What being a cancer survivor has taught me about food

It’s no surprise that Americans are tilting the scales in the wrong direction. We are straining our waistlines and health coverage beyond the limits.

Unfortunately we live in a culture that promotes it.

Recently, I tuned into my favorite TV food channel to watch famous chefs create exotic dishes with quail eggs and artichokes. Instead I tapped into back-to-back shows that claimed to represent American food.  The hosts were a well-known southern comfort food cook and a chef who travels around the country visiting local restaurants.  Within one hour I saw biscuits with lard; mushroom soup with butter, sour cream and bacon; chicken fried steak; roast beef smothered in gravy; fried baloney and grilled liverwurst with bacon sandwiches.

The diners interviewed said the food “tastes homemade” or “like my momma made,” Are you serious? Did your mother really serve that?

Wedged between the two shows was a Jenny Craig commercial with a woman dancing around her kitchen, bragging that she had lost 22 lbs. The timing made it truly laughable.

For some reason we can’t stop looking at food as a source of comfort, weight loss as a punishment, and calories as a score card.  Why can’t we begin to think of it all as nutrition and its components – proteins, fats, and carbohydrates – as things that keep us out of trouble?

Two and a half years as a cancer survivor have taught me that food takes on a different meaning for people with serious illness. Food keeps us whole, makes us stronger, and heals us. Our systems are fragile, so poor food choices cause everything from sleepless nights to serious pain. Weight gain and loss are important, so if good nutrition is in place, they become critical health indicators.

Fortunately, the medical and nutritional sciences have joined hands to provide more information today about pathways for nutrition-based health. We’ve heard about “diets” for years – good, bad, and downright crazy. But common sense tells us the good ones promote healthy eating through balance and moderation.

Even Sesame Street’s Elmo – one of the great philosophers of our day – teaches kids about “sometime foods” (cookies) and “anytime food” (fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy).

I’ve searched for information on nutrition that optimizes my chances for progression free survival. And while it can be overwhelming, it is out there and it goes far beyond the fuzzy advice that simply tells us to eat a balanced diet from all four food groups.

Dr. William Li, in a TED talk video, suggests a new way to think about treating cancer. A process called anti-angiogenesis prevents the growth of blood vessels that feed tumors. A key factor is nutrition: eating cancer-fighting foods that cut off the tumor’s blood supply. It’s worth a listen. It may make you think differently about the powerful impact diet has on your life.

But this is just one source about how nutrition plays such a huge part in our health.  Go online and search any condition – gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer, etc. – followed by “nutrition” and see what happens. Focus on the most recent research and findings.  When the lists of suggested foods and foods to avoid are consistent from site to site, that’s a clue.

There’s a reason why your mother said “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”.  A juicy Granny Smith might not exactly allow you to drop your health plan but there’s more truth than fiction in that old saying. Apples contain vitamin C and other antioxidants, soluble fiber, help our teeth stay clean when eaten raw, work to reduce the body’s cholesterol level, and when made into applesauce, can ease an uncomfortable gastrointestinal disturbance. (I can personally attest to that last one.)

If we can do all that with an apple, think about what could happen with blueberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and broccoli.  Pssst…there are also a few happy surprises like dark chocolate and red wine.

Practicing good nutrition doesn’t mean you’ll never fall of the wagon.  Sometimes those so-called comfort foods are emotionally necessary. They make us feel better for a while, although once a healthy diet is established, they may also cause our tummies to talk sternly back to us.

My husband and I have a preferred list of “sometime” foods.  We’ve been known to sneak over to The Hot Dog Hut for our favorite – the California dog.  It’s a beef hotdog covered with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and parsley (the enlightened California ingredients).

We don’t do this often so I try not to chastise myself too much. I simply say “what were you thinking? Just go eat an apple!”

Elaine Waples underwent major abdominal surgery for ovarian cancer that had metastasized to several organs. Her journey is chronicled on Care and Cost.  This article originally appeared on the Prepared Patient Forum.

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