creativity

This is the secret of life

If you get to the end of this story, I’ve got a secret to share with you. The upper left picture is me exactly two years ago right before I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery for early-stage breast cancer. My “Good Trouble” photo. The lower left is me the next morning at sunrise. My “I Survived” photo. The right is my official matriculation photo from the University of Cambridge taken last month as I began my graduate studies there in sustainability leadership. My “A Dream Deferred, but Not Denied” photo.

I have so much empathy for the woman on the left. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been admitted to a hospital and the first time I’d ever had surgery. I was terrified and also determined to be brave and evict cancer from my body.

With surgery I placed my life in someone else’s hands. I told Brian, my therapist, a few days before that I was terrified of surgery because there was no way for me to product manage the operation. He listened patiently, as always, and said, “Honey, you’re talented but even you can’t give yourself surgery. You have to trust someone else. The only way to conquer fear is to run right at it.”

It was a 5-hour tag-teamed procedure to remove all my breast tissue and 37 lymph nodes, and place chest expanders under my chest muscle. 14 months of constant pain later, they were swapped for much comfier implants. I smiled through the prep, thanking the nurses who helped me, determined not to crack.

Before entering the surgical suite that looked like a NASA space station, Dr. Schnabel, my breast surgeon, and Dr. Cohen, my plastic surgeon, visited with me. Dr. Schnabel looked me in the eye and said, “Sweetie, you’ve been stoic through this. It’s okay to have a moment. Then we go into battle.” Good trouble. I wanted to be as brave as John Lewis whom Audrey, my friend Stephanie’s daughter, painted onto my mask. That photo is the last day I had any cancer in my body.

I decided to walk into the surgical suite on my own two feet, even if my only armor was my surgical gown. I was scared and I ran right at it. This was going to be the last day that I had any cancer in my body. My last thought before closing my eyes was I hoped I lived to see the sunrise the next morning.

I have no memory of the surgery. I closed my eyes at NASA and woke up in the cloud of the recovery room. I was told they’d given me just a touch too much fentanyl and my blood pressure took a nosedive. I thought this was hilarious and laughed hysterically. Then I asked for some apple juice. Ah, narcotics.

I was in recovery for a long time and wasn’t admitted to a regular room until the wee hours of the morning. My dear recovery nurse, Esther, ran all over the hospital trying to find me a fresh turkey sandwich. I hadn’t eaten solid food in 24 hours and that plain turkey sandwich was one of the best things I’d ever eaten.

I told her my wish to see the sunrise and she was determined to make it a reality. I watched Harry Potter and munched on my turkey sandwich until daybreak. Maybe it was the drugs but I did feel like a witch with magical powers, as bandaged and bruised as I was.

Esther came back as soon as the sun started to come up. She helped me walk to a corner room where I could see the east river and the first rays of light illuminate my beautiful city. She left me alone to have my moment. I survived.

Back in my room, Dr. Schnabel and Dr. Cohen visited me. When I saw Dr. Schnabel, I cried for the first time. Again she looked me in the eye, two warriors on the other side of this one battle in a series of many more to come in this war. “Sweetie, it won’t always feel like this. You’re going to get to the other side. There’s a whole team of people focused on getting you there.”

I thanked her for saving my life, and she said, “I’m just part of the team. Team Christa.”

A few hours later my friend, Marita, picked me up at the hospital to take me home to where my sister who was graciously waiting for me with my dog, Phin. I had a giant bag of meds and surgical drains hanging out of my body. “How do you feel?” Marita asked once we got into her car. “I lived,” I said. “You did,” she said. “And you will.”

Fast-forward two years after climbing mountain after difficult mountain. That war on cancer was more epic than I ever imagined it would be. I nearly died, twice, from a severe and rare chemo allergy that shut down my lungs. I lost my long wavy hair to chemo and regrew 1940s ringlets. I was badly burned by radiation and completely healed. Now I’ve got new hard-earned boobs the same size as my OG boobs. That day in surgery was the last day there was ever any sign of cancer in my body—two years clear. Dr. Schnabel was right. I did get to the other side and I don’t feel the way I did before my surgery. This journey made me fearless.

When I was first diagnosed, I was just about to hit submit on my graduate school applications for Cambridge and Oxford. Then cancer struck and I had to put those applications away, afraid I may never get to submit them. I would sit in the chemo suite and dream about those far off places, dream that someday I would swap my surgical gown for an academic robe.

In September 2022, that dream happened. I took the train from platform 9 at King’s Cross to Cambridge, my own version of the Hogwarts Express just ¾ of a platform off. I thought about how I had watched Harry Potter’s train chug along on my TV screen in my hospital room two years before.

When I arrived at Cambridge, I dragged by very large bag that felt like a trunk onto the platform. I had myself a good cry in that train station. Here it was—my dream deferred, but not denied.

At my recent appoint to get the all-clear and graduate to annual checkups rather than 6 month checkups, Dr. Schnabel called my healing and this new academic chapter of my life a triumph. The dream became a reality, and I’m beyond grateful to everyone who helped me get here.  

I’ll never get back the life I had before the photos on the left, before cancer and COVID. I mourn the loss of that life. I miss it. But in exchange, I got something better. Environmental pollution was one of the main contributors to my cancer. Now I’m healed and dedicated to healing the planet.

Now for that secret I promised you at the start of this story. Along the way on this painful and difficult journey, I learned the secret of life. It’s love.

To love fiercely and be loved that way in return. To love whom we spend time with, the place we live, and the work we do. To love the planet that gives us everything and asks in return only to persist and continue giving to all of us. To love this life so much that our heart swells with gratitude for every day we’re given, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. To love and honor your time, and the time of others.  That’s it. That’s the secret, and it will transform us and our planet for the better.

Get into good trouble; the planet is counting on us. Survive, and then share your story because your story’s going to save someone else. Even if you have to put some dreams on hold right now, you can still make them happen bit by bit and they’ll be sweeter when you do get there.

Love, this and every moment. That’s the only secret there is, and the only work we really have to do.

creativity

Another hopeful cancer milestone

Today I graduated from 6 month exams with my breast surgeon to 1 year exams. Being 2 years cancer-free is a huge milestone because the risk of recurrence drops significantly.

I’m so grateful to my medical team at NYU Langone Health, friends, and family who helped me restore my health. Celebrating today and every day.

If you or someone you love is facing cancer, please know there are millions of us out here with stories of triumph, resilience, and renewal. We may get knocked down but we can rise stronger, braver, wiser, and healthier with more love and more compassion than ever.

This is my story and it can be yours, too. Eyes up. Keep going.

creativity

Spend time with trees to fight cancer

Blue Atlas Cedar tree in Central Park – photo by Christa Avampato

Last week I went to a talk by Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist and medical biochemist. She’s also the author of one of my favorite books, To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. She was speaking at the New York Times event titled How Can Art and Technology Help Us Tackle the Climate Crisis? You can watch it on YouTube and Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s talk is from 1:55:35 — 2:30:38.

How forest bathing reduces cancer risk
In her talk and her book she advocates for 15 minutes of month forest bathing, particularly near evergreen trees, as a way to reduce cancer risk. As a cancer survivor, I do everything I can to prevent recurrence. Sadly, there’s a lot of nonsense out there and plenty of products that claim to prevent cancer. Most of it is just slick marketing taking advantage of people through scare tactics. But does this recommendation from Dr. Beresford-Kroeger have scientific research to back up the claim? Can 15 minutes a month with trees really help us reduce the risk of cancer? It does and it can. 

Numerous scientific studies (here, here, and here to call out just a few) have found that the biochemicals in our immune systems (collectively referred to as Natural Killer (NK) cells such as lymphocytes) are strengthened with even brief 15- to 20-minute visits to wooded areas and the effects can last more than 30 days. These research findings support Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s recommendation and the ancient wisdom she’s studied and accumulated her entire life.

Combining indigenous knowledge with modern medicine for optimal health
Now, does this mean we can substitute forest visits for regular checkups and exams with our doctors or forgo medical treatments if we are diagnosed with cancer? No, I would not recommend that course of action. Modern medicine found and treated my cancer, and I’m forever grateful for the care I received at NYU. But did I also benefit from good nutrition, exercise, my time in nature, and my determination to find joy every day to keep up my spirits during the darkest days of my life? Yes, I did. 

Preventing and fighting cancer requires a multi-pronged approach. We can benefit from ancient wisdom and modern technology. I used both to keep myself healthy before, during, and after treatment. I’ll use both for the rest of my life that I’m so fortunate to have. 

Why I still got cancer even though I live a healthy lifestyle
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Christa, you go to Central Park every day and you still got cancer. So how do you explain that?”

Yes, that’s true. I did get cancer even though I have no genetic predisposition to any kind of cancer, I eat a healthy plant-based diet, I exercise regularly, I’m a healthy weight, I control my stress levels, I spend a lot of time outside in nature, and I see my doctors regularly. Cancer is a sneaky set of diseases. It wears a lot of costumes and disguises in its attempts to thwart our immune system. Even in the best of circumstances, a cell can get past our immune system, not because we’re weak but because cancer is such a deft and relentless shape-shifter. All it takes is one microscopic cell. 

The Hudson Valley is a cancer hotspot
We also live in an increasingly toxic world, which can wear us down without our awareness. I grew up on an apple orchard in the Hudson Valley of New York State in the 1980s and 1990s. Sounds bucolic, right? In many ways it was. 

But what you may not know is during that time the rampant use of chemical pesticides was practiced all over that area. I have vivid memories of bright red tankers full of pesticides being sprayed in the air on neighboring orchards for months on end to keep the apples pest-free. Those farmers didn’t realize their sprays were poisoning our food, air, soil, and water. 

At the same time, General Electric (GE) dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River from its capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York. Though they ended that practice in the last 1970s, the PCBs remain in the river sediment to this day. PCBs are known carcinogens (meaning they cause cancer). 

These practices of farmers and GE have partially caused the Hudson Valley to become a cancer hotspot. My family had well water. The toxic chemicals from the pesticides and GE’s practices seeped into the water table, not to mention were directly linked to our food and air. The truth is we can do everything right as individuals but collectively, the practices of others can harm us and we are powerless to avoid the impacts once they’ve happened. 

Though it’s difficult to prove, my cancer was likely caused, at least in part, by environmental pollution I was exposed to as a child. As the New York Department of Health explains, “Cancers develop slowly in people. They usually appear five to 40 years after exposure to a cancer causing agent. This is called the latency period. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to determine what causes cancer in humans. Also, many people move during this period of time, making it hard to link exposure to a cancer causing agent to where a person lives.” 

So, yes, I live a healthy lifestyle and yes, I still got cancer. But as my doctors always point out, because I was so healthy when I was diagnosed, I was able to withstand intense surgeries and treatments, and emerge on the other side healthier than ever. The combination of my good health, modern medicine, and indigenous knowledge saved me.

Fighting climate change is another way to fight cancer
Preserving and expanding natural areas and mitigating the impacts of climate change is another important piece of the puzzle to maintain our health. Said another way, our best defense is a good offense. We need to have nature on our side to maintain our environments, and that means we must care for natural and wild areas. 

This is why I advocate for the planting, maintenance, enhanced access, and expansion of forested areas, particularly in cities like New York where I now live and where trees are necessary for our health and wellbeing. Trees save and enhance our lives in so many ways by cleaning our air and water, lowering our stress levels, and enhancing our immune systems.

My forest bathing practice in Central Park
I’m fortunate to live near one of New York’s City’s green gems, Central Park. Forest bathing doesn’t mean you need to retreat to the far corners of the wilderness (though if you can, I recommend that kind of trip as well). Urban forest bathing once a month (or more) is highly effective, easy to do, and accessible. 

On a sunny Saturday, I went to Central Park with my dog, Phineas. For 15 minutes, we sat near a majestic Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica glauca) that stands near the Reservoir. The effects for both of us were palpable. Phin closed his eyes and went to sleep as I soaked up the sun and clean air, all the time quietly expressing my gratitude to this tree. 

When we got up to go home, I bowed to the tree in reverence for what this beautiful being had freely given me. “I’ll see you again soon,” I whispered.

I left with my heart and lungs full with all good things, thankful for what nature offers us if only we will take the time to accept her gifts and wisdom. When we take care of nature, nature can then take care of us. Go sit near a tree for 15 minutes once a month. You’ll be better for it. 

(Below are a few photos of me and my dog, Phineas, on our most recent forest bathing trip to Central Park).

creativity

Write every day: Creating joy and managing anxiety during coronavirus

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Central Park by Christa Avampato

Thankfully spring has not been cancelled.

Now that many of us are spending more time on our own and at home, there’s a lot we can do to keep up our spirits and manage our anxiety:

-Take a walk outside
-Foster a shelter dog (you’re home anyway!)
-Offer to watch a friend’s child if they need to go to work or get out to run errands
-Donate to a nonprofit
-Support your open local businesses
-Help a neighbor who can’t get outside
-Thank everyone who still has to be at work – from grocery store clerks to first responders to public transit works to parks crews
-Write
-Create art and music
-Read that book and watch that movie that’s been waiting for us
-Call or video chat with a friend or family member
-Work on a home improvement project
-Learn something new
-Exercise
-Cook and bake; try a new recipe
-Rest, relax, and meditate
-Spend some time thinking about what really matters to you and how you might bring some dreams to life

Times like this can be difficult on many levels for many people. There’s still joy to be had and to make for ourselves and for others, even during a pandemic.

What are you doing for yourself & others right now that makes you happy? I’d love to hear about it.

creativity

A Year of Yes: Using this time for reflection

“Something will grow from all you are going through. And it will be you.” ~TobyMac

My medical emergency this week has offered me an opportunity for intense reflection time in every area of my life. I don’t have any answers or revelations yet. I’m still down in the weeds of it all. But I’m trying and healing. And right now, that’s enough.

creativity

A Year of Yes: A near-death experience this week changed my life

I’m posting these embarrassing selfies for your benefit:

I got off a plane from vacation in Vancouver. It was a fantastic trip—more on that later. This post is about you. Well, it’s about you via a story about me. I’ll be brief. My eye started to hurt on the plane. Nothing big; just noticeable. I got home, picked up my dog from boarding, and decided to take a nap. I woke up with my eye crusted shut. My doctor, via video call, thought it was a case of pink eye and prescribed antibiotics. 24 hours later, the swelling, redness, and oozing got much worse, and then spread to my second eye. I got on a video call with my doctor again, and she was alarmed to see how much my condition had deteriorated. She sent me to the emergency room.

I didn’t have pink eye. I had a condition known as periorbital cellulitis. It’s an extremely dangerous infection if left untreated, and can be lethal by causing sepsis or meningitis. It’s usually caused by an insect bite or another similar kind of trauma. I’m immensely lucky that I have access to great, timely medical care. Again, my gut instinct to get help saved me, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

Now the bit about you:

1.) If you’re sick, please, please, please get medical help quickly. Don’t worry that you’re being a hypochondriac. If you think something is wrong, it’s much better to get it checked.

2.) Do what you love. Please. What you’re passionate about, what lights you up, what makes you curious to learn more and more. Create beautiful art. Write. See your friends. Help people. Share what you have. Fall in love. Adopt a dog. Live. If you’re in a job or a relationship you don’t love, go. Quickly. Don’t waste your time. You never know how much of it you have. Your life can turn on a dime, from something as insignificant as an insect bite. So wear bug repellent and sunscreen because you might as well give yourself your best shot at your best life.

creativity

In the pause: Considering a New Year’s cleanse

This past weekend, I was very sick. It came on very suddenly and I was down for the count for 3 full days. I am finally almost back to normal but being that sick really caused me to think about my nutrition and exercise routine. (Lying there under a pile of blankets, I had a lot of time to think!) I realized over the past few months, I haven’t been taking great care of myself. The stress of the job search, getting up-to-speed on a new job, launching my book, and doing my best to take in all that New York City has to offer took its toll. I thought I was doing okay, but when I really stopped to reflect on my choices, I realized I haven’t been as diligent about my health as I usually am. This was a big revelation and though I wish I hadn’t lost three days to being sick, I realize now that it was actually a great thing to force myself to be so mindful of my health.

Yesterday, a friend of mine recommended that I try a cleanse for the new year after the holidays to reset and get my new year off to a solid, healthy start. I’ve never done a cleanse before so I’m looking for recommendations. Have you ever done one? Did you find it to be valuable? If so, which ones would you recommend? Thanks in advance for any advice!

creativity

In the pause: Join The Mindful Rebels

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themindfulrebels.com

My dear friend, Marita, has been on a quest to create tools and practices for mindfulness. I find daily inspiration in her posts, and every time we get together I feel more motivated, calmer, and happier. Marita’s growing her audience for The Mindful Rebels and I hope you’ll join the journey. Find Marita on Instagram at @themindfulrebels, Facebook at The Mindful Rebels, and her blog http://themindfulrebels.com/. Be prepared to be inspired by her vision to create a global community that supports comprehensive health for all living beings. Be a Mindful Rebel.

creativity

In the pause: Combatting loneliness with literature – a lesson for writers and readers

This week, former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy talked about the loneliness epidemic. By his estimation, the stress of loneliness is a national health crisis, especially for our young people, and will be a leading cause of disease if we don’t take steps to alleviate it.

We’re hyper connected and surrounded by people and pings all day long. How can we be lonely if we’re not alone? Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. In my opinion the worst kind of loneliness occurs when you feel it but aren’t actually alone. Loneliness is when we feel that no one understand us. As a child, I felt very lonely. One of the main reasons I wrote my book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, is that I want all readers (especially kids) to feel less alone. I want them to know that someone somewhere is rooting for them and believes in their ideas and abilities. Emerson is the friend I needed when I was younger.

Nothing replaces a human presence in our lives though I do believe that books connect us, authors to readers, and readers to readers, across geographies and generations. As authors, they are our contribution to humanity. Books surface issues that matter and help us to walk in one another’s shoes. They help us see points-of-view that we don’t have the experience to see ourselves. They generate understanding, compassion, and empathy. They inspire courage, strength, and the ability to take a chance for something in which we believe. Books are powerful. And as authors, that power isn’t to be wielded lightly. We must work in service of the people who will one day read our words, the people who may one day need a friend and reach for our story.

creativity

In the pause: How Writing Frees Us to Free Others – my post for #ShatteringStigmas on the blog It Starts at Midnight

I’m so honored to be a part of the #ShatteringStigmas series on the wonderful book blog It Starts at Midnight. I’ve been following Shannon’s excellent writing, and when I saw that she was doing a program around erasing the stigma of mental illness, I wanted to share the story behind the story of the mental health plotline in my book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters. Shannon gave me the chance to do that, and it is one of the first times that I am speaking about my own struggles and the healing process of writing my book. I hope you’ll check out the story on Shannon’s site. There is an excerpt of it below.

If you’d like to get my book, it’s now available on Amazon pre-order at amzn.to/2wAhmvG.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~Rumi

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~Leonard Cohen

These two quotes gave me the title for my young adult book, Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters. But what the title doesn’t tell you is that there was a long and winding road, often painful and treacherous, that brought me to Emerson. For me, she’s not just a character derived from my imagination. She is the manifestation of a journey that showed me that we are stronger, braver, and more courageous than any of us can ever imagine. To me, she is the very definition of life.

In the five years leading up to when I first put pen to paper to write her story, I had been struggling with the effects of PTSD. On September 5, 2009, one of my neighbors in New York City blew up her gas stove. She had been cooking, oil spilled, and rather than shut off the gas, she just ran out of the building. I was in my apartment on the fourth floor. I had just gotten out of the shower and noticed that the radiator in my kitchen was hot and making a ticking sound. I looked down at the floor around the radiator and saw the tiles heaving up and down. Something was terribly wrong, but I didn’t know what. I grabbed my keys (which now seems completely futile) and went out of my apartment to knock on my neighbor’s door downstairs. They had been doing construction on that apartment and I thought that may be causing the tile and radiator issue. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

The second I walked out of my apartment, I was consumed by an unending cloud of black smoke. Read more…