Why every day is a good time to talk about breast cancer awareness

During the month of October, it’s difficult to ignore the stories, commercials, advertisements, pink T-shirts and other paraphernalia proclaiming Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For Excellus BlueCross BlueShield employee Maria Horton, however, every month and every day is a good time for breast cancer awareness.

Maria has learned that the hard way. She is a breast cancer survivor.

Maria Horton


An Otherwise perfectly normal mammogram

Due to a family history of breast cancer, Maria knew she was at high risk of also developing breast cancer. That’s why she started annual mammography screenings when she turned 40. Everything appeared normal for Maria up until three years ago.

It was just a few months after an otherwise perfectly normal mammogram that Maria noticed a change in one of her breasts. Not one to brush it off in ignorance in hopes that it will go away, she followed up with her doctor.

That led Maria to a ductogram and a core needle biopsy. When her doctor scheduled fine needle guided biopsies, the physician didn’t need to tell her she had breast cancer. “I already knew,” she said.

While her husband, three children and work family were aware of what was going on, Maria then had to break the news to her parents, siblings and in-laws. “This was very tough and very emotional,” she said. “I was numb.”

Once she shared the news, however, it was these same people who helped carry Maria through her 10½-hour bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. “Without the support of my loving family and the wonderful, caring people I work with, I don’t know how I would have gotten through all of my difficult days,” she said.

During her eight-week recovery, Maria’s family took care of her and helped with everything. Friends brought cards, food, flowers and her favorite Starbucks coffee.

“The support I had meant the world to me and still does,” she said.


Advice from a breast cancer survivor

Maria considers herself lucky in that she did not need follow-up chemotherapy or radiation. She does see her surgical and medical oncologists every three months and takes oral medication.

Her advice to all women is to know their personal risk factors for breast cancer, schedule their mammograms as recommended by their doctors and perform monthly breast self-checks.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women ages 50 to 74 be screened for breast cancer every two years, but an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield report shows that nearly one in five upstate New York women still does not get a biennial mammogram.

“The evidence is clear that early detection saves lives,” said Nicholas Massa, M.D., medical director, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Given the fact that most health insurers cover preventive breast cancer screenings in full every one to two years for women older than age 40, we would like to see even higher percentages of women being screened for breast cancer.”


3 reasons  women skip breast cancer screenings

A recent Excellus BlueCross BlueShield survey of members who hadn’t had a mammogram revealed three top reasons why women opt out of their recommended screening:


1. Concerned about pain

Women who haven’t gone through menopause can minimize the pain and discomfort of having their mammogram by scheduling their screening a week after having their period, when breasts are less tender. Avoiding caffeine the week before your mammogram may also help. Take it from Maria, who offered this sage advice, “Yes, having a mammogram is uncomfortable, but it beats the alternative of having breast cancer.”


2. Concerned about test results

Mammograms can detect lumps in your breast when they are small, even before you can feel them. Breast cancer found early is easier to treat and results in better clinical outcomes. Generally, you can get your mammogram results within a day or so by calling your doctor’s office. There may be times when you receive a call from your doctor’s office recommending further testing. This does not mean you have cancer, but it is very important that you follow up if asked to do so. For Maria, it’s simple. “Do it!” she said.


3. Concerned about radiation

According to the American Cancer Society, the benefits of the small amount of radiation to which we are exposed during mammography screening outweigh any possible harm from radiation exposure. The peace of mind you’ll receive from having completed your mammogram is immeasurable, added Maria. “This takes a few minutes, and it’s done.”

Breast cancer can affect women of any age or race. Dr. Massa noted that your risk for breast cancer increases with age and if you have a family history. A woman’s risk factors determine when she should begin getting screened.

Learn more about breast cancer risk factors and screenings by talking to your doctor, or by visiting the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force website.

For more on the best ways to protect your health, read this Women’s Health Checklist from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Five Pumpkin Breakfast Recipes for Fall

(Just about) everybody loves fall. But do you ever get tired of the leaves, the brisk morning air or the pumpkin everything? NEITHER DO I! I don’t just love pumpkin because of the weather. It’s also delicious and really good for you. Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene, which help promote the health of your eyes and skin. The fiber in pumpkin also works to keep your digestive system happy. That’s why I enjoy these pumpkin breakfast recipes all year long (shhh…don’t tell fall).

Print Recipe
Warm Autumn Oatmeal
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 minute
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 minute
  1. Combine oats, pumpkin, milk, and apple into a bowl.
  2. Microwave for one minute.
  3. Add peanut butter and pecans, stirring to combine.
  4. Top with cinnamon.
Print Recipe
Pumpkin Protein Smoothie
Prep Time 5 minutes
Prep Time 5 minutes
  1. Blend all ingredients together in a blender.
Print Recipe
Pumpkin Granola Bars
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Line an 8 by 8 pan with partchment paper.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together oats, walnuts, spices and salt. Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together pumpkin, honey/maple syrup, applesauce and vanilla until smooth.
  5. Pour over oats and stir to combine. Mix in chocolate chips.
  6. Evenly press the mixture into the pan.
  7. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until edges are golden brown.
  8. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack for 5 minutes before cutting into bars.
Print Recipe
Pumpkin Parfait
Prep Time 5 minutes
Prep Time 5 minutes
  1. In a small bowl, layer yogurt with pumpkin puree and granola.
  2. Sprinkle with pumpkin pie spice.
Print Recipe
Pumpkin Pancakes
Prep Time 20 minutes
Prep Time 20 minutes
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices and set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, pumpkin, egg, vegetable oil, and vanilla.
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and whisk gently until combined. Let the batter set for 5 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat a pan to medium heat. Drizzle vegetable oil on the warmed pan.
  5. Ladle 1/3 cup of the batter onto the pan for each pancake.
  6. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the bubbles around the edges are open and set. Flip and cook on the other side for an additional 2 minutes.

Looking for a cozy dinner for an autumn evening? Check out our recipe for Tasty Crock-Pot Beef Stroganoff.

The Meaning Behind the Teal Pumpkin: Help for Children with Allergies on Halloween

Some of my favorite memories as a kid are from Halloween. I remember dressing up as a witch to go trick-or-treating with friends while hoarding  all of the peanut butter cups and refusing to listen to my parents when they told me to wear a jacket (Hey Mom and Dad – you were right about needing a jacket. Upstate New York gets pretty cold by the end of October). Thanks to food allergies, not every child is able to create those same memories. One in 13 children has a food allergy and Halloween can be one of the most frustrating and dangerous times of the year for them. But a teal pumpkin is trying to change all that.

The author dressed as witch, ca. 1998. Provided by Christine Leavenworth

The author dressed as witch, ca. 1998. Credit: Christine Leavenworth

The Teal Pumpkin Project

The Teal Pumpkin Project encourages people to provide non-food items for trick-or-treaters so that kids with food allergies can participate without facing risks to their health.  Some of the treats that are handed out include glow sticks, rubber balls, vampire fangs, etc.

Paint a pumpkin teal, put it on your front step the night of Halloween, and kids with allergies will know that your home is safe to visit.

A teal pumpkin indicates a house that is giving out allergy-safe items to children with allergies on Halloween. Credit: Christine Leavenworth

A teal pumpkin indicates a house that is giving out allergy-safe items to children with allergies on Halloween. Credit: Christine Leavenworth

Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) started this international campaign in 2014 to “create a safer, happier Halloween for all kids.” It began as a local activity by the Food Allergy Community of East Tennessee that has morphed into an international awareness event.

Last year, households from every state in the U.S. and 14 countries participated in the Teal Pumpkin Project.

“One bite of the wrong candy by these kids could cause life-threatening allergic reactions,” said Matthew Bartels, M.D., chief medical officer at Excellus BlueCross Blue Shield.  “We’re thrilled that our communities are rallying around these kids so that they can also indulge in special ‘treats’ and have fun, just like everyone else.”

A parent of children with food allergies is grateful for the Teal Pumpkin Project

Colleen Garofalo of Madison County is a mom to two kids who have food allergies. Her daughter is allergic to peanuts and her son is allergic to shellfish and tree nuts. Garofalo heard about the Teal Pumpkin Project from one of FARE’s email newsletters.

“As a parent, the Teal Pumpkin Project means inclusion,” said Garofalo. “There are so many times during school or birthday parties when my kids have to be careful about what they eat. They might feel left out if they can’t have something the other kids can have. The teal pumpkins allow them to have another option.”

Children with food allergies are now able to participate in Halloween thanks to the Teal Pumpkin Project.

Olivia and Anthony Garofalo are ready for an allergy-free Halloween. Credit: Colleen Garofalo

When Garofalo’s kids go trick-or-treating, they still collect all of the candy. But when they get home, they go through the candy to ensure that it’s safe to eat. She’s spotted a few teal pumpkins in her neighborhood, but hopes to see more as the word gets out about the campaign.

“The smaller candy that is handed out at Halloween doesn’t typically list the ingredients,” she said. “If I’m not familiar with the candy, it either gets thrown away or I have to research it to see if it’s OK for my kids to eat.”

“I’ve called manufacturers before to ask if a product that doesn’t contain peanuts is made on the same line as another product that does,” she added. “Then I have to ask about the cleaning process for the machines as well.”

Join the Teal Pumpkin campaign

Some of the most common allergens for children are nuts, milk, wheat, egg and soy. Many candies contain at least one of those ingredients.

If you would like to take part in the Teal Pumpkin Project and offer a non-candy treat to trick or treaters, you can either buy a teal pumpkin or paint your own.

Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., for example, sells paint specifically for the Teal Pumpkin Project. The paint can be found in the seasonal section, near the pumpkin carving kits, and a portion of the proceeds benefit FARE.

Teal pumpkin paint is available at local grocery stores, including Wegmans in Rochester. Provided by Joy Auch

Teal pumpkin paint is available at local grocery stores. Credit: Christine Leavenworth

“We are so happy to be able to support this initiative,” said Wegmans Nutritionist Trish Kazacos, RDN. “It’s a simple approach that allows children with food allergies to safely enjoy the holiday with their family and friends.”

Once you have your teal pumpkin, place it in front of your house to let trick-or-treaters know that you have non-food items available. FARE also provides free printable signs to explain the meaning behind the teal pumpkin and a list of ideas to give out to trick-or-treaters.

Supporting the Teal Pumpkin Project and handing out non-food treats doesn’t mean that you have to give up the Halloween tradition of giving out candy. You can hand out candy and allergy-safe items and then let the kids choose which one they’d like.

If you’ll be putting out a teal pumpkin this Halloween, be sure to add your address to the crowd-sourced fever map and let your local community know that you are participating.

Too Busy for a Colonoscopy? A Story of Regret and Redemption

Lynn Johnson knew she should get a colonoscopy. She was 50-years-old, the age when most people should start screening for colon cancer.

“But I was busy at work and I didn’t understand the value of the screening,” said Lynn of Penfield, New York. “I was probably also a little fearful. I ignored it. Of course, that was a mistake.”

Lynn had colon cancer, but didn’t know it.

About a year later, Lynn landed in the hospital in excruciating pain. Tests revealed she had a tumor growing in her body that had perforated her colon. Lynn had stage 2 colon cancer. She needed several surgeries to remove the tumor and repair her colon.

Because the tumor had perforated her colon, the risk that the cancer would spread was high. So she also needed chemotherapy in the form of horse-pill sized medications she had to choke down over 10-day periods for the next six months.

“The doctors would have probably caught my cancer earlier if I had a colonoscopy at age 50 like I was supposed to,” said Lynn. “I might have avoided a lot of the pain and suffering and skipped the chemotherapy which compromised my immune system.”

2nd leading cause of cancer deaths

Lynn’s story isn’t unusual. About 1 in 3 upstate New York adults between the ages of 50 and 75 haven’t been screened for colon cancer, according to research findings from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Facts About Colon Cancer Screening infographic

Regular screenings can detect early-stage colon cancer before symptoms develop. Early detection is important because treatments are more likely to be successful for early- rather than late-stage cancer.

A colonoscopy is the most thorough screening test for colon cancer and is proven to prevent the disease. Removing benign or pre-cancerous polyps during colonoscopy may not only prevent colon cancer, but also reduce deaths from the disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Lynn is lucky. She’s been cancer free and in good health for just over five years, especially considering that colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. adults. Across upstate New York, 800 people every year die from the disease, according to Excellus BCBS.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults ages 50 to 75 be screened every 10 years. Individuals who have colon cancer risk factors, including a family history of colon cancer or previous polyps, may need to have their first screening at a younger age and/or more frequently.

Colonoscopies: The test we love to hate

For many people, preparation for a colonoscopy is worse than the procedure itself. The day before, you have to drink a nasty tasting liquid laxative to help clean out your colon and adhere to a clear liquid diet so your doctor has a visible view of  the inside of your colon to spot cancer or any potentially cancer-causing polyps. You’ll probably be offered mild sedation to help you relax during the short procedure which is usually done on an outpatient basis.

“But it’s completely worth it—especially if it helps you fight off cancer,” Lynn said.

There’s also good news on the horizon. There are now several other screening tests that may be available to you.

“A colonoscopy is a great way to catch cancers before they develop or to catch them very early,” said Dr. Martin Lustick of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “But there are alternatives, particularly something called a “FIT test,” which is a chemical test on your bowel movement that looks for signs of invisible blood that might be there—one of the early signs of potential cancer.”

Recommended screening tests include:

  • Stool tests: A Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) and a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT).

Both tests look for blood in your stool. You can even take the test in the comfort of your own home. These tests are done once a year.

  • Direct visualization tests: With a colonoscopy, a doctor uses a long, thin, lighted tube to check your entire colon and rectum for polyps or cancer. These polyps can be removed during the test. With a flexible sigmoidoscopy, the physician looks for polyps or cancer in your rectum and lower third of your colon. A sigmoidoscopy is generally performed every five years.

Other screening options may be available. Talk with your doctor about which option is best for you.

Helpful Tip: Colon cancer screenings are covered in full as an ‘essential benefit’ for most health insurance plans.

Listen to your older brother

Lynn (right) with her brother and sister.

Lynn skipped her colonoscopy at age 50, despite the advice of her older brother.

Her brother, who is a few years older, had pre-cancerous polyps removed from his colon during a colonoscopy. He bugged Lynn and her twin sister to get the procedure done.

Lynn’s sister got a colonoscopy. But Lynn did not.

“My advice? Get a colonoscopy. It could save your life,” Lynn said.

“Oh, and listen to your older brother!” she laughed.

For More Information

Many local and national organizations have pledged support for the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable’s “80% by 2018” goal of having 80 percent of adults aged 50 and older screened for colorectal cancer by 2018.

The NCCRT was founded in 1997 by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If achieved, the screening goal of “80% by 2018” would prevent 277,000 cases of colorectal cancer and 203,000 associated deaths by 2030.

Learn more about colon cancer screening from a viewable and downloadable Excellus BCBS infographic. Learn more about the “80% by 2018” initiative.

A dog may be the key to losing weight

Want to Lose Weight? Grab Your Dog’s Leash

Losing weight is…well, hard! Eat healthy, be more active…you know the drill. But getting started and sticking with it are two of the hardest parts. So, what if you had someone to keep you on track, was always available, and never said no? Would it also help if they were one of your best friends?

If you answered yes, the answer may be just a few feet away from you.

If we’re out of shape, then our pets probably are too. About 54 percent of dogs (and 58 percent of cats) are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. About 2 in 3 upstate New York adults, meanwhile, are also overweight or obese, according to an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield report. Heavier adults are at risk for serious chronic diseases and health problems. But, did you know that obese pets also face many of the same health problems as humans, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, urinary disease, skin problems, and breathing problems. Also, overweight pets often have shorter life spans (up to 2.5 years less). Taking steps to stay in shape with our pets may help keep them around longer.

Taking “steps” to be active

In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General encouraged people to be active and walk more. Strong evidence exists that physical activity has substantial health benefits,” according to “Step it Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.” “Walking is an excellent way for most Americans to increase their physical activity.

It’s a simple formula. One overweight adult + one overweight dog = one really good reason (and motivation) to lose weight together. One easy way to get started would be to just go on regular walks together a few times each week.

The Wake-up Call that Saved Brad’s Life

A walk or a run can be great exercise.

Brad, a 6-foot-6-inch former athlete, had a wake-up call in his mid-30s. His doctor said he was at risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke, because of his weight and lack of exercise. He adopted Buddy, a black Labrador retriever. ”The energetic dog became Brad’s running buddy and ticket to better health. “  (More on the story of Brad and Buddy.)

Couch Potato to Athlete – The Story of Eric and Peety

Eric, a 57-year-old salesman from Spokane, Washington, says a plump dog named Peety helped turn him from a couch potato struggling with obesity into a slim athlete. Eric weighed 330 pounds. He lived by himself and would often eat two extra-large pizzas (consuming potentially thousands of calories) for dinner. He spent more than $1,000 a month in medications for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

One month before Eric was due to have weight-loss surgery, he was advised to eat a whole-foods diet AND to rescue a dog. The thinking was that having a dog might force Eric to get outside and be more active. (Maybe he’d even meet other people?) Peety, a 7-year-old border collie/Australian shepherd mix, “came into his life and changed it forever.” More on how Eric and Peety changed each other’s lives  (Their video.)

The Tale of Otto the Bulldog

how to help a bulldog to lose weight

Otto the Bulldog started taking longer walks and lost 15 pounds.

Typically you can’t get an English bulldog off the couch, let alone walk more than 50 feet,” says Brittany, a digital marketing manager from Rochester, NY. “Ever since he was a puppy, Otto, our 6-year-old English Bulldog, has enjoyed going on walks.”

As he grew older though, Otto’s vet wanted him to drop from 65 to 55 pounds. Brittany gradually extended their typical route. We often forced him to take breaks, just to catch our own breath!” Combining longer walks with better food, Otto has dropped down to 50 pounds, has a softer coat and is happier than ever. No need for a Fitbit® alarm – Otto reminds us to walk every day with a long, dragged out whiny mumble. What a great way to unwind after work, talk about our day, and get our steps in as a whole family.

Set up a routine and stick with it

The philosopher Lao Tzu had a saying that went something like, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step.” If you’re just getting started, go for shorter walks, gradually increasing them as you feel comfortable. It’s important to set up a routine. Try walking at the same time every day. Dogs like routine and will likely come and encourage you on those days when you may not feel like it (just like Otto).

Also, if your friend or neighbor has a dog, maybe you can walk together.

Keep safety in mind for both of you. Stay hydrated. In hot weather, try going early or later in the day when it may be cooler. In cold and snowy weather, wear good boots and check their paws for snow and ice buildup.

Nutrition is also an important part of the puzzle.

If food were in front of your dog all day, they would likely keep eating. We often have the same instincts. says Janette Westman, a workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. A dog’s food is controlled by their environment. The owner puts it out when it’s time to eat and controls the amount. We could create a similar environment for ourselves. By reducing how much food is constantly in front of us, we could be less tempted to snack all day long as well. Also, planning ahead is another way to make healthy eating easier.”

You can also try modifying some of your habits using the “Five Rules for Eating” from Stephen Cook, M.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. If you do choose to snack during the day, there are healthy options that can give you a boost between meals. Try keeping a banana, apple, or a handful of almonds handy. Pat Salzer, a registered dietician for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, has suggestions for healthy snacking throughout the day.

What about healthy eating for my dog? According to the American Kennel Club, there are things you can do to prevent them from packing on unnecessary pounds, like establishing a regular eating schedule, limiting between-meal snacks, and choosing low-calorie treats.

Don’t already have a “workout” buddy?

Consider adopting/rescuing a dog. Check with your local animal rescue organization if interested in pet adoption. Some will allow local volunteers to come and walk their dogs. That can also be an option if you’re not quite ready to adopt.

Please consult with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise regimen for yourself and a veterinarian for your furry friend.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little UGH. Solutions for Parents who Hate Kids’ Music.

Becoming a parent stirs up a lot of fears. Will I be a good caretaker? Who will take care of my child when I go back to work? How do you keep one of these things alive? You mean we can just take them home?!

And that’s just the stuff you talk about publicly.

The Creepiness of Children’s Music

One of the secrets I’ve harbored in the deep recesses of my mind is a disdain for kids’ music (and those weird music videos!). The chipper, high voices. Bright primary colors. People singing while wearing spandex.

I’ve tried to get on board. I attended a newborn story time at our local library,* where they handed out lyrics to  kids’ songs and taught interactive movements. A totally cool idea, and very helpful for someone like myself who hasn’t been around kids that much and has no idea where to start with such things. Story time was met with marginal success:  my baby slept on my lap while I sang and clapped. My mind kept wandering along with the ridiculous lyrics we were singing. The song “Hickory Dickory Dock” reminded me of a Hickory Farms summer sausage gift basket. Ants marching one by one in the house are usually met with the sole of my shoe, because I’m the resident exterminator. And spiders? During a discussion of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” my brother texted, “I hate spiders. Why would I sing about them?” Well said, sir.

Then the time of reckoning arrived. A beautiful, innocent, googly-eyed baby staring up from the crib, longing for some parental interaction. When I opened my mouth to croak out something, I didn’t know what to sing other than “Happy Birthday.” That experience showed me the need to create some playlists that wouldn’t be too terrible to sing along with over and over again. Because what is more fun in life then creating your own soundtrack?

The Positive Effect That Music Has on Children Makes It A Must

Solutions for People Who Hate Kids' Music

Studies have shown that music can have a really positive impact on childrens’ development.

I appreciate and support the benefits that music (even lullabies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) can have on child development. I have Sesame Street records and sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Buzz Buzz” like it’s my job. Study after study has shown so many positive effects that music and music therapy can have on a child at any stage, even in-utero . While listening to music, premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit  show signs of improved breathing and heart rates, along with advances in neurological development, weight gain and appetite..

It’s just that the entire universe-altering shift to parenthood is so overwhelming that it’s hard to let all facets in at once and the preordained music playlist, well, sometimes it just hurts. So you try to preserve some small semblance of your past that you want to share with your little one.

Playlists That Don’t Suck

There is nothing revolutionary here and obviously you can put any music you like on your soundtrack.  I’ve been known to sing the jingle from the Cellino & Barnes commercial when desperate. Sleep deprivation causes things like an inability to remember your once-favorite songs, the words to the ABCs or those melodies earmarked for kids. I’ve found it helpful to have playlists queued up so I can spend more time interacting with our little one instead of racking my brain for songs to sing.

Playlist for bouncing, clapping & tummy time:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Ophelia, The Lumineers
  • Take it all Back, Judah and The Lion
  • HandClap, Fitz and the Tantrums
  • I am the Walrus, The Beatles
  • Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song), Otis Redding
  • Budapest, George Ezra
  • Home, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Welcome Home, Radical Face
  • Dog Days are Over, Florence and the Machine
  • I Feel the Earth Move, Carole King

Playlist for mellowing out:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
  • Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles
  • Morning Song, Avett Brothers
  • In the Dark, Nina Simone
  • Hello My Old Heart, The Oh Hellos
  • The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell
  • Our House, Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Mercedes Benz, Janis Joplin
  • Half Acre, Hem
  • Lullaby, Lord Huron

Playlist for loud crying (either the baby’s or yours):

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Renegade, Styx
  • Crying, Waiting, Hoping, The Beatles
  • Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, The Temptations
  • Helter Skelter, The Beatles
  • I Bet My Life, Imagine Dragons
  • New York, Alicia Keys

*Looking for a kid’s story time in your community? Check your local library. Here’s a place to start:


How I Learned to Avoid Drive-Thrus and Eat Healthier on a Budget

When I moved off campus my junior year of college, I was excited to have an actual kitchen to cook in and a place to eat that I didn’t have to share with hundreds of other students.
That feeling quickly faded when I remembered how much time and money it takes to cook and grocery shop when you’re a broke college student and also going to classes, club meetings, working and seeing friends.
Staying up late was normal for me. Some nights I’d leave work at 1:30 a.m., or I was up late studying or hanging out with friends. There was no way I was going to take the time to cook myself an actual healthy meal. Even if I wanted to cook, I probably didn’t have anything in my fridge to make it.

I saw fast food as my only option.

Drive-Thru Voodoo

Frequenting fast food drive-thrus became a regular habit for my friends and me. They were the only places open late at night and the cost seems cheap when you can get a meal for only a few dollars. If I did go to the grocery store, I’d buy chips or microwaveable meals that were easy to make. I probably used my oven a handful of times over an entire semester.
But the truth is, with a bit of planning, broke college students and young professionals can eat healthy without spending a lot of time or money. Pat Salzer, registered dietitian and workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, shares eight tips to help you save time while eating healthy on the cheap.

8 Tips for Healthy Eating on a College Student’s Budget

  1. Have group meals. Find friends who like to cook and make your meals together. Having a group of people working together to make dinner is more fun than cooking alone and will help you avoid fast food restaurants.
  2. Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. This might seem like an obvious tip that you’ve heard a thousand times, but it’s true! When you’re hungry, your willpower goes out the window. Everything will look good, especially the things that don’t take long to make.
  3. Buying in bulk isn’t always a good thing. Bulk can be good if you know that you’ll eat all of it. However, it’s not worth buying large quantities, especially produce, if you’ll just stress about not eating it all before it goes bad.
  4. Have a plan when you shop so you’ll get what you need and only what you really need. You won’t overspend if you stick to a grocery list. This strategy might also help you avoid filling your cart with junk food—like those little pints of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream that I love so much!
  5. Be realistic about what you will eat. I would always buy Greek yogurt because I knew it was healthy. Only problem was, I don’t like Greek yogurt. I tried to force myself to like it, but it wasn’t happening. The yogurt would sit in my fridge until it hit the expiration date and then I’d have to (thankfully!) throw it out. There’s no point in spending your money on something that you know you won’t eat.
  6. Prepare big batches of healthy, delicious foods that’ll leave you with lots of leftovers (and unlike in tip #3, you know you’ll eat it). Whatever you make for dinner, you can also eat the next day for lunch. It’s also a good way to keep yourself from overeating at a meal if you know that you need to save some for the next day.
  7. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in-season. Not only will that sweet Red Delicious apple you bought in the fall taste better, but it’ll likely be cheaper, too. Try different types of produce—you might be surprised by what you like! I was shocked (shocked) to learn that I actually liked the taste of broccoli!
  8. Stash affordable, healthy foods for snacks—yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, peanut butter, etc.—around your apartment, house or dormitory. These foods will help satisfy late-night cravings and deter you from embarking on fast food runs.
Finding the Right Gym in 2017

7 Steps to Finding the Right Gym

If you’re like me, you ended the year celebrating the holiday season just a little too much and you’ve started the new year looking for the perfect gym to undo the damage of rich desserts and not enough activity.

Finding the right fitness facility can be tricky if you’re looking for more than just the lowest-cost option.

treadmill upstate ny

A treadmill is great for running in the winter months.

“You need to assess your fitness goals before selecting the best gym for you,” said Janette Westman, workplace wellness consultant, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Do you want a basic gym with treadmills for a daily run or walk, for example, or do you prefer one with a variety of classes or state-of-the art equipment to keep you motivated?”

My needs as a gym buff have evolved over the years. When I was a broke, recent college graduate, I went with the cheapest option. All I needed was a place to run in the winter—at the lowest possible price!

Spinning Class Upstate NY

Select a gym close to your job.

As I earned a little more, I gravitated toward facilities that also had early morning spinning classes. But once I had kids and was paying daycare bills (yup, I was broke again!), I gravitated toward the free workplace gym.

Given my holiday weight gain, I’m now also hunting for a fitness facility to use on the weekends, when I don’t want to trek into work to work out. I’m considering a  gym or a facility that also offers classes, such as kickboxing.

Westman, a former personal trainer, offers the following tips for finding the right fitness facility in the new year:

  1. Location: People often stop exercising because they lack the time. If you exercise after work, select a gym close to your employer. Weekend warriors in the battle against the bulge may want a facility close to home.
  2. Hours of operation: The gym should be open when you plan to exercise. Early birds, for example, may need a fitness center that opens at the crack of dawn to allow for the 5 a.m. swim before work.
  3. Classes: Ask if classes such as spinning and yoga cost extra. If you’re solely interested in classes, a studio instead of a fitness facility may be a better option.
  4. Equipment quality: Ensure the cardio and weight machines are clean and in good condition.
  5. Staff: Are staff members friendly and qualified with the right certifications? You may want a gym with fitness trainers and dieticians to help you get healthier.
  6. Free trial pass: Test the gym during the times you’ll likely exercise. Is it too crowded? Are the classes, equipment, and atmosphere right for you? Are showers and changing facilities up to par? Is the parking convenient? Will you feel comfortable asking staff for advice or posing questions, such as how to use unfamiliar equipment?
  7. Cost: Ask if the gym will waive the enrollment fee so that you’re only responsible for the monthly dues.

Important Tip:  Some health care insurers may offer a benefit that helps pay for a gym membership. Be sure to check your policy to see what’s available to you. Don’t leave money on the table!

Fighting Cancer: A Teenager’s Story of Courage

Being a teenager and going through high school can be difficult. There are classes to keep up with, sports commitments and demands for your time from family and friends. And, for Brittany McNair, a cancer diagnosis.

McNair was diagnosed with osteosarcoma June of 2005, the end of her freshman year of high school. She went to the doctor after not being able to walk and after several tests, found out that she had cancer in her right leg.

The former three-sport athlete went from running daily for soccer and indoor/outdoor track to relearning how to walk. She didn’t think she’d run again.

The high school years are a time when your peers are constantly judging you. Because chemotherapy treatments caused her hair to fall out, McNair feared having her picture taken or being asked to remove her hat. She also learned to get creative to avoid the dreaded hospital visits. (More on that later.)

With the help of friends, family and a local nonprofit, McNair found a way to keep some of the normalcy of her teenage years. Her family also emerged stronger and closer as a result of it.

A Teenager's Fight Against Cancer

Brittany McNair on her 16th birthday while in the hospital for cancer treatment.

A Visit to Her Hospital Room

In August of 2005, surgeons replaced the bones in McNair’s right leg with a metal prosthesis. At the same time, they removed her calf muscles and performed knee replacement surgery on that leg. She was 15.

As she recovered in the hospital, McNair received a visit from Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect, formerly known as Melissa’s Living Legacy Teen Cancer Foundation. Spiker had formed the organization three years prior after her daughter, Melissa, died of cancer, and was running it from her home.

On the wall at 13thirty Cancer Connect is Melissa’s request of her mother before she died, “If you have learned anything from me through all of this, do something with it to make a difference – to make things better.”

Spiker explained her daughter’s request.

“When Melissa was going through treatments for cancer as a teenager, we noticed that there weren’t many support groups for teenagers or young adults.”

Spiker visited McNair in the hospital to invite her to join their support groups, including a popular pancake breakfast at Spiker’s home with other teenage cancer survivors. A few weeks later, McNair participated in a photo shoot for a brochure for the organization. From that day, McNair has continued to attend 13thirty Cancer Connect events.

“13thirty Cancer Connect helped me in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe,” said McNair. “I’ve made lifelong friends there, and I am so thankful for them.”

The organization welcomes individuals ages 13 to 30 who have cancer and their families. A few years after McNair joined the group, 13thirty Cancer Connect began offering fitness classes to give people who have been diagnosed with cancer a chance to exercise with the supervision of a physical therapist and get their strength back.

“Our program was able to recently expand, thanks to a $3,000 grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield,” said Spiker.

It was through this program that McNair started to run again.

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Friends on the field

McNair was lucky to have friends who worked hard to keep her connected to high school (and all the drama!).

Her soccer teammates and their families took turns decorating and filling a box of goodies for McNair to have before she went to the hospital for chemotherapy on Fridays. She found the box on her front porch every Thursday.

“I would be in the hospital all weekend and my teammates would give me everything from candy to DVDs in that box,” said McNair.

McNair’s favorite? A barf bucket. (The chemotherapy made McNair pretty sick!) It was decorated with different words and phrases related to barfing.

After her diagnosis, one family gave her a laptop to help her keep up with school, but she also used it to keep up with her friends and high school happenings.

“AOL Instant Messenger was the big thing then, and I would be on my laptop all the time talking to friends so I was kept in the loop,” said McNair.

Her friends also would visit her at home and in the hospital. As often as she could, McNair would go to basketball games to watch her sister cheer, and she’d also sit on the bench and help her coach during soccer games.

A birthday to remember

McNair really wanted to be in school with her friends on her 16th birthday on Dec. 23, 2005. Usually her birthday falls during winter break, when there’s no school, but that year was an exception.

On the morning of her birthday that year, McNair’s mom – Jennifer Arnold – noticed that her daughter felt hot. So Arnold took her temperature. If McNair had a fever, that meant she’d have to go to the emergency room and would automatically be in the hospital for 24-48 hours. When Arnold came back, McNair’s sister was in the room.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Arnold. “I figured they had just been talking before Brittany’s sister went to school or something.”

Arnold looked at the thermometer and it read a normal temperature. Arnold made McNair take her temperature again, but this time she didn’t leave the room.

“The thermometer said she had a fever just like I thought,” Arnold said. “Brittany’s sister took her own temperature, and the girls tried to trick me!”

McNair’s friends ended up visiting her in the hospital and celebrated her birthday there.

It wasn’t the first time her friends or family were willing to intervene on McNair’s behalf.

 “I don’t know why it was such a big deal.”

When McNair walked into the school cafeteria to take her regents exam, the proctor wouldn’t let her in because she was wearing a hat.

“I don’t know why it was such a big deal,” said McNair. “I guess they were worried I was going to hide notes in my hat or something.”

McNair refused to take off her hat. She didn’t want to tell the proctor that she was embarrassed of her bald head. Eventually, one of her friends stepped in and explained why McNair wanted to keep her hat on. The proctor let her into the cafeteria to take her test.

After she sat down, a different proctor also asked her to remove her hat. Again, she refused. This time, a math teacher intervened and said that she could keep her hat on.

That night, Arnold attended a basketball game to see Britany’s sister cheer. The same math teacher approached her and apologized. He hoped that her daughter did well on the test.

“Brittany hadn’t told me that anything had happened at the regents test so I was trying to think of what could have possibly happened,” said Arnold, adding that she was also thinking , ‘Well I’d be more concerned that she didn’t do well because of all the work she hasn’t been doing.”

It wasn’t the first time McNair fought requests to remove her hat.

Learning to embrace her bald head

Like most 16-year-olds, McNair was eager to get her driving permit. She went to the DMV to take the written test and after passing it, stood in line to have her picture taken for her license. The photographer told her to remove her hat. McNair refused.

“My dad started arguing with the people at the DMV to let me keep my hat on and eventually they did and took my picture,” said McNair. “After that, when people looked at my I.D., they were confused to see that I was wearing a hat.”

McNair was determined to learn to drive during her sophomore year. Since she was still relearning how to use her right leg, used two feet instead of one to apply the brakes or use the accelerator.

“Looking back on everything from when I was diagnosed and going through chemo, I would tell other people going through the same thing to take pictures and rock the bald head,” said McNair. “Those are the two things I wish I had done.

Non-traditional Christmas

Arnold thinks back fondly on Christmas that year. It was a few days after McNair’s birthday fever and she was still in the hospital. She and her husband agreed to bring both McNair and her sister three presents to open at the hospital; they could open the rest when McNair returned home.

“My husband and I made two trips from the hospital to the house and back to pick up more presents because the girls didn’t want it to end, they were having so much fun,” said Arnold.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children's Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children’s Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

When McNair came home on New Year’s Eve, her parents said she and her sister couldn’t open the rest of their presents until the next morning. They wanted the girls to have that feeling of waking up and seeing presents under the tree.

“The girls went to bed at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and then woke up a few hours later to open presents,” said Arnold. “It wasn’t a traditional Christmas, but we made the most of it and that’s what made it so special. “

Changing the family dynamic

Mother and daughter smiled and laughed as they recalled those special memories. “Brittany’s cancer diagnosis definitely changed our family dynamic for the better,” said Arnold. “We’re all incredibly close and I love it.”

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

McNair, now an avid runner, made her athletic comeback October 2014 running the Bandana Bolt 5K at Seneca Park, thanks in large part to 13thirty Cancer Connect’s fitness program. Her mom joined her for the race as a fellow runner.

“With this new awesome fitness program that I’ve been doing for a couple years now, I’m slowly regaining my strength in my leg, regaining confidence and regaining the old me that was that former athlete,” said McNair.

18 Places to Ski & Snowboard in Upstate New York

ski-article-3Living in upstate New York, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up trying to learn to ski or snowboard at some point. In my case, I had a boyfriend who grew up near a ski resort and raced his entire life, so I really didn’t have an option not to ski.

I started learning to ski at the ripe old age of 22. I clicked my boots into my first pair of skis as he showed me the ropes at our local ski hill, Toggenburg, in Fabius, Onondaga County. I was not a stellar student and a wee bit apprehensive. But after about six weeks, I perfected my “wedge”—the beginner stance in downhill skiing.

Feeling confident that I could handle anything with my practiced wedge, we ventured out to Utah with six friends. On our first day, we went to Snowbird, an absolutely beautiful ski resort. At 11,000 feet, it’s a big mountain! By comparison, the elevation at Toggenburg is 2,000 feet. As the skiing newbie, I trusted my crew of friends and my then boyfriend (my first mistake) as we started the first run at The Summit and a trail called the Cirque Traverse.  The sign screamed “Cliffs Ahead-DANGER!” which should have been a big clue that I was in way over my head.

The Cirque Traverse was basically a single track trail at the very top of the mountain with a steep cliff to the left—not my preferred way down. To the right and my only way down was what skiers call a “bowl.” A bowl is basically a big, wide open, ungroomed, snow-covered cliff. Super!

Needless to say, there were a few choice words thrown around. I asked my beloved boyfriend, “How do I get into the bowl?” His answer: “You jump!”…. “I WHAT??!!!”

I figured my time on this planet was likely over. So, being the last one standing, I jumped into the bowl with my awesome wedge stance and was met with a lot of soft, fluffy snow. I had a blast, but I’m not sure I left much snow on the mountain. I quickly learned that the wedge stance works great on our hard, eastern coast snow, but it wasn’t the thing for thigh-deep powder skiing! After a lot of laughter and many falls later, I made it to the bottom and decided I’d let my boyfriend live.

This is a picture half-way down the upper Cirque bowl:


I married that nutty guy and had two kids who were also bitten by the ski racing bug. Over the past 15 years, we’ve spent a lot of time traveling around New York state and enjoying many of the local ski areas!






How to Get Started in Skiing and/or Snowboarding

Skiing and snowboarding are both excellent options to get you outside and active during the long upstate New York winters. Snowboarding is different from skiing in that you strap both feet into a single board to get down the hill. It melds skateboarding, surfing, skiing and sledding all into one.

Required Equipment

For skiing: skis, ski boots, bindings, poles, goggles and a helmet.
For snowboarding: a snowboard, snowboard boots, bindings, goggles and a helmet.

To go down the hill, you also have to get to the top beforehand! Depending on the ski area, you’ll be brought to the top by a chairlift, t-bars or tow ropes. Bigger ski resorts, like Whiteface in Lake Placid, have a gondola lift. Chairlifts and gondolas let you sit and rest while going up the hill and allow for a pretty, scenic view.


How to Know Which Downhill Trails to Use

The downhill trails vary from beginner to expert. These markings tell you the difficulty of each trail and are the same at all ski areas:

ski article downhill trail markings

Green Circle: Easier
Blue Square: More Difficult
Black Diamond: Most Difficult
Double-Black Diamond: Most Difficult, use extra caution
Orange Oval: Freestyle Terrain

Ski areas are now going beyond traditional ways to get down the hill and are even providing terrain parks to challenge skiers and boarders with different obstacles, such as jumps, rails and half pipes. I’m in awe of people who ski and board in the terrain park, because they make it look so easy! If I attempted any of these, I would definitely be on the ground and all of my equipment strewn around me on the hill—what we call a “yard sale” in skiing.


New York State has more than 50 ski and snowboarding areas. Most provide equipment rentals and lessons for skiing and snowboarding. These can be group lessons or private lessons. All you need to bring is yourself and your winter coat, snow pants, gloves, hat and a wallet.

In upstate New York, there are a number of excellent areas where you can ski and snowboard.

In the Buffalo area:

  1. Holiday Valley, Ellicottville
  2. Peek‘n Peak , Clymer

In Rochester, you can enjoy:

  1. Bristol Mountain, Canandaigua
  2. Hunt Hollow, Naples
  3. Swain, Swain
  4. Brantling, Sodus

In Central New York:

  1. Toggenburg, Fabius
  2. Labrador, Truxton
  3. Song, Tully
  4. Greek Peak, Cortland

Near the Utica area, the Adirondack Park includes:

  1. West Mountain, Queensbury
  2. Whiteface, Lake Placid
  3. Gore, North Creek

A little more local to Utica includes:

  1. Snow Ridge, Turin
  2. Woods Valley, Westernville

A little to our south, The Catskill Mountains have:

  1. Windham, Windham
  2. Hunter, Hunter
  3. Belleayre, Highmount

For me, there’s nothing better than arriving at the top of a mountain on a crystal clear, sunny day in winter and enjoying the view! Even after my husband and kids have ditched me and are racing down the hill, I am completely content to take my time and enjoy the scenery. I’m glad that I added skiing to my winter activities and learned to ski. It gets me outside and exercising with my family and I’m able to experience some of the most stellar views in our state.

If you are looking for something fun to do during our long, snowy winters, head to your local ski/snowboard area. Just be prepared to fall.