Originally published — 7:23 p.m., June 8, 2007 Updated — 10:50 p.m., June 8, 2007
Editors note:Recent Gulf Coast High School graduate Gregory Lang has battled cancer since he was 3 years old. In February, doctors said Greg had about six months to live. Greg, his sister, Kaitlyn, and their late father, Gregory Weber Sr., suffer from a rare genetic condition, Li- Fraumeni syndrome, causing recurring cancer. The Naples Daily News is following his continuing story.
Gregory and Kaitlyn Lang are trading their childhoods for a chance at adulthood.
They will say farewell to typical teenage fare. Goodbye burgers, tacos and pizza. No more ice cream, cake or cookies.
The pair plans to forgo all temptation — meat, dairy, bread — for the rest of their lives.
Starting Sunday, they will go cold turkey — without the turkey.
Greg, 18, will make the trip to Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach out of necessity, to prolong his life with cancer past doctors’ grim prognosis.
His sister, 16-year-old Kaitlyn, who battled leukemia as a child, will adopt Hippocrates’ raw vegan eating program in hopes of never needing to fight again.
They share a common goal: to make their lives of strenuous sacrifice as long as possible. And for the next three weeks, they’ll share a room, a schedule and, maybe, some inspiration.
"This is a huge step for me, as a mom, because I’ve never left either one of their sides," Ann Lang said. "But I keep focusing on the end result, and I’m so proud of them.
"They need to do this for themselves. My holding their hands can’t help them anymore."
The alternative health-care center is nutritional boot camp. For three weeks, Kaitlyn and Greg will learn to dismiss their teenage cravings through a rigorous schedule of seminars, food preparation courses, workouts and meditation periods.
If the program is successful, Greg’s cancer could be reduced to a manageable state, increasing his life expectancy by months, years, or even decades.
If it’s not, Greg said, nothing, not even hope, will be lost.
"It won’t be a waste of time," Greg explained, his smooth, baby face stony with determination. "If it doesn’t work, for some reason, I’ll know I tried my best with that option, and I’ll have to try something else."
"That’s my baby," Ann said, beaming. "Always optimistic."
After receiving a terminal diagnosis in February, Greg sprung to action, weeding through dozens of options as stories of possible solutions poured in from generous strangers.
As the fatigue and back pain grew, from expanding cancer spots on his pelvis, femur and spine, Greg continued to balk at the idea of more chemotherapy. Previous chemotherapy treatments made Greg sick, and did little to improve his outlook.
The addition of chemotherapy chemicals to Greg’s already fragile body could destroy his immune system, rather than repair it.
"Chemo didn’t work the first time, and doing it now would be the same," he said. "Chemo is a poison. It doesn’t just kill the bad stuff, it kills the good stuff, too."
Greg weighed his options, and settled on the somewhat obscure Hippocrates program, which he learned about when a stranger sent information to Greg’s Gulf Coast High School principal.
"It just makes the most sense," he said. "It can’t hurt me at all. It can only help."
By weeding out all preservatives from his diet, doctors at Hippocrates hope to cleanse Greg’s body, boosting his immune system as he battles his disease. Adding an exercise routine will increase Greg’s energy levels, and hopefully his waning appetite.
"My goal is to help improve my situation," he explained. "I want to have some more time, as much time as possible, and improve the quality of that time.
"I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to make the change, because I know it’s how it has to be."
As her brother watched, Kaitlyn spent this week gorging herself on taboo foods: meatloaf, Chick-Fil-A, pasta.
"It’s so funny to see their two different personalities," Ann laughed. "Greg wants to stop eating those things now, because he figures, ‘Why bother?’ and Kaitlyn wants all she can get."
"I just want to keep going with it," Kaitlyn reasoned. "I never want to eat meat again, so I’m getting all I can now."
Unlike Greg, Kaitlyn had a difficult time deciding whether she would visit Hippocrates and adopt the fruit and veggie life plan.
Kaitlyn suffers from the same genetic condition as her brother, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, turning the possibility of recurring cancer almost into a certainty. Because she is currently healthy, it may be more of a challenge for Kaitlyn to stay motivated.
"Mine’s a self-choice. He kind of has to do it," she said, motioning to Greg. "It’ll be tough, but I really want this, so I guess that will be my inspiration."
By choosing the responsibility of maintaining the stringent plan, the Gulf Coast 10th-grader is sacrificing her youth sooner than her brother, who graduated last month.
During her bout with leukemia at age 8, Kaitlyn put on extra weight, from the steroids she was forced to take. Dropping the few unwanted pounds will be the icing on the cake she can no longer eat.
"It’ll be hard, because I don’t want to give up eating the things my friends eat," she said. "I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am, fighting cancer, and I want to finish what I’ve started."
The Hippocrates plan can’t be called a "diet." It’s a far cry from the popular Atkins or South Beach diets.
Adoption of the vegan eating regiment is nothing short of a lifestyle overhaul.
"You can’t go back," Kaitlyn said. "If you were to start eating meat or preservatives again right away, you would get sick."
"It’s going to be life-changing, like having a baby," Ann explained, as her children, and Greg’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Brianna Hanson, laughed at the analogy.
"Well, it is!" she cried out, hushing them. "It’s going to be completely different from everything you’ve ever known."
Ann, the kids’ adopted father, Tim Lang, and Brianna admitted they will be forced to make some big changes in compliance with Greg and Kaitlyn’s new lifestyle.
"I don’t think I’ll have a choice," Brianna giggled. "It’s going to be hard for (Greg and Kaitlyn), but it’s going to be really good for them."
"I think I’m going to learn from the kids," Ann seconded. "In time, we’ll ease into it, just like any other change."
Though they’ll be shirking their teenage eating habits, Greg and Kaitlyn won’t leave their childhoods completely behind. The twosome have already conspired to rig their wireless laptop computers so they can watch television while they are away.
"I think this will be a great re-bonding for them, without any outside clutter," Ann said, rolling her eyes as the restless teens battled for room on the family’s leather couch.
"They’ve gone through so much together in their lives. I’m glad they’ll have each other for this next step."
Today`s Christmas is sometimes referred to as a consumerist orgy — an annual festival of unbridled commodity purchases aimed at expressing how much we care for others. But there are fundamental contradictions in the "tradition". Indeed, today`s Christmas (wouldn`t be what it is had it not been for the power of both the Church and, much more recently, corporations to tame and shape another, more traditional, kind of orgy.
The origins of Christmas can be traced back to the 3rd century AD, when the emerging religion Christianity and the Church hierarchy sought to eclipse remaining cultural influences of the Romans and snuff out an annual pagan festival called Saturnalia. Saturnalia took place every year to signify the end of the growing season, a time to enjoy a final taste of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats before they were dried and stored for the winter. It also marked an annual orgy; a week of drinking, over-indulgence and sinful excess; a remarkable surge in childbirths followed nine months later.
The Church hoped to end the debauchery by falsely declaring December 25th as the day of Christ`s birth. Villagers and peasants throughout Europe subsequently were expected to worship the Virgin Birth at the end of the year, instead of celebrating nature`s produce and one another.
Unfortunately for the Church, cultural change tends to be slow, especially when trying to transform those aspects of culture that most enjoy. Centuries later, for a few decades preceding the American Revolution, leaders of various Protestant sects in New England gave up even trying to change public behavior on December 25th and banned Christmas altogether.
However, about 150 years ago, another group of powerful interests sought to change the meaning and celebration of Christmas. Just as the Church tried to reform the cultural norms of the Romans, an emerging corporate elite sought to transform how people behaved at the end of December. Rather than a time of communal debauchery or, subsequently, a period in which all were expected to worship Christ, corporate interests looked for opportunities to change Christmas into a time for individuals to purchase and exchange commodities.
Unlike the Church`s efforts, the corporate transformation proved incredibly successful, probably because it involves a way of celebrating that many, at least to some level, find hard to resist. For thousands of years people found meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and, pleasure through their relations with others; and Saturnalia, was certainly one of most exciting of these communal events.
Alongside industrialization came the fragmentation of communities into individualized contract workers. And with urbanization and its displacement of millions from their villages and traditional extended families came a kind of social-psychological vacuum. Accompanying this growing culture of isolation and emptiness was a broad range of "inventions" primarily developed to serve the interests of corporations, including electricity, the telegraph, and the Department Store. Together, they facilitated further urbanization, more efficiency, and importantly, more potential sales. The Department Store, for example, became a central gathering place in most cities; people were free to browse and, for the first time, were not expected to buy anything. Through the magic of electrical illuminations, potential customers now could see all the goods and potential lifestyles available to those hard-working individuals with money.
For Department Stores and the capitalists behind the production, Christmas soon became an opportunity to sell more goods by associating these commodities with social-psychological needs emerging in people`s lives. As urbanization and industrialization proceeded, corporations successfully associated Christmas with what we now take for granted; December 25th became a time for individuals and families to re-unite and, in the absence of truly intimate relationships, familial bonds were expressed through an exchange of purchased clothes, toys and innumerable other products.
Quite suddenly Christmas had become a family holiday, something quite different from what the Church originally intended when it labeled the day as Christ`s birth. Also, through the mystical re-manufacturing of Christmas by corporations as a day - and now a "season" - for buying and exchanging gifts, the emerging world of atomized relations and fragmented communities could them-selves be exploited as a social-psychological vacuum in which the selling of commodities could be perpetuated.
Today, through the twists, turns and power interests shaping history, Christmas again has become a time of debauchery. From its roots as an agrarian pagan orgy, followed by the attempt to transform it into a religious holiday for the community, it`s now become another kind of orgy, this time a capitalist one.
In our economic system, this faith in Christmas as a celebration of love through consumption has become so deeply entrenched, it exists in the very marrow of our cultural existence. But more significantly, and paradoxically, its ascendancy has paralleled the near collapse of the bases of life and love itself the environment in which we all live.
Over these past 150 years, humanity has consumed more of the earth`s resources and has caused more ecological damage than all the generations, living tens of thousands of years before the mid-19th century, combined. Now, the "developing" world is being told about the wonders of our consumerist religion, and Christmas is being used as a core means of promulgating the faith; a faith being promoted even in non-Christian cultures.
During this annual period of mass manipulation and worship of consumption that is ever-more tenuously disguised as a Christian holiday, I think we might want to peel back the mythologies surrounding this particular celebration. The holiday`s superficial embrace of the family and exploitation of humanity`s search for meaning and identity, in the name of selling, cannot survive if we strip away its veneer and refuse to play the games associated with its mystical, commodities-equals-love` equation.
Instead, let us celebrate Christmas in the spirit of the original Roman festival let`s have a really good time as members of a community rather than just individuals and fragmented families. Even better, give everyone you know (warning: here comes a Madison Ave clich) "the gift that really matters." Refuse to use cash as an expression of your feelings. By not taking part in our religious celebration of commodity exchange, not only will we make a tiny dent in the capitalist machine that eats away at our ecological existence, we`ll also remind ourselves (and others) that time and community need to be embraced more than money and isolation.
Above all else, by taking even a small step in challenging our culture`s latest version of Christmas, we begin the process of collectively realizing that, as human beings, we manufacture our own existence. Indeed, we`ve even manufactured something as seemingly timeless and sacred as Christmas.
Instead of an orgy of consumption, I`d like to think that we can apply our faith and mystical resources towards cultural vibrancy, the nourishment of community, and a belief system based not on happiness through consumption but, instead, on happiness through creativity and environmental sustainability.
On December 25th let`s toast the beginning of yet another re-invention of Christmas, this time with an emphasis on savoring the joys of being part of a community with an emphasis on an emerging ecological peace on earth.
Let the new orgiastic Christmas tradition begin!
Edward Comor is an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada.
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