by Jean LaMantia, Living with Cancer
When I was 27 years old something happened to me that changed my life. At the time, it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t sure I would survive it. Now, looking back, I can appreciate the experience for the gift that it has given me.
When I was 27 years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a cancer that originates in the white blood cells (lymphocytes) and spreads to the lymph nodes. I had masses in my neck, under my arms, and a 15 cm tumour in my chest. By the time I reached the cancer centre, after all the preliminary staging tests, my lungs were so full of lymphatic fluid, I felt like I was drowning in my own body. Following my diagnosis I endured 6 and a half months of chemotherapy and a month of daily radiation. One of the biggest turning points in my relationship with my cancer came after my last radiation treatment.
After that last treatment, I totally expected that the doctor would meet me at the radiation suite and shake my hand and say, “You did it. Your cancer is gone. You’re cured”… that didn’t happen. When I think about it now, I know I was naïve to think this, but that was my honest expectation. What happened? I was given an appointment card. That’s it, no fanfare, no congratulations, nothing different from any other radiation treatment.
I had my first follow-up after the radiation was over, and again, I expected the doctor to give me the thumbs up. That didn’t happen either. He just said, “I’ll see you in three months.” And that’s how I lived my life. In three month chunks, naively expecting to hear the word “cure” every time I went back for follow-up. This caused an emotional rollercoaster, starting with relief when I didn’t have cancer, to a gradual build-up of anxiety and fear that overwhelmed me until the results of the next follow-up. These follow-up appointments were only telling me that I didn’t have cancer that day. They weren’t doing anything to protect me from having cancer at my next follow-up.
My medical team was expert at treating cancer and detecting cancer. They were not expert at preventing cancer. What was I doing to help myself? Nothing. Or if I was doing something, I wasn’t aware of what it was, and that did nothing for my fear.
My anxiety and fear hit their climax one evening. As, I was beginning to get my life back on track after treatment, I had gone out for dinner with friends and had a glass of beer. Following the beer, I developed a headache. Let me tell you why this headache was such a fear trigger for me. Back when my cancer first showed itself to me and seven months before it was diagnosed, it appeared to me as a stiff neck. But when I would drink alcohol, the pain would intensify and shoot down my arm into my hand. Seven months later when I was finally diagnosed I began reading about Hodgkin’s lymphoma and I learned that “this cancer can react to alcohol”. Reading this confirmed for me that the pain in the neck was the early sign of my cancer.
Now, I was recovering from my cancer treatment, getting my life back to normal and having my first alcoholic drink in months. With this headache, my fear got the better of me. Oh my god, I’ve got brain mets! This is what I believed and this is what I was thinking when I picked up the phone and called the cancer centre and asked them to page the oncology resident on call. “I’m a Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient and I’ve just had my first alcoholic drink since my treatment and now, I’ve got a headache. I think I’ve got brain mets,” I tearfully choked out past the lump in my throat that was making it difficult to talk.
“You’re just hung over” chuckled the resident. This felt like pure humiliation. Why wasn’t he taking my fear seriously? Why was he treating me like a hypochondriac and laughing at me! The lump in my throat grew harder. Don’t you know that Hodgkin’s reacts to alcohol? I replied, but he could not be convinced. You don’t have brain mets, he stated. My humiliation complete, I hung up the phone. I was hurt by his insensitivity and his lack of compassion. But, I could also see myself in the situation, trying to convince him that I have brain mets and how unwound I had become. “I’ve got to get a grip,” I told myself. I could recognize that my fear was running the show even several months post treatment.
If there was anyone that was qualified to be in this position, it was me. I could figure this out. I could figure out what I could do to help myself. I am a registered dietitian who loves science and reading research papers. I began to throw myself into this topic. What could I do to reduce my risk of recurrence? What could I do to prevent breast and lung cancers – the cancers that my doctors told me I now have an elevated risk of developing because of my cancer treatment?
I certainly had reason to fear, but I also had the tools to take matters into my own hands and do what I could to reduce my risk and my fear. My moment of utter fear and humiliation was also a turning point that moved me out of the powerless victim to stepping into my power. Through my professional training as a registered dietitian, I have come to understand at a deep level that there are incremental changes I can make in my diet and lifestyle that will reduce my risk of redeveloping cancer.
I want to share these with you, so that you too can feel in control. I will focus on one question I am often asked “does sugar feed cancer?” While I have written extensively on this topic, let me summarize my findings for you.
Sugar per se doesn’t feed cancer, but sugar has two pathways that can promote cancer.
- Excess sugar intake can lead to more visceral fat in your body and visceral fat is linked to cancer in several ways.
- Excess sugar, especially in combination with insulin resistance, can lead to elevated insulin levels and insulin can be a direct promoter of cancer.
What Should I Do?
Keep the natural sugars in your diet that provide you with beneficial plant nutrients. This would include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas and lentils. But make changes to limit unhealthy added sugars in your diet. This would include candies, sweets, refined grains (white bread and pastas for example) and sodas as well as other junk food.
There is a link between added sugar and excess body fat and higher insulin levels. Make changes to limit your intake of added sugars in your diet. Making this change is just one of the many tools that you can implement in your post-cancer diet and lifestyle to help you reduce your risk of cancer recurrence.
Incremental Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Making changes will help you to feel that you are doing what you can to reduce your risk of cancer. Keep making positive change and this will help you to reduce the fear and anxiety that comes with being a cancer survivor.
Jean LaMantia is a registered dietitian, cancer survivor and best-selling author of The Essential Cancer Treatment Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. She supports cancer survivors with one-on-one nutrition counselling, group mentorship and on-line coaching. Find out more at www.jeanlamantia.com.