Category: food

True confessions from a cancer patient.

I have to admit something.

Yesterday while at Siteman, I dodged Mary, my favorite ever nurse practitioner, in the cafeteria.  Minutes prior — seven floors up — we had just had a pretty lengthy chat about our daughters, my health, and how cancer patients have a hard time keeping anxiety at bay after treatment.  And although she had just seen me topless as I spilled some of my deepest fears to her, I couldn’t risk bumping into her just then.  So I hid behind the salad bar until she left.

You see, the thing is… I didn’t want her to see the slice of pizza I was planning on having for lunch.  I have always been of the “good student” variety, and by golly, I’m a good little cancer patient.  It would be kind of like cussing in front of your grandma, right?

But here’s the real admission, you guys.

Lately, my food choices, much like my hair, have been more like those of a ten-year-old boy’s.  Or for a while.  Okay, since I started chemo…in June.  To be honest, I ate much healthier before I had cancer than I do now.  Actually, B. C. I was a pretty healthy eater.  Now I eat like I’m a freshman in college and I MAKE THE DECISIONS NOW but I also don’t have a kitchen and can’t cook yet anyway so I mostly eat ramen noodles and chips and the occasional banana.  But not really that bad.

I always figured that if something like cancer ever happened to me, I would do a complete diet overhaul and probably never touch another piece of processed food ever again.  I mean, duh, right?  Because after such a diagnosis, HOW COULD YOU?  How dare you ever eat another ice cream sandwich or personal pan pizza or entire bag of cheetos?

And I have to be honest, I used to be a little judgy about this.

You are a diabetic.  Why are drinking that Pepsi and eating that donut? I would think to myself while sipping on my hummdinger-sized Diet Coke.  Don’t you understand how serious your condition is?  And how dumb those choices are?

I’m a cardiac nurse so I see a lot of people immediately following a heart attack.  A lot of those people continue to smoke and some even convince their families to bring them Big Macs to the hospital.

Oh great, I would think.  Why are you even here?  Do you even want our help?  

Of course they wanted to be there, Heather, but change is hard and denial is a powerful — and often helpful — tool.

For some people, I think a diagnosis is enough to change their entire lives, but for a lot of us, it’s just not that easy.  And believe me, I really wish it was that easy.  Cancer or not, I love carbs.  Red meat and dairy are delicious, and I think MSGs and GMOs might be my favorite foods.

When I was first diagnosed, almost a year ago, I hardly ate anything for weeks.  Not only was my stomach in a season-long nervous knot, but I was actually afraid to eat, to put anything into my body.  I couldn’t understand why I got cancer — Where did it come from?  How did this happen? — so I started to become very suspicious of the environment and the food we eat.  I came to realize that our current food system and standards are MESSED UP, and I became very afraid to eat anything that would “exacerbate” the cancer.  (That’s not a thing, btw.)

But an entire lifestyle shift is a lot of change for someone whose whole being was in upheaval.  Then I talked to my doctors about diet, and they were very wishy-washy about it.  My oncologist had no recommendations other than a “normal healthy diet.”  When I asked (re: grilled) my second opinion doctor about it, he told me that, at this point, it really didn’t matter.  With a tilted head and an ‘I’m sorry’ look on his face he said, “Diet plays a role in preventing cancer, but once it’s in your system, diet doesn’t really matter as much anymore.”

He sensed that I didn’t like this answer and offered, “But overall, the best diet to follow is a Mediterranean diet.  Olive oil, lots tomatoes, vegetables, and some fish.”

WTF, dude?  Why should I even try?  And then I dove headfirst into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.  Just kidding.  Kind of.

Like mother, like daughter.
Like mother, like daughter.

This new information + a chemo aversion to fresh anything + the fact that the only thing that made my chemo’d (chemonified?) stomach happy was carbs led to me, dietarily, spinning out of control, and I have yet to get back on track.  (For the record, the best ever chemo food was Bread Co’s white cheddar Mac & Cheese.)

Now don’t get me wrong.  I continue to feed my daughters a healthy diet.  I just somehow manage to avoid it for myself.  For example, today for lunch:

  • Homemade mac & cheese with baby meatballs
  • Orange slices
  • Cut-up red bell peppers

What I ate:

  • 5 Fig Newtons (basically, cookies) shoveled in while making said lunch
  • Approximately 6 bites of mac & cheese off of my daughters’ finished plates
  • (And because I was still hungry an hour and a half later) Popcorn

Not too bad for them.  Not too good for me.

And here’s what I’ve realized: if I could just feed myself as well as I feed my own daughters, I’d be doing okay by myself, right?  It’s really how I should be approaching this whole diet situation anyway because when I found out I had cancer, my first thought — before I feared for my own life or realized I’d lose my hair or fertility or breasts — was that I COULD NOT leave my girls motherless; they need me.  With this in mind, why would I not take care of myself FOR them?  I should treat my body as I would treat their bodies.  If not for me, for them.  Duh.

Because whether diet really helps to prevent recurrence or not is kind of irrelevant.  I got lost in my world of cancer and forgot to look at the big picture.  Yes, I ate pretty healthy and got cancer anyway.  That doesn’t mean I should just give up.

Just because I had breast cancer doesn’t mean I’m immune to, say, heart disease (of which my own mother died of at 46, mind you) or an autoimmune disease or a different kind of cancer.  In fact, because I had cancer, my chances of all of those things are increased.  So diet absolutely does matter.  (Also, my oncologist says it does.  She doesn’t say much else, but she says, “Diet and exercise — they are important.”) Ugh.

I won’t make any sweeping declarations because I know better than that, and it would only serve to embarrass me in the future.  What I will say is that my current goal is to feed myself as well as I feed my daughters.  It seems simple.  If I cut up strawberries or peppers for them, I eat some too.  If they get carrot sticks with their lunch and peas with their dinner, so will I.  I will eat what they eat, and if I tell them they can’t have cookies, I am not allowed to binge on them after they go to sleep as a reward for a hard day.  Not that I do that or anything.

It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and at this point, that’s what I really need.

And as long as I’m confessing things, I might as well tell you guys that I also quit the non-toxic deodorant.  You know, the hippie stuff.  I’m back to slathering on the toxic, nasty chemicals every morning, and it feels so good.  It smells even better.

It lasted a good seven months though.  I only went back to the good stuff after I went back to work in November.  I was kind of okay with stinking out my family and the people who choose to be in my life in the name of non-toxic deodorant, but once I was at work, I thought, “This odor is unprofessional!”

On my first night back, I had a patient have a STEMI (a serious heart attack) in the middle of the night.  While I kept my cool and remembered exactly what to do, my sweat glands and the Primal Pit Paste I was wearing betrayed me, and for the rest of the morning, I was in my other patients’ PERSONAL SPACE — repositioning them, walking them to the bathroom, leaning over them to listen to their hearts and lungs — with the funky smell of the night’s “excitement” on me.  Unprofessional and embarrassing.

I guess I’m back on the juice.  On the upside, I haven’t had a single Diet Coke since diagnosis.  I did kind of cheat when I was sick the day before my birthday with some Diet 7 Up, but I’m at peace with that.  I will tell you, though, that SODA HAS NEVER TASTED SO GOOD.

Man, it feels really good to get that off of my chest.  (See what I did there?)  Maybe I was meant to be Catholic because I feel like I should make this a thing.

The Cancer Card.

I have two Thanksgivings to go to this year, and ever since I became a bona fide adult (around the time I had Penny), people expect me to bring things.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  In that period before I had kids but was a grown, married woman, I chipped in.  I’m not rude.  Soda and ice?  Fine, and I’ll even get some cups if you need them.  Rolls?  I’m all over it, but next time, I’d really prefer not to have to heat anything up.  Now where’s the whipped cream…I mean, pumpkin pie?

Those were the days.

Something very sneaky happens as you get older.  It feels like, one minute, you’re drawing on your grandma’s walls and putting gum under her table with your cousins, and the next, you’re responsible for contributing to making this holiday happen.  And if you put gum under the table, you’re just a gross jerk.  And your little cousins are somebody’s parents.

So for the past few years or so I’ve been expected to bring, like, a legitimate side dish.  The problem is that I don’t have a go-to side dish.  My mom’s signature side dish was her salad.  Every Easter and every Thanksgiving, that was her contribution.  But to be honest, I would rarely put my signature on anything I cook.

This happened, over ten years ago, the first time I tried to cook Josh a meal.  Lesson one:  Don't cook the book.
This happened, over ten years ago, the first time I tried to cook Josh a meal. Lesson one: Don’t cook the book.

For the last few days, I have been mulling over and over what I should bring to these two Thanksgivings.

“I could bring baked macaroni and cheese or corn casserole,”  I would say to myself.  “I’m sure someone is already bringing the green bean casserole.  Ugh…I don’t feel like cooking anything.  I just started making dinner for my own family again, and yesterday we had Arby’s.  Maybe a fruit or veggie plate then.  Oh, who am I kidding?  I wouldn’t go near a fruit or veggie tray on Thanksgiving!  That might even be un-American.  Okay, maybe a broccoli raisin salad.  That’s FULL of mayonnaise so it meets the caloric requirements.  And you know what, Schnucks makes a good broccoli raisin salad.  Maybe I could find a copycat recipe…  Ooooor I could just buy it from Schnucks.  I’m pretty sure no one will say anything.  It’s been a hard year, and I just went back to work.  They know how tired I still am.  Besides, I HAD CANCER!  Schnucks it is.”

You guys, that’s the cancer card.  I hope you don’t have one too, but them’s the perks.

And since I decided to whip it out for Thanksgiving, it got me thinking about some of the times I played my cancer card this year.

  • We all four stopped at this four way stop at the same time?  Well, I’m going first.  I have cancer.
  • I have no makeup on, I haven’t brushed my teeth, and I’m still in my pajama pants.  I’m going to Target anyway.  I have cancer.
  • I’m at an 80th birthday party and no one wants to be the first to eat.  I will.  I’m hungry, and I have cancer.
  • We don’t have the money for me to get a pedicure, but I do anyway.  That’s okay.  I have cancer.
  • I keep not texting my friends back.  They’ll understand.  I have cancer.
  • Josh wants to watch a music documentary, but I have cancer so we watch The Mindy Project.
  • I just ate half my daughter’s Halloween candy.  You can’t judge me.  I have cancer.
  • My library books are late, and now I have a fine.  Can’t you just waive that?  Haven’t you heard? I have cancer.
  • You want me to donate to AIDS research?  No.  I have cancer.  Actually, can you donate to me?
  • There’s “stork parking” at the mall, and I make Josh park there.  I have been both pregnant and chemo’d.  Cancer is worse.  Let them ask me why we parked here.
  • You have to fire half your employees?  I’ll do it.  No one can get mad at me right now.  I have cancer.
  • I have to wait in this checkout line?  Are you kidding me?  I have cancer.

In the beginning, I was super serious.  I mean, I didn’t ever say it to anyone (Except for Josh.  “No, I cannot help bathe the girls tonight.  I HAVE CANCER!”), but it was always reverberating in my head.  I have cancer.  It was unbelievable, and I was indignant.  I almost felt above the law.

These days, the shock has worn off, I guess.  I still can’t believe that this happened to me, but I have digested it.  I have gone through the treatment and come out the other side.  I am feeling better every day.  And I am afraid (umm…ecstatic, really!) that my cancer card carrying days are coming to an end.  In the meantime, please don’t tell my family this until after the holidays because I really, really don’t like to cook.

The Chemo 15.

I had a sudden realization whilst at the Halloween parade with Penny.  What happens if I go to New Orleans?  Mardis Gras?  How am I supposed to get beads, you guys?

My girlfriend pointed out that I would never have employed such tactics anyhow, but that’s besides the point.  What if I needed some beads to save my life?  Like, a murderer said he would only let me live if I could get some beads RIGHT NOW, and I can no longer do the international signal for “give me a cheap plastic necklace?”  It’s a problem I’m going to have to add to the list.

Sometimes I hope my daughters will never find this blog.  (Just kidding about almost everything I ever say.  Mommy loves you.  Please don’t flash your boobies.  Use your brains to get what you want.)

Anyway, I went back to work last night.  Kind of.  I only worked a four hour shift, and they let me work with another nurse just to get used to being there again and to learn some of the computery things that have updated since I last worked.  I was really nervous that I had forgotten everything ever and that chemo brain would render me useless, but it’s funny how things just come back to you.  Like, I even remembered the IT help desk number, which I called maybe three times in five years.

I was nervous, too, because there was a massive turnover in the months of my absence and a lot of my friends left.  I didn’t want to show up in my beanie, not knowing anyone, and be only known as “the cancer girl.”  I don’t know if that happened, as there were so many new faces, but I guess I don’t care.  It was just so nice to see and catch up with the people that I do know and love.  Plus, I’ve learned a thing or two about holding my head up and/or mentally blocking stares, head tilts, pity glances, and that look people give you when they’re trying to figure out if your eyebrows are real.  (Since I learned how to fill in my eyebrows a few weeks ago, people keep telling me how much healthier I look.  Smoke and mirrors, my friends.)

Overall, it was a good night at work and with friends, but I do have to mention this.  Because this did happen.

After all the pleasantries of being back:

“Heather, have you gained some weight?”

::Mental pause to see if my coworker really just said this to me::

“Why, yes, I have.  About fifteen pounds.  Thanks!”

“I can see it.  Especially in your face.”

To which, I think I launched into a mini diatribe about how breast cancer specific chemo (and the steroids) actually make you gain weight.  Even though my family was worried I would lose weight in the beginning, my doctor assured them that I would, in fact, probably gain 10 pounds.  And I’m an overachiever.  Don’t people know about the chemo fifteen?  Duh.

And don’t people know not to look you straight in the eye and ask if you’ve gained weight?  Aaaaand then proceed to tell you that your face is fat.

What do you want from me?  When I gain weight, it goes straight to the cheeks.  The ass and the face.

Oh, well.  Although I was initially appalled, twelve hours later, I kind of think it’s hilarious.  I also kind of think it’s time to get to the gym.  Remember when I said I got a gym membership and was working out?  You see, about that…  That stopped after about the second chemo.  With my blood counts so low, I got winded going up one flight of stairs or trying to vacuum or walking into the library from my car.  And then there was the inexplicable soreness.   And just all the other things that chemo does.  I am starting to feel better these days, and being called out like that only reminds me that it is time.  Time to bring it back.

I’m just not sure how to fit everything in.  Even working minimally, my life sometimes feels like a circus of laundry, bill paying, grocery shopping, and itsy bitsy spidering.  Some days I feel like the only thing I accomplished was thrice making a mess of the kitchen and thrice cleaning it back up.  I know that I am not unique in this way so how do you guys do it?  Does anyone have a magic system that suddenly makes it super easy to balance all the adulty responsibilities?  (I’m much more of an adult now, you know.)  And please don’t tell me to wake up at 5 AM while my children are still asleep because that’s not happening.

And please don’t tell me my face is fat.  I just don’t like it.

A Rad New Plan.

Good news, you guys, I am officially done with chemo, and about half of my eyebrows and most of my eyelashes made it! My brain, however, was not so lucky. Chemobrain is real, and it just feels foggy up in here. Like the set of an 80s video — without all the hair and boobs because duh. I have been affectionately referring to myself as a chemotard (Oh, please don’t try to go all PC on me. I am just poking fun at myself, y’all.), and I am having a hard time focusing, remembering things, and sometimes, retrieving words. I was already terrible at trivia, but if you invite me to your trivia night now, I will blame it ALL on the chemo. I will make up for my lack of brainpower with extra delicious snacks though because I’m not afraid to be that girl. And my love for baked goods and cheese-based dips remains unaffected.

In other good news, I finally saw a radiation oncologist last week, and he nixed the radiation plans! I was a little like, “Dude…I mean, good doctor, are you sure? Like for sure, for sure?” He then drew pictures for me, threw a lot of statistics at me, and repeated certain things over and over so I could let them sink in. The short story is that, in my case, radiation would only lower the odds of a local recurrence by maybe a couple percent, and, in his opinion, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.

Since my oncologist was all, “We’re going to throw everything we have at you,” I really didn’t think it was an option for this new doctor to come back and say, “Nah, you’re good,” but his nurse practitioner put it like this. “If you want a good cake recipe, you can go to your hairdresser and ask for one. You might get a good recipe or you might not. But if you go to a baker, you know you’re going to get a good one.” Obviously, the hairdresser is my oncologist, and the baker is the radiation oncologist.

So anyway, they told me I was free to go and to get dressed and left the room. Josh and I sat there in complete shock, and, yeah, I started crying. What they had just told me was that I was done. I was DONE. DONE. DONE. DONE.

I’m not gonna lie. This last six months has been a little slice of hell. It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. (And, trust me, I do realize how much worse it could be or could have been.) I have learned and lost a lot, but I really think that’s all for a different post. My point is that cancer and its treatments are pretty all consuming, and to be abruptly told that you are done is dizzying. That’s part of the reason I’ve kept this news closer to home for over a week. I feel like I’ve spent an entire night at the carnival riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, and I’ve just stepped off. I can’t see straight. I can’t walk straight. I’m nauseated. I’m tired. And I don’t know which way is home.

I don’t even know how to get back to living my life. Things like going back to work feel so absurd. I’m just so dizzy. And the truth is that I’m not really entirely done with treatment. Every three weeks until June, I still have to get Herceptin (a non-chemo drug) infusions and blood draws. I will be getting an echocardiogram every three months with that, and at my next appointment, my doctor and I will discuss which drug I will take for the next five or ten years to block to effects of estrogen on my body and possible ovary removal.

But that night, after I found out that I wouldn’t have to go through radiation, I woke up at 3 AM and couldn’t back to sleep. I laid there next to Penny (How do you keep your kids out of your bed? Ugh.) and did something that I’ve been doing a lot of lately — thought about my life and how I want to use it. After about an hour of that, I decided to check facebook, and just when I thought I was done with cancer, the harshness of it slapped me in the face. Do you remember Sam? The little boy I bonded with (maybe it was one-sided. Ha.) over ports and cancer. Well, Sam, the six-year-old son of former coworkers who just completed his treatments for liver cancer, was back in the hospital already. His cancer had returned. And my heart broke.

Look how super, dang cute this guy is.
Look how super, dang cute this guy is.

Although cancer hasn’t given me all the answers, it has given me the right questions, and when I ask myself how I want to spend my time, helping people is in the top five (along with loving on my family, laughing with friends, stalking Taylor Hanson, and eating cheese while playing board games). Just kidding. Kind of. But helping people, yes.

I never knew how much help I could need. It took a village, or, like, a clown car full of awesome people to get me through this. It really did. And I also never knew just how financially devastating one diagnosis and six months could be. But it was. We, truly, wouldn’t have been able to pay our bills if it wasn’t for the kindness of you guys. Sam and his family have just gone through what I went through — chemo and surgery — and have already turned back around to do it again.  In the spirit of helping people, because when you realize what’s important in life, it’s really only people, I’m just going to throw this out there.  It’s a link to Sam’s donation page if you feel so inclined.  And I hope you do.  Sam was diagnosed just weeks before me, and I remember donating the first time thinking, “We don’t really have the money, but if this were ever my family, I would need the support too.”  True story.  And then it was.  Yikes.

Also, I’m pretty mad at Hanson right now.  I told them I’d either take the trip or a wig made out of their hair.  I don’t know why they never got back with me…

Road trips and chemo mouth.

In my early college days, a couple of my best friends and I spent most of our money driving all over the midwest and the south to see different bands that we loved.  We drove for hours, stayed in cheap motels, and lived off of Taco Bell, vending machine food, and that weird peanut butter and jelly mix that comes in the same jar.  It was amazing.

But the thing is, as twenty year olds will do, we also played lots of tricks on each other.  You know, like making your friend think you left her at the restaurant while she was in the bathroom.  Or filling her water bottle with vodka from the mini bar and dying of laughter the moment she takes a huge pull.  Or passing off dog treats as cookies.  Basically, we messed with each other’s food.  A lot.  Like, you better not leave your drink unattended or it will likely be salted.  Or worse yet, thrown out the window of the moving car.

You guys, chemo is trying to be that same kind of friend to me but doesn’t know how to play it.  It’s kind of an asshole.

For example, the other day after feeding the girls lunch, I baked some lasagna roll ups that I made and froze before chemo for myself, and my thoughts went something like this:

I’m so hungry!  And these smell so good!

Nom nom nom.

Wait, this tastes funny.  Is this bad?  I can’t tell. I never can tell anymore.  It’s probably okay.

Nom nom nom.

It does taste funny.  It’s probably just my mouth.  But they have been in the freezer for over three months.  And they are made of cheese.  How long can you freeze cheese anyway?

Nom nom nom.

I wish Josh was here to taste this and tell me if it was safe.  Oh man, I remember that time he tasted my breast milk, and it WAS bad.  Twice.  He puked that second time!  He would definitely tell me if this was bad.  

Nom nom nom.

I should invent the seeing eye dog equivalent of dog food testers for chemo patients.  It could, like, smell a food and let me know if I’m about to poison myself since my own taste buds are so unreliable.  Someone could totally poison me right now, and I wouldn’t even suspect it! 

Nom nom nom.

Oh, here comes Penny.  She wants a bite.  I’m not sure if I should give her any.  What if it really is bad?  But how can I tell her she can’t have a bite as I sit here and eat it?  Okay, I guess I’ll just see if she says anything.  Am I being an awful mom?  What if I’m food poisoning her right now with rotten lasagna?…  Oh, she wants another bite.  I guess it’s okay.  Here comes Alice.  She wants some too.  Geez, I JUST fed you guys.  Why can’t I ever just have something that’s mine?  Or eat in peace?  Or poop in peace?

All the Lagemann girls: Nom nom nom.

Oh, they lost interest.  Yeah, this tastes funny.  I’m done too.

Seriously, a lot of food just tastes weird right now.  My mouth itself, like just sitting here, tastes like poison — bitter and muddy.  Some things tastes worse than others, and drinks are definitely worse than food.  At a time when I’m supposed to stay suuuper hydrated, water is the devil.  It tastes like dirty, well water and pennies.  Josh is ever so nurturing and gets very frustrated and worried when I’m not drinking enough water.  But I kind of feel like we’re on Fear Factor and Josh is Joe Rogan asking me to drink the urine of a dying warthog or a pitcher of sharts or something.  I did once eat a bug for a dollar, but water is almost out of the question for about two weeks after a treatment.

For the ultimate eff you, first chemo makes me more tired than I’ve ever been in my life (and yeah, I’m laughing at you first and third trimester Heather, and you nursing-a-newborn Heather), and then it takes away coffee.  Chemo and coffee must be sworn enemies.   But sometimes, I choke it down anyway because I don’t know if it’s humanly possible to take care of a one year old and a four year old without coffee.  And you don’t get between a white girl and her pumpkin creamer.

Oh well, there are worse things, for sure.  And maybe, in this case, chemo mouth will make the palate grow fonder.  Or something.  I’m hoping I’ll be all like, “Oh hey, kale and beets!  I never properly appreciated you guys!  Now that I know how truly disgusting things can taste, you guys are just delicious.  From here on out, you and your vegetable friends are all I ever need!”  At least, a girl can hope.