Yoga for Cancer… & Stress, Strength, Mental Clarity and Everything Else You Could Possibly Want

Stuck in the belief system that if you’re not working out at high intensities or pumping heavy iron, you won’t see results, yoga was nowhere on my radar for years. My interest in yoga didn’t develop until a cleanse I was following recommended it as a gentle practice to aid detoxification. Committed to achieving the best results, I followed the advice and found acarly Bikram studio in Chicago. During my first class, I noticed my ability to perform the yoga asanas or poses was compromised on my left side. The trouble was due to a three degree tear of my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). I was 28 years old at the time and felt defeated by my body’s lack of strength, flexibility and agility. But I wasn’t about to give up. I kept going back and after a few classes noticed I was able to move slightly deeper into the pose each day. My progress excited and kept me committed. After 30 days, both sides of my body were equally strong and flexible—nothing shy of a miracle from where I started.
My yoga practice has fluctuated over the years. I’ve experimented with different studios, teachers, and styles. Before my breast cancer diagnosis, yoga had taken a back seat to skiing, mountain biking and hiking. After my diagnosis, I was thankful to have this practice to fall back on. Yoga has served as the only form of exercise I have consistently stuck with throughout my treatment and healing. It is my primary form of exercise, and surprise surprise, I’ve never felt stronger, leaner and more fit.
There are many excuses one can make to avoid yoga including, 1) I’ve never done it, 2) I’ll hate it, 3) It’s not for me, 4) It’s for women only, 5) My booty looks big in yoga pants, 6) Yoga is for tree hugging, granola munching, crunchy people only, 7) I’m too wound up, 8) I don’t have time, 9) It’s too spiritual, 10) I’m not flexible, 11) I’m too tired, 12) I’m too sick, 13) I like beer and hot dogs and, therefore, couldn’t possibly do yoga, 14) Fill in your excuse here _____. If you find yourself making any of these excuses, yoga will likely be perfect for you!
How to Succeed at Yoga
  • Keep an open mind
Everything you do for the first time feels strange in some way. As adults, it’s uncomfortable not knowing what you’re doing. Check your expectations and insecurities at the door and allow your experience to unfold naturally. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you find if go in without any preconceived notions of what yoga should or shouldn’t be.
  • Find a studio and teachers you love
I stopped my yoga practice a few years ago because the gym I joined lacked the environment and teachers I desired. Instead of seeking out what I wanted, I quit. Now I’m at a gym I love, with a yoga studio that meets my needs, and has teachers I enjoy. Trust your gut. If the class or studio feels off to you, shop around until you find what feels right. If you live in a location where one of the daily deal sites offers discounts, I’d start there. I purchased a 20-punch card in Phoenix for $10 at what turned out to be an excellent studio. Alternatively, go with a friend and try their studio. See if they can get you a guest card. Some places will offer the first class for free.
  • Understand no one is looking at you
Recently, a regular in my class asked me to let him know if is underwear poked out during class. I said he’d have to figure that out himself because the odds of me looking at him, even though he was in the row ahead of me, were slim to none. Most people in your class have likely been doing yoga long enough to know what’s going on. We are focused on our breath and the intention we set for our practice. You might look around the room to figure out what you’re doing, which is natural. But the majority of us are in a world of our own. No one will notice if you can’t do a pose. One day soon, you won’t be looking at anyone else either.
  • Wear something you feel comfortable in
Some athletic-wear brands have contributed to the illusion that yoga class is a fashion show. It’s not. If you feel judged by what you wear, you’re at the wrong studio. Wear what you’d usually work out in and adjust going forward as needed.
  • Make it about you and what you need

We’re all on the mat for different reasons. Discover what you need and set an intention for each class. Listen to your body. If a posture is hurting, stop. Talk to the teacher. Let them know what’s going on. If you’re tired, rest. During my intensive treatment phase, I spent a disproportionate amount of class in child’s pose while everyone else toughed it out. I couldn’t have cared less. I was proud to be there and acknowledged the benefit of being in child’s or corpse pose, as opposed to being home in bed. Honor your body and what it needs.

Why Yoga Will be the Best Practice of Your Life
The benefits are immeasurable, but here are several reasons to get on the mat 
Decreases stress. Releases endorphins. Builds strength (inner and outer) and increases flexibility. Drains lymphatic system (flushing junk from treatment out of your body). Provides mental clarity. Enhances respiration. Leads to better bone health. Gets your blood flowing. Boosts immunity. Regulates adrenal glands. Supports proper digestion. Reduces pain. Improves your relationships. Balances your brain. Makes you happy!!! The benefits are endless.
I love my yoga practice. When my mind is spinning a mile a minute, it helps me reel in my crazy thoughts. When my body feels sluggish, tight and off, yoga provides me with energy I didn’t think I had. When I can’t let go of thoughts, they emerge and are released during class. When I’ve felt unable to workout at my usual levels, yoga gave me a way to move my body that felt nourishing and empowering. Today, as a result of my continuing yoga practice I am stronger than ever–physically and mentally.
Now that you’re all ready to stretch, strengthen and relax…..
Photo Creds: my strong, brave, fierce yoga teacher who captured me as I fell. Yoga is a practice.

FDX Africa- This Is Way Better Than Planet Earth


FDX Africa: This is Way Better Than ‘Planet Earth’


My new friend Spaceballs and I walk through the tall grass at the Lake Manyara Rift Valley and enter the clearing where zebras, jackals, gazelle, wildebeest and warthogs all roam close enough to kill us before we could utter “hakuna matata.” We turn our heads and see more animals. Then we turn our bodies in a full circle and see animals everywhere. We are wearing long pants and button-downs coated in permethrin to deter malaria-carrying mosquitos, safari hats, daypacks, sunglasses and binoculars.

All that lies between the animals and us is Lingato, our guide who is a Massai warrior. Lingato, dressed in a red sheet, holds a spear with which he can throw at and hit a precise blade of grass fifteen feet away. Lingato tells us about the time he killed a lion—out of self-defense and never for sport. “When lion attacks, I throw my spear from far enough away that if I miss then I can still grab my knife. That is my last line of defense. Maasai warriors do not fear the lion. Maasai warriors do not hesitate.”


Lingato says it is possible for two lions to attack at once. “I only have one spear, so I can only kill one lion.”

He doesn’t describe exactly how we would survive if two lions attack.


This is Africa.


* * *


I met Spaceballs the day we left for Africa, even though we live just 20 miles apart and share the same religion, sense of humor and employer. We registered for FDX Africa, a week-long safari in Tanzania through Mark Thornton Safaris. We booked identical flights for the trip including an additional day to visit Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago east of Tanzania. Half of Spaceballs’ large intestine was removed due to colon cancer. I guessed that meant the traveler’s diarrhea we all would inevitably get would speed through him even faster.

Spaceballs and I met the remaining group members either during our layover in Amsterdam, Netherlands, or at the first lodge in Arusha, Tanzania. A third of them had had breast cancer. Based on their discussions I considered that straight women love breasts more than straight men do, but Shredder clarified that’s only true for breast cancer survivors.

Bubbe—the loud, unfiltered, totally American and total New Yorker who had breast cancer several years ago—schooled me on breasts. I can now enter a conversation about the varying implant technologies and methods to keep them high on the body with strong pectoral support. Bubbe said, “A minute after Avocado [another breast cancer survivor] introduced herself to me I had to interrupt her and say, ‘Sorry I didn’t hear anything you said, I can’t stop staring at your breasts.’

“Avocado has like the BMW of breasts while I’m driving an old Hyundai.”

Bubbe is upgrading hers this spring. She let me cop a feel and I thought, Oh this is cool I’m touching a breast right now. I did not think,These breasts need upgrading, so maybe I’m not ready to enter that conversation quite yet.

Bubbe told me their breasts glow red when they shine a flashlight through them when in the dark, displaying their veins like a road map and their nipples (or tattooed nipples) like a silhouette. When Shredder had found this out a year after her surgery she asked her surgeon why he hadn’t told her. “Because then you would show them off,” she said he told her.

“I show them off anyway!” she had replied.

“You can do the same with your balls,” Bubbe told me.

Did I know this when I was a little boy and feel the same intrigue they feel for their breasts, now in their thirties and fourties? Probably, but I can’t remember. I walked away, opened the flashlight app on my phone and unbuckled. Bubbe was right. I offered a trade—me showing off my glow-in-the-dark body part in order to see one of theirs—but Avocado photographed hers and shared the photos with everyone without demanding anything in return. Like Shredder said, they love breasts.

While many of our post-campfire evenings revolved around breasts, our days revolved around animals. Our safari included walking and driving around the Maasai Steppe and Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, and driving through the Ngorongoro Crater. For the first two walks, all twelve participants, our FD lead staffer and our three guides walked single-file in silence. One guide, a Massai warrior, held a spear and Rambo-like knife, and one guide held a gun as a potential last resort. We got close enough to many of the animals to see every detail through binoculars.

I never expected to get close enough to nearly touch a 900-pound living mass of muscle and grace. Full of adrenaline and awe, my evening at Rift Valley with Spaceballs and Lingato was one of my life’s best. Humans top the food chain because of our technology. But without it, we are no match for the animals we domesticate, kill and eat.

Sometimes that is true even with our technology. The next day, as we headed towards Ngorongoro Crater, our guide Elvis stopped the Land Rover when he spotted an elephant in the woods. It towered over the brush, its ears flopping as if listening to our whispers of, “Look at that giant fucking elephant oh my God!”

The elephant approached the road and stopped. It watched us. Would it turn back? Or would it charge? Our metal door and glass window would do little to slow the elephant’s tusks or legs. As much as human beings think we know—about cancer, about how animals think, about the benefits and detriments of consuming seven cups of coffee a day—we are generally ignorant.

The elephant continued on its way. Maybe it sensed we were simply cancer survivors there in peace and for the adventure of our lifetimes.

Childhood and young adult cancer survivors endure immense suffering and deal with additional effects later in life. Individuals who were never victimized by cancer say we are strong and badass. Sometimes we young cancer survivors agree. Sometimes they and we even think we are superhuman. During FDX Africa I considered the possibility that everyone in our group was a pussy compared to Tanzanians, many who live without electricity and running water. They make their own food, clothing and shelter; use every part of their resources, including their cows’ dung and slaughtered goats’ blood. After FDX Africa I returned to my cozy apartment three blocks from the underground train and one mile by car from a giant supermarket.

I wondered if the Maasai people whose boma I visited would want to trade lives with me. Would they want to exchange their physically, never-endingly demanding yet slow work for my stagnant, hyper-paced one behind a desk and monitor? Would they want a portable device that calculates, tracks and schedules every aspect of their lives so they no longer have to?

Walking through the jungle, with the sun both depleting my energy and soothing my worries, I understood why people and animals in Tanzania embrace the phrase “pole pole” (pronounced “polay polay”), which in Swahili means “slowly slowly.” We saw a lioness stalk a water buffalo, leading to a distant staredown between the two beasts. We saw a hyena chase a dik-dik (a small antelope), weaving through much larger wildebeest. In both instances the predators tired and quit. But they would be ready for the next opportunity.

Hakuna matata. This is Africa. And we fell in love with it.

FB_IMG_1457542064347Benjamin (Hippy) Rubenstein is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also read about his FD1 trip rock climbing in Moab, Utah.

Your Results Are Positive: The 90 Second Phone Call That Changed My Life

FullSizeRender (7)When I woke up on the morning of April 9th, 2015, I immediately called my doctor’s office to see if my results were available. They weren’t. I puttered around at my table until the phone rang at 12:14 pm. It was my OBG. My heart was pounding out of my chest as I answered the phone. She wasted no time delivering the scariest, arguably worst, news of my life. In under 90 seconds, I’d been diagnosed with cancer. My innocence was shattered in a matter of seconds. The color in my face was first to go, followed by the life-force draining out of my body. I was light headed and in fight or flight. Time was standing still. Blinking my eyes several times, I wondered: had I heard her correctly? Shaking, confused and bewildered, I called my boyfriend Doug and whispered into the phone, “my results are positive for breast cancer.” He asked, “you’re joking?”

Two weeks prior I was lying in bed feeling my sore and swelling breasts as my period approached when I found a grape sized lump on my right side. I was unconcerned and scheduled my slightly overdue annual. My OBG did not appear worried stating statistics were in my favor and what I felt was likely a fibroadenoma. She wrote me a script for a mammogram and prepared me for the possibility of an ultrasound. She encouraged me not to worry and sent me on my way after I shelled out $165 for a less than 15-minute appointment. When Doug offered to go with me to my next appointment, I confidently thanked him for offering and assured him I’d be fine–women get mammograms all the time. As Vivian in Pretty Woman said, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” Regrettably, it was my mistake, and there was no shopping spree to follow.

I suppose I was slightly nervous about the unknown, but after squeezing both my breasts pretty hard to simulate the pain potential of said x-ray, I reasoned I’d be okay. My experiment proved fruitful, and I did not experience pain that some women speak of after having a mammogram. During my exam, I tried to read the tech’s face while she was taking images of my breasts. Nothing. Her poker face was solid. Once she had taken all the pictures she needed, I retreated to the waiting room to learn the radiologist wanted to get an ultrasound. At this point, even though my doctor had prepared me, I started to panic. As the tech scanned my breasts, I carefully watched her body language in another attempt to determine what she was seeing. Striking out again, I waited on the table, feeling exposed, for the tech to come back in and tell me the radiologist wanted to do a needle biopsy. The doc was only in on Monday and Tuesday, and it was Tuesday. I could either have the biopsy right then and there or come back next week.

Waiting another week for results sounded like torture, so I opted to have the biopsy on the spot. The techs mouths were moving, but what they were saying didn’t register. Were they talking to me? I found myself answering yes and no as I dialed Doug. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to have him there with me. Why did I go alone? As I was on the phone, the techs were shoving papers in front of me to sign. Did they know I wasn’t present? Physically I was sitting in the exam room in a chair, but no one was home. Could someone please slow down to make sure I know what’s happening? I had no idea what I was agreeing to or not. During the call to Doug, the techs told me my procedure would be over before he arrived.

They treated this outpatient procedure as no big deal, and I’m confident saying neither of them had ever had one. As my friend and GiveForward co-founder, Desiree Vargas so eloquently put: “Biopsies are not “mammograms with a needle.” The best way I know how to explain what it feels like, beyond Desiree’s account, is it’s like having dental work performed [on your boob]. It’s not that the pain is excruciating, but it is terribly uncomfortable and awkward. Upon completion of the biopsy, I was told the radiologist surgically inserted a piece of titanium into the biopsied lump. Wait a second! Did anyone inform me this was going to happen? I’m not sure I want titanium in my body. It was too late.

Once the biopsy was over, tears streamed down my face. I felt violated, scared and alone. The pain was over, but I was shocked, confused and in a world of fear. The techs said I was strong. A phrase I’d become very familiar hearing over the upcoming months. They said a lot of women did a lot worse than I did. So… Couldn’t they have waited ten minutes for my boyfriend to get there for a little moral support, well aware this procedure left people feeling uneasy? Instead, as a consolation prize, they sent me on my way with the cutest little pink heart ice pack.

With the heart tucked into my bra to alleviate pain and swelling, I somehow found myself at my boyfriend’s staring out the kitchen window aimlessly as I dialed one of our friend’s who had been through breast cancer twice. I put on my best “everything is fine” voice and left a message. She texted me back later, “Honestly, they are so proactive with any kind of spot they find, just about everyone I know has had a needle biopsy.” I wanted to believe this so badly, but something about the radiologist’s demeanor left me lacking confidence that everything was going to be fine. Doug also assured me I’d be okay. I wanted to believe them both and did my best to manifest a positive outcome. Totally I thought, attempting to convince myself and block the radiologist’s cold and disconcerting bedside manner out of my head. I’d be fine. I had completed another 100-day ski season, been upping my yoga, decreasing my sugar, and was what appeared to be a very healthy young woman. Of course, I’d be fine.

Two days later my doctor called, “I’m sorry, your results are positive for breast cancer.” She asked me if I needed anything. If I needed anything? I needed my results to be negative. She asked me if I was going to be okay. Okay? No, I’m not okay. Cancer? At 33? Are you kidding me? We hung up. In less than 90 seconds, I received information that would forever change my life.

IMG_4844Carly Hana (Lotus) Przysinda grew up in Rochester, NY and currently resides in Vail, CO where she enjoys skiing, mountain biking and hiking. Prior to living in the mountains she lived in Boulder, Denver, NYC, Chicago and South Florida. Lotus attended her first FD white water kayaking program this summer in Jackson, WY after being diagnosed with IDC triple negative breast cancer on April 9, 2015. She chose an integrative healing path and has avoided surgery and radiation. As a nutritionist, Lotus opted to incorporate a mind, body and spirit approach to healing and encourages others to do the same regardless of what treatment path they’ve chosen. Follow Lotus on her blog at

Please ask me how I’m doing (not how I’m feeling)

Please ask me how I’m doing (not how I’m feeling)

Next time you see me, email me, text me, yell at me from across the street, bump into me at the grocery store I have a favor to ask. Please, pretty please, do not ask me how I am feeling. In particular I would appreciate it if you didn’t squish up your face, cock your head to the side, raise your voice two pitches and add ten extra Es to the word feeling: “How are you feeeeeeling?”

I know the intentions behind it are only good. I know you are concerned about me. I appreciate your concern. I appreciate you reaching out. I want to connect with you. I want to tell you what’s going on in my life. Battling Stage 4 cancer (or any stage of cancer for that matter) can be a lonely life and I want you to be a part of it. But this question hurts my heart, wears down my spirit and makes me feel less connected to you. So let me try and explain why that is and what you can ask instead so we can have that meaningful moment that I hope and believe we are both craving.

You see, I not only spend a good amount of time every day fighting for my life, I am also fighting every day to feel really alive. I hate days when I get even a mild cold because it makes me feel weak when all I really want to feel is strong. Strength and wellness give me hope. Illness and weakness make me feel like I’m dying. Any reminder that I am not the strong, healthy, vibrant person that I work so hard to be is like a dagger in my back. “How are you feeling?” is just one of those reminders.

You see, I am fortunate enough to be on a protocol made up mostly of immunotherapies which come with little to no side effects so most days I actually do feel pretty good. In fact, if I didn’t have cancer I would bet that I would look like one of the healthier people you know. Every morning I wake up and meditate for 30 minutes. Then I do Qi Gong for 20 minutes. I follow that by taking a bunch of vitamins and drinking a part green, part protein shake. Then I’ll usually do about 30 minutes of yoga or go for a quick run before I get ready for the day. Throughout the day I eat a lot of veggies, drink more green drinks, avoid processed food, meat and dairy and try to drink plenty of water and herbal tea. I end every day with more Qi Gong and another 30 minutes of meditation. And over and over again, from the moment I rise until the moment I go to sleep I repeat the same mantra: “I am healthy. I am well. I’m alive. I will survive.” All of these things help me to feel healthy and strong and alive, which, in turn, makes me feel safer in a world that is trying to convince me that I might not “make it.”

When you come along and ask me how I feel in an instant I go from feeling like a super powered, cancer butt kicking badass warrior woman who deserves your support and admiration to a sad, sick person who only deserves your pity. You don’t ask Superman how he’s feeling, unless he’s just had a bad run in with some kryptonite. You ask Batman about his latest nemesis, not what bumps and scratches he got in his last fight. And for that matter you wouldn’t ever ask a healthy human being how they are feeling. You would ask them how they are doing. “Doing” is active. It implies that the person at the other end of the question has some active agency in their life. “Feeling” is passive, and it automatically implies weakness and illness.

When someone asks me how I feel it makes me feel like less of a human. It makes me feel less alive. It makes me feel like despite all of my hard work to be alive, to engage in life, to be as healthy as I possibly can be that I am still just my cancer. My experience with First Descents, just two weeks after I finished my first year of treatment, was the first experience since my diagnosis that reminded me that I am more than my cancer. I am a rock climber! I am a challenge accepter! I am strong! I am powerful! I am brave! Cancer is a part of my life but it does not define me.

But you are worried about me and I get that. I appreciate it even. As I said, I want to connect with you as much as you want to connect with me, probably more so. So, if you want to know about my life here are some questions I’d love to hear:

  • How are you doing?
  • What’s the most exciting thing going on in your life right now?
  • What’s making you feel really proud right now?
  • What’s the best lesson you’ve learned recently?
  • What have you been pondering most as of late?
  • What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced lately?

These questions acknowledge that I am a human being, experiencing a full, complete and engaging life and that there is much more going on than just cancer. And even if the answer to some of these questions are cancer related at least they leave space for the conversation to be about something else. Sometimes I want to talk about cancer and sometimes I just want to be seen as a regular person. And if I talk to you about the challenges and difficulties that cancer has brought I want to do it from the perspective that we are on the same level, that we are both humans who have gone through suffering as part of the basic human experience. “How are you feeling?” almost always feels as if it’s being shouted from a pedestal of healthiness down to sad, little, old, sick feeling me. I can’t connect to you when you are so far above me.

So this holiday season as you go home to friends and family if you have someone who has been dealing with cancer or any other kind of illness think about the ways that you can connect with them in a way that is empowering to them. Remember that their lives are not limited to their illness and they are still active participants in the world with lots of interesting thoughts to share. All you have to do is ask the right question.


Dating After Cancer

DATING AFTER CANCER | By Susan “Hawk” Rafferty

About a year after my initial ovarian cancer diagnosis, I was finished with treatment and decided that my “new normal” should also include dating. As an introvert, I have always found dating to be unnerving, but doing so as a recent cancer survivor seemed terrifying. I was very thankful that, through FD, I had a great community of fellow survivors to whom I could reach out about my many concerns: Would anyone want to date me with the high probability of recurrence? Would anyone want to date me with my short hair, scars and lack of fertility (or depending on the guy, would that be a point in my favor?)? What do I share about my cancer experience and when do I share it? After major surgery and chemotherapy, does my body even work the same? After several great conversations with fellow single survivors on the perils of dating after a cancer diagnosis, I decided that I would handle it the way I handle most things in my life- I would wing it!

I was pretty surprised when I quickly met a very good looking, smart, interesting guy who also had a dog. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company and started dating very casually. After he saw pictures of me with longer hair, he asked why I decided to cut it. I took a deep breath and said something along the lines of, “yeah, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, but I am ALL GOOD now. Totally healthy. No big deal….just short hair and a really big scar. I’m super lucky, but ready to get on with my life”, which I most likely followed up with a few tired clichés about all the awesome things I learned on my journey, something sarcastic, and a big smile. He commended me on my great attitude and that was that.

A few weeks later, I started feeling really tired again, and a blood draw and CT- scan revealed that my CA-125 was on the rise (which is bad), and that I had new tumor growth. The doctor explained that, “if the cancer is back this soon after finishing chemotherapy, you are either platinum resistant, and your condition would be considered terminal OR, the tumors are benign and you are fine. We’ll know more when we do your surgery in six weeks”. When on a walk with our dogs, I casually mentioned that I needed more surgery because a scan revealed some new tumors. He stopped, looked at me and said in a very serious and not at all amused tone, “I thought you said you were fine?!”. Oops. Yes, that is exactly what I said. Needless to say, things quickly fizzled.

When I told my friends about his reaction, most said “he’s a jerk”, or “you’re better off knowing now that he’s not supportive”, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. I misled him by seriously downplaying my cancer experience. Everyone has their own relationship with cancer, and I don’t fault someone for not wanting to embark on a new relationship with someone who has or had cancer. In hindsight, I downplayed it to about the seriousness of a bad case of the flu.  I realized that I needed to be much more thoughtful about how and what I share when telling someone about my experience with cancer and that it needs to have some semblance in the reality of what actually happened. It was a good lesson to learn. While my story is my own, and it is up to me with whom and what I share, I need to be very thoughtful and balanced about what I tell someone I am dating.

Several months later, and after a surgery that thankfully revealed “borderline” tumors, I met and began dating someone else. After a few dates, and when I felt comfortable, I braced myself and told him about my experience with cancer. I was much more forthright, and I didn’t downplay the significant role that cancer had and was still playing in my life. I was more than a little shocked when he didn’t seem fazed by it.   In fact, he was very supportive. Although that relationship eventually ran its course, it was such a gift to see that there are people who are not scared off by a cancer diagnosis. I have learned to be more careful and thoughtful about what I share with the person I am dating. As time has passed, I am getting better about letting my guard down and really sharing the impact.


fd Susan aka “Hawk” is a member of the First Descents Alumni Advisory Board, an avid roller hockey player, lover of traveling and the outdoors, and a champion for rescue dogs (she has fostered dozens and is mom to two Great Danes). After being diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and completing treatment, Susan attended her first FD Rock Climbing Camp in Estes Park, CO in the fall of 2010, and has attended several programs since.

FD Healthy: Sugar & How it Affects Our Bodies!

Fruit Harvest Selection in Bowls

Fruit Harvest Selection in Bowls

The human body needs carbohydrates (also known as sugar) to stay healthy, this is a fact. We have evolved to naturally crave high sugar food as a survival mechanism; our early ancestors depended on sugar-rich fruits to not only give them an immediate energy supply, but to also assist in fat storage so they could continue to have an energy source when food was scarce.

This craving for sugar that was once depended on for survival, is now playing a key role in rising levels of obesity, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, not to mention dozens of smaller ailments involving kidneys, joints, skin and more. This is because the amount of sugar we consume has increased so drastically that our bodies are no longer equipped to process it. To give you some numbers:

  • In 1822 Americans consumed an average of 45 grams of sugar every five days, or the amount of sugar in one can of coke.
  • In 2012, Americans consumed an average of 756 grams of sugar every five days, that’s 130 pounds of sugar a year.

This is a huge growth that translates to major stress on our bodies and their abilities to function properly, and we need our bodies to function properly in order for us to fight off disease and illness (like cancer!).

There are many types of sugars and alternative sweeteners that we have developed over the years, but here I want to focus on the ones found most often in our food: glucose and fructose. These two molecules are the base of most of the sugars we use, particularly in processed foods. All carbohydrates break down into sugar in the body, that includes all grains and grain products (breads, pasta, rice, oatmeal, etc.). This is not to say that all carbohydrates are bad, as mentioned before, we need them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This is just to emphasize that all carbohydrates, whether from grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, milk or processed sugars, break down into simple sugars (glucose, fructose, & lactose) in the body.
Sugar blog 1Glucose

Glucose molecules are absorbed through the small intestine directly into the bloodstream. From there the glucose molecules attach to insulin molecules and after a small portion is stored in muscles and the liver immediate use, the rest is transported into all of a body’s cells (all cells require glucose). This presence of glucose in the bloodstream is what determines our blood sugar level. If it is too high or low, our body cannot function; therefore we have insulin to regulate that level. Unfortunately insulin is only equipped to deal with a certain level of glucose, and the amount of sugar we consume on a daily basis tends to be beyond what insulin can handle. When insulin is triggered too often by the presence of sugar, it either responds less accurately or stops responding all together. This means we have high blood sugar, and no way for that sugar to get disbursed to its proper organs and cells, a problem that then causes type II diabetes (insulin resistant diabetes).

Another important interaction is when glucose gets transported to our cells, because although our cells require glucose, the amount they require to function is very minimal. When we consume more sugar than we need, the body has no immediate use for it, so our cells will store it as fat for future use. However, we rarely will need to use those fat stores for energy because we continue to consume sugar and the process starts all over again. Human cells have an amazing ability to store as much fat as we can give them, the cell walls will just keep expanding as long as they need to. Unfortunately, once sugars are turned into fat, it becomes very difficult to get rid of them again since those are the last stores of energy your body will try to use. It usually requires a long, high-intensity workout to use up all the sugar stored in your liver and muscles and to then tap into those fat stores.

sugar blog 3This cycle of insulin release and fat storage only happens when we eat carbohydrates, not when we eat protein or fat. In fact, when we consume carbs with protein, fat and/or fiber, it actually slows down the rate at which glucose is converted to blood sugar. This is why naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables are better than processed sugars, because they come with built in fiber supplies, as well as vitamins and minerals.


The other most common form of sugar is fructose. Where glucose can be metabolized by insulin from the pancreas, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver. The problem with this is the liver is a busy organ and gets overwhelmed when too much fructose is present. If it can’t properly process the amount of sugar ingested, globules of fat will begin to grow within the liver and can eventually cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cirrhosis. When your pancreas and liver are in overdrive, the stress causes the whole body to become inflamed and not function properly.

Fructose is found naturally in fruit, but with fruit you are also consuming fiber, as well as various vitamins and minerals. The fiber will slow down the metabolizing of sugar so that it is at a level the liver can handle, and the vitamins and minerals are beneficial for your overall health. Keep in mind this is good when fruit is consumed in moderation. Too much fruit consumption will still negatively affect the liver. Dried fruit is a slippery slope because without the bound water found in fresh fruit, it is easier to consume large amounts of it. For example, if you are eating fresh apricots, you may eat one or two, but with dried apricots you may eat eight or ten in a sitting. That is a lot of sugar with none of that bound water that is beneficial for digesting the sugar. The USDA recommends eating 2-3 servings of fresh fruit a day.

Sucrose (table sugar) and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

Although glucose and fructose have varied properties and are metabolized differently, they are most often found together in sugars & sweeteners. What makes these sweeteners different is the amount of glucose vs. fructose found in each one. The chart below shows a basic breakdown of how much each molecule is found in our most commonly used sweeteners. Notice that sucrose (table sugar, what we are most familiar with), honey, and HFCS are all very similar in molecular make up, meaning our bodies process them in similar ways.

Just to be clear, the 50/50 ratio of glucose/fructose in table sugar also goes for cane sugar, raw cane sugar, powdered sugar and brown sugar, so simply trading out the amount of ‘high fructose corn syrup’ or ‘sugar’ in our grocery cart with the same amount of ‘raw cane sugar’ or ‘honey’ is not going to greatly alter the effects of our sugar intake. The overall consumption of all sugars and sweeteners should be lowered, and although I personally believe honey and raw cane sugar to be better choices based on their lack of processing, that doesn’t mean it is healthy to eat large amounts of them. Sugars off all kinds should be eaten in limited moderation.

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Bio PicMy FD name is Kitchen Ninja (Kinja). I am from Auburn, AL. I graduated from Johnson & Wales University with a Bachelors in Culinary Nutrition. I am currently Sous Chef at Linger in Denver. My passion is creating nutritious food for others and spreading knowledge of health through food and cooking.


FD Healthy: It’s Root Veggie Season!

Know Your Roots!

I realized summer was winding to an end as I started to see yellow school busses and a few fallen leaves.  Top ten lists of the signs of autumn are beginning to appear sighting all those warm fuzzy things we love like football season, autumn colors, crisp air and pumpkin spice everything.  

But here’s what I’m thinking…peak season for root vegetables!

Ok, so maybe most people don’t’ get as excited about rutabagas and parsnips as they do about pumpkin spiced lattes.  Let’s face it, root vegetables can be intimidating, gnarly and strange looking, with a reputation of tasting like dirt.  But, don’t run for the hills yet, keep reading for some inspiration to embrace these outcast vegetables.  Not only are they super rich in nutrients, they are also versatile in the kitchen and taste amazing when prepared well.


image2Health Benefits of Root Vegetables

Root veggies are packed with nutrients because they grow under the ground and absorb lots of good stuff from the soil.  Each variety has it’s own special benefits, so mix it up and try lots of different ones!  These  beauties also have complex carbohydrates and fiber to keep you fueled for activity, feeling full and regulate blood sugar for steady energy.



How to shop for your roots

A farmers market is a great place to find cool varieties of these seasonal oddities, but many of the more familiar roots like beets, carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes are available year round at any supermarket.  Look for firm roots that feel dense.  If they have stems and leaves attached they should be fresh looking and not wilted.


image1 (2)Types of Root Veggies

The more commonly available root veggies are beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, radishes, onions and garlic. A few other fun ones to try are kohlrabi, celery root and yucca.

But how do I cook them?

Ah, the most important question!  You can’t get all those health benefits if you don’t know how to tame the knobby looking thing into something tasty.

Steaming is an excellent way to prepare many root vegetable as it tends to retain the most nutrient content.  It’s a great method for beets and carrots.  You can also steam roots for mashing like rutabega and parsnips. Puree with a touch of good olive oil and sea salt for a combination that will make your mashed potatoes jealous.

Roasting produces an excellent concentrated flavor.  You can combine an assortment of root veggies. Just be sure to cut them about the same size. Toss in a little bit of oil and season with salt and pepper and some hearty herbs such as rosemary or thyme.  Using a higher temperature in your oven (450) will produce nice caramelization and make them even tastier.

Saute or stir fry thin slices of root veggies for a quick and easy fix.  When combining with other veggies, add the roots to the pan first because they take longer to cook.

Grilling is also an option.  Brush thin slices with oil and seasoning for a nice smokey flavor.  

My Fave Roots!

I love celery root!  It looks kind of like a hairy clod of dirt at first glance, but when you cut away the deceiving exterior, inside there is a creamy white flesh perfumed with a delicate celery scent.  You can use it raw,  sliced very thin in salads or roast little cubes of it into caramelized perfection.  I use it all the time in pureed soups to replace regular celery because it adds body without add extra fat.

Kohlrabi looks kind of like an alien space ship, but this one is also a real gem.  The texture and taste is similar to a broccoli stem.  Just peel away the extraterrestrial outside and slice or shred it for slaw or an excellent addition to potato salad.  It softens nicely when cooked for a delicious casserole. The leaves are also edible and can be used like collards or kale.

Beets are available year round and pack a real punch when it comes to nutrition. Roasting them produces a deep flavor, but steaming is much quicker and preserves nutrients. You’ll know they are done when you can easily insert a knife into the center.  Let them cool a bit and then use a paper towel to simply rub the peel off.

This is one of my favorite ways to enjoy beets.

Jeweled Hummus

The deep pigmented  beet root is  provides powerful compounds that protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Beans are high in fiber and protein and provide a boost of nutrition for a small amount of calories. Sesame is a good source of calcium.

1 can (15.5oz) white beans

1 or 2 cloves garlic

2 Tbsp Sesame Tahini

Juice from 1 Lemon

1 medium cooked beet

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp coriander

Salt & pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients in a food processor for 2 min.  Serve as a dip with fresh veggies. Also great as a filling for wraps.


jennaJenna Ortner aka Lamb chop, is the chef manager for First Descents program nutrition. She currently lives in Virginia with her three daughters where she teaches yoga and health supportive cooking.


Dagger + FD Whitewater Scholarship Essay Winner

We received so many amazing submissions for the Dagger + First Descents Whitewater Scholarship. It was so difficult to choose just one. All of our participants exude and embody the true meaning of Out Living It and we’re so proud of each of you for having the courage to face your fears, push through, and continue living life to it’s fullest. The winning essay touches on so many amazing points about strength, the river, and how her experiences and friendships through First Descents have changed her life. Please read below.



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Sitting around a campfire in rural North Carolina, my FD1 group discussed what makes us strong. There were many as many answers as there were participants: family, friends, religion. My answer was a little different, “I don’t really think I am strong, but I’m trying to get there”. Perhaps this answer was unfair; strength to me is not a state of being, strength is a series of choices that we make, whether we acknowledge them or not. My cancer diagnosis showed me that the “strong” choice does not have to be impressive or powerful.

Sometimes strength is choosing to eat when your body is screaming not to.

Sometimes strength is going for a walk, even though you need to rest every two hundred feet.

Sometimes strength is getting on an airplane for a trip to the middle of nowhere to spend a week learning to kayak with a group of people that you’ve never met before.

For me, the concept of Out Living It is the process of making the “strong” choice, even when that is not the easy choice. Out Living It is leaving your comfort zone behind because we, the FD-ers, know better than most that this is our chance at life, and in the face of a vast, unknown future, we need to take every opportunity to go out and live it.

When I first climbed into the Dagger Mamba, I felt nervous and excited. Sliding into the lake, I could barely maneuver in a straight line. By the end of the day, I knew how to roll a kayak. By the end of the week, I had conquered a Class III rapid. I was hooked. I want to continue kayaking because on the river there is no such thing as a cancer patient. You can’t “play the cancer card” and have the river take it easy on you. As Patch told all of us, “The river doesn’t care. The waves will be no smaller, the rocks no softer because you had cancer.” The river is the great equalizer. Each time you get on the river, you are making the strong choice. You are trusting your wits and your body and your fellow paddlers. Kayaking is Out Living It to me; it’s challenging and thrilling and it reminds you all the time that you are living your life to its maximum potential. A cancer diagnosis is an incredibly hard thing to face. Your life changes in many ways, and very few of them are good. However, through my experience with FD, I have not only acquired a new passion, but also new friendships that have highlighted the positive changes in my life, and helped to set me on a path that leads to a fuller, more adventurous, post-cancer journey.


Great Wall  FD Namaste-19RideFest


IMG_2670I still remember the night we tied the string bracelets around our wrists. It was the last night of camp after a week of whitewater kayaking on the wild Rogue River in Oregon. I swear there must’ve been a million stars in the sky that night. I’d never seen so many of them all at once.

After a solemn time of recognition for what we’d been through as cancer survivors and a time of remembrance for those who are no longer physically with us, our camp family paired off and tied the string bracelets around each other’s wrists. The strings represented the unity and sense of family that comes from conquering your fears together, and served as a promise to keep “out living it.”

While there’s no explicit rule that you have to keep your bracelet on for forever, it’s more or less understood that it’s good luck to wear it until it falls off. I kept mine on from that last night of camp until a few months later when I completed my last dose of chemo. My bracelet was tied loosely enough to take off without having to cut it. When I completed my last day of chemo, I slipped the bracelet off and tucked it away. There were too many emotions to process. I needed to forget them for a while.

A while turned into almost a year. From time to time, I’d look back fondly on the friendships and memories I made that week on the river, but I restrained myself from thinking about it too much. The painful reality was that these people I’d come to care for so deeply were suddenly out of my life just as quickly as they came into it. Sure, there was Facebook and email, but it wasn’t the same.

The other part that hurt even more was knowing that some of them were still in the midst of their struggle with this disease. While I rejoiced with my FD family over my completion of treatment, I also felt guilty when one of them received bad results from some scans shortly afterwards. It didn’t make sense. Why him? Why was I doing fine now but he wasn’t? These questions haunted me in every quiet moment.

BraveheartIt’s now been a little over a year since I went to camp, and a little less than a year since I took off that bracelet. Last night, that guy from my camp family died. My heart felt like it broke into as many pieces as there were stars in the sky our last night of camp. His FD name was Braveheart, a name he’d certainly earned on and off the river. He had the spirit of a champion, of someone who looked his fears in the eye and growled back. He wore his string until his very last day. Last night, I put my string back on for the first time.

It’s time for me to remember those emotions, to accept what has been, and to cherish the memories, no matter how bittersweet it may be. It’s not enough to say “I conquered my fears once.” I want to be able to say I am living brave-heartedly, conquering my fears every day until my last day. I am better for having known Braveheart, as well as all of my FD family members. Braveheart, you are remembered dearly and the inspiration you gave to all of us lives on.


Elise Intern LS pic1Elise Frame (“Lil Sis”) is a 23 year-old student at the University of Texas studying Communications with a focus on Nonprofit Development. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 20, but recently finished chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free in October 2014. Elise participated in an FD1 kayaking trip last summer and discovered a previously unknown love for the great outdoors. She now enjoys stand up paddleboarding and kayaking on Town Lake in Austin, Texas, where she currently lives. As a passionate young adult cancer awareness and prevention advocate, she has served as an intern a