Planning a summer vacation? Why not take a trip that makes a difference and lets you explore the world? Consider taking a volunteer vacation.
What’s a volunteer vacation? While you are off exploring the world, you could also be living with a host family, working in the community, and getting to know the local people.
If you’re on the fence on this travel trend, check out some more reasons to try it out.
The Best Way to Experience the Culture
Dr. Gregory Carnevale, a Chief Medical Officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, went to Haiti for a volunteer vacation. He said it was amazing “to see a different part of the world and to be able to help a population that has nothing compared to what we have here in the US.” Carnevale and the volunteer team were deeply immersed in the Haitian culture through their work in a local orphanage.
Dr. Gregory Carnevale on his volunteer vacation
You can also enjoy authentic home-cooked meals from local villages, while becoming immersed in the local language. Learn the rich history of the culture around you by attending traditional festivals and holiday celebrations with your host family or fellow volunteers.
Carnevale adds that,”volunteer vacations give not only meaningful perspectives on difficult issues in other parts of the world, but also how different people live their daily lives.”
Pat Salzer, a Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, visited Thailand on her volunteer vacation. The experience gave her the opportunity to explore a beautiful location with breathtaking views while she was working for the community there.
Salzer and husband on their volunteer vacation
Not only can you explore picturesque places, but you can contribute to a meaningful cause. By having this sense of purpose in your travel, you can opens the doors for learning about the people in the communities you serve.
During these programs, you’ll likely create life-long friendships with host families and other volunteers. Salzer stresses that this was her favorite part of her volunteer vacation. She knows that, “the bonds that are made with the family who we help build their home are lasting memories.” Salzer adds “even if language is a barrier, we are able to communicate and learn about other.”
Salzer and her husband on their volunteer vacation
Many people who choose a volunteer vacation are forever impacted by the experience. The lessons learned through the immersion into another culture are often something that become integrated into daily life when the trip is over. There’s also the opportunity to teach others from those lessons and encourage more acceptance of the culture you experienced.
Where to begin
Here are some possible programs to choose from:
International Volunteer HQ is the most widely-used provider of volunteer travel, and works with local organizations so that costs stay low and go directly towards community projects and jobs.
Volunteering Solutions offers multiple excursions that you can pick while volunteering. Some include Safari tours, bungee jumping, and language courses.
WWOOF pairs those who want to learn about organic farms with farm-owners that want to share their skills and lifestyles.
UN Volunteers assignments generally run for six to 12 months, with the possibility of extending for one to two years. If you are looking for a long-time commitment, this program would be a great fit.
Transitions Abroad can help you search through the many programs throughout the world to find your perfect match. Just put in the country or region and it will provide the programs!
REI Volunteer Adventures combines outdoor adventuring with volunteering. Programs are one to two weeks, and range from relocating sea turtle nests to helping rangers renovate trails.
Decide the type of work before hand by researching the destination. Making sure your program is a good match for you will make the trip most memorable. Carnevale says that advance planning is critical to avoid unnecessary worries. A lot of people forget to consider time-off, necessary immunizations, travel documents, travel arrangements, currency, language barriers, etc.
Contacting the organization and asking a lot of questions will ensure that you know all the details of your program before you leave. Even asking people that have done the program previously will give you good background information.
By working with certain local organizations, fees are low and usually go towards community projects or employment. You can save money, and do good.
Creating a budget before the trip will help you plan out your extra activities throughout the entirety of the program, while also keeping you on track for your spending goal.
There is no better place to have a picnic than on Lake Ontario. You can see Niagara on the Lake, and on a clear day, you have a full view of Canada! The beach is rocky but there is always plenty of driftwood to sit on and enjoy the view. There is a large grassy area, picnic tables and pavilions as well. This hidden gem is set back from the road and most people drive right by it.
Further east on Lake Ontario is Hamlin Beach State Park. This park also offers sweeping views of the lake, beach swimming (when it is warm enough!) and great picnic facilities including pavilions. While you’re there, explore the self-guided trail of the Yanty Creek Marsh.
Highland Park may be known for the Lilac Festival in the spring, but there’s plenty to see all summer long in this park. Not only does it have plenty of places to sit in the grass or at a picnic table, but in the early summer, the trees are still flowering and bringing in a wonderful smell. Also, within the park is Lamberton Conservatory, which is full of large palms and ferns, as well as little button quails that run around your feet.
Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park (photo by Rachel Dowling)
Head south to visit Stony Brook State Park. Enjoy a day in the park with a picnic and an adventure on the hiking trails. You can also go swimming in the natural pool, fed by the stream that is always refreshing.
Less than an hour from Stony Brook State Park, Harriet Hollister Park is another beautiful spot with picnic tables, biking trials and a pavilion. This park comes with a breathtaking view of Honeoye Lake and the Rochester skyline in the distance. Sixteen miles of hiking, biking and even cross-country ski trails are available.
Located on the western shores of Canandaigua Lake, Onanda Park park offers picnic tables, a small beach, a swimming area, and a lake view. The park also features numerous hiking trails across the street. Trails can be found that are close to the stream, as well as more challenging hills that give you views of the multiple waterfalls upstream.
At the southern end of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen State Park is a perfect place for a relatively flat hike. You may get a little wet from the spray from the absolutely gorgeous waterfalls, but it is well worth it. They also have ample picnic tables to use after your hike.
A short drive from Syracuse, this park offers an incredible view of Skaneateles Lake. Make it an even better trip by stopping at Doug’s Fish Fry for take-out to eat on the benches in the park. After your picnic, you can walk down the pier that stretches out into the water. The park also has a public beach that is open during the summer.
Named for its two glacial lakes, Green Lakes State Park has plenty of pavilions and picnic tables throughout the park, offering sun or shade depending on what you like best. After your picnic, enjoy a leisurely walk around the lakes or enjoy a swim in the blue-green waters.
It’s the closest thing you can get to being at the ocean within an hour’s drive from Syracuse. The sand dunes and miles of beach are beautiful with good sized waves for jumping or boogie boarding. There are plenty of picnic tables to use and a nice new playground. You can get ice cream at the pavilion after a long day at the beach.
This park has a large picnic and cookout area with a lot of tall shady trees. You can feel the breeze coming off Oneida Lake, which makes it a very pleasant place to spend a summer afternoon. Plus, there’s the beach!
I’m obsessed with my popcorn popper. My hot-air wonder has been popping healthy treats since before I met my hubby and had kids – even before I got the now-elderly feline.
You come to my house, I serve you popcorn. You invite me to your house, I come with popcorn.
My friends mock me for my love of air-popped popcorn. But they lust after salty chips and fudgy ice cream, while I happily embrace my popper and bag of popcorn kernels.
It’s my simple solution to healthy snacking.
“Swapping out junky treats for air-popped popcorn is a simple change that can lead to a healthier tomorrow,” said Patricia Salzer, registered dietitian, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “One cup of popcorn is about 30 calories – if you don’t add gobs of butter and other unhealthy stuff!”
It’s not the only simple solution to life’s healthy living problems. Consider these 50 small healthy changes that can make a big difference, and visit ExcellusBCBS.com/LiveFearlessNation for more on how to make small changes – one fearless step at a time. Help spread the word with family and friends and inspire others to be part of this Fearless Nation.
Let’s start with my biggest hurdle – eating right! I generally eat OK, especially when I’m inhaling popcorn, but I’m a sucker for sweets. Here are some ideas:
Invest in an air popper! (Are you surprised this is tip #1?) You, too, can be mocked by friends for snacking on nothing but popcorn. But, get this. One of those friends ran out a few years ago and BOUGHT HER OWN POPPER! It changed her life.
Banish the Oreos to the highest of shelves! Exile the double fudge ice cream to the back of your freezer! Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Wash and cut-up raw veggies and coax them to the front of your fridge. When you’re looking for something quick to eat, you can grab and go. For an added treat, dip them in a hummus or a yogurt mix.
Swap out the cookie jar for a bowl of apples. Apples are guilt-free because they have just traces of fat and sodium and no cholesterol. The skin of the apple is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants.
Ditch the “I need to get Vitamin D” excuse for excess sunbathing. Don’t risk getting skin cancer. Consider eating foods high in the vitamin, such as tuna fish, salmon and fortified milk. The vitamin is critical to having strong and healthy muscles and bones.
Race your kid. Run outside with the little ones, climb that tree, jump rope and kick the ball. When I’m low on steps for the day, I race my kindergartener around our yard to boost my activity totals.
Stand up! More than half of your day is likely spent sitting. Too much sitting is linked to heart disease and other serious issues. Sit all day at work? Set a reminder to stand every hour. Stand when on a conference call or eating lunch. Or, try a walking meeting with co-workers.
Wake up 10 minutes earlier for a quick workout. I’m currently hooked on a 12-minute Tank Top Arms Workout on YouTube. My co-worker swears by the free workout app, Seven, for — you guessed it – seven-minute workouts.
Time strapped in the morning? Squeeze in a few push-ups (on toes or knees) before you brush your teeth.
Keep refilling the water bottle or glass of water. That’ll get you extra steps – especially from added bathroom breaks!
Skip the email! Get up, walk to your co-worker’s desk and have an actual conversation in person.
While watching TV, stand, stretch or squeeze in exercises.
Schedule a gym date with a friend. You’re more likely to go if you have a buddy holding you accountable.
My neighborhood is full of big weeping willows and other park-like, mature trees. A creek winds through my yard. A walk around my yard or street is the perfect stress buster, since being in nature is a great mood booster. Here are other ideas to help you stay sane:
An even simpler solution? Go outside and breathe in the fresh air.
When you’re outside, look up! The sky can be beautiful and a great distraction from your troubles.
Gardening – Fixing up your yard or tending to rows of tomato plants can help reduce stress.
Breathe … deeply. It’ll help distract you from your thoughts and might actually help you (really) relax.
Power Pose! Stand tall with your hands on your hips! Or, flex your muscles! Do whatever pose makes you feel powerful for two minutes. It might boost your confidence before a job interview or another high-pressured event.
Exercise to . . . relax? It’s a real thing. Exercise can decrease stress levels while stimulating the feel good chemicals in your brain, called endorphins.
Pen thank you notes. Focusing on the good things in your life, such as how others have helped you, can make you feel happy.
Write only happy thoughts. Journal about what makes you feel good. It’s the same idea behind #33. Gratitude can boost the positive emotions that make you happy.
Call a friend. Connecting with good friends can prevent you from feeling lonely, offer companionship and boost your overall mood.
Smile! I mean a real, full-fledged smile that leaves crinkles around the eyes. Smile your way out of your crabby mood.
Hey road-ragers: Get a stress ball. Instead of shrieking at the car in front of you, find other ways to alleviate stress.
I took an amazing nap the other day. It was Sunday, and I was up early with the kids. After a morning of chasing them around, doing errands, laundry, etc., I was cranky and exhausted. Then I took that amazing 20-minute nap. I woke feeling unusually refreshed and pleasant!
Here are tips for grabbing more of that elusive shuteye:
Read a book. When I’m struggling for shuteye, I grab the Kindle and read until my eye lids start to droop. It. Works. Every. Time.
Quiet your racing mind. One large sleeping roadblock is your obsession with your to-do list, your workload, your kids, etc. But meditation can help calm your mind and relax. Sleep.org has tips for meditating before bed.
Skip the booze. I’m really sorry about this one. The wine before bed might help you quickly doze off, but you might not get a restful night’s sleep. Everyone’s body is different, so listen to yours in deciding if and how much to drink before bed.
Exercise during the day. When I run, I sleep. Doing aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes and you might have a more satisfying slumber.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 meanwe 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
Studies have shown that music can have a really positive impact on childrens’ development.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
Equipment quality: Ensure the cardio and weight machines are clean and in good condition.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
It was through this program that McNair started to run again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Living 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.
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:
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.
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.
I’m a bit obsessive about looking for new ways to save money. When I buy a new car, I research it to death. Consumer Reports® is my friend. I work hard for my money and I want to stretch every dollar so that I can save for retirement, take nice vacations and be able to buy gifts for my loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that you get what you pay for, but if making smart choices puts money in my pocket, I’m all for it.
Take health care. There are lots of ways you can save on prescriptions, “earn” money by practicing healthy behaviors or get health care services for free. Here are a few things I do to keep more money in my pocket.
Healthy Is as Healthy Does
Be healthy. Earn $$. Does your insurance company have a way for you to earn money for practicing healthy behaviors? Mine does. I can earn up to $500 a year and my spouse can, too, for completing a health assessment, recording how much I exercise daily and practicing healthy behaviors, e.g., not smoking. (Many health plans cover smoking cessation programs; New York has a Smokers’ Quitline.)
Money for the gym. Some insurers may offer a benefit that helps pay for a gym membership or kits to workout at home. Check your policy to see what’s available to you.
Weight-loss help. My company also offers a free weight management program. Last year, I decided to bite the bullet and lose the extra 20 pounds I’d been lugging around the last 15 years. Thanks to the program’s support and tools, I met my goal. I’m delighted that I can now wear clothing that’s two sizes smaller and that losing the weight means less stress on my knees. Under your health insurance plan, you may be eligible for weight-loss counseling. Many companies offer weight-loss programs and classes in nutrition.
Free Is Better
No-cost services. Most insurance plans cover flu shots at no cost. Some companies offer free flu shots to their employees and even provide them in the workplace. The cost of not getting sick? Priceless.
For a list of no-cost preventive health services specific for adults, women and children, check out HealthCare.gov. All Marketplace health plans and many others must cover specific preventive services without charging a co-pay or co-insurance, even if you haven’t met your yearly deductible. However, these services are free only when a doctor or other provider in your plan’s network covers them.
Try employer wellness programs. Some companies offer financial incentives to participate in preventive care programs. These may include lower premiums, lower deductibles, a contribution to your health savings account or gift cards.
My company provides an annual free health screening that uses a simple blood test to check my cholesterol and lipid levels. I have the results sent to my personal physician so she has a copy.
If I meet my yearly goal, I get an extra $20 in my biweekly paycheck. That’s $520 a year to offset my health insurance premium. By participating in the screening, some employees have been alerted to serious health problems, such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Those who have taken the knowledge to heed are working with their personal physicians to improve their health.
Medicine Meets George Jetson!
FaceTime your doc. The Jetsons was one of my favorite childhood cartoons. The space-age TV cartoon with its video phones seemed so cool and so far out of reach. Today, talking “face to face” via smartphones and computers is commonplace. Even a doctor visit by Skype™ or FaceTime is possible. Last year, my insurer began offering a telemedicine benefit. If I have a minor illness or injury and can’t see my personal physician right away or it’s after hours, I can talk with or video conference a board-certified doctor who participates in our telemedicine program. My plan’s co-pay for the telemedicine visit is not only less than a doctor visit or urgent care center co-pay, but a lot less than I would shell out for an emergency room visit.
The cost of an emergency room visit for a minor condition like a sinus infection, for example, can be 15 times the cost of a telemedicine visit, according to research from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Unless you have a serious medical emergency, who wants to wait for hours in a crowded ER and be exposed to who knows what germs?
Convenient? You bet! I’ve used telemedicine twice—once for a cut on my thumb that was slow healing and again for a skin rash. Because I used FaceTime, the doctor could see my cut and rash. Both times, the doctor faxed the prescriptions to my local pharmacy where they were available in an hour.
I wish telemedicine had been around when my son was a child and subject to frequent ear infections. I remember taking him to the ER for an earache in the wee hours of the morning. How much easier it would have been to use telemedicine instead of waiting for hours for the ER doctor to examine him. (“Cry louder, Andy, maybe that will get the doctor in here sooner.”) Did I mention it was in the middle of winter so we not only had to go out in the dark of night, but also had to bundle up and fight the snow?
Even if your health plan does not offer this benefit, you can still use a telemedicine service. If you’re paying out of pocket, check to see how much a one-time visit will cost. Considering the convenience and time saved, it may be worth it to you.
Of course, seeing your personal physician is preferable, but if you can’t, telemedicine is a great alternative.
So, do as I do. Get a pill minder and fill it every week. Then, I don’t have to wonder, “Did I take my pills this morning?” If I’m not sure, I might skip that day’s dose or take a double dose—either way could be harmful to my health. So, if it’s Tuesday and my pill “slot” for that day is empty, I have one less thing to worry about.
Consider generic drugs. I’m also one for using less expensive store brands, say Wegmans paper towels over Bounty. Same holds true for prescriptions. If I can get a generic alternative to its brand name counterpart, count me in.
Generic drugs are as safe and effective as the brand, but usually cost less. The difference in co-pays can be substantial, especially if you have a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Next time you visit your doctor or pharmacist and are placing or refilling a prescription, ask if there is a generic alternative. You might want to try the substitution for a month to make sure the generic version is right for you. Most insurance plans have pharmacy benefits representatives who can help you find ways to get your prescriptions at the most economical cost. (Here’s what the FDA has to say about generics: Savings From Generic Drugs.)
Have your prescriptions delivered to your home.Home delivery of your prescriptions is not only convenient but may save you money. Often, you can fill three months’ worth of prescriptions for the cost of two. Check with your insurance company to see whether they offer this benefit and if you would save money The savings can really add up—I like to figure out how much on a yearly basis. So, if my co-pay is $25 and I’m getting 12 months of pills for the cost of eight, I’ll be ahead by $100 a year. Cha-Ching!
Talk Is Cheap
Avoid unneeded tests, drugs, and services. Smart health decisions start with a discussion between you and your doctor. A nationwide initiative developed by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, Choosing Wisely promotes conversations between doctors and patients about the most appropriate care based on an individual’s situation.
In the meantime, here are five questions to ask your doctor before receiving any treatment, procedure or medication:
Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Do I really need this test or procedure?
What are the risks?
Are there simpler, safer options?
What happens if I don’t do anything?
How much does it cost?
The Gift of Health
Ask for healthy gifts. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need more “things.” In fact, I’m trying to get rid of stuff. So when family members ask me what I’d like for my birthday or Christmas, I suggest gift certificates to my massage therapist or yoga studio or gift cards I can redeem for yoga apparel.
What Ways Do You Save?
Use our Comments section to tell us and other readers how you save money while staying healthy.