Tag Archives: Health

A Book, a Boy, and a Yew Tree

How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)

In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.

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What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”

“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.

“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.

Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.

When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.

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Yew That Saves Me

I’ve written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, “Have You Thanked a Tree Today?” Currently, I have another tree to thank and my gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells. The leaves of Taxus Baccata, the European yew, are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel) that is helping to save my life.

yew

My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. Nothing could protect the trees, however, from monarchs’ demands for springy yew wood to make longbows, depleting forests for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s.  But a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old church yards.

Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its’ effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. For instance, the United States saw $3.1 billion dollars in sales of Taxotere in 2010.

I wish the trees, and all those receiving their medicine, well. Yeah, they inhibit all the cells in my body, even the good guys like white blood cells, from dividing and make me nauseous and almost bald. I’m as sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.

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As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, “You’re giving me poison in order to save my life.” She said that’s right. Thank you, yews. May we turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.

Good Stress Versus Distress

Most everything I learned about stress is wrong.

I was once asked to teach a course called “Stress and the Family.” Besides being a redundancy, what did that course title mean? Stress was such a loose concept that we could go in many directions, and my students did, writing papers about everything from anorexia to xenophobia. I taught them how endocrinologist Hans Selye developed his concept of stress in the 1930s while studying lab rats. He injected various substances into his subjects and noticed that the health of all the rats deteriorated, regardless of what was injected. He finally determined that the trauma of the injections themselves led to ulcers, illness, and early death. He called the rats’ experiences “stress” and applied the concept to humans.

Selye made a distinction between distress (bad stress) and what he called eustress (good stress), but that distinction was largely lost over the years. Instead, psychologists developed questionnaires that assigned stress points to major life events, such as moving to a new home or losing a loved one. Since many of those events are unavoidable, lots of us started to worry about our accumulation of all those “points.” Were we destined to get ulcers and high blood pressure? How would we manage?

In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.

In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.

Kelly McGonigal’s 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is changing how we think about our life challenges. (For a quick overview, the book’s main points are beautifully summarized in her TED Talk.) As a Stanford University health psychologist, McGonigal had been telling people that stress makes you sick, as I had been telling my students as well. She changed her tune when she read a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States after asking them about their stress levels and whether they believed stress was bad for you. Among those who reported high levels of stress in their lives, risk of dying was increased by 43%, but ONLY in those who believed stress was harmful to their health.

What about those with lots of stress who did not view their stress as harmful? McGonigal says, “they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” These results and others that McGonigal dug up for her book call for new approaches to dealing with difficulties. By interpreting our stress and anxiety differently, our bodies and minds react differently as well.

The clear and compassionate message of the book changed the way I’m dealing with stress in my life. For instance, several studies have shown how tending-and-befriending can be a healthy alternative to the fight-or-flight response that Selye described. In fact, one of the ways to transform stress (page 149) is to “turn self-focus into bigger-than-self goals.” We cope better with huge challenges when we recall our values and remember WHY we are doing what we’re doing, such as caring for others and contributing to the world.

Maybe we need a new stress inventory that for every big life event says, “Congratulations! You have another chance to challenge yourself, excite and delight, and tend and befriend, along with the rest of humanity.”

Like your early family life, and your birth for that matter, stress is the beginning, not the end of the story. The plot is up to you.

Wonder Walk: Hiking for Health

Hiking in Costa Rica

Hiking in Costa Rica

The first Wednesday of April is National Walking Day.  This is one way the American Heart Association promotes habits that keep our heart happy.  Whether you walk alone or with others, the idea is to get moving.  If you can connect with nature while you’re outside, so much the better.

Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh leads walking meditations at his retreat center among the sunflowers of Bordeaux, France.  In Peace Is Every Step he reminds us, “Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth.  Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Librarian Ann Vogl and English teacher Cheryl Gorsuch decided to hike the Ice Age Trail–all 1000 miles of it.  It took them five years, getting together on weekends to do a bit at a time.  They often talked while they walked and got to know each other very well.  They also got to know thirty counties of Wisconsin as they followed the edge of the last glacier!  Upon achieving their goal this month, Gorsuch commented, “I think you see so much of Wisconsin at a personal level, foot by foot, step by step.”

Mark Hirsch is another inspired Wisconsinite.  Every day for a year, he walked to a 163-year-old Bur Oak, took a picture of it, and got to know it very well.  It became “That Tree” project, completed just two weeks ago.  (See www.facebook.com/photosofthattree.)  People who saw his photos posted online got to know the oak, too, and shared their stories of special trees.   So whether we hike a thousand miles or walk to the same place every day, there are benefits from the physical exercise and the connections we make.

Though I like taking sociable walks with friends, I pay more attention to flora and fauna if I go quietly by myself.  I can pause and watch birds to my heart’s content or lean against a tree until I have set down roots alongside it.  For heart health, a rapid pace is best, and I do like race-walking.  But for peace of mind, I like to pause and appreciate my surroundings.

Kathleen Dean Moore of Oregon writes in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature of walking along a river by the Cascade Mountains.  She couldn’t help but take her stress with her.  “Already,” she says, “just a few hours into the weekend, time feels short.  I hurry to relax before I have to go back to my complicated life.”  She pauses to watch the river, a tortoiseshell butterfly lands on her arm, and her awareness shifts.

“Lucky.  If I hadn’t stopped to watch the river, if I hadn’t worked up a sweat in this unlikely sun, if I hadn’t pushed my sleeves up past my elbows, I might never have discovered how to drink in the peace of this time and place, every warm drop.”  Moore continues, “This is what a human brings to the world–the ability to take notice, to be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.”

May you get lucky on April 3 and every day.  Don’t hurry to relax.  Take your time and have a heartfelt walk.

 

 

Have You Thanked an Apple Today?

Have a bite!

What item at the grocery store or farmers’ market is tempting and wholesome at the same time?  Well, the humble apple, for one.

What do apples do to keep the doctor away?  Nutritionist Victor Fulgoni found that eating apples improves our circulation and insulin levels.  For instance, there is a 27 percent reduction in risk factors for metabolic syndrome in those whose diets include whole-apple products, including applesauce (my favorite).

The Nobel Prize-winning poet from Chile, Pablo Neruda wrote in his “Oda la manzana” (translated by Ken Krabbenhoft):

You, apple,

are the object

of my praise.

I want to fill

my mouth

with your name.

I want to eat you whole.

Pablo Neruda has the right idea… by eating the flesh and skin of la manzana, we are getting a mix of antioxidants that work synergistically to prevent hardening of the arteries and even cancer.  Its pectin, a soluble fiber, helps lower cholesterol both in the blood and the liver.  An apple a day can also prevent glucose intolerance and insulin resistance.  Combine these health benefits with the many luscious ways to prepare apples and you can see why Johnny Appleseed preached that “fruit is next to religion.”

These fruits were first cultivated by Greeks and Romans in 300 BCE.  Johnny Appleseed, otherwise known as John Chapman, helped spread them around in the early 1800s by planting orchards in the Midwest.  Now we can find apples growing throughout the United States, with almost three million tons of them grown in Washington state alone.

Neruda, in his ode, called for even more abundance of this glorious orb:

I want

a city,

a republic,

a Mississippi River

of apples,

and I want to see

gathered on its banks

the world’s entire population

united and reunited

in the simplest act we know:

I want us to bite into an apple.


Apples for peace!  Thank you, orchards.  Thank you for your fruit–and our health.

Apples ready for eating