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How Losing My Best Friend to Cancer Changed My Outlook on Health

(and what could you do for yours today)

I lost my best friend to cancer in February. Michael was 61. 2017 went down as the suckiest year ever because things will never be the same for me. It’s been almost 18 months and I still remember the day he called me. In a very low, what seems to be a 90-year old voice said slowly, interrupted by coughing: “I think I am not going to make it, Anya.”

I was on the plane less than 24 hours later, flying upstate NY to the place where I spent my first year in America.

The last time I saw him a year ago, was when he was still on the list for a bone marrow transplant. He was the most optimistic person I knew when it came to challenges, and he was in good spirits, ready to conquer the disease. He asked for my help with nutrition (I was a few months away from launching my own nutrition coaching business), and gladly, there was something I could do. I was excited to help my longtime friend. He tried for a couple of weeks by adding more vegetables to his meals, skipping sugar and processed carbs, and then things got a bit more stressful nearing the transplant time. He told me “I don’t know how much I have left to live, and I want to enjoy my sweets and snacks”. I was crushed.

It broke my heart, but I knew it was not about me. I knew he could help support his immune system by eliminating sugar and junk. I knew he was scared. I knew he was stubborn – that’s the quality we love and hate in people we love. But I also knew if he took that small step and created a healthier habit, he could have helped himself… In a way, I think he didn’t want to fight. It was easier to eat the same sugar and boxed processed foods as in the last 60 years of his life.

The next few months were promising yet hard. He was going through recovery, slowly and surely. Things were looking up in the summer. I was busy with my new business, and as usual, we talked daily. By Thanksgiving time, though, things had gotten worse. He lost his appetite, blood work did not look good, and he started losing weight rapidly. Then he had a hard time walking, going upstairs (he was stubborn and would go on all fours). I was visiting my parents in Russia, and by the time I got back, things turned worse.

When I saw him in February of 2017, I could only recognize his face. He weighed less than 90 pounds (in comparison to his stout usual 170). He was skin and bones, covered in fuzzy blankets, with skin flaking on his body from the rejection of graft vs host. He had a hard time talking but was happy to see me. He refused to spend the last days of his life in the hospital, and only the closest family members and Hospice were allowed to visit. He’d still try to drink water to stay hydrated, but his body was shutting down. He’d pull pranks on his wife, daughter, and myself to make us laugh. We all cried a lot. He was at peace though. We shared precious and funniest memories, I had a chance to ask for forgiveness for any crazy stuff I pulled off as a college student, to him my second father figure, and we spent 4 days together. Days I will never forget.

He died two days after I visited, peacefully.

I’ve never grieved in my life. Losing grandparents seemed distant and I never really was close to someone like Michael. He was my pen pal back in 2007. I was his adopted daughter and he made sure the entire small town of Adams Center knew what feats he and I have been up to. He bragged about my grades to strangers. Whether it was getting my visa with a help of Senator Gillibrand, helping people after the earthquake in Tibet, saving a cat in the middle of NY winter, raising money for me to graduate (with honors) from one of the best colleges in the country – that’s just the beginning of the list of our adventures.

We exchanged thousands and thousands of texts, phone calls and emails. Our mutual goal always was to make the world a better place, one step at a time. We never gave up. He was there on my graduation date, on my wedding day, on the day I left NY and crossed the country to be with my husband. He was there every day for 10 years of my life, through thick and thin. He took care of my health and well-being more than his own. I’ve never had a friend like that.

That is why I am more resolute than ever. I believe nutrition and wellness of mind are critical to seeing and being with our loved ones.

My nutrition practice has been growing in the last year. Even on the darkest days this year when my thoughts were overshadowed by anger and pain, I would feel a sense of growing happiness when my clients succeeded in their baby steps: quitting sugar, establishing healthy eating habits, sleeping more, and moving with pleasure. I knew that it was the right decision to quit my successful corporate career and do what’s aligned with my calling. I do know that someone out there reading this story will pause and think about what’s more important – to create a healthier living now or to struggle with pain and lose time with your loved ones.

Extending your life might not be on your agenda now, and you may think “I’ll think about sugar and fast food tomorrow”. I’ve learned that even small steps of reducing harmful substances we use can help us feel happier and healthier. Obesity rates reached its peak this year, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Our end is rarely the first thing on our minds, but our quality of life should be. Being healthy in mind and body will make every moment more rewarding.

So this is my motivation for my nutrition practice. Life goals and crazy ambitious adventures can wait. Right now I promise my family, friends, and clients to support them in the art of small steps that lead to our big changes. Getting a bit more water today, eating a bit more vegetables tomorrow, and sleeping in with no regrets on Sundays. Go run that marathon, climb Everest, and visit all the countries you have ever wanted. But remember about today’s tiny challenges that can impact your life, too. Find the person who’ll be your best friend, and enjoy time with them. Remind them how important it is to take care of their health, and don’t forget about yours. Take a small step towards the healthier you.

Michael had a happy and successful life. His work, attitude, and love touched so many souls. I will be eternally grateful to have shared so many days and hours with such a loving, caring, and kind person. I am lucky.

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