My Reflection on Cancer

As many of you know, I am living with adenocystic carcinoma, a rare cancer,with no known cure, first diagnosed in 2007.  It started out in a salivary gland, where upon I had surgery and followed with radiation.  By 2011, it had spread to my lungs for which I had surgery because one nodule was growing too close to my heart. I continue to have nodules in both lungs.

I often wondered about writing a post about my cancer, but held back for a number of reasons.  One is I deal with my cancer by pushing it out of my mind.  I don’t want to think about it out of fear that it will consume me.  Some may call it denial but for me, it is survival.  I can’t help but think of a line in the movie, Bridge of Spies where Donovan says to Abel: “You don’t seem alarmed.” And Abel responds to Donovan: “Would it help?”  I have adopted this as my own.

What would help is to tell you about things I have noticed and/ or learned along my journey. Today I reflect on my nutritional health history and surgical experience.

My relatively good health prior to surgery definitely influenced how quickly I bounced back after surgery. When you undergo surgery, your body is placed in stress.  It recognizes what it thinks is an assault to its integrity and retaliates with an inflammatory response for wound healing.  This process requires a lot of energy.  Add to that, you are given nothing by mouth before surgery and immediately after usually, 48 hours. Your nutrients are being depleted. You are given strange drugs, and exposed to the potential for infection. Documentation abounds on the role of  nutritional status and post operative period and recovery. I was discharged from the hospital after major surgery and reconstruction (9 hours surgery and 19 hours in the recovery room) on the 5th post-operative day.  My doctor told me the typical length of stay then was 7 to 10 days. Healthier people do recover faster and better. I will spare you the details but suffice it to say that I fared equally as well with my lung surgery 3 years later. 

Here is a little history of my diet.  Its important to note, how and why it changed over the years. 
My mom died when I was thirty, less than 3 years after having had a cardiac bypass.  She was on the stocky side, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure and developed coronary arterial blockage.  Her earlier years were stressful in Poland and she emigrated here in 1950.  Being Polish; we were big on meats, (many of which were processed – kielbasa, luncheon meats), pigs feet, (don’t ask) potatoes, sauerkraut, good bread and of course pierogis. I also remember some American specialties such as Lipton chicken noodle soup, pizza, Sunday’s roast beef dinner and Friday’s fish sticks.  This was the 70’s.

I graduated from nursing school in 1976 and my first job was in the Critical Care Units.  My mom would soon learn that she had a “silent” heart attack (Now we know that woman present differently than men) and I would latch onto the fact that cardiac disease was hereditary. I was living on my own by age 23, and my diet changed because I was in more control. I often passed on the red meat except for an occasional hamburger and swore of any fried food with the rare exception of MacDonald’s fries. I ate a lot of bran cereal for breakfast and salads or yogurt for lunch. Dinner was chicken breasts, occasional swordfish, a healthy low fat frozen meal and pasta. I loved fruit. I also drank diet soda (Remember TAB?).  I found walking to be an enjoyable form of exercise for me and did so at least 4 times a week.  I owned a Nordic track (remember those) and a stationary bike for the winter.  If I gained weight, I stepped up the exercise. I kept watch on my blood chemistries and they were pretty good.

Even with these changes, I was not what you called fat, but I wasn’t exactly at my ideal weight either.  Whenever I did gain weight it tends to go straight to my middle. (a warning sign for metabolic syndrome is excess fat around the middle ). I followed the norm of the time (now late 1980’s), counted calories and ate very low fat foods and still walked. I avoided anything cooked with oil. This brings me to a certain point about fats.  In my late thirties, I thought it time to add an Internist to my medical team of just an OB/GYN.  I had my first annual physical and my internist mentioned that although my total cholesterol was good, my HDL (good cholesterol) was low and was something to watch, given my family history. HDL plays an important role in reducing the amount of  atherosclerosis in blood vessel walls.  It is atherosclerosis that cause the coronary arteries to narrow potentially leading to heart attacks.  Of note, there was no other recommendations from my physician that I recall at the time.

I had also just begun dating and eventually married a Greek gentleman. Olive oil is a big part of Greek culture. They use it abundantly – cooking and baking. They even use it at baptisms!  With a lot of prodding on my now husband’s part, I began preparing salads with just a little olive oil and began eating a lot of fish, some dressed with an olive oil and lemon sauce. (Recipe to be posted soon). Within a year and upon my premarital blood test, low and behold my HDL was up and remains in normal range to this day.  My personal experience corroborates what we know today in 2016, we need good fats in our diet and that saturated fat isn’t the villain we thought it was then. 

Once married, I had to learn how to really cook and my nutrition changed once again. I really began to appreciate flavor in food - used many different spices. I branched out into more legumes as I learned to make more Greek dishes such as lentil soup, giant baked beans, lima beans with lots of artichokes, lemon and dill,  and Briam – a Greek version of baked summer vegetables. My overall weight was good and I felt healthy.  Life was good.

At age 50, I was shocked when I learned I had cancer. We had a young 3 year old child.  I know in my heart that heredity played a role. My Dad died from cancer as did several brothers before him. And so my research began and my diet would change again. Today, I eat a  variety of mostly plant based, nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory diet foods.  I will give details in subsequent posts. What we eat is so important. Its your best defense against illness.  I am grateful that I can say I have cancer but I am still well. 
See you next time