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Birds and Healing

Birders are well aware that even the unlikeliest of things can sometimes come true. Rarities and mega-rarities bring us so much joy, but an unlikely thing made this past year a very difficult one for me. For the second time, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, this time Stage 4. I thought I had beaten it three years ago, but last March I learned of a sizeable tumor in my liver, one of the most common places where colon cancer spreads. I would need months of chemotherapy, one major surgery, and several minor procedures, along with canceling my upcoming wedding, stopping work, and moving back in with my parents. It was hard.

Even so, there was Joy. Literally, there was Joy. Joy is a nurse who’d worked with me the first time around. I’d liked her a lot then, even though we hadn’t figured out that we were both birders. This time, she saw a post of mine on the local bird club’s website, and she made the connection. Even though I was no longer receiving care in her department, Joy found me. I never told her when I had an upcoming appointment, but almost every time I sat in my chair to receive chemotherapy treatments, prep for CT scans, or wait for the oncologist, Joy was there, and we talked birds.

Birds are good for healing. It must be something in their vitality, the way they move through the world with such seeming ease, easily passing through physical barriers the rest of us would find difficult or impossible to overcome. It is easy for the mind to wander to birds while hooked to an Oxaliplatin drip.

I’d hoped that while I received treatments I could at least continue working on my writing, but I soon learned that was impossible because of a thing called “chemo-brain,” a mental fogginess that destroys a person’s ability to concentrate. I remember the way that nasty stuff felt inside my head, and I appreciate the ability to coordinate my thoughts on birds and nature into writing all the more now.

So birding became even more important. It was my only passion I had left. I went through two migrations while on chemotherapy. I can’t understate how much birds helped me. Sometimes I would be too tired and sick to even go outside, and sometimes I would push it and suddenly become so exhausted I would need to lie down on the forest floor and sleep while my fiancée Adrienne sat beside me. But on each of the days I felt strong, we were outside, seeking warblers in South Florida’s tropical hardwood hammocks and waders in its wetland expanses.

Halfway Through

Adrienne and I birding outside a hardwood hammock, halfway through the treatments.

I even saw a few life birds. There was the trip to Key West Adrienne and I took before my liver resection. I had the chance for two lifers, Brown and Masked Booby, at Dry Tortugas. Then a miraculous Red-necked Stint appeared on a nearby key. We searched twice, along with dozens of other birders, and missed it, until someone posted a report of the bird having been relocated. We arrived, and Joy was there, waving us right over as if she’d been waiting for us the entire time. There, pumping along the beach between two Semipalmated Sandpipers: a Florida state first and lifer, the Red-necked Stint.

I may be young for cancer, but beyond that I don’t think what happened to me is particularly unique. Lots of people go through what I went through. The point of it all is: birds are healing, but birders are healing too. Joy may be the most appropriately named person I’ve ever met, but any of us can be Joy. Any of us can help someone pass through barriers that would otherwise seem difficult or impossible to overcome.

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Bill Schmoker

    You rock it, Frank! Very inspirational story and indeed amazing how birding can be the beacon that gets us through something as serious as your cancer or as minor as a crummy day at work. Keep on healing & keep on birding!

  • Sharon Johnston

    Reading your story was a wonderful way to start my day. Thank you. Best of luck.

  • Nick

    Hang in there Frank. Good birding.

  • cestma

    How beautifully said!

    “Birds are healing, but birders are healing too.” I’ve realized the first sentiment many times…but clearly need to pay more attention to the latter one. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Marcella

    Amazing piece of writing, Frank. You are as gifted a writer as ever–don’t let chemo/brain fog try to tell you otherwise!

  • Jolene S

    Lovely. I had a similar kind of year, from diagnosis and surgery in April to the end of my chemo treatments in October. On all but my worst post-chemo days, I usually still managed a walk around the block, or several blocks to the local park to see the sun set over the lake. On these outings even the most mundane bird sighting would bring a momentary thrill. One Sunday in May when I could only make it to the back steps, I was visited in the backyard by several migrating warblers I had never seen there before. Thanks for putting this feeling into words, your chemo brain is definitely on the wane!

  • Sarah Mayhew

    Wishing you the best Frank. I have struggled with Chronic Lyme disease, with debilitating pain and fatigue and chronic migraine headaches for 25 odd years. I have also had cancer and so I can at least relate to your story. Birds always get me through. I am a serious bird photographer. Even if I can only sit down and wait for birds to show themselves instead of hiking around looking for them which I’d rather do, they always bring me joy. They are healing along with beautiful days out in the woods or by the ocean. When dealt health challenges doing what you love is key. Take good care of yourself and happy birding!

  • Wendy Catbird

    Pittsburgh is my hometown… I hope it’s treating you well! Keeping my fingers crossed for you, and hoping that the birds continue to bring you happiness.

  • Robert S. Mulvihill

    Thank you for this, Frank. I wish you and Adrienne well. And I wish you Joy (and joy!)
    And birds… and many, many more birds!

  • Chris D

    What a wonderful post!! I wish you the best in your recovery and salute you for your excellent perspective – very inspiring.

  • Quentin Brown

    Awesome story. Wishing you the best of luck in your recovery.

  • Madeline

    “… I would need to lie down on the forest floor and sleep while my fiancée Adrienne sat beside me.”

    Frank, thanks for sharing your story, and Adrienne, thanks for sitting beside Frank in the forest!

  • Jane B

    Thank you for sharing your touching story. Prayers for healing and more wonderful birding moments.

  • Jody Enck

    As a cancer survivor and birder myself, Frank’s story resonates deeply with me. Stories like this provide that essential sense of belonging that simply does not happen from articles about how-to-do it, what-to-see, where-to-go aspects of birding. Frank’s message, at least to my eyes, is more about being a birder than it is about going birding. There is a fundamental difference that just speaks to me. Hang in there, Frank. By touching so many people’s lives through your writing, I have no doubt that your life will also be touched by others. Heal well, heal quickly.

  • Don Weiss

    Frank, Shannon Thompson shared your story with me. Your writing is very inspirational indeed. You have a gift that will help others in your situation. People need to hear these stories so they do not feel like they are the only ones. Knowing that we all have trials in our lives makes the difficult times easier to bear. I have to tell you that you are not too young to be going through this. You do, however, have the gift of youth on your side. Stay strong, stay active, stay positive, stay the course. And yes, birds are a gift for people like us who have these things to deal with. They bring joy and excitement to our lives. I speak from experience as I am a 3 time survivor, lost my wife to breast cancer in 2011, her second round, and have a 25 year old son that was diagnosed on Christmas Eve 2013. It has been a long road. I make my oncologist very nervous as I have been off chemo since Feb, 2012. We are best friends. It’s funny how having cancer completely changes your outlook on life. All those things that were so important before are almost laughable now. Every day is a gift that we can cherish or throw aside. I don’t waste many anymore. Our family has been dealing with this since 1999. I am still here and going strong. I am, however, ready to go if God calls me home. I got out just yesterday for an afternoon of shooting hawks, eagles and sunsets. Keep forging ahead, keep writing your beautiful story, and if you find yourself needing someone to unload on, feel free to contact me. I an signing in with FB so you have a link. Good luck, God bless, and good scans!! Don Weiss

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