Category Archives: Health

Beating the Odds

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Tony Handler (Courtesy of Jack Hall, Tony’s Grandson)

Eric Lagerstrom, a 29 year old from Gresham, Oregon, may have been the official male top finisher in the 2018 St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which was held on a beautiful April day in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, in the pack of over 3000 participants was an individual that many considered the true winner. Seventy-nine year old Tony Handler had completed his 300th triathlon since his “terminal” diagnosis thirty-five years earlier. “I beat Mr. Cancer again,” said Tony with satisfaction.

Waiting at the finish line, as she had done almost every time before, was his wife, Narda, his childhood sweetheart from Newark, New Jersey. “I think I missed only five races in his entire triathlon career,” said Narda

None of this seemed it would be possible thirty-five years earlier. In 1983 Tony was driving Narda and friends home from an evening out when he was seized by excruciating abdominal pains.  His friend took over the wheel and drove Tony directly to the hospital. The doctors in the emergency room determined that his stomach had ruptured and immediately operated.

Death Around the Corner?

Two days after the surgery, Tony was transferred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The doctors there gave the Handlers the devastating news: Tony  had pancreatic cancer and had at best two more years to live.

Tony, who was forty-five,  refused to accept the diagnosis. After several more surgeries, he was chosen to participate in clinical trials at NIH with nineteen other patients who shared his rare form of cancer.  A willing “human guinea pig,” Tony endured hours of medical protocols, innumerable experimental drug treatments,  and seven surgeries.

While undergoing the  regimen, Tony saw an article that stated  the city of Baltimore was hosting the Bud Lite Triathlon in July 1985.   “I  thought this would be a good way for me to fight the bleak prognosis.” 

Against the Odds!

Tony was not new to athletic competitions. Born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, to first generation Jewish  parents, he had participated in Weequahic High School’s cross country and swim teams, serving as the latter’s captain.

Cheering him on in the stands was Narda Mandell. Shortly after his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’Nai Jeshrun in Newark, Tony had met twelve-year-old Narda and they soon became a couple. “I was—and still am—his biggest fan,” said Narda.

After Narda completed high school and Tony completed his stint in the army, Tony and Narda were married on September 27th, 1959. Narda worked as a receptionist in a bank until their first son was born.

 In 1960, Tony was hired by IBM and spent the next 12 years working and going to Rutgers at night to earn a business degree.  Tony received a promotion to IBM’s  to its Washington DC office, and they moved to Crofton, Maryland, to be closer to the company’s Washington office. In 1983, they were living what appeared to be an idyllic life when their world was turned upside down.

Tony was determined to survive. He set his goal to compete in the 1985 Bud Lite Triathlon. Initially, he could only do a slow walk/run.  As his stamina increased, he began running two, five, ten miles. “Running made me feel as if I were fighting back,” said Tony. He dusted off his bike and rode the Maryland countryside. He found a local pool, donned goggles and a Speedo, and began swimming competitive laps for the first time since his high school swim team days. 

The Main Competition

On July 1, 1985,  Tony completed the Baltimore triathlon, which combined a one mile swim, 24.8 miles of bicycling and 6.2 miles of running. Tony was far behind the winning time of one hour and 55 minutes, but he had won a personal victory. “I only had one competitor,” said Tony, “and that was Mr. Cancer.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cancer wasn’t done with Tony. He faced multiple bouts with six different kinds of cancer, including pancreatic, liver, prostate, and skin cancers, and twenty-one surgeries. 

Through it all, Tony continued his job as an IBM consultant. The management at the company were supportive, never hesitating in giving the time he needed to have the multiple surgeries and finish his recovery. After work and on weekends he continued to work out and participate in triathlons across the United States. “I needed victories wherever I could find them,” said Tony. “Every time  I crossed that finish line, I felt like I beat Mr. Cancer again.”

The Marathon Continues

In 1988 Tony received a promotion to senior consultant and was transferred to Tampa, Florida, where he continued to compete.

By the time he was approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tony had completed 200 triathlons. He set his goal even higher by signing up for the 2000 Florida Ironman Triathlon.  A back injury that was unrelated to cancer forced him to cancel. But in 2001, he completed the Panama City-based competition, which was composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2 mile run. He felt such a sense of accomplishment, he did again when he was 62.

When he retired from IBM in 2003, Tony and Narda moved to Solivita, a 55 plus active adult community located in Central Florida. 

Playing It Forward

As a cancer survivor, Tony was determined to “pay it forward.” Soon after their move, he organized the first annual community-wide three mile walk/run in Solivita to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Beginning in 2012, several Solivita clubs joined together to establish an annual Relay for Life event that supported ACS. Tony’s run/walk was folded into the community’s umbrella fundraising efforts. As of 2018, the combined efforts have raised over $700,000, of which $60,000 was raised by Tony’s walk/run event.

His story of survival and his fundraising have earned Tony state and national recognition. In 2013, Tony qualified to compete in the National Triathlon Age Group Championship in Milwaukee. At the concluding banquet, Tony was given  an award for being the  “Most Inspirational Athlete.” In 2015, Tony qualified to represent the United States on Team USA at the World Age Group Triathlon Championship in Chicago.  

In 2016, Tony was the recipient of the  “Geriathlete” award at the Growing Bolder Awards banquet in Orlando, Florida. He, along with other Central Florida seniors, was lauded for  “pursuing his passions and living lives of purpose while making a difference in the lives of others.    

Determination and Exercise

Sadly, Tony is the only surviving participant of the twenty original participants in the 1983 NIH clinical trials. Doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center continue  to track Tony’s progress and oversee his life-saving medications and monthly chemo injections. His remarkable medical history has been the subject in professional journals and conferences. Researchers agree that what Tony often calls his “crazy exercise routine”appears to have been a factor in his longevity.

Along with their busy life in Central Florida, the Handlers enjoy the pleasure of three sons, one living in Maryland and the other two in Florida with their wives and five grandchildren. 

Tony views the St. Anthony’s Triathlon as another victory against Mr. Cancer, a fight he hopes to continue waging for as long as his body is able to.

“I beat the odds,” said Tony. “I just hope my story is an inspiration to other cancer patients to “NEVER GIVE UP.” 

Handlers

Narda and Tony Handler

Finding Beauty in the Body You Have Now

 

Virginia went to her grave hating her body.

A lifetime member of  Weight Watchers, I had been attending meetings in Clifton Park since 2013. I had reached a goal weight approved by my doctor, but I continued to find the weekly meetings helpful in keeping myself honest as well as connecting with other people—mostly women—who were fighting their battle against the scale.

When I moved to Florida in June 2015, I immediately joined a local Weight Watchers group, where I met Virginia, another “regular” who I guessed was in her late seventies. With the help of her walker, she was always willing to stand up and share her experiences on her weight loss journey. By the end of 2016, she had reached her one hundred pound loss milestone, and her self-confidence grew. Over the last year, however, she plateaued and then saw the scale inch back up. Hoping to lose at least fifty more pounds, Virginia tried hard to reverse her negativity. “Every day, I say to myself in the mirror, ‘Virginia, you are going to reach your goal!’” But she continued to struggle with her weight and self-image.

On August 24, Virginia was noticeably absent. “I have sad news,” said the leader at the start of the meeting. “Virginia passed away this past week of cancer.”

I was saddened, angry, and afraid. Saddened that we didn’t know she was dying of cancer. Angry that she went to her grave hating herself for being overweight, hating the person in the mirror for that number on the scale. Afraid that I too would be obsessed with the scale, not comfortable with my body, until my dying day.

As a young child, I was so small —sixteen pounds at two years old—my nickname was Peanut. But my family’s diet, heavy on brisket and bread and baked good and bowls and bowls of ice cream, along with genetics, finally won out. By eight years old, I was chubby.

When I hit puberty, I lost weight and gained height The good news was that I inherited my father’s long thin legs and striking blue eyes. The not-so-good-news, at least in my “striking blue eyes,” was that I also inherited my paternal aunts’ broad shoulders, short waists, and tendency to pile on the pounds. While never medically obese ( 20% over one’s ideal weight) my entire adult life, I found myself at times overweight. I joined Weight Watchers for the first time when I was twenty-six, beginning a lifetime of cycling in and out of weight loss programs.

Wherever I am on the scale, I have always been thankful for a healthy, strong body. My health indicators—blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar— are all in the normal range. I bike, hike, walk, take exercise classes, But l still have found myself unhappy with my weight and my body image.

While doing research for this article, I found that I am not alone. A 2012 study of women fifty and older published in International Journal of Eating Disorders found  that 71% were currently trying to lose weight; 79% felt that weight or shape played a “moderate” to “the most important” role in their self-concept; 70% were dissatisfied with their weight and shape compared to when they were younger; and 84% were specifically dissatisfied with their stomachs. In a similar study published in 2013 in the Journal of Women and Aging found that the majority of women aged 50 and older are not satisfied with the way they look, with only 12% of participants sampled reporting body image satisfaction.

The causes of obsession with the scale and our perceived negative self-image are as close as the television in our living rooms, the magazines on our coffee table, the movies playing at our local theater, the advertisements bombarding us daily. In a 2013 article on women’s body image in Slate, Jessica Grose notes that media images of ridiculously thin women surround us.”We live in a culture where thinness and beauty are highly valued for women and wealth and success are often considered to go hand in hand with a slim figure.” She cites the resulting negative effects: a preoccupation with diet, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and/or never feeling that one’s body is adequate.

The damage that such images creates starts in girls as young as nine and ten (over fifty percent feel better about themselves if they are on a diet) continues into middle age and, as in the case of Virginia, persists into old age. In her article Body Image: How It Affects Middle-Aged Women, Crystal Karges captures the continuum.  “The little girl who once felt ashamed of her body or unsure of her place in the world may find that she is still unable to accept or love herself in the later years of her life.”

Maybe society is changing. The Fat Acceptance movement seeks to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes. Companies including JCPenney, Nike, and Unilever have launched campaigns meant to change how gender is portrayed in their advertising. Even Mattel, who has faced criticism that its female dolls promoted unhealthy body ideals,  underwent a revolution.The 2016 line of Barbies introduced three new body types in addition to the stick-thin original—tall, petite, and curvy (or what I like to call zoftig).

My reaction to Virginia’s death and my subsequent research has been a learning experience for me. I now recognize that I can honor Virginia’s memory by being more accepting and appreciative of my own body—strong, curvy, healthy, imperfect—and  of those of others, no matter what their size and shape. I have promised myself to focus less on the number on the scale and more on the benefits I can obtain from maintaining a lifestyle that includes healthy food choices, regular exercise, moderation, and a positive attitude.

In the mold breaking JCPenney ad, one of the “real women” represented states, “You can’t love your body for what you hope it turns into without actively loving it for what it is today.” Virginia and all of us women who battle the scale and, more importantly, our self-image, need to love ourselves where we are right now.

RESEARCH

Cooper, Grace. “5 Empowering Ad Campaigns That Are Breaking the Beauty Mold.” July 6, 2016. https://verilymag.com/2016/07/positive-advertising-womens-body-image-beauty-standards-dove-nike 

Farrar, Tabitha. “Body Image of Women.”  2014 https://www.mirror-mirror.org/body-image-of-women.htm

Grose, Jessica. “Only 12 Percent of Older Women Feel Satisfied With Their Bodies.“ November 4, 2013.  older_women_and_body_image_only_

12_percent_of_women_50_and_older_feel_satisfied.html

Kargas, Crystal. Body Image: How It Affects Middle-Aged Women. July 18, 2017.  https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/body-image/body-image-how-it-affects-middle-aged-women

McConville, Sharon. “Middle Age Women and Body Image.”  June 29, 2017 https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/older-women/body-image

I Can See Clearly Now……

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A lifetime of eye care is getting recycled!!

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who opens the eyes of the blind.” Morning Blessings, Shacharit

As our congregation recited the prayer this Rosh Hashanah, this line of the traditional morning prayers took on much more meaning. After struggling with extremely poor vision since elementary school, I will no longer have to rely on corrective lenses. As Johnny Nash sang, “I can see clearly now. “

No one was surprised when I needed glasses when I was six years old. Near-sightedness was rampant in my family, and my parents and two older siblings were already wearing glasses. My vision, however, was complicated by amblyopia, a condition when the vision in one of the eyes is reduced because the eye and the brain are not working together properly. In my case, the right eye wandered towards the extreme right. In 1956, surgery was not an option. Instead, I was given a black patch to wear on my left eye to force the “lazy eye” to get stronger.

I wish my parents had been more persistent, but I was embarrassed and defiant and refused to wear the patch. The vision in my right eye continued to deteriorate, and my left eye also was very near-sighted. By the time I was in junior high school, my glasses were noticeably  thick, only adding to the self-consciousness of  teenager who also suffered from acne and what I perceived as a Jewish nose. When I was sixteen, I was fitted for a pair of glasses by an ophthalmologist who told me my vision was too bad for contact lens and predicted I would be blind by my twenties. When I brought the glasses home, they were so thick they looked like coke-bottles. I threw them across the room and cried myself to sleep.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I was able to get another pair of glasses with lighter material that were not as ugly. But in my yearbook picture, the thickness of the lenses were the dominant feature.

When I arrived at University at Albany, I was very self-conscious of my glasses,  and they proved to be a source of embarrassment. One time, my roommates thought it would be funny to hide my glasses when I was in the shower. I burst into tears and begged them to help me find them, as I didn’t have the sight to search for them. I hit my lowest moment was when my girlfriend’s cute  but clueless boyfriend didn’t respond to me when I was talking to him. “Gene,” Linda said, “ Marilyn asked you a question.” “How was I supposed to know?” he answered. “Her glasses are so thick you can’t see her eyes.”

At the end of my freshman year, I was experiencing very bad headaches. Doctors at the  University at Albany health center referred me to a local ophthalmologist. “You are extremely near-sighted,” the wonderful doctor stated. “Have you ever considered contact lenses?” I wasn’t going blind. I was a candidate for contacts!  I was measured, fitted, and scheduled to pick them up the first week of summer break.

I will never forget the day I first put those tiny hard lenses in my eyes. I walked outside and saw the leaves on the trees in all their beauty. For the first time in my life, my eyes were causing tears of joy.

The lenses not only improved my vision but also my self-confidence. Behind those coke bottles were my family’s “Pearlman-blue” eyes, eyes the deepest color blue. Helped a little by the blue tint on my lenses, my eyes became my best feature. “Has anyone ever told you that you have the most beautiful blue eyes?” strangers would tell me. “Yes, they have!” I would reply,””but you can tell me again.”

For the next fifty years, contact lens were an integral part of my life. I popped them in the minute I woke up in the morning, and I popped them out just before I went to sleep. I was literally blind without them, but the world was a bright, sharp 20/20 with them. I used eye glasses only when absolutely necessary. Regular eye appointments kept me on track.  “Lasik” surgery was not an option for many years because of the severity of my myopia. When the surgery was perfected, my doctor suggested I wait.  My family history, which had predicted corrective lenses, also predicted a high chance of the development of cataracts, a common eye problem seen in over fifty percent of the population by the age of eighty.

When I moved to Florida, I immediately established myself with a local eye doctor. Last fall, he told me that I had the beginning of cataracts. By this spring, the one in my right eye, which had been deemed as “insignificant” only months before, was growing fast and significantly impacting my vision. As soon as my husband Larry and I returned from our summer travels, I scheduled the surgery for the last week of September.

By Rosh Hashanah services less than a week later, I was able to greet fellow congregants, see the rabbi on the bima, and follow the entire service in our prayerbooks with no corrective lens in my right eye and my faithful contact lens in my left. The follow-up appointment has confirmed that my right eye is a nearly-perfect 20/25.  After surgery for the cataract in my left eye is completed, I will be free of corrective lenses for the first time in sixty years.

Because of my poor vision, I have  never felt confident climbing up the steps to the huge slides at water parks   As soon as I have medical clearance, however, a  friend and I are heading to Wet ’n Wild in Orlando.  Who knows what’s next? Sky diving?  Why not? I can see clearly now. Wheeeee!