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.

11 ways to save on health care

Save on Health Care: 11 Ways to Put More Money in Your Pocket

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

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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 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.

TIP: Breast-feeding? See our article on Hidden Ways to Save on Breast-Feeding Gear.

Pay Me to Be Healthy

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

Drug Savings ‘R’ Us

  1. Take your medication as directed. The savings may not be obvious at first, but in the long run, taking your medications as your doctor prescribed can save you money, not to mention your life. The World Health Organization says the No. 1 problem in treating illness today is patients’ failure to take their medications correctly. Not adhering to your medication regimen may cause you to become sicker over time. Your quality of life may be adversely affected and you may require additional and more expensive medications and treatments—even hospitalization. (Check out Medication Adherence.)

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.

  1. 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.)

  1. 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

  1. 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.

Choosing Wisely has more than 400 health care recommendations that can help you become a more informed patient.

In the meantime, here are five questions to ask your doctor before receiving any treatment, procedure or medication:

Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  1. Do I really need this test or procedure?
  2. What are the risks?
  3. Are there simpler, safer options?
  4. What happens if I don’t do anything?
  5. How much does it cost?

The Gift of Health

  1. 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.

tell me how you want to die

No Pie Until You Tell Me How You Want To Die

Our family’s unique Thanksgiving tradition has little to do with food or football. It has everything to do with our values, beliefs, and goals.

After we finish our turkey, and after the dishes are cleared, we talk about how we want to die.

“No pumpkin pie until you tell me how you want to die!”

I know it may sound morbid and it’s often uncomfortable.  But it’s necessary. Thanksgiving is actually the perfect time to have conversations like these. It’s a holiday that almost everyone celebrates, and it brings the family together from far and wide.

My mom started this family tradition in 1992. She wanted to explain why she picked some of her children and not others as her health care proxies – the person who’ll make your health care decisions if you’re unable to do so.  She talked about factors we should consider when deciding what to do if she was incapable of making her own decisions.

My mom was brilliant in her approach to discussing a difficult topic during an uplifting holiday gathering. I hope her tips help you have similar conversations this Thanksgiving.

4 Tips for Discussing a Difficult Topic

  1. Begin by discussing what matters most to you. My mom didn’t start with a cold list of whether she wanted a certain procedure like a breathing tube. She began by discussing what made her life worth living. To her, it was being a “Babci” (grandmother in Polish) for her grandchildren.

She loved being a grandmother. She wanted to be present and able to interact with them. If that wasn’t possible, she wouldn’t want certain life-saving procedures.

  1. Discuss your values. As a Catholic, she wanted ordinary – and not extraordinary – measures to save her life. She wanted a natural death. If her heart stopped beating, for example, she wasn’t in favor of resuscitation.
  1. Come from a place of love. Serving as a health care agent is a huge responsibility, and it’s not for everyone. You’re grieving for your loved one, yet need to be clearheaded and practical when deciding what this person would want at the end of their life. Often, you’ll have to manage potential conflict among family members. It requires a delicate balance of involving everyone in the discussion while ensuring the final decision is based on what matters most to your loved one. Each of us only dies once.

My mom knew that two of my four sisters would be too emotional to handle this responsibility. At the dinner table that Thanksgiving, my mom told those sisters that, “I didn’t pick you because I love you too much to put you through something you can’t handle. It’s a hard job and I don’t want to put that kind of responsibility on you. I love you too much to do that.”

I was named my mom’s health care agent, and my other two sisters were named as backups. My mom explained to my sisters that my role was to stand in her shoes when making decisions and to keep the whole family in the loop and involved in the entire process. She wanted to ensure that any decisions would be based on her values, beliefs, and goals for care.

Here’s one more tip that helped my family navigate these difficult conversations over the years:

  1. Talk about stories in the news. We’d reference news stories and discuss what we’d do in these scenarios.

I remember discussing the case of Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who became a quadriplegic after falling from a horse and breaking his neck in a riding accident. My son said he’d be OK living as a quadriplegic as long as he was able to think and interact with others. My daughter, however, wasn’t so sure since Reeve benefited by having a lot of money to help make his life functional!

Resources to Help Guide Conversations

As you’ve realized by now, these are difficult conversations. (To help, there are a variety of resources and tools available at

One of the resources is a document that lists what to keep in mind when choosing a proxy.  The person, for example, must be willing to talk to you NOW about your wishes. If the person is uncomfortable talking about it now, then he or she won’t be able to do so when you need it the most.

During our Thanksgiving talks, we also take the extra step to review our individual Advance Care Planning documents to make sure they reflect our current feelings. We have blank forms on hand in case new documents need to be completed and witnessed.

For individuals with serious or advancing chronic illness, there’s also a document called Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), and an electronic version called eMOLST. MOLST is recommended for those who want to further define their wishes for medical interventions, including resuscitation. The MOLST form is legally approved and has to be followed by all health care professionals including emergency medical services (EMS) personnel across New York State.

Regarding that first Thanksgiving talk, I still have a funny photo of my sister’s husband. He had a hand to his head and a “what are these people talking about!” look on his face!

But it turns out these annual Thanksgiving conversations were invaluable as he suffered through his own terminal disease years later. He was seriously ill, undergoing aggressive treatments, not very mobile and living in a nursing home. He recalled these Thanksgiving talks, and how he discussed the importance of living his life to the fullest in the end. Additionally, he wanted to spend time with his son. That’s how he decided to leave the nursing home and switch to treatments that were less aggressive. Making these choices helped him enjoy what he had left of his life.

I encourage your family to adopt our Thanksgiving tradition.  Save your family possible heartache and turmoil in the future by discussing and documenting each family member’s thoughts and views on a difficult, but necessary topic.

4 Tips for not Driving Your College Kids Crazy Over Thanksgiving Break

My mom always says that my coming home from college during breaks is a blessing and a curse.

She loves having me there, but by the end of the week, she’s wondering when it’s time for me to go back.

I’m no longer a contributing member of the family—for the short week that I’m home, I pretty much just want to veg out.

For many college students like me, Thanksgiving is a much needed break from studying. Still, it can be overwhelming coming back home after being away for a few months – especially for first year students. From this senior’s perspective, here are a few ways parents can avoid pushing your college kid’s buttons without feeling like you’re walking on eggshells.

  1. Don’t Ask So Many Questions

It’s Thanksgiving, and I love being home, enjoying my family’s company and eating my mom’s sweet potato casserole (topped with marshmallows, of course). Everything is going great, and I’m finally relaxing before heading back to college for a few more weeks of classes and finals before winter break. Then, the questions start—from Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Rebecca, Uncle Danny….

  • “What do you want to do when you graduate?”
  • “Do you have a boyfriend yet?”
  • “How’s your internship?”
  • “What are your classes like?”

I just got home from a stressful semester that still isn’t over and now you have me thinking about it all over again. Some of us still have no clue what we want to do after graduation; let’s just enjoy the turkey and trimmings, shall we? Also, chances are, I still do not have a boyfriend. (I’ll let you know when I do).

So, steer away from what feels like very personal questions. (My internship supervisor said her adult son gives her the “time out” signal, meaning TMQ or “too many questions.” She knows to cool it for a while. “I’ve learned the less I ask, the more he’s apt to tell me,” she said.)

  1. Let Me Enjoy Being Home

Of course I want to sit and tell you everything about my life, Mom, but we talk on the phone almost every day while I’m at school. So, can I just have these next few days to myself?

This isn’t to say that I don’t want to spend time with you, because it’s actually one of the things I want most. However, while you might think I’d enjoy going to family friends’ homes with you, I’d rather not. My time at home is precious.

I’d also welcome a few days’ reprieve from household chores. Most of all, please let me sleep in the mornings! I need a break from my busy academic life when I’m constantly on the go and following a strict schedule. It’s nice to just kick back and enjoy the moment.

The author, Alaina Galiano, at dinner with her parents.

The author, Alaina Galiano, at dinner with her parents.

  1. Keep the “Constructive Criticism”  to a Minimum 

I realize that everything you say to me comes from a place of love and affection, but it doesn’t  always come across that way to this stressed-out, on-edge college kid.

Please, don’t comment on my weight or ask when I think I’m going to lose the freshman 15. Don’t even ask about my eating habits at school. Chances are you already know I’m not the poster child for the new food pyramid. I’m eating enough and no, not just ramen noodle soup and mac and cheese.

And, it’s not just my appearance that’s off limits. I know I could   be doing better in school and trying harder. Just don’t bring that up now so I can get a break from worrying about this stuff even for a little while.

In addition, especially after this recent election, please, don’t bring up politics!  We all have our opinions, but it’s not worth the fight over the mashed potatoes. Let’s enjoy the holiday, not start World War III.

  1. What We Love to Hear 

Tell me about what you and the family have been up to. Trust me, I hate missing out on so much while I’m gone, so please, let me know what’s going on in your life

Tell me how proud you are of me, that you know I’m out there doing something great for myself. I always love to hear that!

Remind me that it gets harder and harder each time I leave.

None of these suggestions mean you have to stop being a parent and caring, because you never will; just give me a little space while I’m home. While I’m not exactly on my own yet, college gives me time to grow into being an adult. I just need the safety and comfort of home during this break to recoup so I’ll be renewed and rejuvenated to tackle those last minute projects and finals.

I want this time together to be as peaceful and joyful for you as I want it to be for me. Besides, I’ll be back for winter break before you know it! (And, no, you still can’t ask me those overly personal questions then either.)

Is 6 hours of Sleep Like not Sleeping at all?

Lack of sleep isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a public health problem. If you have trouble falling asleep at night or staying awake during the day, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in four American adults has a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

Was it the wine I drank with dinner? I didn’t think I napped that long. Is it because I didn’t run today? I never followed up on that project. What’s that noise? I need chapstick. WHY CAN’T I SLEEP?  

I almost always get a full eight hours each night, so having days when I’m running on six hours isn’t ideal, especially since I become a groggy, grumpy, downright miserable human being if I’m not well-rested. Luckily this doesn’t happen often.

But for those who are clocking four or six hours on the regular—WAKE UP!—you need more sleep! Take it from the researchers who found that participants getting four hours of sleep a night for two weeks functioned like a person who hadn’t slept for 48 hours. And those who got six hours every night over a period of two weeks performed like those who had been awake for 24 hours.

The Science Behind the Sleep Study

Forty-eight people joined a study conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. The point of the study was “to inform the debate over whether human sleep can be chronically reduced without consequences.” Essentially, do humans really need eight hours of sleep?

Researchers split test subjects into four groups—those who slept eight hours, six hours, or four hours every night for two weeks, and those who stayed awake for three days straight. Each person was measured on sleepiness and how well their brain worked. Here are a few examples of the kinds of testing participants underwent:

  • For reaction time, subjects were measured on how quickly they could respond to a visual stimulus. Curious about the test? Get your reaction time here. Apparently my alertness may be suboptimal and I should consider medical evaluation—hmm, interesting.
  • To measure sleepiness, subjects were asked to rate how sleepy they felt using a scale from 1 to 7. For example, at 9 a.m., I was a “1” or “Feeling active, vital, alert or wide awake.” Then at 3 p.m. I was a “4” or “Somewhat foggy, let down.” Then at 11 p.m. I was a “6” or “Sleepy, woozy, fighting sleep; prefer to lie down.”

As you can imagine, the well-rested group that got eight hours a night for two weeks did significantly better than any of the other three test groups which had their sleep restricted. But the surprise lies in how the group sleeping four or six hours per night thought they were functioning.

Which brings me back to why you need more sleep if you’re only getting four or six hours each night. According to the study, not only did participants function as poorly as people who had been awake for 48 or 24 hours straight, but participants were more tired than they thought they were.

In other words, not enough sleep can be just as dangerous as having no sleep at all.

Dr. Matthew Bartels, a chief medical officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, who was not involved with the study, agrees with the study’s findings. “Sleep is absolutely essential for mental alertness and better physical health,” he stated. “I think most people can relate that when you get a good night’s sleep, you feel better and are more alert.”

Get Out of Sleep Debt

There’s no easier way to get all of the positive benefits of sleep—stress relief, restored energy, improved mood, the ability to think clearly or fight off infection—for such little effort. If you’ve been skimping, not only are you more tired than you think you are, but according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, you’re putting your body at risk for having heart disease, high blood pressure and other medical conditions that develop over the long run.

The good news is that if you haven’t been getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, you can pay it back to yourself slowly and over time. To get out of “sleep debt,” common methods include going to bed earlier or taking short naps to compensate, but weekend catch-up is not advised.

 Going to bed earlier doesn’t necessarily mean moving your bedtime back two hours. Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each weeknight. If your typical bedtime is 11 p.m., go to bed at 10:45 p.m. on Monday, 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10:15 p.m. on Wednesday—and so on. Come Saturday morning, you will have made up almost three hours of sleep.

I know new parents are probably tired of people telling them this, but if at all possible, try to sleep when your baby does (even if that means going to bed at 8:30 p.m.!). I realize that this is much easier said than done!

And if you’re pro-nap like me, limit daytime napping to less than one hour. “It’s certainly OK to take naps from time to time,” says Bartels. “But the long-term solution is to get the proper number of hours of sleep at nighttime so you aren’t disrupting your sleep cycle.”

Good Sleep Hygiene

If you have trouble falling and staying asleep, you may need to consider making sleep hygiene a habit. Everyone can benefit from it.

For example, the Sleep Foundation suggests avoiding bright lights (including cellphone and TV screens) 30 to 60 minutes before bed. Other recommendations include:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends
  • Doing a relaxing activity, such as reading before bed
  • Exercising at a time that works for you
  • Creating a Zen bedroom by dimming the lights, turning the thermostat down and having plenty of cozy blankets
  • Make one of 11 easy snacks to help you sleep better

If all else fails, Bartels suggests talking to your doctor. “If a patient is having trouble falling and staying asleep, I question the cause,” he said. “Is there another condition that could be causing the sleepless nights?”

So what’s the difference between four hours, six hours and eight hours of sleep? Besides the obvious time and cognitive effects, Bartels says the quality is just as important as the quantity. “There are phases of sleep needed to ‘reset your clock,’” he said. “When you get the optimal hours, your body has time to move through the sleep stages and benefit from the regenerative effects of sleep.”

Am I Selfish if I Don’t Get a Flu Shot? 3 Unexpected Reasons Why I’m Getting the Vaccination This Year

I don’t like needles, never have. But, every year I’ve gotten a flu shot, because I’ve been told that it’s my best defense against the flu. So I visit my doctor every year, close my eyes, turn my head and wait for the needle to plunge into my arm. Except, last year something different happened.

I still got the flu. Last February, it hit me pretty hard. As a matter of fact, I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It was frustrating. I couldn’t help but think, “Why get a flu shot if I still get the flu?”

The effectiveness of the flu shot can vary every year, so there’s always the possibility I could still get sick from the flu…again.

Which leaves me with basically two options this year – either get the shot again (and still risk getting the flu) or do nothing (and also risk getting the flu).

But my first unexpected reason for still getting the shot is that even if I get the flu again after getting the shot, the vaccination will probably protect me from developing serious complications, including severe pneumonia and/or a hospitalization.  This is especially true for people who are older than I am and/or battle certain chronic diseases.

It’s not all about the needles

But, what if I avoid the whole “needle thing” this year and not get a shot at all? Is that being selfish? Maybe, and that wouldn’t be good for you or those around you.

We all have a responsibility to protect those who can’t get a shot, but could get seriously sick if they caught the flu. Babies younger than 6 months of age are too young to get the vaccine. People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the shot also can’t get the vaccination.

I don’t want to get the flu and spread it to someone who can’t handle the disease. That’s my second unexpected reason for getting the vaccination.

Just consider these stats:

If more people avoid flu vaccines this season because of needle phobia, those numbers will surely jump. The flu virus spreads too easily and can cause serious health problems for women who are pregnant, the very young or very old and/or those who have a chronic illness or a medical condition that weakens their immune system.

So, it’s not just about me and my dislike of needles. When I get a flu shot, it doesn’t just protect me, it also helps to protect you and those around you.

Well, maybe it’s a little bit about the needles.

I’m also not the only one who hates needles. In an online survey by Harris Interactive conducted for Target Corp., 60 percent of adult respondents said they won’t get the flu vaccination, and about 20 percent of them said it’s because they’re afraid of needles.

For some, the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine was a way around their needle phobia. However, the nasal spray is not recommended for the coming flu season, because it doesn’t offer much protection from the virus, according to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kids may be harder hit by this recommendation, because the nasal spray accounts for about one-third of all flu vaccines given to children. Yet everyone age six months and older should get the shot, according to ACIP.

Overcoming the fear of needles

I start thinking about the shot at least 24 hours before receiving it. By the time I’m actually in the chair, I’m sure my blood pressure has risen above my normal numbers. All I can think about at that moment is just getting it over with.

If you’re like me and fear needles, here are tips for dealing with your phobia:

  • Distract yourself before and during the shot by listening to music, reading a book or using your phone.
  • Concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your arm.
  • Instead of looking at what the health care provider is doing, focus intently on something else in the room. I always look away.
  • You can also ask your health care provider ahead of time about skin-numbing products that may reduce pain if applied about an hour before the shot.

Here are tips specific to kids:

  • Encourage your child to bring a favorite toy or comfort item to the appointment.
  • Be a good role model by staying positive and cheerful during the shot.
  • Remind your child (as well as yourself) that the shot is quick and will keep you healthy for a long time.

My third unexpected reason

You never know when the flu will hit. I got the flu in February.

I mistakenly thought the flu was pretty much done by then. I was wrong. Within just a few hours on a chilly mid-February day, I went from feeling perfectly fine to literally being unable to get out of bed. I felt awful for two straight days and had all of the typical flu symptoms.

Most of the time, seasonal flu activity peaks between December and February, but outbreaks can happen as early as October and last into May. Because you never know when the flu will peak each season, I’m going to make sure I get my flu shot earlier in October. That’s my third unexpected reason for getting the vaccination.


Don’t let a fear of needles get in the way of doing the right thing for your health and the health of all those around you. This coming flu season, make sure everyone in your family gets a flu shot.

When They Leave Us for College: Dealing With an Empty Nest

Mothers seem to have an internal clock that ticks down the days and hours until we have to drop off our kids at college. I knew the day was coming.  It would be the first time my son and I would be apart for any length of time, save for a week or two of summer camp along the way.

I’d had 18 years to prepare, but suddenly, the day was here and now. It was not only a big step for my son, but also for me. My husband, Andy’s dad, was an old hand, having sent three older kids off to college. I had been there for their leavings, but this was different. I had waited a long time to be a mother. What would I be without my child in my life 24/7?

Empty nest. Funny how things turn 180 degrees. I remember having a sudden surge of energy to clean during my last trimester of pregnancy. “They” call it nesting. Now, many years since I’d prepared for the arrival of my duckling, I was about to face life without his daily presence.

As I see it, there are several parts to the empty nest, and others’ experience might look a little different. Here’s what I learned along the way:

You’ll be OK

Trust that you and your kid will be OK. You’ve had almost two decades to instill your values and life lessons before he or she goes off to school and is on their own—more or less—for four or more years.

As I busied myself helping Andy set up his dorm room at the University at Buffalo, I kept the conversation light, recalling the excitement of my own first days at the University of Oklahoma. It was a big deal for my parents—I was the first in our family to attend college. The transition was made a bit easier because my best friend from high school and I would be roommates. Besides, if I got homesick, my family was only two hours away. I was comforted that Andy’s roommate was a former Amateur Athletic Union basketball teammate and that PJ, one of his best friends from high school, also was attending UB.

When there was no more motherly fussing to be done, I produced a photo cube of family pictures, including our dog, Hershey. Just in case Andy got homesick or forgot what we looked like. He was rather matter-of-fact about the whole college thing. I knew UB wasn’t his first choice, but financially it made more sense than going to a private school. I hoped that once he started classes, made new friends and got into extracurricular activities that where he earned his degree wouldn’t matter so much. (Now that he’s graduated, he’s glad his college loans are manageable. Note: I recently read that where you get your degree is not as good a predictor of landing a job as an internship in your field.)

I wanted to have a special “last supper” with Andy, but we were stuck with a mediocre pancake place since we were unfamiliar with the area.  I had a hard time holding back the tears as we ate.

Back at the dorm, there were no more excuses for me to linger. It was time to head home and Andy to begin the next chapter of his life.

(provided by Jan Caster)

Student ID cards for Andy Caster and Jan (Johnson) Caster (provided by Jan Caster)


I was surprised by Andy’s depth of emotion as we hugged good-bye. No matter how much teens think they’re ready to cut the apron strings, their first foray into independence can be as tentative as that first step as an infant.

As I drove the 2½ hours to Syracuse, my eyes leaked tears and my head pounded. As he should be, Andy was all eyes forward—the excitement of meeting people from other places and other cultures, developing exciting new interests, making connections, experiencing challenges, fostering a future career and maybe acquiring a steady girlfriend. My husband and I would be returning to our “roots” as a couple (plus the dog). Our life would be different, quieter, less chaotic. No juggling of dinner times to fit sports calendars, no loud music of a genre I didn’t care for, no arguments about things that drive either parents or their kids crazy. We all settled into the new normal.

Your role as a caregiver will change

Many marrieds find the absence of children a chance to rekindle their relationship, and relating as two rather than three or more (and not counting the dog) may take time. Some couples embrace their new found freedom when their last child leaves home; others need time to adjust to the new normal. At home in our small village in Central New York, I experienced Andy’s absence deeply—more than I imagined he felt mine. Conscious of his unoccupied bedroom and his empty chair at the table, I missed our frequent hugs, spirited conversations and preparing meals together.

We stayed in touch via phone calls and emails. I sent him occasional “thinking of you” cards and goodie packages. He was home for the holidays, an occasional weekend and summer breaks.

The author and her son (provided by Jan Caster)

The author and her son (provided by Jan Caster)

My nest is still empty, but thanks to Facetime and texting, we’re only seconds away from being in touch or a 5½ hour trip by car for together time. It’s a far cry from the weekly call I had with my parents in Oklahoma after I got married and moved to Syracuse.  Back then, long-distance charges kept conversations short and visiting each other once or twice a year meant long plane rides.

Practice Gratitude

Another part of my empty nest was gratitude; I appreciated that I’d raised an independent, soon-to-be productive member of society. Andy graduated from high school, made friends for life and matured beyond his years due in large part to dealing with his father’s failing health. He values family and couldn’t be closer with his brothers, sister, their families, his dad and me.

Now, he lives in Baltimore on Federal Hill where young professionals hang out. He put his degree in economics and English to work at an energy company. He likes his job and has a strong work ethic that’s getting him noticed and promoted.

He’s no longer the finicky eater who lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but has cultivated a palate for sushi, squid and Indian cuisine. Thanks to his college nutrition course, he can cite the platitudes of this or that particular food and has become a connoisseur of coconut oil. He’s at home in the kitchen, and secretly thinks he may be a better cook than I am. Go ahead, make my meal!

Wonder of wonders, he keeps a neat and organized apartment, a far cry from his teenage bedroom with its “carpet” of clean and dirty clothes. (I learned to shut the door and keep my mouth closed about the state of his room. My parenting tip? I boycotted washing and drying the clothes he couldn’t be bothered to sort, forcing him to learn to do his own laundry at an early age.)

The practical and philosophical lessons my husband and I had imparted have paid off. And, if you’re lucky, your child will become your favorite adult friend.

5 Reasons to Embrace Life as an Empty Nester

If you’re about to or have already dropped off your son or daughter at college, here are a few things to look forward to:

  1. No more high school drama. No dealing with difficult teachers or a child’s disappointment when he or she doesn’t make the team or the lead in the school play or doesn’t get asked to the prom. Soon, they’ll realize that high school is “so high school.”
  2. No car on campus? Fewer worries about your young adult behind the wheel.
  3. Better sleep. No tossing and turning until you hear the sound of sneakers on the stairs or the refrigerator doors opening and closing as someone rummages for a late night/early morning snack.
  4. Out of sight, out of mind. While college is when many kids test their wings, as long as they don’t get seriously hurt or ill or in any kind of legal trouble, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Later on, they may regale you with the details of their escapades that frankly, you wish they didn’t. Ignorance is bliss.
  5. Room in the refrigerator for stuff you like. Unfortunately, a smaller grocery bill does not come close to offsetting college room and board costs.

Did I mention more time for you? Hours sitting in the cold and rain at football games, attending back to school nights and visiting college campuses is now “me” time. (Note: You’ll get another big chunk of time back when you don’t have to fill out the college financial aid forms each year. What a relief!)

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • Books about to topple off your nightstand? Tackle the top of the pile before the next bestseller comes out.
  • That furniture you’ve been meaning to refinish? Grab the sandpaper and go.
  • Take a weekend away on the spur of the moment? No need to worry that your teen will become a home wrecker in your absence.
  • Put off that redecorating project for years? Head over to the hardware store and dream in color paint chips. (Don’t start with your college kid’s bedroom just yet; familiarity breeds content when they come home for that first visit.)
  • Too much time on your hands? Take up a new hobby or rekindle one you’ve put aside.

“Let Go.”

Although you may breathe a sigh of relief once you’ve deposited your son or daughter safely at school, take a few moments to reflect and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

In hindsight, what advice would I give my younger self when giving my baby bird his wings?

Let go. It’s the lesson the universe seems determined to teach me again and again. You can’t control most things and certainly no one but yourself. Professor Experience will be one of your child’s best teachers. Consequences speak louder than your words. Most likely your child will emerge on the other side of higher education not only with a diploma in his/her hand, but with the insight that their parents may be smarter than they once believed.

Despite my intent to worry less, like most mothers, I’ll always have a constant prayer in my heart for my child’s health and safety. I’ve learned to respect his choices as an adult and bite my tongue when I realize some things are “none of my business.”

As someone once told me, we never get credit for what we don’t say.

Besides, there’s nothing like the satisfaction of knowing that if and when our children have their own kids, they’ll understand why their leaving home is a sweet, yet sorrowful event.

If you still need some extra help, articles like this helped me re-imagine life after the nest empties.