Another Milky Way? Finding a Nutrition Plan that Works for You
It's November 1, and the table near my front door holds a big bowl of left-over Halloween Milky Ways and candy corn.
If you have cancer, you have probably had more than one well-meaning friend tell you, "Sugar causes cancer." You have probably been given any number of pamphlets explaining why you need to eat wheat grass or take this expensive food supplement or that particular vitamin. Buy a juicer; eat organic. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has read a study. How are you going to sort through it all?
I don't know what you are going to do. Here's what I've done.
The first thing I noticed about my diet as I was coming out of treatment was that I had a sort of instinctual aversion to additives and artificial ingredients. I don't use artificial sweeteners, fake coffee creamers, and so forth. The Halloween cupcakes at the grocery store with the bright orange frosting make me shudder at the thought of the dye. However, I know that my body isn't an infallible judge of what's good for it because I seem to be able to make an exception for M & M's, which supply a full range of artificial dyes in every pack. My bottom line on additives and preservatives seems to be to avoid them as much as possible without making myself crazy.
Many of my friends in the cancer community swear by supplements. I take a multi-vitamin with my oncologist's blessing, but I haven't gotten on the supplement bandwagon for several reasons. First, I'm cheap! Supplements are expensive! Second, it seems to me that my post-cancer body chemistry is a delicate balance. The last time I had surgery the instructions mentioned several supplements to stop a week before the operation because they are blood thinners. Some vitamins have an adverse effect on chemotherapy. The possibility of an overdose of a good thing seems more likely with supplements. Finally, the studies seem to change regularly. This year's fad supplement for breast cancer turns out to negatively affect some other organ system. When I get my nutrition from real food, I don't worry that I'll get too much of any particular substance.
My daughter wants me to go organic, and as organic food has become less expensive and more widely available, I am buying more organics. I know that pesticides are bad for the environment, and are probably bad for me. But in my real world, when I'm deciding whether to buy the non-organic local cabbage at the farmer's market or the organic one at the grocery store from a thousand miles away, the choice seems a little more complicated. My budget is tight enough that going all-organic would mean squeezing out something else. For many cancer patients struggling to pay medical bills, finding enough money to put any kind of food on the table is hard enough. So I wash produce thoroughly and hope for the best.
So what am I eating to stay healthy? Lots more veggies and fruits to start with. I try to eat a rainbow of foods to get all the good phytochemicals that are known cancer fighters. I will pay more to get not only the green pepper, but a red and a yellow one as well, so I'm getting a variety of phytochemicals. When the fresh blueberries and raspberries are gone, I buy the frozen ones and put them in my oatmeal or in whole wheat muffins and pancakes.
The jury is still out on the degree to which diet affects breast cancer. I'm fortunate enough that now my doctors seem more worried about keeping my borderline cholesterol under control than about my having a recurrence of cancer. So more fiber, less fat is becoming a way of life for me that will pay off for my overall health even if the studies are inconclusive in regards to breast cancer.
A cancer diagnosis is a call to health that leads some people to change their diet completely. Some people can even maintain that change for years. For most of us, food is not just nutrition, but part of our culture. Celebrating with a glass of cabbage juice just isn't the same as a glass of wine. The important thing is to find a diet you can live with everyday for the rest of your life. Last year PJ Hamel wrote a great column about nutrition and cancer that can give you more details about some healthy foods that can reduce your cancer risk.
I think I'll have just one more mini-Milky Way, and then give the rest to the kids next door.