Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Posted December 12, 2017

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With Gratitude

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About a month ago, I listened to one of most inspirational talks I have ever heard in my life on the opening night of our conference. It was delivered by D. Anthony Evans. If you saw the documentary Food Choices, you probably remember him - his story is hard to forget.

D. Anthony was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis at the age of six, a genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissue all over the body, including in the brain, and on the spinal cord and nerves. Most of the time the tumors are benign, but they can be painful and cause complications like loss of hearing, cardiovascular disease, and they sometimes can become aggressively cancerous. Like other NF patients, tumors grew all over D. Anthony's body, and he has endured hundreds of surgeries to have them removed.

A horrific disease was not D.'s only problem. His mother died when he was a teenager, and his very promising athletic career ended when he was unable to recover from a surgery to remove a tumor on his knee in time for basketball season.

As an adult, he became a power lifter and ate a typical power lifter diet - whey protein 3 or 4 times per day, 40 pounds of chicken per month, and lots of protein - most of it animal protein. His genetic disease, combined with his animal foods-based diet resulted in the development of malignant cancer and D. was given 6 months to live. He had nine surgeries any of which could have resulted in paralysis, and had 325 tumors removed, one of which weighed over two pounds.

Through a mutual friend he met Buddhist monk and vegan chef Dave Choi, who taught him how to save his life with an optimal diet and a different outlook on life. It worked; it's been over 5 years since D. was given 6 months to live.

Because of his genetic disease, D. has a very high risk of recurrence of aggressive cancer. In order to stay alive, he must remain extremely diligent in maintaining his health. He works out 3-4 hours per day, and is extremely disciplined about his diet. He eats and trains to live; in fact every day during his visit to Columbus he trained for several hours.

I interviewed D. for the Food Choices book, which will be released next year, and I enjoyed our conversation. I invited him to speak because his story was so compelling. I expected him to be good. But "good" does not begin to describe the experience we all had on Friday night when he opened the conference and again on Sunday morning when he closed it. I'm not sure there are words that can convey how powerful the message was that we heard from D. Anthony Evans, but I'll try my best to give you some highlights here.

D. Anthony Evans is a happy guy. He exudes happiness. He smiles - not just a smile but that BIG grin that tells you this guy loves being alive and he is having a great time. What makes this so amazing is that this energetic, can't wait to jump on the stage and get it started guy is in constant, unrelenting pain from his disease. The reason is that the tumors grow on nerves, and it feels like bees are stinging all over the body - all the time. In addition to several hours of exercise per day, he's in constant motion, and he does all of this in spite of the pain. Most people would take drugs and sit down to rest but not D. He takes no drugs and powers through, mentioning the pain almost as a side note - it does not define his life. Not one ounce of self-pity is expressed in the story he tells about his life, his challenges, and how he has overcome them.

What is perhaps most remarkable about D. is that he has a frightening disease, he is in constant pain, and living takes up a lot of his waking hours. Yet his reason for getting up in the morning is to help others. In addition to delivering talks all over the world, he spends time with children who have neurofibromatosis. He attends conferences sponsored by government agencies and organizations that are searching for better options for helping people like him. And he is laser-focused on showing others the power of a plant-based diet and fitness. There's no sense that this guy thinks he's a victim - he's powerful and determined and uses his story to motivate people to join him in practicing optimal habits. In D.'s world there are no excuses. There are only opportunities which you seize and capitalize on or not. The choice is yours. And he makes you feel like you can do it, you want to do it, and you will do it.

Just as important, D.'s gratitude is front and center. The guy is even grateful for cancer - he says that the prospect of dying of cancer led him to the secret of how to live his life. I'm awed by a guy who can be grateful for the most frightening thing that anyone can ever face.

It is therefore not surprising that a room full of people jumped to their feet for a standing ovation both on Friday night and Sunday morning and there was not a dry eye in the room. What followed for me (and I suspect for the others who heard him) was some much needed introspection about myself and my own life.

I am a person who was born with every advantage a person can have. I was blessed with educated parents and doting grandparents who taught me that I could do and have anything I wanted as long as I was willing to work. I had the opportunity to explore dance and music and culture and to travel. I had no real health challenges. Like everyone, as an adult I've had my share of disappointments and situations that I'd like to not encounter again. But compared to D., and in fact compared to most people, I've had an easy life.

And yet...I abused my body with bad food and too much alcohol and partying, and invested no effort in my health as a young adult. I smoked four packs of cigarettes per day for 14 years. I allowed myself to gain weight and become a sloth. And as I look back, I spent a lot of time complaining about...nothing. Things like my plane being late, financial stress, silly disputes with family members, heavy traffic, and other nonsense - these are the things that I'm embarrassed to say I've complained about over the years. I've been a lot better in recent years but after this conference, I can say with assurance - no more. I've got no real reason to complain about anything.

Here's another thing. While having so many blessings and opportunities, and what would be considered by almost anyone a great life - I failed most of the time to express gratitude and sometimes to even notice how wonderful things are. No more of this either. Since November 12, I've found myself fascinated with the sunrise and sunset, I take more time to appreciate and play with my cat. I realize that my back yard literally looks like a metro park and it's mine to hang out in all the time. And most of all, I am so grateful to be blessed with a healthy body and a sound mind. I'm really living in my body right now, appreciating how strong it is, and enjoying health-promoting food and exercise in ways I never have before.

And I have a renewed sense of purpose. While I've always been a driven person, I've had a habit of just converting to "automatic pilot mode" to get work done, check things off the list, and move on to the next task. Activity will move things forward, but purpose results in great big leaps. I now think every day about my/our BIG HUGE GOALS and the bigger picture of what achieving them will mean. I have more energy, more clarity, and I'm more unrelenting than I have ever been. (A bit scary, I know!)

Thank you D. Anthony Evans, for coming to Columbus and touching all of us in such a profound way. I am forever changed, and I will never take anything, including my health, for granted again. I will not allow myself to become complacent, or to fail to appreciate how fabulous life on this planet really is, how blessed we all are to be connected to one another, and how much we have to look forward to every morning when we are lucky enough to have been given another day.