Sunflowers on the dunes

Prepping for Grad School by Camping

CSU Rams logoIt’s been a long while since I’ve posted anything. With school starting back for most of Colorado, I’ve been busy preparing for the first semester of graduate school as part of Colorado State University’s Master of Communication and Media Management (M.C.M.M.) program through the journalism department (Go Rams!) as well as an increased workload at my workplace, the University of Northern Colorado (Go Bears!).

Originally, I was going to start on a master’s degree program last fall; however, due to my husband’s unexpected health concerns that are now resolved, I dropped out of the program. It’s been over a YEAR since his cancer diagnosis and almost a year since his first of two surgeries. I am amazed at how much he has recovered both physically and mentally, and it was an experience that led me to truly understand just how much he means to me. Life is short, so best to live it up as much as possible as you never know!

Needless to say, I am excited for the challenge of going back to school and hope I can smoothly balance working full-time and on school this semester. In the end, I’m sure this experience will be worth the added stress and result in the academic stimulation I’ve been craving for the past few years.

To mentally prepare, we took a short but thrilling camping venture across southwest Colorado/Utah the week before. Here’s what we experienced:

Arches National Park, Utah

When we entered Arches, it was over 100° and dry enough to make our throats somewhat sore. On the way in, we saw Balance Rock, set to eventually fall and something that would be cool to see, I think!

We set up our tent in the Devils Garden Campground in the northern end of the park in the shade of a Utah Juniper bush. After hydrating ourselves and filling up our camel backs, we hiked around five miles in the Devils Garden loop trails and saw the Skyline (first image below), Pine Tree and Tunnel (third image below) arches.

Mark and I standing under Pine Tree Arch.

We returned to the campground and saw a family of mule deer, chipmunks and lots of mice tracks. On the way out of the park, we hiked to one of the viewpoints of Delicate Arch and then made our way to Mesa Verde park to see the cliff dwellings!

View of Delicate Arch on our way out of the park.

Mesa Verda National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verda offers a chance to view and/or walk around ancient cliff houses, temples and other structures built by ancestral Pueblo people thousands of years ago. We were awestruck by the beautiful and preserved buildings literally made into cliff walls, known as cliff dwellings. Here’s some of what we saw:

Durango, Colorado

Durango is a hip and friendly town nestled in southwest Colorado. Our Airbnb was right off of Main Street, and we got to enjoy some great, local breweries as well as a great breakfast place, Durango Diner, which was amazing, especially the green chili.

Word of advice: parking downtown is nearly impossible if you don’t have a ton of change for the coin-only meters. It was quite frustrating at times. Park in the nearby Kroger parking lot and walk a block or two to downtown as a get-around!

UFO Watchtower and the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

For the second time, we got to enjoy the Sand Dunes outside of Alamosa and this time with friends! Before going to the Piñon Flats Campground, we made a pit stop to a road-side attraction that’s out of this world … literally: the UFO Watchtower!

From alien-conspiracy theorists to photographed sightings, a garden filled with personal items left by visitors and a funky gift shop and artwork, it was definitely worth the experience. I left a half-sand dollar I found years ago on my hometown of Oak Island, N.C., that conveniently was in my car!

This place is the ultimate roadside attraction full of funky personalities!

Afterwards, we met up with friends at the Great Sand Dunes‘ Piñon Flats Campground and explored seven miles of the dunes and nearby landscape. We heard coyotes howling and yipping multiple times each night that we stayed there, which was utterly surreal! We also saw mule deer and tracks of those coyotes during our exploration.

In the midst of the sand dunes with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background and prairie sunflowers up front.
The gang including me (up front) then from left to right: Mark, Jessica, Sarah and Lee.

On our way back home, we stopped by an amazing southwestern restaurant, Salado, in Fairplay, one of our favorite towns (I recommend the Butter Burger).

Outside of the extreme heat in Arches and lack of parking in Durango, the only other issue I had to deal with was a constant leak in my mattress pad where I basically slept on the hard ground for three nights, but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected but it sure did make me grateful for mattresses!

Now onward to achieving one of my life’s goals: attaining a master’s degree!

My Husband is a Cancer Survivor

While driving home from work on Colorado’s US 34 in terrible (as usual) traffic, I received two texts from my husband, Mark, that said:

“Wow…”

“They found a mass in my lung”

I read the texts and almost rear-ended the car in front of me after. I thought to myself, “A what? A mass?? My 29-year old husband could have a tumor in his lung … a cancerous one.”

At that point, I started to disassociate from reality and panic, so I quickly turned down a side road and sped home. That entire drive home felt as if it took forever to get home to him despite speeding down the country roads back home.

Mark in Alaska
Mark posing for a photograph in front of Denali, merely a week away from learning about the tumor.

See, we had just returned from a camping trip in Alaska, and Mark strained his shoulder picking up a bag. He went in for an x-ray at a local urgent care and came out with the discovery of an unknown, large mass in his lung (the size of an egg) that was situated in between three pulmonary arteries.

How could Mark have a tumor? Is it cancerous? What the hell is happening? These thoughts were circling in my slowly dissociating mind. After a biopsy, it turned out to be a non-aggressive, slow-growing, typical neuroendocrine cancer snugly sitting in his right lung’s lower lobe.

Example of tumor of the lung
An example of near the location of where the typical neuroendocrine tumor sat in his lung.

After many sleepless nights, three separate hospital stays that resulted in a total of almost three weeks, lots of blood, fluids and tears, uniportal vats surgery, and two surgeries over three months, Mark is cancer-free and recovering. Luckily, he didn’t need chemo or radiation, but the idea that this rare type of cancer was developing in him since his early twenties with no symptoms was (and still is) an absolutely terrifying thought.

We believe the turmoil has finally ended, and normalcy looks to be within our grasps again, but it was such a strange, emotional and deadening three months. It feels as if the Alaska trip we took in the summer was years ago.

The journey isn’t over as he still has to heal and regain his ability to breathe normally as well as take it easy to avoid any further mishaps. You can never truly prepare for such terrible, medical surprises such as this, but here are 5 things I’ve learned from the experience:

  1. The possibility that something absolutely terrible could happen during surgery
    I didn’t want to let go of his hand right before he was wheeled off into surgery, and when I did, it struck me that if one of those pulmonary arteries was accidentally cut, then he could very well bleed out, and I could very well be a widow. However, you must trust the doctors and medical staff to do what they think is best as well as keep your mind occupied while waiting for it to be over. The panic that loomed over me was too vast for me to even face, but luckily the surgery went well despite it being one of the most difficult surgeries the surgeon has experienced.
  2. Understanding how he/she feels about his/her body and situation
    When I was told that Mark has cancer and must undergo an intense and life-changing surgery, I felt absolutely useless and helpless. I tried and tried to act positive and somewhat normal around him, but in the end, he was the one who had to go through the procedures, stay in the hospital for days or weeks, and face the potential for reoccurrance. The best you can do is stay as strong as possible while keeping on top of those main priorities, such as bills, pets, cleaning and work. Gently remind your spouse that it is okay to let out emotion and stress in front of you and to encourage it.
  3. Physical and mental impacts of the entire experience
    It’s all said and done, right? Not so much. The healing process for lung surgery is delicate and long-term. Mark lost his right lung’s lower lobe in the surgery and can easily tell that he can’t breathe in as deep as before and gets winded easier. Understanding his new needs and limitations takes some time to adjust to especially since we’re both not even 30 years old. With patience, support and laughter, it makes it easier for them to retain control and adjust to their environment again.
  4. The number of people who care about you
    We all get locked into our normal routine of waking up, working, cleaning, eating, sleeping, etc. to the point of taking for granted your relationships with other people. After Mark was diagnosed with cancer, we had outpouring support from family, friends both near and far, coworkers and neighbors. It brought tears to our eyes when Mark’s coworkers donated money to help with future medical bills as well as using Meal Trains to deliver fresh, hot food to us on a daily basis. We were touched when friends would text or call one of us to ask how we were doing along with having neighbors offer to help with yard and housework. It opened our eyes to just how many people care about and support us while going through these absolutely stressful events.
  5. Life pre- and post-cancer and surgery
    Mark looks at life with a different viewpoint after his experience with these events where he is wiser with the concept of mortality, living life and overall love, which isn’t surprising. Getting back up to speed with work and exercise is going to be a rough, but not impossible road. After he completely heals, he wants to train to hike his third Colorado 14er (a mountain over 14,000 feet) next year as a goal … and I’ll be right there beside him along the way.

I hope this brings comfort to others who are dealing with a loved one who has a debilitating illness as you are not alone. I highly recommend finding support groups and legit research articles out there and not click on the first result that pops up in Google Search. My love and strength to you.

We’d like to give a shout-out to the amazing medical and nursing staff at Medical Center of the Rockies and UCHealth. Dr. Ronald Smith is one of only a handful of surgeons in the U.S. who can perform the type of noninvasive surgery Mark experienced. Thank you all for taking care of Mark and making him laugh during his long, long days and nights in the hospital.

Neuroendocrine cancer awareness

3 SEO Ranking Factors to Consider ASAP

What are the most important SEO ranking factors you can focus on for your site? Many people assume that by conducting keyword research and optimizing each and every landing page with said keywords will increase better their overall SEO ranking; however, that couldn’t be further from that truth. SEO is more than merely stuffing keywords into a blog post and hoping for the best. Instead, it can get downright technical and into the nitty-gritty of a site’s structure.

To begin with, the three most important SEO ranking factors to consider for your site include the following:

3 Important SEO Ranking Factors to Consider:

  1. Mobile Responsiveness

    The percentage of smartphone searches has increased worldwide making it impossible to ignore this rapidly rising technology:

    According to a report published on Statista, “In 2018, 52.2 percent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through mobile phones, up from 50.3 percent in the previous year. Mobile currently accounts for half of all global web pages served.”

    Mobile searches statistics in 2018.
    Figure from Statista.

    There are many ways to approach a responsive site to smaller resolutions, and some quick and easy ways involve utilizing WordPress themes or mobile-friendly plugins that can make the journey much easier.

  2. Convert to HTTPS

    If your site is e-commerce or contains any forms that users would fill out with personal information, transition your site over to HTTPS with an SSL. Not only is this becoming an increasing weight ranking factor within Google, but your non-secure, HTTP site will have an uncomfortable message in the search bar next to your domain:

    What a non-secure website will look like as Google continues to roll out its update. This is another big SEO ranking factor to consider.
    Image from blog.ezoic.

    Having 301, one-to-one redirects from the non-secure version of your pages to secure version seems difficult at first, but it’s well worth the efforts (and will make your visitors feel more comfortable, as well). Here’s a great tutorial by Dave Taylor published on Ezoic Blog.

  3. Site Speed

    Google is releasing The Google Speed Update that includes mobile page speed as part of their mobile search ranking considerations this July. Site speed is already a ranking factor for desktop searches.

    Site speed affects user experience especially on mobile phones and is a huge SEO ranking factor.
    Image from Crazy Egg.

    It shouldn’t be any surprise that having a site that loads within a few seconds is vital to, not only SEO and Google but to the overall user experience, as well. There are many actions that you can take to increase site speed. Here are a three out of 20 ways to increase site speed recommended by Crazy Egg:

    • Clean up any unnecessary or old HTML, such as tables or unneeded HTML tags.
    • Optimize your images prior to uploading them to Magento or WordPress. Crop the image to the correct size, save it as a JPEG, and with a resolution of 72 dpi.
    • Optimize a page’s above-the-fold content so it’ll load quicker and is the first thing that users will see after landing on the page.

These three items are urgent for your site. By making your site responsive, fast and secure, you’re taking the best design and development steps forward in improving your site’s standing in Google Search.

Other ranking factors include:

  • Dwell time: How long do users stay on a page after clicking on it from Google Search results or further explore the site after landing on that page?
  • Domain-Level Link Features: High-quality links that point to your site is seen as a ‘vote of confidence’ from Google; your site is seen as a top player in its associated market. Link building and gaining external links has always been a huge factor in ranking.
  • Optimized Pages with Keywords: The more intelligent Google search bots become, the more effort site owners must make in producing naturally-sounding and expert content with related keywords strategically placed. This is the on-page optimization factor where landing pages are updated with keywords in various places within the page, such as meta-title, meta-description, URL, body text, subheaders, image titles and alternative tags, etc.

There are many other SEO ranking factors that go into SEO; however, focusing on these will most likely benefit your site and how Google renders your site the most.