Begin Again!

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Meet my friend Charlyn! She and I met in Washington, D.C. at PCRM‘s Headquarter during our “Food For Life Instructor Training”. On the first day, when she shared her story, I knew that it needed to be shared with the the people who read my blog. Charlyn is a two-time cancer survivor and I know that her story will inspire you as it did me!

 

You live back in… St. Luis…Right! Yes, that’s right! You worked in the corporate world doing what exactly? I worked in the medical corporate world for about 15 years as a hospice therapist and I was also a medical marketer. It’s high stress! Then I went to work for a non-profit five years ago and that was even higher stress. [Charlyn laughs out loudly! She’s got this wonderful exuberant laugh!] So that’s over! How long ago since you said goodbye to that? May 30th was my last day and I opened up a little private practice with my best friend, who was my assistant at my old job. She came with me and we just do the work that we love! 

The One Percent

Tell me a little bit more about what exactly it is that you do now. I have a small psychotherapy practice, so I counsel people. Most of my clients have chronic pain, cancer, some anxiety, or stress. They are really looking to calm the stress down in their lives and then I see a lot of military families. Long deployments and deployments that are over and over again. Now is that because your husband is in the military? Yes. My son is in the military. My son is a staff sergeant for the United States air force and he’s in intelligence. He’s a constant deployer, so he’s almost always in Afghanistan. How long has he been gone? He’s in the States right now, but he’ll head back some time soon. It’s hard! Yes, I bet! It’s a lot of stress on families! For every military family there’s 8-10 people supporting that military member. We call ourselves “the other one percent”.

First Encounter with the Big “C”

The reason why I wanted to talk to you is because you have survived cancer twice. When did you have your first episode and how did it affect you? I was 27 and I had to stop working my job because it was a grant position and I didn’t have health care…so that was 23 years ago, when I was 27. I had two really small children and probably not taking very good care of myself. When I found out and I knew I didn’t have health insurance I had to quit my job and go on Medicaid. Times were different back then, so I went on Medicaid and I didn’t tell anyone that I had cancer. I just suffered through it and went through pretty tough radiation regime.  And because I went through menopause overnight, I gained a lot of weight. Did you have breast cancer? I had breast cancer when I was 35. When I was 27 I had cervical cancer and it was advanced. I had to have a lot of surgery and radiation. Overnight I went through menopause. That’s a young age to go though menopause! Yes, 27! You know, I didn’t take anything because I didn’t think I needed to at the time. How old were your kids at the time? They were little. Really little kids at the time! 

Staying Silent

Did you know how serious it was at the time? I don’t think I did because I wasn’t working in medical. I don’t think I knew how sick I was and so I didn’t tell anyone because I was a single parent and I didn’t want anyone to try to take my children away from me, so I went through it really alone. What about your family? They lived out of State and I didn’t want to alarm them, so I didn’t tell them until treatment was over. oh my gosh! How long was treatment? Nine weeks and surgery, so about eight to nine weeks. It was tough! 

Family, Rituals and Cheese

And you have a son and a daughter? Yes, 31 and 27 and two small grand daughters. I worry about my grand daughters. My daughter did take dairy out of their lives this year and I’m really glad she finally listened to me about the girls not needing dairy. I was really concerned about that! Did you grow up eating a lot of dairy? Absolutely, I was born in rural community and my parents were chefs who owned a big steakhouse, so I lived on shellfish, steak, hamburger, fried chicken, and sausages my whole life. Cheese! [Charlyn laughs loudly!] It’s really good! I know, it’s the hardest one to give up! [Charlyn keeps laughing] Yes, I know it’s the hardest one! Cheeeese! I know, I used to associate my father with cheese. I know, with cheese! Because when I was little, he was a baker and he’d wake me up in the middle of the night and put the kettle on to make tea, I’d sit on the kitchen counter while he was in the bathroom shaving…and then we’d have a cup of tea and a slice of bread with cheese. This was our ritual before I started going to school. Comfort! Yeah! They say that “food is the background music of our whole lives”. I love that! I don’t know who said it. It wasn’t me. It’s not an original quote. Absolutely!

After you had gone through treatment, that first time at 27, did you change anything? Did you know what we know now? [About healthy eating and cancer prevention] I didn’t change anything. The only thing I changed was my career. I went back to school and became a clinical social worker, became a therapist and started working. I didn’t realize that I was putting weight on. I had always been this little tiny skinny girl and it piled on. I became a pretty healthy woman. A size 14 – 16 and then they put me on hormones. Then when I was 35 I found that I had breast cancer. Wow! [Plates get cleared off our table. We’re at a cozy little wine bar.] 

Physicians

When I got breast cancer I had this amazing physician in Kentucky and I really liked him because he was real. He said, “You’re too fat and if you keep gaining weight this is what you’ll weigh.” He wrote it on a piece of paper. “This is what you’ll weigh on your fortieth birthday. Is this what you want? And you’re going to have cancer again by your 40th birthday! Is that what you want?” He was way ahead of his time! This was fifteen years ago. I had the surgery and they wanted me to consider chemo therapy and I looked everything up. You didn’t have chemo the first time? No, I had only had radiation. Mine didn’t call for any chemo and I couldn’t find anything for the type of breast cancer that I had and it was extremely early. It was just a DCIS (ductal carcinoma). So it was in it’s early stages? Very early. One physician said, “You should have chemo and that way you’ll extend your life.” But I couldn’t find anything in the literature that told me that chemotherapy in this early stage was going to extend my life. Good for you! You know, I think that it probably saved your life. I couldn’t see doing it and it would wipe out everything that was good when I was willing to completely alter my life and I did. I lost the weight and worked out. I did everything right. But had I had a type of cancer that I could find evidence that chemo was the right thing, absolutely I would have had it, but I couldn’t find anything, so I declined it. 

Going Plant-Strong

When did you discover a plant-based diet? Did you discover it back then? No, I tried and I couldn’t do it. Did you continue with the meat and the dairy products? I did. I ate chicken more and I didn’t have a glass of wine with dinner every night any more. I only had a glass of wine once or twice a week. Just like a four ounce pour. I worked out, but I would try the plant-based diet and I just couldn’t do it. But then three years ago when I was working for the cancer support community I discovered that I could do it because of the iron vegan chef made really delicious foods. It was a process. It took me a really long time to make the switch. That’s why I tell people, “Don’t try to do it overnight!” Just do one thing different every couple of weeks. 

21-Day Challenge…You Can Do It!

What do you think about what we’ve just been taught at PCRM? The 21-day challenge totally makes sense! It takes at least three weeks to make any sort of change. I agree! [Although, I’m personally one of those people, if I decide to do something I’m either all in or I am not.] It’s hard for people. The thing I hear from my clients who have children. “My husband will never be on board. My kids will never be on board. Even though I have cancer they will never be on board. I’m not even going to try.” I’m thrilled we have the kids program now. 

I think that’s a bit of a mistake taking that defeatist route. I think that if the person starts cooking those delicious meals that we eat and you introduce that to your family…you don’t even have to say much. Well, you’re right, if you don’t make a big deal about it. Right, if you don’t make a big deal about it. You put it on the table and present it in a non-threatening way instead of demanding, “We are going Vegan NOW!” [Charlene laughs!] That’s way more intimidating and they’ll be going, “Wooaa, wait a minute!” Right and you introduce them to new tastes. You normalize it! Right, to not make it into this weird thing, but to present it in a way that’s attractive and appealing to people! I like that! Normalizing it.

Mindful Eating

I teach a cooking class and on potluck night the only requirement I tell them is to not bring anything with meat in it. I really want them to taste the whole meal and I don’t feel they can do that. Potluck night is a great way for me to introduce vegan food to meat eating people. That’s great! How long of a class is that? It’s eight weeks. Once a week for eight weeks. What is it about? Mindful eating is really understanding where your food comes from and honoring that. Caring about who is preparing your food, where it is coming from and building little speed bumps into your meal so that you don’t overeat because your stomach is only about as big as your fist. Americans eat these enormous portions. Yes, so it’s really expanding your gut. I’ve noticed that, I can only eat so much. Now I get fuller much sooner. You do!

One Grateful Cookie

With mindful eating you’re really taking your whole food experience into account. Where you eat, what time you plan to eat. It’s really about being in the moment with your food and being really grateful. Yes, I think we often forget that what we’re seeing on our plate…even right here [I point to our plates with the beautiful salad that we’ve been digging into]. The plants. The people who picked it. The people who prepared it. The people who transported it. Right! It all matters and the biggest compliment I ever had during a mindful eating class. I did this beautiful vegan cookie that had mashed bananas in it, nuts, and all these wonderful flavors. I took the class through this twenty minute mindful exercise to eat the cookie and at the end of it the person said, “Usually when you bring cookies to the office and I take a bite and go, “Agrr ya, it’s one of those health cookie kind of things.” She continued, “But because of the mindful exercise you took us through.” I started with how I shopped for the ingredients. Where I shopped. The mood I was in when I baked the cookies. The energy I put into it while I was baking the cookies. And she said, “All that really mattered and it was delicious! I know that I’ve had this cookie before and I didn’t like it until you made me really made me sit down and appreciate it.” That was the highest compliment in the world! They sound great! I bet they taste really good! Maybe you can send me the recipe? I will! [I laugh!] I’d love it! It’s called, “I can’t believe that’s good for me cookie.” It’s delicious! Well, you’re definitely going to have to share now! So that’s my journey! 

Fifteen Years Cancer Cleared

How long has it been since that second cancer recurrence? Fifteen! Oh yeah, that’s right! That’s so awesome! You know, I was still growing tumors every few years. Even if they weren’t cancerous. But when I changed my diet that all went away. I stopped growing tumors. Since you went on this lower fat diet? You were still eating meat? Not much. I was eating maybe a little salmon. Maybe a little chicken. Only a few ounces per week and once you’re there it’s super easy from there! Right! For me, I tried the 21 day. I tried the week. That didn’t work for me personally. It was a very gradual move for me. Whatever works for people…just get there! Right, I agree! 

Three Years to Tempeh

It’s a really fun new way to learn how to cook. I’ve always been a really accomplished cook. My husband was complaining that his stomach really hurt when he ate beans, so if you cook them with Kombu your belly doesn’t hurt. What is it? Where do you buy it? It’s seaweed. You can get it at Whole Foods. Also if you soak your beans in baking soda and water overnight, that helps too. And if you cook them with Kombu – it’s amazing! You learn all these new things. I didn’t know. It took me three years to find Tempeh. [Charlyn giggles.] That’s pretty sad! What’s your favorite dish to cook? I made this little dish. My husband loves Sunday night football, so I make these “No harm. No foul chicken hot wings made out of tempeh. They are so good! They sound delicious! He loves it!

Kripalu

We really learned a lot more about food this year when we went to the Kripalu in the Berkshires. It’s this huge yoga retreat. All the master teachers go there, so this summer I went there for a week with my husband and the food is just divine. Is he into yoga? Yes! At Kripalu you eat communally. You eat breakfast in silence. The food is amazing. I gained weight. All I could think was, “What’s for the next meal?” I’ve been to a retreat like that once that took part four times, through each season, over a year. The food came from a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Seattle and was just amazing! I studied with Dr. Siegel. It was by far the most magical experience I’ve ever had. Amazing community. Like I said, all the master teachers go there! That sounds like an amazing place to go! There’s a way for everyone to go. They do tons of scholarships every year. It’s expensive to go there, but they offer everything from Chi running to yoga to marriage retreat to whole food cooking to mindfulness to childbirth. Art. It’s everything you could ever imagine in one catalog. It’s a magical place! Kripula took us to the next level in nutrition. It introduced us to even more foods. 

Wake-Up Call

Is there anything you’d like to share? Yes, cancer is really scary but that doesn’t mean you’re going to die! There are so many things you can do to stack the cards against cancer. Food! Food! Food! Food! If you’ve never had a better reason to eat a plant-based diet…Cancer is it! Man, that’s the Universe thumping you in the head saying, “Okay, you’ve been talking about doing this. Here’s your wake-up call. Here’s your chance!” It’s really to get people on board with it, but once they get on board and they feel so much better! Then they’ll tell everybody about it! Exactly! [Just look at us!] Because it’s transformative! It really is! Our lives have been transformed by it. I know mine has! No doubt. 

What kind of wake up call will you need in order to change?

For me there’s no going back. I don’t even have to think about it. I don’t miss eating meat. I don’t really miss eating cheese. That’s doesn’t even cross my mind any more. I feel healthier, stronger…so much better! It doesn’t bog you down! NO! When you’ve seen the health benefits of a whole foods plant-based vegan diet and know how delicious the food is…It really is a no brainer! Every hospice patient I ever had with the exception of maybe ten percent were dying because of what they ate. They were in nursing homes way too young because of their life style. They didn’t have to be! Our generation…and I’m older than you are…my generation is aging much different than my parents generation. We are willing to “give up certain things” because we want to live better than our parents. We don’t want to take a handful of pills. Well you look just amazing. You’re beautiful! Thank you! 

“Begin Again”

I have to ask you about your tattoo. What does it say? It says, “Begin Again”. When did you get it and is that the only one you have? No, I have a few. [We laugh!] What number is that one? It’s three. This is a new one. When I left my job, I decided that I was only going to do work that made me feel full and whole and didn’t stress me out. I wasn’t going to do work I didn’t enjoy. I was only going to do sacred work. When I left that job. I loved it. It meant everything to me, but it was time to begin again and when I talked to these vets. I have a couple of Iraq vets transitioning into civilian world and they are going to college on the G.I. bill. They love this tattoo! I bet they do! The catalyst for this tattoo was Kripalu. I worked with this Fine Art therapist when I was in Kripalu. She’d asks someone to raise their hand and tell what they’d give up during the week and I said, “I’m really sick of my story of being a cancer survivor. I blame it for this and I blame it for that.” Every time she’d try to get me into some yoga pose that my back or my hip or some area that is that way because of treatment. I’d say, “I can’t do that because I’ve had radiation and she’d say, “Let’s begin again!” And she’d make me start the pose over. She’d say, “Begin Again!” And it really resonated with me. Life is just a big old “do over”! [We laugh!] A series of  do overs! It is, isn’t it!? It really is! I feel at times that it’s a series of classes and if we don’t pass the class…We have to take it again! [We laugh!] And we begin again! By golly, if you don’t pass it the second time. You take it again! And take it again! Maybe a third. Fourth. Fifth. Until you get it! Until you get it! That’s hard for me when I see cancer survivors who just won’t give up, in their minds say, “I can’t give up alcohol” or “I can’t give up the high fat foods” or “I can’t give up sleeping in” to going and working out. It breaks my heart for them! Because I can’t think of a bigger wake-up call than cancer. No, that’s definitely it! I feel like cancer, heart disease, heart attack…that should be our biggest “HELLO” moment. It’s definitely the moment where you take stock of your life! Take a deep breath! Going to a plant-based diet allowed me to be done with it! To be done with cancer. That being my identity. I always knew it was going to come back, but when I went to a plant-based diet, I know it’s not coming back! I’m so glad you said that! I truly believe that’s the truth!

Thank you so much, Charli, for sharing your amazing story again with me and with the people who read my blog! You’ve inspired me tremendously and I just know that you’ll continue to inspire others on your path with teaching whole foods plant-based diet! It was great to meet you in D.C.! You ROCK! 


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About urbanveganchic

I'm an urban chic woman, who is passionate about educating others about the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based vegan diet, cancer prevention & survival, as well as art & life. I love adventures and travel. As an artist and a teacher, I care deeply about healthy living, being a conscious steward of our planet, and being kind & respectful towards animals. Learning about a vegan plant-based diet has been like discovering a new country and falling in love with it, so if I sound like I'm enamored you now know why! As a world traveler, I truly wish I had discovered this beautiful new country twenty years ago! Better late than never, as they say, cause there's no going back now! Born and raised in Scandinavia. Proud owner of a tripod cat & a foxy little pup. Speak four languages...some better than others. Working on the fifth one. We are all either part of the problem or the solution! Health & Happiness to you! ~UrbanVeganChic

6 responses »

  1. This is a very inspiring story – and not just because of the food. It is wonderful to see a person make a commitment and succeed in changing their entire life. I survived cancer (melanoma), and it was many years before I finally was convinced that a plant-based lifestyle is the way to go. I live in a rural community and am the only vegan I know, so it has been a slippery slope for me. Reading stories like Charlyn’s helps keep me on track.

    • Hi Karen,
      Thank you for sharing! I can see how that would be tough! I decided to go plant-based vegan on my own, but I soon found an incredible support group via Meet-Up in my community and started getting together with them. They answered many of the questions that I had at the time and I have just come to love each one of them and consider them my new family! I am so incredibly grateful! Hearing Charlyn’s story gave me so much hope as I am sure it will give others who are battling this dreadful illness. We need stories like hers, so I am hoping that others will send it forward, share it! Charlyn’s story gives encouragement and hope! Check out “Red Thread” – the interview I did with Dr. Deb. She’s also a cancer survivor! Her story is equally inspiring!

      All the best! Stay plant-strong! Nina

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