7 Easy, Healthy Changes I Made to My Life After Being Diagnosed with Cancer at 27

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The year I turned 27 was a very difficult year. I began experiencing a cascade of symptoms that felt innocuous at first— a little bit of numbness here, a little bit of itching there —but gradually progressed to something much more serious. I would go on to lose 20% of my body weight, become so weak I had trouble carrying my little dog around, and even have difficulty walking a couple blocks. For someone who taught yoga on the side and ran half marathons regularly, this was alarming.

It would take doctors almost a year to diagnose me with what turned out to be Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Frustrated by what I perceived to be a lack of urgency and help from the medical community, I fell back on my own research skills to alleviate symptoms and ultimately find the answer that caused me to direct my primary care physician to send me to an oncologist. During this time, I devoured many books on health and nutrition and sifted through numerous articles in academic medical journals. As a result of what I learned, I made several permanent changes to my life to eliminate unnecessary toxins in my home and fuel my body in a way that was more nourishing.

  1. Swapped dryer sheets for wool dryer balls with a few drops of essential oils, usually a mixture of lavender and tea tree oils. I did this for several reasons. First, from an environmental perspective, I loved the idea of reducing the waste generated by doing a load of laundry. The dryer balls are reusable and made from natural materials (wool). I have been using the same three dryer balls I started with over a year ago since they can be washed themselves. Making this switch also means reducing the number of indoor air pollutants in my home. I no longer get a wave of chemically created scents when I open the door to my laundry closet. Instead I’m met with a calming mixture of plant-derived scents that immediately relaxes me. Scientific studies have found that products with synthetic fragrance can generate toxic, hazardous, and carcinogenic compounds when released into the air. This is not unique to the fragrance within dryer sheets and extends to any product with the word “fragrance” or “parfum” in the ingredients, although manufacturers are somehow not required to even disclose the inclusion of such ingredients in their products (YAY AMERICA!). This leads me to my next few changes.
  2. Swapped candles for this essential oil diffuser. Imagine my heartbreak when I understood that basically anything with a fragrance emitted these hazardous chemicals that I wanted to avoid. I reluctantly gave up my candle addiction, which, honestly, was a lot more painless than I thought it would be because I ended up loving my diffuser so much. Candles are ridiculously expensive, usually not scented by plant-derived oils alone, and always result in an empty container that is usually thrown away/generates waste. I’ve saved a ton of money since quitting candles, and whenever I’m in a store, tempted by a delicious smelling candle, I make a mental list of scents it purports to have and just drop a mixture of those into my diffuser when I get home. An example of this was a bougie-smelling candle I sniffed at a local boutique with notes of geranium, bergamot, lavender, and cedar. I dropped a mixture of those oils into my diffuser and boom! My house smelled wonderful. Friends are always asking me why my house smells so amazing when they first walk in and that is definitely my secret. For example, I love the combination of cedar and pine oils around the holidays for a freshly-cut Christmas tree scent.
  3. Incorporated oils in other ways into my cleaning routine as well as cutting the use of commercial cleaning products. In addition to using oils for laundry and diffusing, I’ve incorporated them into my cleaning routine as well. Try a few drops in the liquid you use to wash your floors (I drop a couple into my floor steamer — which, by the way has eliminated my need for floor cleaner since it only uses water) or scatter a few drops on carpet and rugs before you vacuum. I even drop it on pillows and mattresses before I put clean sheets on my bed for some help relaxing when I crawl in. My favorite oils to this end are ylang-ylang, lavender, and bergamot. I also stopped using commercial cleaner for wiping surfaces and instead just use dish soap and water (my fav is the lavender kind from Trader Joe’s — although I’m sure it’s not perfect from a toxicity standpoint). I do still use commercial products for cleaning mirrors and toilets but am curious about others what other less toxic alternatives may exist. This brings me to another point — keep in mind that I implemented all these changes gradually. I didn’t just throw out all the other stuff I was using but slowly started replacing (or not replacing) items once I found better alternatives or that I did not actually need the items at all.
  4. Detoxified my personal care routine. I greatly reduced the number of personal care products I use and nixed anything with synthetic scents.
    • Hair. Having shaved my head when clumps of hair started falling out during my treatment in 2016, I am super nice to my hair to make sure it is growing as nicely and quickly as it possibly can. This means I look for shampoos without synthetic fragrances and sulfates (skin irritants that are also quite harsh on the hair — and hence avoided by people who color or otherwise treat their hair) and I wash it much less frequently than I once did. I aim to wash it 1-2x a week. Sustaining this routine sometimes means a rinse followed by only conditioner or a sprinkle of dry shampoo scented with essential oils in the middle of the week. My favorite is Shea Moisture in peace rose. I am also a fan of this brand for shampoo and conditioner. It doesn’t hurt that they invest 10% of their profits in women-led businesses and the communities that supply their ingredients. Ideally, I’d do a hair mask of coconut oil with some essential oils mixed in once a week, but there are stretches of time where I do this and stretches of time where I don’t, if I’m being honest. Mostly this is due to time constraints, but I do find that it helps make my hair soft and shiny when I’m good about it.
    • Skin. I wash with Dr. Bronner’s, love scrubs once in a while with natural ingredients, such as the lavender tea tree scrub from Trader Joe’s or the rose petal scrub from California-based small batch maker Moon Body Soul. I should moisturize more than I do, but when I do, I look for something fair-trade and scented with only essential oils. As for commercial deodorant, I gave that up in law school because it actually irritated my skin so much. One of my brothers had the same issue. I currently alternate between The Healthy Deodorant and Piper Wai.
    • Room for improvement. I definitely have room for improvement. I haven’t made much effort toward detoxing my makeup or nail polish. Ideally I’d also like to buy clothes made of only natural materials like wool or cotton, especially after reading pieces like this one on the adverse affects synthetic fabrics have on the environment and our collective health.
  5. Began to start most mornings with a smoothie. My smoothie template usually involves greens, antioxidant berries, healthy fats (avocado or coconut milk), plant protein (this hemp protein is my current fav), and water. I came up with this template after reading a number of helpful books about nutrition written by physicians and based on scientific studies such as The Wahl’s Protocol and Anti-Cancer. Sometimes I’ll mix it up and nix the berries and greens for a pineapple/mango (high in Vitamin C — great for when I’m feeling like I’m about to get sick) or cacao/dark cherry combo. Often, I’ll add collagen powder (everything comes back to growing out my hair, doesn’t it?) as well. I’ll make a large batch of smoothies in my blender on a Sunday night and pour them into 12-oz. mason jars to grab and go throughout the week. It’s such a great start to the day and comforting to know that within my first few hours of being awake, I’ve already given my body a number of fruit and veggie servings, clean protein, good fats with numerous nutritional benefits. 
  6. Greatly reduced my intake of added sugar, simple carbs, dairy, and red meat and incorporated more nourishing foods into my regular rotation. It always feels like I have a lot of work to do in this department, but luckily I like my coffee and teas without sugar. A bout of the Whole30 diet helped me understand that bread and rice generally don’t add that much to my enjoyment of a meal and that eggs with a side of veggie, avocado, or both or oven-baked wild salmon with a side of fresh veg are simple, satisfying, and healthful meals to have on rotation throughout the week. I always have eggs and avocado in the fridge as well as salmon filets and frozen veggies in the freezer so that even if I’ve been traveling or super I can come home and have a healthy dinner on the spot with very little forethought, prep time, clean up, or effort. Buying a box of greens every week to use in the aforementioned smoothies as well as salads has served me well. I try not to have unnecessary snacks, desserts, or dairy products such as cheese in the fridge — these are things I will binge eat 100%, so I simply try to refrain from buying. I never buy red meat and on the rare occasion I do eat it, my preference is grass-fed and naturally raised. This is why. Summary: grass-fed tends to have a better nutritional profile and less adverse health effects than corn-fed as a result. This is why I also look for pasture-raised eggs at the grocery store (grass-fed rather than corn-fed).
  7. Surrounded myself with plants to detox the air in my home.  Houseplants may help improve indoor air quality and combat the release of VOCs released into the air by the materials and chemicals used to create and clean our homes. They also help improve the general vibe of your home (yes I found a scientific study on that, if you can agree that mood-boosting and stress-reducing leads to an improvement of vibe). I also get so many compliments on my plant babies when my friends come over, which of course is also scientific proof that they contribute to a good vibe. My collection includes a rubber plant, split-leaf philodendron, fiddle leaf fig, yucca tree, zanzibar gem, cactus, jade, aloe, orchids, and mother-in-law’s tongue.

A lot of these changes have improved my quality of life because I actually like them better than what I was doing before, and in addition to saving me money today, are the ultimate investment in my personal health and the health of the planet. Getting really sick challenged me to be more critical about what I choose to consume and made me realize on a deeper level that everything I do has an impact on my personal health and the environment. This post just scratches the surface of all the things getting sick and reading up on why we get sick and what we can do to reduce our chances of getting sick has taught me. I know I’ve implemented a lot of good changes but I’m curious about what others do in this regard, because I know I still have a long way to go. Share your good habits in the comments!

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“Arabs are the worst.”

I want to share an experience I had yesterday with all of you. Right before I taught a yoga class, someone who does not know me at all began a conversation with me. She mentioned that she was a schoolteacher and that her job was stressful – I do not dispute that teachers have a difficult job and are generally underappreciated. Trying to empathize, I nodded and said “I’m sure. Where do you teach?” She said “I teach at a Southside Milwaukee school.”

A look of disgust then crept over her face and she said in a whisper “It’s mostly Burmese and Pakistani children.” She then leaned closer and hissed “Arabs are the worst. They’re worse than African Americans.” Stunned, all I could manage was “really?” She proceeded to tell me Arabs don’t care about their children at all and that they hate women. She continued, starting in on a specific child, whose father came into the school to ask why the child wasn’t being included on field trips and special events on Fridays. “And he’s a taxi driver,” She said knowingly, emphasizing his occupation as if that defined his worth as a human being, his intelligence, and his right to ask questions about his child’s education.

Because I was on the job, and just about to teach a class, I chose not to confront her. I chose not to tell this woman that I myself am Arab-American. I chose not to point out that if she ever bothered to speak to a cab driver while taking advantage of the quite necessary services they provide, she might be surprised to know that it is not uncommon for an immigrant who is a cab driver in America to have been an engineer or a professor in his or her country of origin, unable to continue practicing their profession because of linguistic, legal, financial, or professional licensure barriers in this country.

She might be surprised to know that this person probably left their country to escape war, and (or), perhaps more depressingly, to provide their children with more opportunities to succeed, not anticipating that they might in fact be doing the opposite in a country where racism is so deeply rooted and insidious that it might be stunting their child’s growth and success as early as fifth grade, where their fifth grade teacher had already made a decision that “Arabs are the worst,” and was therefore undoubtedly treating them as such, hurting their self-esteem, making them wish they were white, and doing more lifelong psychological damage that words can’t even convey.

She might be surprised to know that my Arab parents “hated women” so much that somehow, they raised four strong-willed, independent, and successful ones. She might be surprised to know that they brought us up to think so critically and to care so deeply about social injustices that at the age of 17, I chose to major in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. It might blow her mind to know that the essay that got me into law school was in fact about my Arab dad – how despite the fact that he always gave me a hard time about my major (not because he hated women, but because he didn’t know what kind of job I could get with that degree), he was one of the biggest feminists I’d ever met.

I didn’t say any of these things. Instead, I simply excused myself from the conversation to go teach my class. While I don’t doubt that there are humans that do exist (of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds) that don’t care about their children and that hate women (I’ve experienced plenty of the latter in my lifetime), it is unfair enough to paint an entire culture of people with one brush as you sit holed up in your house spewing hatred to like-minded people or plastering it all over your Facebook page. But when your responsibility—your JOB—is to help form these children in their formative years, help them realize their potential, help build them up, and you start off with this mindset – what chance do they have at success? How many more of your colleagues share your views? On what level are you damaging these children? Will they ever be able to recover? More disturbingly, how do you still have a job?

While this person is not my friend on Facebook, we have many mutual friends, so I don’t doubt that she will stumble across these things that went through my head as she insulted my heritage – my culture – the one I know to be rich with beauty, generosity, wonderful food, art, poetry, architecture, creativity, and most importantly, love. I would encourage her to take another look at her life’s work and re-approach it from that place of unconditional love that sits deep within all of us, that we are all capable of acting from, even if we lose sight of it from time to time.

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Pan-fried Seasoned Breakfast Potatoes with Scallions

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Wisconsin winter weekend mornings are meant for slow rising, wool sock wearing, the Head & the Heart crooning faintly in the background, French-pressing your coffee & spending a little more time on making breakfast than you normally would on a weekday. The past few weekends, I’ve been really into this trio, making it for myself, Nathan & any of our friends who happen to be over on a Saturday or Sunday morning: fried eggs (over easy), a heap of fresh greens tossed in homemade dijon dressing & pan-fried breakfast potatoes inspired by Marigold Kitchen. Continue reading

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The Necessity of Darkness

This is beautiful.

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How to Make a Heart a Home

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I sink into the backseat of his cab and read him the address of my destination. He asks me where I’m from and I reciprocate. He’s from Afghanistan, and not much older than me. He’s been in this country for a little over a decade, longer than he’s planned. I remark that I always find it brave when people immigrate at such a young age, leaving behind the only home they’ve ever known, and indefinitely too. My dad was my age, only twenty-five years old, when he got a one-way ticket from Jordan to America and hid his net worth of $20 in his sock for safekeeping on the plane. His mom was dying and he didn’t think he’d ever see her again. He hugged her tight and said his goodbyes.

*      *     *

It’s fall, only a year ago, and I’m taking a late night yoga class from my favorite teacher with a friend who just got some really bad news. We unroll our yoga mats in a full, dark room. Candles flicker throughout. The floor to ceiling windows grow dense with the fog of forty people’s labored breath. The practice is physically demanding and I wonder how my friend’s doing, as she’s one of the only people I know that I’d consider less athletic than myself. For the last fifteen minutes of the class we’re on our backs and my muscles can finally go slack. My bones take on a lead-like quality, gravity weighing them down. The music stopped playing a few minutes ago and the teacher’s voice rings out over the silent dark. Over and over, she sings the Sanskrit phrase “durga jay jay ma.” The mantra means honor your protector, whoever that is for you, the teacher explains as the dust from her last chant settles over the room of tired, outstretched bodies.

*     *     *

I’m twenty years old and there has been an unspeakable tragedy in my hometown. I’m perched on the rolled arm of a chair in my parents’ living room and my dad sits anxiously on the couch across the from me. My sister is sixteen and she comes through the back door. Wordlessly she approaches him and collapses, all five-feet-eight of her into his lap. Her whole body writhes with sobs and my dad just holds her. After what feels like a few minutes of silently watching them, I’m startled to notice a stream of tears dripping steadily off of my face.

*     *     *

Back in the cab, we talk about how home is not really a place, but a feeling. It’s one you outgrow when you shed the shell of your childhood, take a big stretch, and roll out into the world. It’s up to you to rebuild it, I say, but it can be done. “How?” The cabbie asks, reading my own self-doubt, palpable even as the words leave my mouth. From within, is what I know. I’ve found it in many places, like a dressing room with my sisters, laughing so hard I can’t breathe, or a booth in a bar in a new city with old friends and the illusion that no time at all has passed. It’s the feeling of homesickness for the moment you’re in, the wish that you could bottle it and drink it when you’re lonely. Make your heart a home so you can protect yourself, and others will find safety in it, the mirrors of their souls reflecting it back to you.

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1989 – Taylor Swift: A Drinking Game

This album sucks so much I decided to make a drinking game out of it to get my money’s worth. I PREORDERED IT. Go on, laugh. I was hoping for another Fearless or Speak Now, okay!? It’s Thursday and the work day’s done, so you have exactly 24 hours to pick your poison. I’ve made it extremely easy for you to celebrate the end of the week in a drunken stupor peppered with intellectual observations (borrowed from me, of course) about this precocious pop culture baby. Just raise a glass to your lips any time Taylor does one of the following things on 1989, her latest masterpiece:

Rips off Lana del Rey. Whether it’s by name-dropping James Dean just like Lana did on Born to Die, or straight lifting lyrics from that pouty-lipped wannabe Lolita, take a swig every time Taylor Swift exposes her own lack of creativity and originality through homage to Lana del Rey.

Repeats the same phrase more than two times in a row. In addition to shameless plagiarizing, Taylor also exposes the creative block she clearly experienced in writing the songs on this album in bouts of lyrical repetition that progress to the point of absurdity. For example, each time the chorus plays in “Out of the Woods,” you will — I kid you not — hear the phrase “out of the woods” nine times in a matter of thirty seconds.

-Nauseatingly refers to herself as a good girl. In “Blank Space,” she says “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.” Other than exposing yourself as an incredibly boring person, I have no other ideas about what purpose this line actually serves. And then, in the space of the same song, you talk about how insane you are – “a nightmare dressed like a daydream” – as if you’re proud of it. You don’t sound that good to me, doll.

Draws attention to the fact that she wears red lipstick and pretty dresses. We get it, you have a vagina. Most of the rest of us who have vaginas, and probably even some of us who don’t have vaginas, have also participated in these incredibly fascinating activities at one point or another. OMG, cute.

Sets the bar extremely low for men. “All you had to do was stay,” she whines. Or, better, in “How You Get the Girl,” she instructs dudes to just creepily show up randomly at girls’ houses after six months of not speaking with the mind-numbingly simplistic explanation that “you were too afraid to tell her what you want.” Yeah, no. Don’t try that one on me.

Uses an overtired, basic metaphor like the weather to convey the changing seasons of love. Just, don’t. 

-Makes obtuse platitudes about love that suggest she’s never actually experienced it. In Welcome to New York, she says vaguely of the city: “like any great love / it keeps you guessing / like any real love / it’s ever changing / like any true love/ it drives you crazy.” K, girl, I don’t know about you, but I can’t love someone until I know them. To love is to know completely and accept anyway. And when I know you, the guessing game is over. Love doesn’t keep you guessing, and that can be the most maddening part of it. Humans are creatures of habit, and predictable, even the so-called unpredictable ones (it takes one to know one). Ever-changing? Again, no. Well, maybe, in the sense that a seasoned love can feel forever modern despite the turning of the years. But the great thing about love is that there’s something about it that’s unchanging and essential, existing outside of space and time. The only one she’s kind of right about is the “drive you crazy” bit, but I feel like she’s just guessing.

Full disclaimer: this rant was probably just fueled by the jealousy of this has-been writer, also born in 1989, who’s had to put her writing on the back burner and blog about shallow stuff like this in her free time. I’m probably just pissed Taylor Swift gets to do it for part of her JOB and this is the only shit she can come up with. Jealousy aside, the girl’s got seven Grammy’s. She’s clearly talented, but I guess I’m still waiting for her to have the types of experiences that would lend her art the kind of depth it should have at this point in her life. Will I keep listening to the piece of shit album? Absolutely. It’s too catchy. And now I’ve got this amazing drinking game to play while I do it. Cheers.

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The Voyager – Jenny Lewis

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Give your ears some lovin’ & plug into this album on NPR for a preview until it becomes available July 29. You’re welcome :)

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Alive – Anthony Lamarr

Early in the year, one of my yoga students asked me to teach a special class that he could film and turn into a music video to accompany a song he had written. It turned out so beautifully that I got shivers watching it. Anthony was able to translate the beauty of real life–the honest yoga practice of flesh and bone people–into an artistic vision and align it with his art. I feel so very lucky that he chose me to work on this project with him. Thanks for the opportunity Anthony, I wish you the best in your music career.

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The Invitation by Oriah

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

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Dessa – Warsaw

Dessa’s album Parts of Speech is all poetry balanced by raw conviction. If you’re a stranger to this blog, you should know that I admire and frequently profile fierce women who can weave their words together in a way that makes you look at English, a language you’ve spoken your whole life, and see it brand new: a prism of possibility, a vehicle for personality.

I love the more popular “Call Off Your Ghosts” best, but “Warsaw” has a darker, more addictive quality. I like this part:

Waive the charade, man, you lay it on thick,
It’s a dive bar, save the game: you drink and you sit
Easy to please, but hard to impress
I’m in the mood, new shoes, and a bulletproof dress
Sugar on the rim and a shot of mescal
Man it’s murder in the morning, but it’s good for morale

This part too:

And I’m still living by my maiden name
The name I came with, the name I made
And I’m bare-faced at your masquerade
Filled a flask up before I came

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