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Health & Wellness After Cancer and During a Pandemic

Dealing with the challenges of health and wellness after cancer treatment is tricky enough, but managing it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is an even bigger obstacle. One survivor details how she tries to take it one wellness win at a time.
PUBLISHED May 28, 2020
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at

When my hematologist-oncologist suggested that we have a telemedicine appointment last month, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I couldn't bear to face him, to see his expression when he noticed just how much weight I've put on since the start of coronavirus quarantine. It's funny, not once during treatment for stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma did he even broach the topic of my weight. Even though my cancer was discovered during pre-op testing for bariatric surgery, we never discussed what I saw as the elephant in the room. Me. When I asked him what I should be eating, or avoiding, during treatment he told me to eat whatever I wanted. I pressed him about sugar, how the internet told me that sugar would feed the cancer cells and send me to my death. But he ignored it and told me that I should eat whenever I felt hungry and, well, I could eat whatever I wanted.

I put myself on a strict diet during chemo though, working with a naturopath I had never met, following a meal plan created for a male cancer patient fighting leukemia. I made myself vegan protein shakes and cut out all sugars and complex carbohydrates, opting for quinoa and oatmeal to replace pasta and rice. I soaked all of my fruits and vegetables, and when my blood count was too low and I was neutropenic, I would instead eat cooked vegetables only. I made bone broths and signed up to take the course offered by the Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, to learn how to fuel my body properly during treatment. I discovered that fasting on chemo days helped me with nausea and so I began a cycle of fasting for 24 hours at a time to ensure that I wouldn't vomit or feel sick after treatment. Steroids, fasting and chemo made my body weak, my metabolism sluggish, and my weight loss stalled.

When I was declared NED (no evidence of disease), I committed myself to stick to a new, healthier lifestyle. I incorporated more daily exercise into my life, walking for miles when the weather allowed then got a puppy to make sure I left the house every day. I focused on strength training and tried lifting weights, working with a TRX trainer, private yoga lessons, pilates, barre blends, core training, Beachbody workouts and boxing. But I wasn't able to stick to any exercise program beyond my daily walks, my stamina was just too low. I saw two different nutritionists, went Keto, then tried the 2B Mindset by Beachbody, then F-Factor, and I managed to maintain the same weight for close to a year. That weight was still 50 pounds higher than my goal weight, so I tried intermittent fasting and went vegan.

When COVID-19 took over our lives and sent us into quarantine in early March, I was still maintaining my weight and sticking to my daily walks, avoiding sugar and junk food, and eating plant-based. But coronavirus quarantine, and the physical limitations on exercise, became too much. I could only walk 100 meters from my home, wearing a mask made me feel like I was suffocating while walking, and with six souls in a three-bedroom apartment 24/7, there was no space to set up a yoga mat much less try a workout video. The mental toll and the fear of catching COVID-19 sent me into a spiral; I will always be in the high-risk category and fighting another unseen deadly illness so soon after fighting cancer, became too much for me.

I turned to food for comfort, to help with the anxiety; I couldn't yell at my husband or children if my mouth was full of chocolate cake! I went back to sugar, which just brought on the inevitable cycle of riding those short terms highs and the longer lows until I could get another sugar fix. I felt powerless and ashamed of myself for giving up my healthy lifestyle pledge that I had promised myself in survivorship.

We are almost three weeks into the easing of restrictions here in Israel; my children are back to school full time, my husband is working from his office and we are adjusting to this new normal while we prepare and anticipate a second wave. I'm trying to recommit myself to my wellness and fitness pledge, but it's harder. Instead, I stopped thinking about my weight loss goal and just focus on one thing at a time. For now, being able to walk my puppy farther than 100 meters from my home is my wellness win.

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