Thursday, February 20, 2014

Crows or Eagles: Which Will You Choose?

While (finally) starting the process of backing up my blog entries for the past 7 years (my bad,  I know, but I am getting it done), I found an essay on my computer that I had submitted to the book Chicken Soup for the Survivor's Soul. It was not chosen for inclusion (I never heard back), but as I re-read what I wrote, I could still see everything about that moment, along with remembering my subsequent thoughts and feelings. I also remember the enjoyment of writing the article. I enjoyed reading it again last night, and I think it deserves 'flight', so to speak. 

So I hope my blog readers also enjoy reading it, if you are a cancer survivor or not. The experience can be had anywhere by anyone, and the insight is applicable to each and every one of us. 

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Crows or Eagles: Which Will You Choose?

Sitting in a Utah canyon during January 2003, I saw a magnificent and memorable sight, a mixed flock of approximately 50 crows and three Bald eagles flying in a thermal updraft from the warm canyon rocks. As i viewed the swirling acrobatic birds through my binoculars, I could see individual crows pestering the eagles, who put up with this annoyance for a while. Eventually, however, each eagle turned as if to say to the crows, "You are only a crow. I am an eagle!" Each eagle then flew on its own separate way. 

I was struck by how this real-life observation in nature resembles not only our own real-life patterns, but also our opportunities. How often do we find ourselves staying within the comfort of the group or the ease of the updraft without moving on to new experiences or opportunities? How often do we find ourselves slowed down, bothered by, or worse, resigned to the myriad of life's distractions, or our own poor choices, when we really do have the desire, strength, or ability within us to follow the better path? Healing our own cancer-weary spirit or helping someone else are just two examples of the better path; a path with more happiness, more joy, or a more meaningful purpose. 

This recent experience also has given me a new perspective about my own cancer recovery journey. I have always called myself an "accidental" author since writing the first edition of my book, A Dietitian's Cancer Story, in 1997. Writing and oral presentations were very difficult for me during my high school and college years, and I truly doubt that any of my past teachers would have selected me as a potential future author or public speaker. However, after viewing these eagles purposely fly away from the crows, I no longer see this aspect of my cancer recovery journey as accidental. Instead, I realize I made a choice to fly with the eagles; a choice to share my professional knowledge about nutrition and cancer along with my personal experiences through a book.

I did much more soul-searching after my most recent cancer diagnosis than I had done previously. I finally understood that my heart was being pulled to help others have an easier cancer recovery journey than I have had. I took a deep breath and chose to say "yes" to that pull in my heart' "yes" to leaving the comfort of a job I loved; "yes" to sharing my personal experience and professional knowledge with the hope that I could provide "information and inspiration" for other cancer survivors. 

It was a risky choice, indeed I was terrified to know I would need to fly into new territory. I could have let the fact that I knew nothing about using a computer or nothing about the internet keep my flying inside my comfort circle with the crows. In addition to knowing nothing doubt writing a book, I knew nothing about book publishing or methods of book promotion, let alone how to run a home-based business. It certainly would have been easier to hang back with the crows, even with their occasional annoying pestering! 

However, the Chinese proverb "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" immediately became true for me. As soon as I said, "Yes, I will write a book", people appeared to help me with every aspect of this daunting project. I now envision their teaching and helping to be just like the updraft that kept those eagles afloat until they were ready to fly alone. Writing, self-publishing, and marketing my book, creating my web site, and public speaking are all examples of ways that I broke away from my group of crows to soar with the eagles. 

Is flying with the eagles always smooth or easy? In a word, no. Do I have days when I am back with the crows, days when I do not feel like I can reach out to help other cancer survivors by soaring on my own? Yes, of course. However, I have two favorite verses that I keep close to me at all times for both comfort and inspiration. For those days when I just don't feel like I can keep soaring with the eagles, I take comfort in this verse:

"He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge." (Psalm 91:4)

For days when I am ready to try soaring again:

"They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31)

Over time, many details from my recent trip certainly will fade. However, I know I will hold the gift and power of this sign forever. Anytime I ever see a crow or Bald eagle in the future, I will remember that I have choices in life; a choice to either hang out with the crowd of crows or a choice to soar with the eagles. In addition, I frequently find myself visualizing the crows and eagles swirling together in that updraft; seeing the eagles in my mind as I choose how to spend my precious time and energy on a daily basis. 

My wish is that you will also find the courage to choose a risk; the courage to say "yes" to some meaningful aspect of your life where you can help make a difference. It does not need to be cancer-related or even something "big" like writing a book or running a marathon. It just should be something uniquely important to you; something that will bring meaning, happiness, or joy into your life. 

If you are not yet ready to soar by yourself, look for teachers to help you first stay aloft and then move outside your current comfort zone. You also can rise above the "I can't….." and the "If only………." type of statements so common when we surround ourselves with the crows in life to "I did it!" when we risk flying with the eagles. 

I hope you experience the joy of soaring with the eagles during your life's journey!

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My computer file says my final draft was 2.28.2003, nearly 11 years ago, and I don't think I have re-read that article since then, as life moves along quickly. 

However, I can still clearly see those crows and 3 eagles in the blue sky, the rock outcroppings where I was sitting plus the general terrain of winter in the southwest desert canyons, along with feeling both the wind and sun on my face that day. 

I can also clearly remember the shaky feeling of risk as I took flight on a journey in which I became an advocate, a spokesperson, for cancer survivors on many fronts. 

Life is not easy, and it certainly is not fair (whatever that might be), but we do have choices, and we will have support. The Universe is abundant, and yes, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear". Teachers have come to me over and over and over again since my cancer experience in 1995. 

So I will dedicate this blog post to all my teachers during the past 19 years, some of whom are now dear friends, others flew with me for a short time within my flight path and then kept going. I would not be here, and I would not be who I am today, without all of you. Very simply, I thank you all. 

And to all of my blog readers, I'll end this post exactly where I ended that article. 

I hope you also experience the joy of soaring with the eagles during your life's journey!

Cultivate your life - You are what you grow (and who you choose to fly with) - Inch by inch, row by row,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

PS - Please don't think I don't like crows. I do! In fact, I love them, look for them, and even count them twice each day as they fly over our farm in their flock (called a murder). Besides actually counting their numbers, I count them as friends and was as tickled as could be to actually see one close-up, really close-up for the first time, while it was scooping up scattered sunflower seeds under our bird feeders one day last week. 

PPS - Guess what I am going to do right now.  Back up this post? Yes……… :)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Yes! It's Official!

Life begins the day one plants a garden.

~~ Chinese Proverb

I have waited almost six months to be able to share this exciting news with my blog readers. Good things often take time to work, to emerge, or to fully develop, rather like rising bread, planting seeds, etc., and are well worth the wait.  

The brief backstory. A friend visited our farm last summer, telling me of her recent research focused on gardening therapy for cancer survivors. As I listened, I had one of those proverbial "light bulb" moments with racing thoughts that translated to: 

1. Wow - What a great project! 
2. Why didn't I think of that? 
3. How can I help her get as much data as possible from this study?

We talked a bit, I made some inquiries, and long story short, the 2014 distribution from my endowment at The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) will be able to provide the additional funds this researcher needs to do the critical biochemical analyses that were included with the original grant proposal but left unfunded. (Note: My endowment at AICR is funded by individual donations - thank you! - plus the amount I annually contribute from the sale of my book A Dietitian's Cancer Story.

For this study (called "Harvest for Health")University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) cancer researchers plan to introduce 100 breast cancer survivors in a 5-county area in Alabama (see below) to a new kind of therapy — gardening, while pairing the breast cancer survivors with a Master Gardener from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

“Studies have shown a link between diet and cancer, and between physical activity and cancer. We want to see how cancer survivors respond to this gardening intervention, how it affects their diet and exercise behaviors, and their health-related quality of life and physical health status,” said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences and associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center

“Harvest for Health” builds on a successful pilot study conducted by Dr. Demark-Wahnefried at UAB where Master Gardeners worked with a smaller group of cancer survivors over the course of a year to establish a vegetable garden.  At the end of that study, the published results showed that many survivors not only improved their diet and exercise behaviors, but 90% of the participants also demonstrated significant improvement in objective measures of their strength, agility, and endurance

This larger study had hoped to expand those findings by not only having a larger study group, but also by measuring several biochemical parameters that are frequently used as biomarkers of successful aging, i.e., telomerase, sVCAM, and d-dimer, at baseline, the 1-year mark, and the 2-year mark after the start of the study. While The Women’s Breast Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham has generously provided the bulk of the Harvest for Health research grant, my endowment at AICR will fund the last piece to complete the study with as much data collection and analysis as possible. 

Dr. Demark-Wahnefried (who has led several previous pioneering research studies on cancer survivorship) has noted, "With advances in early detection and treatment, many cancers are now being cured; however, it is the side effects of cancer and its treatment that are often more of a problem than the cancer itself. Thus these biomarkers are important to measure because they tie into longevity and improved physical functioning much more so than cancer itself."

UAB provides tools and seedlings and will either prepare a raised bed in the yard of a survivor’s home or provide EarthBoxes® — large gardening containers on wheels — that can be kept on a porch or patio. Master Gardeners visit with the survivors twice a month for one year, offering advice, expertise and suggestions, while answering the questions new gardeners have. 

The Master Gardeners, who have completed a rigorous certification process from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, are all volunteers. “They are very excited to be making a difference in the lives of cancer survivors and their families,” Demark-Wahnefried said.

If the larger study shows the same improvements in healthy eating, increased exercise, and physical functioning, plus the biochemical signs of successful aging, it is hoped that the program can be offered to cancer survivors throughout Alabama. 

Special Note: The Harvest for Health study is still actively recruiting participants. If any of my readers are breast cancer survivors from (or know someone from) the following five Alabama counties (Cullman, Mobile, Blount, St. Clair or Walker) and are interested in participating in this study, you may call the following telephone # 205.996.7367 for more information. 

Dr. Demark-Wahnefried is a gardener herself. I asked when she had her original inspiration for this innovative research approach for cancer survivors. She told me it happened a while ago during her previous years as a researcher at Duke University's Cancer Center while she was conducting research - the Black Churches United for Better Health Project - in which Master Gardeners helped the churches establish Victory Gardens as a way to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among their members. 

That project was successful, so fast forward to 2014, hoping the same will be true for cancer survivors.  I'm not sure if my friend's great idea happened in a "flash" like mine did during our talk this past summer, but in any case, here is another example of a great idea that needed time to develop, to be nurtured, to grow, before finally blossoming. 

Thank you, Wendy, for your decades of high quality, pioneering nutrition and cancer research, for your dedication to the needs of cancer survivors, looking for nutritional and lifestyle strategies that will optimize their odds for both the extension and quality of life after cancer. 

I have been honored to contribute to each research project that my endowment at AICR has funded since 2001. However, I must confess that funding Harvest for Health in 2014 also gives me deep happiness, I suppose because this study brings together so many of my long-standing professional interests, friendships, and deeply-held personal values. 

As a long-time gardener myself, I have always loved the following quotation:

A garden is the best alternative therapy. 

~~ Germaine Greer

Now here's another great idea - let's change the quote above to simply say that a garden is the best therapy period, without being "alternative", providing multiple, far-reaching benefits for all cancer survivors, no matter the individual diagnosis, no matter where one lives, in fact for everyone, cancer diagnosis or not. :) 

And another great idea, i.e., words of advice, which my long-time blog readers have heard me say many times before - don't wait, don't wait, don't wait for this study to be done  to _________________ (fill in the blank); in this case, don't wait to get your garden started. Why? I'll repeat the quote I used to open up this blog post:

Life begins the day one plants a garden.

~~ Chinese Proverb

Ready to start? It's not too early to start dreaming, planning, or even planting some seeds indoors. Need help? Find a gardening friend, find a Master Gardener in your county (yes, they are everywhere, not just in Alabama), find, cultivate, and begin a new life. Yes, you are what you grow. :)

Cultivate your life - you are what you grow - inch by inch, row by row,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD