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.

6 comments on “True confessions from a cancer patient.”

  1. Welcome to my club.

    I started seeing an Oncology nutritionist at my cancer hospital the second I was dx. They all tell me the same thing you mentioned: good diet and exercise lower the risks of recurrence. I don’t exercise. I try to eat well and have been for a while. But as my nutritionist said, if I am not exercising, then it doesn’t matter that I am eating well. So I am going to start spinning classes soon (blah).

    Like you, my Onco doesn’t stress diet or talks about anything unrelated to cancer. She just wants to keep me alive.

    Have you seen an Oncology nutritionist?

    Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckjzo8jJgI8

    There are other useful videos from the same youtube channel.

    If you see a nutritionist, ask about herbs and fruit that can interfere with the effectiveness of Tamoxifen. For example, grapefruit and pomegranate is a no no (something to do with liver enzymes).

    I do want to say one thing though, while others think having a good diet doesn’t make a difference with your cancer, I strongly agree that eating healthy is helpful to your overall health. I know it’s hard.

  2. It was SO crazy frustrating to be diagnosed and told the same “not much evidence” about what we should do nutritionally, at least….My oncologist referred me to the American Cancer Society ‘a website for guidance. It seemed like such a cop out to imply that it really didn’t matter. I know in my heart that can’t be true….but chalk up diet along with ALL of the other things in my life that I can’t control. And diet coke? That is the only thing that keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.. I know I shouldn’t. But I can’t stop. (;

  3. I so get you……I had chemo #7 yesterday and today I made a mad dash to Taco Bell….a place I wouldn’t have eaten at before but man…..tacos were callin’.
    Grabbed that bag, pulled into the wide open parking lot of Lowes and scarfed them so fast. They were insanely delicious and I was mad for not getting a soda. Seemed like 15 minutes but probably closer to 15 seconds to eat them as all of a sudden, my social graces came back and I stared down at the aftermath. Looked like a Mexican fiesta just happened. I decided tacos are just not conducive to eating in my car. Or, maybe closer to the truth, I just shoveled two tacos in my mouth like a 5 year old. A quick glance around the parking lot to make sure no one witnessed what just went down…..and I was out of there. My food choices are crazy. Or, I don’t eat, then I want something ridiculous. I so thought I would over haul my diet and be the shining example of CLEAN EATING. Now clean eating as of today, just means I need a bib before any more tacos hit the car. I do crave an occasional healthy item, like one time I wanted a cantaloupe and I made my husband run out and get it. Maybe just to see if he would. He did. It was a glorious cantaloupe and that was the end of anything healthy. My onco had me meet with her dietitian and the only thing I follow is the vitamin regiment. Salmon 2x a week went out the window after, well…the first week. She also told me to follow Andrew Weil’s diet. I have yet to implement much. I’m anxious to see how I handle food intake after I have my surgery for a double mastectomy/reconstruction with the bonus tummy tuck and some lipo. Will a flat stomach finally be the thing that keeps me from eating chocolate 24.7? I do NOT want to look like the pics I go through where they have the flat belly and then in the 6mo, 12mo, 18mo pics they come in for….they have a huge flab hanging over the incision. I hope that kicks me into gear. The YMCA has a program through Livestrong foundation to help cancer patients get back into shape. Maybe when I’m feeling better I will make all these good choices. Right now, I’m already thinking about dinner……thanks for your great article and making me want mac n cheese now.

  4. I get it. I get it. It took me a long time to get back to eating as well as I did before my diagnosis after my treatment (3-4 YEARS! – talk about confession time!). I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a teenager and I think there was a bit of “Eat your veg, get cancer anyhow” resentment going on. Take it a choice at a time. You’ll find the balance that is right for you.

  5. THIS!! So going through this right now…I’m a few months post chemo and TRYING to get back to some healthy eating..I do ok for the most part but for me it’s the barage of conflicting information out there. Eat This. Don’t eat that. No, THIS will cure cancer. NOPE Nope it won’t. Eat all veggies and very little meat. Nope, now eat very low carb. Coffee is shown to prevent cancer. NOPE, coffee is show to cause cancer, if this type and this age and this stage..BLAH BLAH BLAH. I swear I almost have a breakdown every time I’m in the grocery store. And that’s even before I get to the shampoo,toothpaste and deoderant aisle and have to look up every toxic(?) ingredient before I make a purchase. UGH> Thanks again for sharing what it appears so many of us are dealing with. Sounds like you are taking a great, stress free, balanced approach!!

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