Fighting colon cancer was only part of the battle; this survivor then had to learn how, and what, to eat all over again.
It is 7 p.m. and the restaurant where my friends and I are dining is warm and cozy. The crisp, white damask tablecloth serves as the backdrop for place settings of rose-colored porcelain edged in gold.
During the summer of 2001, I made an appointment with my internist after noticing rectal bleeding. He performed a sigmoidoscopy immediately, and two weeks later I had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from my colon. Unfortunately, even though I caught the cancer early, it had already traveled to a lymph node, resulting in treatment with chemotherapy and radiation.
More debilitating than the cancer have been the post-treatment digestion side effects. For three years after surgery there were very few foods I could eat without having to run an Olympic dash to the bathroom. I returned to work as an executive assistant—taking my problem with me, which made it difficult to be around people. I was embarrassed, angry, and depressed. My life was controlled by my uncontrollable body.
The doctors who saved my life couldn’t help. At every follow-up visit they said the same thing—give it time.They prescribed an over-the-counter remedy, then a cocktail of two. Then they suggested staying away from fatty foods. Finally, they prescribed a drug that my research revealed could have serious side effects.
I underwent an MRI and an endoscopy. I had a comprehensive blood screening and numerous other diagnostic tests. My list of doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, but I was still living in the bathroom.
I was embarrassed, angry and depressed. My life was controlled by my uncontrollable body.
In 2005, after exhausting the traditional medical route and feeling at the end of my rope, I started talking about my condition and seeking advice from anyone who offered it. One breast cancer survivor recommended acupuncture. Another friend recommended a physician who specialized in nutrition. Both of these suggestions got me moving in the right direction.
The acupuncture was so relaxing I felt better emotionally, and started to look better as a result. The nutritionist, who is a PhD and specializes in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism, explained that my intestines were so inflamed that instead of being ridged on the inside, they were somewhat smooth, causing food to glide right through without being slowed for digestion. He said I was going to have to endure a process of eliminating most everything I was eating, then slowly we would introduce one or two foods at four-week intervals.
After just one week on a diet of white food (white fish or turkey; cream of wheat or shredded wheat cereals; white bread; white rice; bananas) almost all of the digestion problems were gone. It was a miracle. Now I had something that had been missing for a long time: hope.
Over the next four weeks we added honeydew and yams to the white food to see whether my body would digest them. The blood tests indicated that my body could not tolerate wheat, gluten, or dairy. I was put on a probiotic and the supplement glutamine, the amino acid usually found in abundance in the body that helps the kidneys excrete acids and moves nitrogen from the tissues to help in the metabolic process. Metabolic distress, such as what happens during cancer, lessens glutamine. Probiotics contain potentially beneficial bacteria or yeast to help re-establish the body’s naturally occurring gut flora.
The nutritionist recommended that I stay away from all sugars. I wanted to comply, but the thought of not having anything sweet was horrifying. The first week without sugar meant a mean withdrawal. Even my cats didn’t want to be around me. The task was made more difficult by my assiduous reading of ingredient labels and seeing that sugar is in just about everything we eat.
I continued the monthly visits with the nutritionist to check my weight, ratio of body fat to muscle, and blood pressure. We reviewed my food diary and he’d tell me what food I could add into the mix over the next four weeks. We had in-depth discussions about why certain foods were a trigger for my digestive issues. Sometimes I’d keep him talking about food, hoping he would say I could eat something I shouldn’t. Needless to say, that never worked.
Grocery shopping presents its own set of issues. I can digest only goat cheese, and it is hard to grab only one cheese and get away from the assortment as soon as possible. I miss the very foods that are supposed to keep me healthy and are touted as preventive measures against colorectal cancer—whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—all of which I ate regularly before I had cancer, but now can’t digest.
However, the food options for people in my situation are becoming more numerous.
Most of my groceries are rice-based because that’s what my body can digest. I purchase items with 12 grams of sugar or less, but sugar-free is the first option. Agave, a sweetener made from the blue agave plant, has been helpful. When I crave sweet things, I steam 2 percent lactose-free organic milk, add ½ teaspoon agave and a little cinnamon. It’s creamy and delicious. Recently I discovered goat’s milk ice cream, also delicious and low in sugar.
If I purée broccoli, my body will digest it. Not so with other vegetables. I heat up the puréed broccoli with lactose-free organic milk, add Crazy Salt (salt with bits of dried herbs) to taste, and I have a delicious soup. My body can digest bananas and honeydew, along with apples and pears, only if peeled and only if I don’t eat them frequently.
Today, more than two years after changing my diet, I still can’t completely accept that I will probably never be able to eat the way I did before I had cancer. Knowing something intellectually doesn’t stop the emotional cravings, and I had no idea how deeply I needed food for reasons other than good nutrition until most of it was taken away and I was left with just, well, me.
I do “fall off the wagon” occasionally. I have eaten “normal” pizza, and I found a chocolate bar that is gluten- and dairy-free, with only 15 grams of sugar. However, chocolate is one of my “trigger foods,” so I allow myself only one small square every now and then. As time passes, the desire to eat the “forbidden foods” is less urgent.
There are results from this journey for which I am grateful. My condition is no longer chronic. I can socialize without first scoping out the nearest bathroom. My cholesterol has improved 60 percent. Because my sugar consumption has been dramatically reduced it is easier to maintain a healthy weight, and I have started the study of tai chi and yoga, which has put me in the best physical condition of my life. I have also begun volunteering to help colorectal cancer patients and survivors with their digestion issues by sharing my story. Every time I talk to a fellow traveler it renews my feelings of hope and gratitude, and I re-discover the strength to keep walking this path one day at a time.
As I peruse the menu, I am dropped into the gaping maw of reality. There isn’t one thing I can eat. Not even the warm, doughy bread. Once again I am going to have to put on a good face in front of my friends, who will be eating whatever they want while trying not to feel too bad because I can’t.
That scenario was becoming all-too-common since treatment of my colorectal cancer in 2001-2.