No dairy. No beef. No strong alcohol. No sugar. No fun? Hardly! At 64, screen and stage star Marilu Henner carries herself with the passion, poise, and pizzazz of many half her age. Her husband, Michael Brown is also 64, but carries himself with the swagger of a young Don Draper. In his youth, Brown was a longshoreman whose travels took him around the globe and into a world of unhealthy habits. Eventually, it led to a diagnosis of bladder cancer. Known for her health advocacy and New York Times bestselling wellness books, Henner walked with her husband through Eastern and Western treatments. Brown, who now runs a successful calendar publishing company (Browntrout), has been in remission for 12 years. They both credit a strict, but livable diet and exercise program which has not only kept them feeling healthy, but looking remarkably younger than their peers.
The pair offer a tale of sweeping romance dating back to 1970 where they met, but never dated, at the University of Chicago. After multiple marriages and the winds of destiny, the two reconnected in 2003 and wed in 2006.
They’ve chronicled the experience of love, both in sickness and in health, in their new book, Changing Normal: How I helped My Husband Beat Cancer. Manhattan Digest caught up with the evergreen couple over breakfast recently to discuss the book, the importance of diet and exercise, the myths of western medicine, colonics, (a lovely topic to discuss over Belgian waffles), and how they keep the romantic torch alive.
MD: When we look at the recent deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and others, we’re aware that no one knew about their health issues. Do you think celebrities have an obligation to be transparent about their medical problems for themselves and their loved ones?
Marilu: Having lost my parents at very young ages (my dad was 52 and died of a heart attack, my mom was 58 and died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis) made me wish I knew then what I know now. If there had been a celebrity out there who had gone through what my parents had gone through and shared information that could have helped my parents, I would have felt grateful that someone was talking about it. Because I became an obsessed student of health and learned how much the human body wants to heal and just how much we can help ourselves by being a little more proactive, I felt a responsibility. I think anyone has a responsibility- celebrity or not- to share whatever information helps them.
Michael: I would also say that people who are very seriously sick often times don’t know it. I think it’s difficult to say that someone should be sharing something when they really don’t know what they have. It’s hard to be on the front lines because you tend to think that you’re healthier than you really are. Plus, you have to hide it in the business world because it is viewed as a weakness–people will seize on that.
MD: What do you say to people who don’t have the celebrity privilege or the health knowledge that you have?
Marilu: There is a bazillion times more information out there than there was in the seventies. It’s not like the information isn’t there if you go looking for it. However, you can’t look at the first or second page as those sites have paid to be there. You have to read a lot of different things that make sense. It took me 8 years to put together a program of eating and health and well-being.
MD: How do you siphon through all of the information?
Marilu: You have to judge by your own results. You have to be smart enough, patient enough, and trust yourself enough to be able to know what is working. Learn to love the food that loves you.
MD: Michael, you were very nonchalant about your health problems before you met Marilu. Was that due to your laid back personality, self-denial, or avoidance?
Michael: Maybe all of the above. One thing is that I considered myself an every-man in the sense of being middle aged and feeling like I was naturally going into decline. I kept going to doctors and specialists who just kept pooh-poohing the bouts of blood in my urine. But I did what the typical male would do. I went to the doctor and followed what they said. I should have dug deeper in retrospect but I don’t think that the way that I dealt with it was abnormal.
Marilu: The book isn’t just about cancer. It’s about a mindset towards health. We have to stop thinking in this country that every time you go to the doctor, if you don’t get a prescription, you really haven’t seen your doctor. Doctors are so quick to take out the pad. We get so used to taking a pill that we don’t recognize the power in a plate of food or stress management or exercise or behavioral patterns—with or without a cancer diagnosis. People are taking 8 to 11 medications around the time they turn 55 and think that they is what they are supposed to do. They think that getting older means depression and malaise. We have to become our own health advocates. We have to know our body.
MD: In the book, you say that patients should question everything they are being told and then you go on to talk about the fact that colon cleansing was an essential part of health until the 1930s. Do you consider yourself conspiracy theorists or skeptics of Western medicine?
Michael: This isn’t a conspiracy. This is fact. The idea that they regulate colon cleansing and outlaw it in certain states is a witch-hunt. There are no doubters among those who have done colon cleansing. Plus, there is also self-interest with the companies who are trying to sell pills. Instead of avoiding foods that cause heartburn and gas, people just take something for it.
MD: Michael, you also write about visualization, a process that “allows you to go deep into the body and see the cancer and from where it came.” I admit to having some skepticism about this technique. How did it help you?
Michael: First of all, visualization is like meditation. It has a calming effect. It also allows you to get deeper into yourself and figure out what’s wrong. I won’t say that you are curing yourself, but it is a stress management technique which makes a big difference. Plus, if you can find out why you got sick, you stop doing whatever it is that made you sick. Otherwise, you’re just fumbling around in the dark.
Marilu: A friend of ours was diagnosed with cancer and all she talked about was “hating”. She hated the cancer, hated her life, hated the procedure, hated the information, and hated her body. She was such a stress bomb. There was nothing in her essence about healing, it was more about hating. Consequently, she did not last very long.
Michael: Visualization is a way of reconciling yourself with your sick organs. Cancer is really a manifestation of your own body. It’s part of who you are and you have to accept that.
Marilu: I really believe that we are going to look back on this period as the dark ages of medicine. We are going to say, “Wait! We used to cut, burn, poison and suppress people’s immune systems and expect them to heal? What were we thinking?!?!” We have to work and strengthen our immune system so that if cancer does manifest itself, your system will be stronger to handle it. That’s what the book is all about.
MD: Is that a possibility given the power of hospitals and big pharmaceutical companies?
Marilu: I keep saying that there is a tsunami of health out there and that better food and information is available to us. When I started eating a plant based diet in the seventies, people thought I was nuts! I had to eat as simply as possible because nothing was labeled. Now, we’re reaching a point when things are changing. But for people who don’t want the normal to change, they will push back.
Michael: You’re going to judge by results and those results will drive people to alternatives. The problem is that peer pressure will cause people to agree to conventional advice of having organs removed. But once they’ve done that, they have regrets and wish they had tried something else.
MD: Do you think that diet is a universal fix for health?
Michael: It’s a universal factor.
Marilu: Right. It’s a universal factor. I think diet is the one thing that we do have control over every single day of our lives. We can’t always control the air we breathe or the water that is available to us but no question about it- diet is a huge part! I saw it in my own life. The problem is that people don’t want to change their normal. You change your palate, you change your life.
MD: You’ve talked about avoiding meats like beef and veal. Is there ever a place for moderation?
Marilu: If you’re really trying to live a healthy lifestyle, being healthy has nothing to do with counting the calories, carbs, and fat of the same old “crappy” food. The “crap” is the “crap.” Does it mean you never have it? No. Have it once in a while. But as your palate changes, you’ll realize that when you eat the “crap”, it won’t taste very good to you anymore.
Michael: It’s very hard to be moderate although it would be desirable. For example, you could say that you will eat meat only on Sundays, but are you really going to stick with that or will you fall back into your old habits of eating them often? What happens to a lot of people who become vegan is that they start to eat faux meat, tofu, faux cheese, all of which are heavily processed. So they’re not eating animal meat, but they are still getting a lot of calories. As your palate cleans up, you’ll start to eat more raw foods and salads and less of all that processed food. That is really the goal.
Marilu: And you feel better too!
MD: What are the basic steps for someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis? What immediate changes does one make an hour after leaving the doctor’s office?
Michael: If it is in early stages, you should step back, look at your lifestyle habits, consider some moderate medical treatments and evaluate all the options before you start cutting, slashing, and burning. If it is stage two and three, then you have to be much more vigilant. If you get a stage four diagnosis, that is another issue altogether. At that point, the lifestyle changes are that much more important if you’re going to survive it.
Marilu: There are unbelievable stories of people who have had stage four cancer who have turned it around. Also, you should get a second opinion, do your own research, go to the doctor with questions, and talk to others who have gone through it, know your family’s health history, look at your dietary habits and evaluate your stress management. You can also write a brief history of your life which helps makes sense of your habits. That is one thing that Dr. Khalsa (who wrote the forward to the book and also treated Michael) suggested that was incredibly helpful.
MD: You lived pretty rough, Michael. I was jealous. I felt that all my youth was wasted!
Marilu: (Laughs) He was like the Dos Equis man.
Michael: You can’t imagine how much I cut out of that book!
Marilu: I was way too straight for him when we met in college- I think I still am. He called me a “girl scout” and I’m not even a girl scout.
MD: Marilu, you wrote that when Michael was in the hospital, you wore your sweat pants to exercise because “there was no reason not to multi-task your own health”. What can you say to the caregivers so they can not only help loved ones, but maintain self-preservation?
Marilu: It’s important to have certain health habits that are just part of your daily routine. It’s also important to stay well hydrated. Know that when the cancer patient gets angry that it has much more to do with what the person is going through than it does about you. Always have something where you can take notes—whether it is an iPhone or a notepad. When people get a diagnosis, the only thing they hear is “cancer” and they go to the place that my acting teacher used to call, “the land where elephants go to die.” So, if you take notes and listen then you can relay that to the patient when they are in a better state of mind. The caregiver has to know that the patient is going to go through a lot of emotional stuff, so they have to stay strong.
MD: I’m sure that many people asked how Michael was feeling, but rarely asked how you were doing.
Marilu: Oh! I don’t care. I’m such a tough bitch (laughs). People can normally tell what’s going on with me. When something is off, they know right away.
MD: Your love story is a love story that everyone wants. What keeps the flame going?
Marilu: Aww! Thank you. I think we really complement each other
Michael: We’re both 64 so-
Marilu: That wouldn’t stop me honey, if you weren’t around, trust me! Or you either (laughs)
Michael: What I’m saying is that health is what it’s all about. If you want to stay vibrant and have a good time in your 6th, 7th and 8th decade, you’ve got to stay healthy.
Marilu: People who complain and give up at a certain age because they’ve been through this or that—I don’t understand it. I just feel like when you have health, you have everything. When you feel good about yourself and can maneuver through your life, you can deal with the roller coaster that life is and handle all the crazy things that come to you.