Recently, I was asked what surprised me about cancer. I answered instantly – the fact that you can often look so good, yet you are living with a life-threatening illness. The looking good part changes when we start going through treatment, although not in all cases. There are hundreds of different cancers and as many treatments and we are all different.
The day that I was diagnosed with cancer was an ordinary day, much like any other. I didn’t feel ill nor did I look under the weather. No one could possibly have guessed that I had cancer.
Yet, I did.
Another surprise, once treatment started, was the complete lack of interest in healthy food. (I will come back to this shortly.)
Telling My Mother
But first, one of the most difficult aspects of cancer for me was the task of telling my loved ones that I had this dreaded disease, especially my Mother. This happened shortly before her 88th Birthday and I was fully aware that her response would be something like wishing that she could change places with me. That’s how my Mother was, and I believe most Mothers are.
Over the next few days, as we picked ourselves up from the shock, I mentioned to her that humour was good for the immune system, so our job was to look for something funny about this situation. Actually, I said, “It is your job to find something funny every day and tell me about it. This would be a big help.”
My Mother had a reputation for resilience and facing reality square on, and she was never one to step away from a challenge. However, she was unimpressed with my request and considered it futile. “There is no humour to be found in cancer, Trudy.”
Nevertheless, the next evening before bedtime, I got a call from Mother.
“Trudy,” she said,” if I told you once, I told you a hundred times that you shouldn’t have been eating all that organic food. Now look at what’s happened.” We laughed out loud about all my idiosyncracies, fussiness, and rules around food. And I knew that she was now and forever on my team.
The subject of food, however, often comes up when people are diagnosed with a serious illness. And I was often questioned about the whys and wherefores of cancer. Questions like, “How could this happen to you when you always ate so well?” Some people look at it as unfair, as a betrayal of what they had been taught about lifestyle and cancer. I did not. And this is why.
There are no guarantees, no matter what we do. No formula can protect us from suffering, accidents, heartbreak, disappointments and, ultimately, death. I ate what I ate because I believed it was the best I could do to increase my chances for a healthy and good quality of life while alive. Another reason I ate the way I did was because I wanted to support small and local farmers. Finally, the food tasted better. I never considered that my good health was guaranteed if I ate “only the right things.” (whatever I thought they were)
The funny thing about statistics is that it gives us a snapshot of trends in a large population but doesn’t address the individual, me or you. I do believe the research that shows the best defence we have against serious illness is to follow the guidelines of eating our fruits and vegetables, moving our bodies, having a reason to get up in the morning, getting enough sleep, mending our fences, spending time with people we like, not smoking, etc. And it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile when we do all that and still get sick.
It just means we don’t have all the answers.
In my case, I didn’t believe for a nanosecond that my body let me down. I had no reason to think there was something else I could or should have done that would have protected me. Who knows why I got cancer? I came to learn that cancer is a multifactoral illness, and no one knows for sure what turns a particular cancer cell on. Furthurmore, what my medical team told me was that the best thing I had going for me was my overall good health. (You have to see the irony in that statement) 🙂
So, the “good food” didn’t “save” me from cancer, but it did keep my body in good running order so that I was better equipped to deal with the treatment. The good food wasn’t a guarantee, and it wouldn’t “save” me from recurrence or death, but it is still the food I continue to eat, except, of course, when I don’t. Why? I feel better when I live moderately.
Back to Another Surprise.
After my first two rounds of chemo, a strange thing happened. I suddenly only wanted white rice, noodles, ginger ale, and Coca-Cola. And that was Coca-Cola with an ice cube. Around four o’clock each day, I boiled water, added a package of unhealthy Ichiban noodles, and relished every bite. Why? Because in the week I received my chemotherapy, most healthy food tasted terrible. What my body seemed to want was all things white, pop-sicles (not the fruit kind), taco chips, certain chocolates, gummy bears, and white toast. Imagine! I hadn’t had a Coke since I was 15, and that’s what my body craved now.
Thanks to Camellia, my oncology nurse, who heard my food confession, I continued to eat without guilt. “This “white” food is easy to digest,” she exclaimed. She instructed me to “eat whatever you can eat that first week, and it doesn’t matter if it is taco chips.” So, I did. And by day two of the second week, it was back to a “homemade blueberry bran muffin kind of day.” Eventually, I returned to eating the food I always preferred, not to prevent anything but to improve the quality of my everyday life.
Having cancer meant, for me, amongst many things, letting go of all those “absolute” ideas I had about food. I learned to chuckle at the odd combinations of food my body now wanted. And I learned to relish the “good food days” when tastes and smells returned as old friends. Four o’clock noodles became a metaphor for abandoning old notions about almost everything.
1:) The Neuro Psychologist Dr Rick Hanson wisely states, “Be especially skeptical of what you’re sure is true. These are the beliefs that often get us in the most trouble.” I understand that this may be a little provocative to consider.
2:) “I want to know your own experience of illness – why the interest? People with their ailments are not always interesting, far from it. But we all hope for a – must I say the word – recipe; we all believe, however much we know we shouldn’t, that maybe somebody’s got that recipe and can show us how not to get sick, suffer and die.” Nan Shin, Diary of a Zen Nun: Every Day Living
3:) The banner photo I took in Japan 10 years ago, and the cherry blossoms are from the west coast.
4:) Something to listen too. True Colours by the Camden Choir from England
5:) I feel lucky that I ended up here, doing what I do and experiencing the life I have. Grateful to wake up each morning. And I always look forward to scribbling away on Wed. Thanks so much for taking the time to drop by and for all the kind notes that you so graciously send. Warmest wishes, and may you enjoy who you are – your perfectly imperfect self. What a gift.
A deep bow, Trudy