The Ragan Sutterfield interview on ‘This Is My Body’

ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?

If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.

There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.

He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.

Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.

He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)

But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.

And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.

Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.

This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …


DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:

“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”

When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!

RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.

DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.

In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”

You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”


RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.

DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.

RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.

DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.

RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.

DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?

RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.

DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.

RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.

I had this  idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.

DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.

RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.

DAVID: How big did you get?

RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.

DAVID: And now?

RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.


DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.

How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?

RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.

RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.


DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.

RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.

DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.

RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.

DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious  movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.

RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.

I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.

RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.

But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.

I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.


ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

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The Bernie S. Siegel interview on ‘The Art of Healing’

Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.

Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.

A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)

Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.

One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.


DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.

DR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”

DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.

BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.

DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.

BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”


DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.

BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.

This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.

DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?

BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.

We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.

I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.

Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.


DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.

BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”

I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.


DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.

BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”

BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.

DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?

BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”

I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.

It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.

Care to read more?

In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Heather Jose Interview: Learning to thrive—not just survive—in life’s toughest struggles

HEATHER JOSE is passionate about helping millions of Americans with crises like cancer—because she’s been through such a life-and-death struggle herself. Today, she is a nationally known writer, speaker and workshop leader focusing on three groups: cancer patients (helping them play an active role in their cancer treatment), medical professionals (helping them to engage with patients in new ways)—and caregivers (helping them to plan for their own well-being even as they aid others).

TODAY, Heather Jose talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in our weekly author interview about her new memoir, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. At the end of today’s interview, you’ll find several ways you can connect with Heather’s ongoing work.


DAVID: Your title, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, is dramatic! Tell us how that defined your approach to recovery.

HEATHER: Those words really describe the mindset that empowered me throughout this long journey. I was able to take the driver’s seat in my own recovery—and those words also signaled to medical professionals and caregivers that this was our purpose. Some people have told me they are turned off by the word “killing.” Hey, I’m a peaceful person, too, but I think it’s OK to say we’re killing cancer cells. (laughs) After all, that’s what chemo and radiation are intended to do.

I still remember my doctor initially telling me to go home and get ready to “start killing cancer.” I took that instruction to heart and I didn’t want anyone around me to step back from the challenge we faced together.

DAVID: You actually printed these words on a sign, right?

HEATHER: Yes, I tell that story in my book. I made this little sign that said, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, then my daughter Sydney who was very young at the time decorated it with some of her scribbles. I had the sign at home and I took it with me when I went back to the hospital for treatments. I wanted anyone stepping through my doorway to know—that’s our attitude here.


DAVID: Years later, you’ve now crisscrossed the country as a speaker and you also write about these issues in both weekly columns as well as your new book. At the core of your message, you’re still telling people: Attitude matters! You say that a person needs to take charge of his or her life. Why is that so important?

HEATHER: Number 1—no one is invested in you as much as you are yourself. Number 2—you have the ability to make the deepest impact in the most ways. Your doctor can help with medicine. Your husband can make a great meal for you. But, ultimately, you’re the one making most of the decisions throughout each day—so you have to be invested. You have to take charge.

DAVID: OK, that’s an inspiring idea. But you’ve also become a leading advocate for caregivers—the millions of Americans who care for others with conditions like cancer or the disabilities of old age or other health crises. So, how do you balance those two goals: Taking charge of your own care—and actively working with caregivers?

HEATHER: The goal is to identify what you’re good at—then, as the captain of your wellness team, focus on those areas in which you are talented and have energy. Once you understand what you can do, you can supplement that with caregivers who are strong in areas where you’re weak. This isn’t a cookie cutter approach for everyone. You have to start by weighing your strengths and your energy—then find caregivers to do the rest. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised by what caregivers can do, if you carefully organize your team.


DAVID: Your book explains how you did this. Then, your weekly WeAreCaregivers columns give lots of additional tips. But give our audience a couple of examples. Here’s the common situation: A major catastrophe strikes and friends will say, “If you need anything, just call me.” Or, they cook something and show up at the door with a dish in their hands. Neither of those responses is bad—but you say those are just first steps. What do you suggest, when people start offering to help?

HEATHER: First, I need to say: It’s natural that you get a lot of general offers from friends and family. That’s a good thing. People want to help—but, they don’t know what to do yet. That’s why you need to organize. As you’re putting together your caregiving team, it’s your responsibility to tell people what you really need.

One thing you need is accountability. In my case, I needed people in my life who would hold me to a certain standard, have expectations for me. We all get a little complacent and it can be easy to fall into the role of a victim. But with caregivers there to encourage you to participate in daily life and activities that are beneficial for killing cancer, you are much better off.

Here’s another example of how we organized caregivers: At one point in my treatment, we had a three-hour round trip each day for radiation. My husband was working. I didn’t have the energy to drive myself. So, our church let us pass around a sign-up sheet for a transportation schedule. We actually passed it through the pews, inviting people to sign up to make the drive with me. That was a big help and people were happy to do that.

Another example: People wanted to make food for us. But, in my case, my diet was carefully planned. Instead, people provided gift certificates for food. That allowed us to use those options when we really needed them. It gave us choices. We got some pizza coupons, which were wonderful. I couldn’t eat pizza, but my husband loves pizza and he got tired of my diet. So, sometimes, it was great to have an easy dinner with my food for me—and a takeout pizza for my husband. People usually wouldn’t think of this unless you talk it over with friends and family and suggest the idea.

DAVID: Through those years of recovery, you did an amazing job. And you share lots of ideas in your book and your weekly columns. However, you also point out that not all volunteers are up to the task, right?

HEATHER: Yes, you need to be honest with yourself about which caregivers are helping you—and which could be draining you. For example, some people just can’t avoid telling you lots of stories of other people who had cancer, including stories about people who died of cancer. Stories like that really dragged me down. That’s just one example, but it is true: Some people who might volunteer to help are more needy than you are. You can actually wind up draining yourself that way. So, I say: It may sound harsh, but you’ve got to be selfish enough to organize your circle of caregivers to welcome those people who actually will strengthen you.


DAVID: We should explain more about this term “caregivers.” National reports tell us that about one in three American households includes a caregiver. There are millions of men and women doing this work on a daily basis. From your perspective, can you explain the term?

HEATHER: A caregiver is anyone who is providing regular, necessary care for a person who is going through a disease or is challenged by a disability, so this ranges from aiding people with cancer to taking care of a disabled adult son or daughter. One thing we do know about caregivers: Their lives are busy! They’re juggling jobs and family duties and their caregiving tasks. These are normal people—people you meet everyday—who are doing an extraordinary amount of work to help others.

DAVID: One of your major campaigns right now is spreading the word coast to coast that caregivers need more help, right?

HEATHER: That’s right. And the first thing caregivers need is to take care of themselves as well as their loved ones. Here’s the challenge they face: Their time is at a premium. They need to consciously plan how they are going to take care of themselves. How are they going to eat well, exercise, pray or somehow quiet their minds? They can’t refresh themselves if they don’t consciously plan for this.

DAVID: You’ve got lots of suggestions about this. So do other writers who sometimes appear in the WeAreCaregivers website that you host. Dr. Benjamin Pratt wrote a whole book on it, Guide for Caregivers. But let’s give our audience, in this interview, an example: You advise people to keep a personalized list of quick refreshers. You actually tell them to organize the list by the minimum amount of time these activities require—5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes and so on.

HEATHER: Everyone is different. Everyone has a different list, but the idea is to keep adding to your list of things you’d love to do if you just had 5, 10, 15 or 30 minutes. That may sound unworkable. But stop and think about this. For me, if I have just 5 minutes, that’s enough time for me go outside and sit in the sun for those minutes. I love that. Or, I can take a walk through my garden and see if I can find any new blossoms. If I have 10 minutes, I can put together a fast, healthy lunch so I’m not grabbing something at a drive-through window. Those are on my list, but you’ll want to make your own list.

If you’ve got a list, then you’ve got a plan for how to use those brief breaks as they arise in your day. If you don’t think about using those short breaks, then you waste them. This idea is about finding activities that give you some joy and replenish your spirits—and making sure they can fit into your day.


DAVID: You urge people to take a positive approach toward these challenges. In fact, you’re one of the key people trying to change our everyday language from “cancer survivor” to “cancer thriver.” Why are you campaigning for that change?

HEATHER: This is important because your mind can do amazing things. I’m not alone in saying this. Recently, Deepak Chopra was making this same point on one of the network talk shows. Simply changing the way we talk about things can make a big difference.

Here’s an example: I’ve heard people say, “Oh no! This new chemo drug is so painful and it makes me feel so horrible. I hate it.”

That’s a natural reaction, because some of those chemo treatments are horrible. But we could take a different approach and say: “OK, this new treatment may feel terrible, but this is a very powerful drug and it’s really going to kill some cancer cells! I’m ready!”

Those are two ways of responding to the situation. One drags you down; one keeps you in charge of your recovery. Becoming a cancer thriver depends on lots of those small choices we make everyday in our lives.

Another idea? Stop reading all of those labels that detail side effects. Sure, it’s good that we are informed about possible complications. You may want to have someone you trust read the side effects for you. But, here’s the problem: Just reading about them can manifest these problems. A label may say: Can cause cramps in hands. Then, one day, your hand aches and you start thinking: Oh no! I’ve got a side effect! I’m sure of it! Maybe you just strained your hand or you’ve got arthritis.

We become cancer thrivers through making a lot of small choices in our attitudes each day.


DAVID: Faith played a big role in your recovery. You talk a lot about physical fitness, diet and medical options—but you also encourage people to explore spiritual resources, as well. I know that your own community church has been a big help in your recovery. What advice can you share for reaching out to congregations?

HEATHER: First, you need to share with people what’s going on so they can help you. If you want people to pray for you, share honestly and be specific. When I was in the midst of this, my husband and I would tell people about specific tests coming up or other steps in my treatment—so they could pray with us about these milestones.

From the moment I was first diagnosed, our Sunday School group became a core group in my recovery. Sometimes close friends would even come over to our home and pray with us before a particularly big test or treatment or procedure.

I talk a lot more about this in my book, in my columns and in talks I give to groups that are interested in hearing about the spiritual part of this.

DAVID: Unfortunately, studies show that most churches really aren’t well equipped to help people—even though congregational leaders may think they’re good at it.

HEATHER: There’s a lot to discuss about how congregations can respond. We can talk about programs. We can talk about how individuals respond to your condition.

For example, some church people respond by saying: “God’s will be done.” That’s something I come across a lot in Christian groups. And I understand the background of that kind of prayer, but it may not be helpful to people who have just received a diagnosis. That kind of response could signal to people: Just sit back and do nothing—and that’s not a helpful message. I’ve come to believe that we want to form a partnership with God: I’ll do my part as a cancer thriver; and God, I’m asking, will you do your part.

The Bible can help. I know that I loved hearing verses of the Bible that tell us things like: “Have the faith of a mustard seed …” or “Faith can move mountains.”

DAVID: This actually is a wonderful area for churches to explore, because it can lead to church growth—partly through the re-activation of members who have fallen away. We’ve seen this happen in congregations that take caregiving seriously. The problem is that most pastors and lay leaders have never stopped to think about how many caregivers are right there in the community—but have fallen away from active involvement.

HEATHER: You’re right. This is a really big issue that hasn’t been addressed in most churches. First, caregivers do tend to fall away on Sundays. They can’t find anyone to relieve them of their duties on Sundays, so they can’t come to church. Over time, we forget about them. We need to start honest conversations about how many people in our communities are caregivers. If you do that, you’ll be surprised! A simple idea like organizing some rotating respite care to help free caregivers on Sundays—that alone can grow your community. And, there’s so much more you can do. You need to start by asking the caregivers in your community what they actually need.

This is a big, untapped area for congregations. Sure, we all start by praying for people with illnesses or other problems in their lives—but too many people stop there. The result is that we’re abandoning a big portion of our community.


DAVID: In your book, you explain that you summarize your mindset in a one-page “Healing Agreement.” When you give talks and lead workshops, you give participants a copy of this agreement. And now, you’re giving it to people free online—to download and print out for themselves. Can you explain this idea?

HEATHER: Sure. The Healing Agreement came about because we realized that not everyone is an extrovert. Not everyone is ready to charge forward and clearly tell people what they intend to do. It’s tough talking with doctors and health-care providers for some of us.

The Healing Agreement opens up an ongoing conversation between health-care providers and patients—to communicate about what is helpful and what isn’t helpful. We want to empower patients to take a leading role in their own care. And, medical professionals also are better served if they know what’s going on with you as a patient. If you don’t make a commitment like this, there’s a temptation to become passive when you’re receiving treatments. Or you may just focus on the steps for the current medical procedure and never talk to your health-care providers about what you should be doing all the days you’re not in the health-care facility.

DAVID: Where do you see all of this going?

HEATHER: I’m not arguing that we need to spend a lot more money or suddenly find more time. I’m focused on using the tools we already have as individuals to make a better healing environment for everyone. Health care providers can work much more effectively if they train themselves in interacting better with patients. And, if you’re someone with an illness or disability, you need to realize that daily choices you make—often small choices—can have a big impact on the rest of your life.


GET A COPY OF HER BOOK: Click on the book cover above to learn more about Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. The book page allows you to read the Preface by best-selling nutrition author David Grotto, you can see the book’s Table of Contents—and more. To help support Heather’s work, please consider buying a copy of the book.

ENJOY HER (FREE) WEEKLY COLUMNS FOR CAREGIVERS: Every week, Heather hosts the new column—dedicated to freely sharing ideas to help caregivers improve their lives.

FOR CANCER THRIVERS: Heather also writes a quarterly column for Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine.

SCHEDULE A TALK OR WORKSHOP: Heather travels coast to coast, speaking to three kinds of groups: Medical professionals, people whose lives have been affected by cancer and caregivers. She has provided everything from keynote addresses at major conferences—to workshops and classes that count as continuing-education credits. (If you’re interested in scheduling an event, email us at [email protected].)