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Archive for January 23rd, 2022

‘I’ve got terminal cancer. Here’s why I’m prioritizing travel’

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Kris Sokolowski has always been active, spending his free time mountain climbing, running and practicing martial arts.
And at every opportunity, he could be found boarding a plane, en route to explore the world. On his first official date with his now wife, Sokolowski booked flights to South Africa for two weeks. The couple have a son, now 11, who also joins them on their adventures.
Sokolowski’s outdoor pursuits have helped keep him healthy. At his last yearly physical checkup in December 2020, his doctor called him “Iron Man.”
But around six months after that appointment, Sokolowski started experiencing what he describes as an “odd feeling” in his stomach.
“It was kind of like a gurgling, like you’re hungry. And it just wasn’t going away for a couple of days,” he tells CNN Travel today.
Sokolowski went to get checked out and was told it was olukai shoes likely acid reflux. He was given some pills and sent home. A couple days later, the gurgling sensation was still there, so he sought further medical advice and a scan, after which he was told to see a gastro specialist right away.
Sokolowski’s doctor told him there was a “big mass” on his colon and liver and he suspected late stage-four cancer. Stage four is the most advanced stage of cancer and usually means it has spread from its origin.
“My first reaction was, ‘How can this happen? I’ve never missed an appointment,'” Sokolowski recalls.
But at 48, Sokolowski hadn’t been old enough for recommended regular colonoscopies in the United States (the age has since lowered to 45). And until the gurgling sensation, he hadn’t experienced any symptoms.
An MRI scan, colonoscopy and tissue sample confirmed the worst: Sokolowski had stage four colon cancer.
“The MRI showed it in six places on my body,” says Sokolowski. “So it was my colon, my liver, my sternum, my spine, my lymph nodes, and the walls of my abdomen.”
Oncologists told him there was no cure for his condition.
“They gave me a lifespan between two and a half and five years to live,” he says.
Love of travel
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The Sokolowskis traveled to China in 2015, here they are on the Great Wall.
Atlanta-based Sokolowski is the first-generation American son of two Polish immigrants. He says his love of travel stems from the many childhood summers he spent back in Poland. In his 20s, he started traveling whenever he could, regularly exploring Europe.
When Sokolowski met his wife Elizabeth in his thirties, the two realized they were united in a thirst to see the world. That first date in South Africa sealed the deal, and the couple were married six months later.
“When our son was born a year later in 2010, we made a commitment that every year, we would take him out of the country,” says Sokolowski.
It’s important to the couple to introduce their son to cultures and experiences outside of the US.
Since he was born, the family has been to 19 countries and counting.
“We both work for corporate America, but we save up all year, and usually take about three weeks to travel, whether it’s Asia, the South Pacific, Europe, wherever we can go.”
Solowski says he and his wife always look forward. They rarely return to the same place, and focus on how they can make the best of their current circumstances and plan something exciting for the future.
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Here’s the family in Seoul, South Korea.
It’s that attitude that Sokolowski brought to his terminal cancer diagnosis.
He says he’s on the highest dosage of chemotherapy available. He was warned by doctors of side effects of fatigue, vomiting, hair loss and weight loss.
“I said, Look, I’m a young guy, I’m 48 years old, I have a 10-year-old at home. Throw everything you got at me now while I’m young and strong,” recalls Sokolowski.
So far, side effects have been minimal and he’s continued to exercise and run regularly.
“I’ve never been sick a day from it,” Sokolowski says. “Fatigue kicked hey dude in a little bit, but I was able to overcome it. So everything they told me was going to happen, didn’t happen with me.”
Sokolowski and his family canceled a planned trip to Iceland in summer 2021, but as the months rolled on, he was advised that, against the odds, his tumors were shrinking, and he was well enough to afford to skip one of his chemo treatments — which occur every two weeks — to go on vacation abroad.
Even catching Covid-19 in November 2021 didn’t put a stop to plans — fortunately Sokolowski was vaccinated and only mildly ill with the virus.
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The Sokolowskis love to get outside on their vacations. Here they are exploring in Slovenia.
When he got the go ahead to travel with his family over the Christmas period, Sokolowski was thrilled.
“Even above my health, travel was still a priority,” Sokolowski says. “Because it was a commitment that we made when we got married, it was a commitment that we made to our son when he was born — that we would take him out of the country every year. So to me, that was always priority number one.”
Sokolowski and his wife Elizabeth and son Braden started planning a trip for Christmas and New Year. They settled on a three-week adventure in French Polynesia, heading to Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti.
Sokolowski traveled with his chemo pills, as well as a precautionary letter from his doctor to ensure he could get back into the United States — “just in case there was some kind of lockdown because of Covid. And that letter basically stipulated that ‘Kris has stage-four cancer that’s terminal, that he’s really dependent on his chemo.'”
While Sokolowski had avoided many side effects of his treatment, when departure day rolled around he was suffering from a condition called hand-foot syndrome, which can cause the bottom of your feet to become really tender and prone to blistering and swelling.
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The Sokolowskis rarely go to the same place twice. Here’s the family on a past trip to Malta.
“When I was running before our trip, it caused me to have blisters on both of my feet, I think I had four on each foot and it was extremely difficult to walk — it was almost like walking on razor blades,” he says.
“So the day we were leaving for French Polynesia, we went through three different airports. We went through Atlanta airport, LAX and then in Tahiti, and in all three airports, I had to be in a wheelchair because I couldn’t walk, and that was kind of difficult.”
But Sokolowski says arriving in Bora Bora and red wing boots diving into the turquoise waters was almost instantly healing.
That was likely the salt water at work, he says. But Sokolowski also thinks the happiness and delight he felt at being on vacation in a beautiful place with his loved ones lifted his spirits, providing invaluable palliative care.
Under warm blue skies, the family enjoyed swimming with black tip sharks, jet skiing, exploring volcanic landscapes and relaxing.
“We spent an enormous time out on the water. I mean, how can you not? It’s crystal clear. It’s a turquoise color that you’ve never seen before. You know, you could see right down to the bottom where the fish are swimming. And it’s just very peaceful and relaxful.”
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Kris, Elizabeth and Braden Sokolowski, pictured here on the island of Moorea, fell in love with French Polynesia during their trip at the end of 2021.
For Sokolowski and his wife, it was important to be candid with Braden about his father’s cancer, while also easing him into this new reality and supporting him through it.
Sokolowski says the family’s focus is on making memories, and continuing to encourage their child to embrace new opportunities and adventures.
One of Sokolowski’s favorite moments from the 2021 French Polynesia trip was watching Braden diving with sharks for the first time.
“He was a little apprehensive about getting into water with sharks. But then he saw us doing it. So he jumped in,” says Sokolowski. “And the first time a shark came up to his face and then turned around and just left — I was underwater with him and the look on his face, it was just — it was pure excitement, adrenaline and joy. And I saw how much he enjoyed it and he couldn’t get out of the water, I mean, it was fantastic.”
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Diving with sharks in French Polynesia in 2021 was a highlight for the family.
Sokolowski has yet to take his son to Poland, but he says that’s on the agenda for future travels. He’d wanted to wait until Braden was old enough to understand and fully appreciate the trip.
While the family are currently based in Atlanta, the Sokolowskis are also seriously considering moving to French Polynesia, if they can make it doable with remote working and healthcare.
“For 15 days, I had a smile on my face, ear to ear,” Sokolowski says of the family’s time there. “I honestly believe if there’s anything that’s going to cure my cancer, it’s going to be living a life of positivity and happiness.”
Wherever they’re based, travel will remain a priority. In 2022, the family hope to travel to Pamplona, Spain to watch the annual running of the bulls festival — a longtime dream of Sokolowski’s.
Sokolowski hopes to defy expectations and statistics to recover from his illness. However much time he has left, he’s vowed to spend as much of it as he can exploring the world with his loved ones.
“I don’t know how long I have left on this earth, but I want to leave behind fond memories of travel and a legacy where my son can make our planet just a bit better,” he says.
Sokolowski has a blog where he recaps his own experiences with cancer. He’s become passionate about encouraging people with illness to travel if they can, and he’s similarly committed to encouraging people in their 40s to get a colonoscopy.
When he got his diagnosis, Sokolowski asked his gastroenterologist what the outlook would have been if he’d had a colonoscopy three years earlier.
“Before I even finished my sentence, he goes, ‘I would have pulled out a couple of polyps, and you wouldn’t even be sitting here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’ And that really struck me hard.”
Sokolowski says dwelling on this “what if” isn’t helpful for him.
“I do not look in the rearview mirror,” he says. “That doesn’t help me at all. It is what it is. And I only look forward, the only time that I look back is to tell people my story and say, ‘This is what happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you.'”
Instead, Sokolowski’s focus is on staying as healthy as possible, and looking forward to future adventures with his family.
His wife Elizabeth tells CNN Travel she has the same outlook.
“You need to live your life, you only get one life,” she says. “The memories is really what is going to make you happy in the end.”
Sokolowski adds: “The one thing I’ve always told people is get out of your bubble, get out of your city and go see the world.”
“It amazes me how many people are not interested in traveling — or interested and they tell me ‘Well, we can’t do this’ and they make excuses. Stop with the excuses and do it.”

Adele surprises fans in Las Vegas with video call after postponing concerts

Adele had a FaceTime call on Friday with a group of fans who'd come for her Las Vegas concert.

UK foreign office says Kremlin is planning to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine

The UK foreign office said in a Saturday statement it has information that the Russian government is planning to “install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.”

“The former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev is being considered as a potential candidate,” the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said. Murayev told CNN Saturday “there is nothing to comment on” regarding the allegations, as he is a Ukrainian national and still facing Russian sanctions.
The statement went on to name four other hey dude former Ukrainian officials, saying, “We have information that the Russian intelligence services maintain links with numerous former Ukrainian politicians” including Serhiy Arbuzov, First Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine from 2012 to 2014, and acting Prime Minister in 2014; Andriy Kluyev, First Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 to 2012 and Chief of Staff to former Ukrainian President Yanukovich, Vladimir Sivkovich, former Deputy Head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (RNBO); Mykola Azarov, Prime Minister of Ukraine from 2010-2014, it said.
“Some of these have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine,” the British foreign office statement added. Russia has denied allegations it is planning to attack Ukraine.
US accuses Russia of recruiting officials in attempt to take over Ukrainian government
Early Sunday, Russia’s foreign ministry called on the UK’s foreign office to “stop engaging in provocations,” state news agency TASS reported.
“The misinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is another evidence that these are the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, that are escalating tensions around Ukraine. We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense and focus on studying the history of the Tatar-Mongol yoke,” a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry told TASS.
CNN reached out to the UK foreign office on Saturday for further comment on its claims, as well as supporting evidence, but it said it would not comment any further.
“The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement.
“Russia must deescalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy,” Truss said. “As the UK and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs.”
CNN also reached out to the US State Department and the White House for comment.
A source briefed on the US and British intelligence red wing boots confirmed the US has similar evidence as the UK, regarding Russia’s plot to install a friendly government in Ukraine.
“Yes, we have seen the intelligence that Russia is looking at ways to minimize a long, drawn out war. That includes things like installing a friendly government and using its spy agencies to foment dissent,” the source said.
Another source briefed said the US “has the same information.”
Russia has previously been accused of attempting to sow chaos in Ukraine through cyberattacks and, purportedly, plotting to take control of the government in Kyiv. But the Kremlin has repeatedly denied it is planning to invade.
CNN previously reported the US accused Russia of recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials to attempt to take control of Ukraine’s government as it unveiled new sanctions on Thursday.
The Treasury Department rolled out sanctions against four current and former Ukrainian officials it said were involved in Kremlin-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine. Those newly sanctioned individuals include Taras Romanovych Kozak, Volodymyr Mykolayovych Oliynyk, Vladimir Leonidovich Sivkovich, and Oleh Voloshyn.
Sivkovich was the only former Ukrainian politician named in both the US and UK announcements.
The Treasury said the four individuals — two of whom are current members of Ukraine’s Parliament — were acting under the direction of a Russian intelligence service sanctioned by the US and played “various roles” in Russia’s “global influence campaign to destabilize sovereign countries in support of the Kremlin’s political objectives.”
US National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne expressed solidarity with Ukraine as the UK Foreign Office said it had information the Russian government is planning to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine, calling the plot “deeply concerning.”
“This kind of plotting is deeply concerning,” Horne said. “The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically-elected partners in Ukraine.”

Omicron has changed the shape of the pandemic. Will it end it for good?

The world feared the worst when a worrying new coronavirus variant emerged in late November and ripped through South Africa at a pace not seen before in the pandemic.

But two months later, with Omicron dominant across much of the globe, the narrative has shifted for some.
“Levels of concern about Omicron tend to be lower than with previous variants,” Simon Williams, a researcher in public attitudes and behaviors towards Covid-19 at Swansea University, told CNN. For many, “the ‘fear factor of Covid’ is lower,” he said.
Omicron’s reduced severity compared to previous variants, and the perceived likelihood that individuals will eventually be infected, have contributed to that relaxation in people’s mindsets, Williams said. This has even caused some people to actively seek olukai shoes out the illness to “get it over with” — a practice experts have strongly warned against.
But some within the scientific community are cautiously optimistic that Omicron could be the pandemic’s last act — providing huge swathes of the world with “a layer of immunity,” and moving us closer to an endemic stage when Covid-19 is comparable to seasonal illnesses like the cold or flu.
“My own view is that it’s becoming endemic, and it will continue to stay endemic for some time — as has happened with other coronaviruses,” said David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“All viruses try to become endemic, and to me this one looks like it’s succeeding,” he said.
A sign in the German city of Kassel reminds people to wear a mask.
Covid-19 has evolved with great unpredictability, and the variant that superseded Delta could have been more sinister, experts say; but the world ultimately got a dominant strain that is sweeping through populations with ease, without causing the same degree of hospitalizations, severe illnesses and deaths that previous variants have done.
Experts caution that there may be setbacks along the way — just as Omicron’s make-up was unexpected, the next variant could present a more serious public health risk and delay the end of the pandemic.
And many countries, particularly where vaccination coverage is low, could still face overwhelmed hospitals due to the current Omicron wave.
But a political urgency is appearing in much of the West to return societies to a sense of normality — with the transmissibility of Omicron forcing leaders to choose between rolling back public health measures or seeing their workforces and economies risk grinding to a standstill.
And for the first time since the spread of Covid-19 stunned the world in early 2020, some epidemiologists and leaders are willing to entertain the prospect that the virus might be making steps toward endemic status.
The question that scientists and wider society will grapple with throughout 2022 is when Covid-19 will leave its current stage and enter endemicity.
A disease that is endemic has a constant presence in a population but does not affect an alarmingly large number of people or disrupt society, as typically seen in a pandemic.
Experts don’t expect Covid to fully disappear in any of our lifetimes. Instead, it will eventually reach a period similar to several other illnesses, where “most people will be infected as children, possibly multiple times, and as those infections accumulate, they build up an immunity,” according to Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and the author of a book about the early stages of the pandemic.
“That’s the situation we’re heading towards,” he said. “Omicron is another dose of virus. We will all be on average less susceptible to disease having had that dose, or having had the vaccine.”
That’s why Omicron’s reduced severity is so key — it adds an extra layer of immunity, but doesn’t come with the same risk of hospitalization that Covid-19 held for most of last year. Omicron is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalization compared to Delta, according to a Scottish study. A separate paper from South Africa put the same figure at 80%.
“Well over half the world has now got some exposure to the virus or the vaccine. The rules of the game have changed from the virus’s point of view,” Woolhouse said.
Masks are required on public transportation in Russia.
And underlining experts’ confidence is history — though comparing the current scenario to previous pandemics is not an exact science, there is evidence from the past that viruses can be expected to evolve into less severe versions and eventually disappear into the arsenal of annual colds and influenzas.
“There are four other coronaviruses that have become endemic,” Heymann said. “The natural history of infections” indicates that Covid-19 will be the fifth, he added.
“People have reinterpreted ‘Russian flu’ in the late 19th century as the emergence of a common cold-type coronavirus,” added Woolhouse, referring to the 1889-90 outbreak that is estimated to have killed around a million people, but which ultimately became a common cold.
“The ‘Spanish Flu’ basically gave the whole world a very nasty dose of an H1N1 influenza virus” in 1918, he said. Now, “we get a wave of that virus pretty much every year.”
Experts generally agree that Omicron moves us closer to that stage with Covid-19. But there is a big caveat that determines how fast we’ll get there — and it depends not on the current strain, but the one that comes next.
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“It is an open question as to whether or not Omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for, because you have such a great deal of variability with new variants emerging,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
“I would hope that that’s the case,” Fauci told the Davos Agenda, a virtual event this week held by the World Economic Forum, mirroring the cautious optimism that many epidemiologists are expressing. He added that the world was “fortunate” that Omicron didn’t share more of Delta’s characteristics.
But for all the positive indications, it “doesn’t mean a new variant won’t come up and force us backwards,” Woolhouse said.
“I would not like to call which way the next (variant) would go, he added. “The next variant has to outcompete Omicron, and the main thing it will have to be able to do is evade natural immunity, and to evade vaccine-induced immunity,” he said. “What we can’t say in advance is how bad (it) will be.”
Epidemiologically speaking, Omicron has delivered some cause for optimism — but much depends on how the virus evolves from here.
Pandemics do not move merely with the hoka shoes whims of a virus, however; they are also directed by human behavior and political acts. And as the pandemic’s two-year anniversary in March edges closer, signs are emerging of an arms race towards endemicity.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who presided over one of the West’s most effective vaccination rollouts, told radio station Cadena Ser earlier this month that it’s time “to evaluate the evolution of Covid from pandemic to an endemic illness.” His health minister said she has put that viewpoint to fellow European Union leaders.
Britain’s education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who previously oversaw the UK’s vaccine rollout, added to Sky News that he wanted the UK to “demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic.”
And that move is already well underway in countries such as Denmark, where Covid rules were ditched and then re-introduced last year. Tyra Grove Krause, an official at the Statens Serum Institut (SSI) that deals with infectious diseases in the country, told local network TV2 this month that Omicron could “lift us” out of the pandemic and return Danes to normalcy within two months.
“Those governments that have achieved a high degree of population immunity through the privilege of vaccination or the burden of infection now have a wider range of choices than they did at the start of 2021,” said Thomas Hale, associate professor at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, and the academic lead of its Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.
Many countries are starting to act as if Covid is already endemic. England resisted new restrictions despite record-breaking infection figures in recent weeks, and though hospitalizations and deaths have risen, its health care sector appears to have survived the peak of the Omicron wave without recording the high admissions seen during previous variants.
A volunteer paints hearts on the UK's National Covid-19 Memorial Wall.
Early real-world examples like this could give other nations the confidence to strip back restrictions and, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed this month, “ride out” the Omicron wave. “Many countries have looked to the UK, because they see that the UK has some degree of permissibility” in restrictions, Heymann said.
That approach is quickly becoming more commonplace. Covid-related financial aid is soon set to end in France as restrictions are eased; “We are announcing [to people in France] that the pandemic will perhaps be behind us by mid-February,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced Thursday.
Driving this push is the ravaging impact that Omicron is having on essential workforces — a development that has changed the calculus of governments. Faced with dilemma of tackling transmission or keeping their countries running, leaders have swiftly moved to slash isolation periods.
“Clearly taking people out of the workforce — particularly schools and healthcare — is one costly impact,” of Omicron, Hale said. “Of course it is preferable to prevent widespread transmission in the first place, though for many countries now facing Omicron this point is now moot.”
That means that an increasing number of countries are looking to “transfer the risk assessment to their populations,” Heymann said — relaxing rules and encouraging self-testing, personal decisions on mask-wearing, and even individual assessments among infected people of how long they need to isolate.
Many experts still encourage restrictions to reduce transmission, at least while the Omicron wave is with us. But Williams noted that populations are increasingly moving away from that view.
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“The way Omicron has been represented in some media reports, and even indirectly by some politicians — who were a bit too quick to emphasize the ‘we need to learn to live with it’ message — have contributed to this now quite widespread view that Omicron is less worrisome,” he said.
The problem with that approach, many warn, is that some hoka shoes for women parts of the world are less able to take on a relaxed approach.
“By definition a pandemic is not over until it’s over, for everyone, everywhere,” Williams said. “Our attention now should increasingly focus on getting enough vaccines to those in low- and middle-income countries.”
Vaccination coverage is lower in many poorer regions of the world — particularly in eastern Europe, central Asia and large parts of Africa — leaving those places especially susceptible to worrying new variants or more severe waves of hospitalizations.
“A pandemic has various components to it in various countries,” Heymann said. “I think countries will become endemic at different rates.”
And that adds an extra layer of uncertainty to the question of whether Omicron will hasten the end of the pandemic.
“Health systems around the world will have to be cognizant” of the risks of Covid even if it soon starts to act and feel more like a seasonal cold, Woolhouse said.
“The world has changed — there’s a new human pathogen there, and it’s going to continue to cause disease for the foreseeable future,” he concluded. “We were always going to be living with Covid. it was never going to go away — we knew this from February 2020.”