often when we dream while sleeping, we don’t remember what we dreamt when we wake up. We can control what we dream when looking at stars and dream of what makes us happy.

Did Van Gogh say these statements before or after he painted his masterpiece? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me. It is more than enough that he said them because it makes me look at my favorite painting of his with more wonder and awe. I work hard to wonder and awe about life as much as possible as someone with metastatic breast cancer.

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”   ~ Vincent van Gogh

 

IMG_0895
My attempt to create a Ukrainian egg in the style of Van Gogh.

Am I a painter? No. I am confident there would be voices other than an inner voice confirming it. Even so, I do believe in doing the thing I think I can’t do. I do plenty of new things (new hikes, bike paths, foods, small risks). I do plenty of hard things (conflict, scans, side effects, funerals). I think Van Gogh was thinking about all the opportunities we don’t pursue because we convince ourselves we can’t for any number of reasons. The negative inner voice is quelled when I take a NO and turn it into a YES. Maybe this quote of his is telling me is I should give painting more of a try. I’m up for finger painting. The swirls of color would feel so Van Gogh.

“Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.”   ~ Vincent van Gogh

And . . .

“I wish they would take me as I am.”    ~ Vincent van Gogh
 

Friends take us as we are. Those who don’t are not friends or worth the trouble. My need to belong has always caused me anxiety. There are still times when I feel left out. Like Vincent, I wish everyone would take me as I am. I wish I could be okay with it when some don’t. The people who don’t aren’t worth my time. I’m reminded I only need to belong to myself.

“I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the evening…like a light in the midst of the darkness.”   ~ Vincent van Gogh

Why a bookshop? He could have said a flower shop, a café, a market, a boutique, or any number of storefronts could be yellow and pink in the evening. Van Gogh also spoke of light. Reading is light. It gives joy, knowledge, and self-awareness. Reading can be a source of hope. Light is hope. Once again, I return to ideas of stars being the light in the midst of darkness. Books are like stars. Books shine light in the midst of darkness.

“Many people seem to think it foolish, even superstitious, to believe that the world could still change for the better. And it is true that in winter it is sometimes so bitingly cold that one is tempted to say, ‘What do I care if there is a summer; its warmth is no help to me now.’ Yes, evil often seems to surpass good. But then, in spite of us, and without our permission, there comes, at last, an end to the bitter frosts. One morning the wind turns, and there is a thaw. And so I must still have hope.”    ~ Vincent van Gogh

Call me foolish for I am one of those people who believes that the world can still change for the better. There is more goodness in the world than badness. There will always be more heroes than villains.

Springs and summers follow the coldest winters. Having said that, spring sure took its sweet time this year.

I must have hope. I must maintain hope that treatments are discovered in time to save me, to save everyone with cancer. I believe in targeted therapies that are matched to patients who have a strong likelihood of responding well to those treatments. More research is needed to develop more of these. Research equals hope. Hope is my driving force and motivation in advocating for more research directed to treatments for advanced stage cancers. I do my best to stay strong and healthy which feeds my hope. I do what I can to financially support research for metastatic breast cancer. I still have hope.

Van Gogh has said he wanted his work to express “sincere human feeling.” He succeeded many times over and over again. Hope is a kind of feeling that warms, intensifies, and empowers. How he captured this quality in his art so that it still evokes such an emotional response over a hundred years later is a mystery to me. He had an extraordinary gift as an artist. His art and words continue to give hope.

Immense and everlasting hope.

Exercise is the New Sugar

Sixty is the new forty. Eighty is the new sixty. Cocktails infused with mushrooms are said to be all the rage. Small weekend trips may replace bigger vacations. I’ve heard iTunes is out. Everywhere I turn, I seem to hear about a new trend or way of thinking.

Here is one of my own: Exercise is the new sugar.

This may not be new knowledge for many, but it is for me. I have said before that I have sweet teeth instead of just one sweet tooth. I will always love sugar. I am trying to love it less these days. I would love it if I could crave exercise like I crave desserts. It works for a while and then my love affair with sugar returns. All I can do is to keep trying. This week I felt more successful in eliminating some of the refined sugar in my world.

Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start.

Exercise feeds us better than sugar for many reasons.

Exercise and Cognitive Benefits

Exercise can give you the same effects that sugar does in terms of a quick energy boost, only with exercise the effects are long-lasting and healthy. For example, exercise improves cognitive functioning. A person’s focus is sharper due to boosted energy caused by higher endorphin levels. Exercise also improves memory. Sugar does the opposite by increasing glucose levels that slow cognitive functioning. Have you ever noticed that your brain works better after exercise and the opposite is true with too much sugar?

Exercise and Endorphin Levels

There’s more about to say about those endorphin levels. Exercise increases endorphin levels. I’ve heard that your body craves exercise and movement. When your body moves a lot, it releases chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin as a reward for your efforts. The result is you feel fantastic and have loads of energy. Sugar makes you feel good for a few moments but has addictive qualities that keep you craving it without any positive rewards. It’s a vicious cycle of falling levels of blood sugar that you need to literally keep feeding more sugar because your body feels lousy if it doesn’t get its sugar fix. In the long run (or even just a solid walk), exercise will make a person feel happier.

activity-fitness-footwear-pexels.com1556710
A good solid walk can boost endorphin levels.

Exercise Combats Depression and Anxiety

Reduced depression and anxiety is another benefit of regular exercise. Both high-intensity aerobic exercise and low-intensity exercise like yoga have been found to reduce depression and anxiety.

Sugar also affects mood, but much differently than exercise. It has been correlated to higher levels of tension, depression, and anxiety. Personally, it’s so much easier to reach for cookies when I’m upset or sad than to go for a walk or work out. The cookie is instant gratification. I feel comforted for a few minutes. Working out takes longer for feeling better to kick in, but I feel like I’ve accomplished something good for myself when I’m done and feel more positive.

active-activity-adult-pexels.com1308746
Yoga can reduce depression and anxiety.

Exercise Lowers Disease Risk

Exercise decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancers. It increases your chances of living longer. Of course it does! Sugar is associated with higher risks of health problems and diseases. There are many studies proving or denying sugar’s role in cancer formation or sugar fueling cancer. One seemingly reputable study seems to disprove another that seems as equally reputable. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind on what you already believe. I will, however, provide links to two sources where I often find research I tend to trust. Check out these articles at WebMD and the Mayo Clinic on sugar and cancer.

Is there a link? My opinion is a firm maybe. For me, I believe I’d be healthier if I consumed less sugar.

So Many Benefits

Exercise does a body good. It increases energy levels. Exercise is good for muscle and bones. Weight lifting is especially good for muscles and bones. It’s a must do as people age and lose muscle mass. As early as age 30, a person can lose 5% of muscle mass every ten years. Muscle atrophy happens fast for cancer patients because of decreased levels or lack of physical activity. It takes time to rebuild lost muscle mass.

exercise-equipment-fitness-footwear-209968.pexels
Focus more on proper form than how much the weight weighs. Proper form helps you stay safe and healthy.

Exercise can help with weight loss. Maintaining a healthy body weight is important at any age. Unfortunately, metabolism slows as a person ages, and regular exercise helps in those efforts to keep movement and activity a priority. Someone with cancer doesn’t need to do much to gain or lose weight. I’ve both put on weight and lost weight while maintaining the same exercise routine throughout many different cancer treatments. It’s been very frustrating to gain weight when I continued to work out, but I had the peace of mind that I was doing what I could to stay strong whatever number stared up at me from the bathroom scale. Exercise will change the way your body looks on the outside and the inside. Illness is harder to take hold in a healthy inner environment.

Sugar is good for making fat, fat, fat. Your liver makes and stores glucose depending on your body needs. Excess sugars that don’t get converted become fat. Too much refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup can attribute to liver disease. High fructose corn syrup is an unnatural sweetener made from cornstarch and found as the main ingredient in many sweet treats and foods. Foods high in sugar attribute to weight gain. That’s nothing new. I find that if I take the time the read the ingredient label listed on some of the sweets I crave before eating them that I get disgusted and can walk away. It’s a good hack.

sugar bowl pexels-photo-2523659
All image credits today are from pexels.com.

Here is where I am: If sixty truly is the new forty, my chronological age suggests I should feel like I’m thirty. Newsflash – I don’t. I feel much older than I actually am due to what my body has endured. Cocktails with mushrooms are out for me because I cut out alcohol years before diagnosis. Alcohol ages a person. I also was just getting the hang of iTunes. I hope I can figure out whatever is next. I like the idea of weekend trips. I’m all in for those.

Exercise needs to be my new sugar.

Someone please remind me I believe this the next time I start to go a little crazy and feed my sugar cravings.