Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Uh! uh! uh! uh! Stayin' alive... stayin' alive...

All of us who've had cancer share one obsession. It doesn't actually matter whether our prognosis is hopeful or dire.

Uh! uh! uh! uh!...

Yep, in between the days where we're consumed by fear because we don't feel quite as well as we think we should, we have days where we're consumed by the technicalities of staying alive post-cancer.

What should we eat?

What should we drink?

How much should we exercise, and in what way?

How will we ever balance quality of life against quantity? Is it even possible?

Is it going to kill us, no matter what we do? Is trying to change our behaviour a massive waste of our limited time?


Dr Google is our enemy, Facebook memes our tormentors. It's not just the interminable medical survival statistics, which we need a triple honours degree with backflip and pike to interpret. Naturally there's a metric shitload of charlatans out there too, just begging to jump onto our insecurities, throwing contradictory books and ideas at us as they try to convert us to their looney conspiracy theories or persuade us that an answer actually exists to our questions.

Conflicts arise in our heads, stuffing up the infinitesimally tiny space available for rational thought after we deal with remembering our tablets and appointments. Remember, we're still fighting off the grey haze of chemo brain. We need to reserve most of our synapses just so we can kind of function as a member of society again.

In our hearts, we know that the Freeloader isn't sitting there glued to a Facebook feed full of healthy living memes, or Googling how to cure himself, just so he knows who to leave alone. He just bloody turns up and moves in, and either moves out or returns for seconds pretty well randomly.

But we're human, and humans have this stupid belief that they can control things. It's all too easy to turn into an OCD lunatic with juicer-induced RSI, who dedicates 16 hours a day to dieting or exercising or meditating and the remaining eight to lying awake worrying about whether it's working. Alternately, we can recognise that we're not driving this bloody bus and end up feeling so out of control that we just give up, reaching blindly for the doughnuts and crisps while we watch Big Brother to reassure ourselves that someone out there has a life more pathetic than our own.

We can't get past that crap without support. And the best support is each other. We cancer chicks need to stick together, even after the monster is supposedly gone.

Sometimes our families and our friends don't understand that. They think we're wallowing- that we need to leave our 'cancer friends' behind and just move on.

We're not wallowing. We're just... uh, uh, uh, uh...


I figure that it doesn't actually matter how switched on you are, intellectually or emotionally. There's simply no way to avoid the Fear Factor all the time- not even if you've majored in denial all your life. The best you can do is find some middle course, some way of living that alleviates the worst of your anxiety without turning you into a maniac who thinks they can cure cancer by baying at the moon on the third day after the equinox and has no other topics of conversation.

For me, finding that other way of living has manifested as a hell of a lot of academic reading, a shitload of reflection on what I've tried before, listening to people I trust and making some pretty radical changes to my priorities.


Priorities. Number 1: Staying alive.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, gets in the way of my morning exercise. Thanks to my scrutiny of the relevant medical articles, I've discovered that my particular stage and type of cancer is not particularly fond of people who exercise for three to five hours per week. In fact I can reduce my chances of dying at the Freeloader's hands by more than 25% just by getting off my usually lazy arse every day for at least half to three quarters of an hour.

For a person who actually loathes exercise for exercise's sake like the plague, that's quite a challenge. The secret, for me, is finding a whole range of physical things that I actually enjoy doing and then asking myself each morning not whether I'll exercise today, but which of the many options I feel up to and in the mood for.*

My current choices:

Riding the pushbike
Walking the dogs
Wii dance fitness
Wii tennis, boxing, bowling, baseball and/or golf
Wii cycling, hula hooping and/or step class (plus umpteen other options on the disc)

There's always something there that seems both appealing and possible, no matter what my energy levels are like. Soon I'll be able to add swimming in the dam and scooping salvinia out of the lagoons to that list, as the weather gets hotter and more disgustingly humid and the concept of getting out of bed becomes even less appealing than usual.

And of course, the bonus is that I get a whole lot of endorphins for my trouble right at the start of the day. The more crappy I feel in my head, the more important the exercise is and the more important it is not to ask myself whether.

Just which.


As for the eating... well, I started with the medical evidence there, too. All roads lead to carrying too much avoirdupois as a primary culprit in cancer diagnoses. I mean, many of us believe with at least one part of our brain that some recent significant life stress led to our cancer. The truth is that there's no medical connection, but stress tends to lead to lying around watching boxed set DVDs and eating Cadbury's by the block, right? Which means turning into the human equivalent of a beached whale, all blubber and lack of momentum.

The same applies to all those goddamned Facebook memes about red meat or dairy products or sugar being poison, and various fruits and vegies having magical carcinogenic properties. There's no statistical correlation. But red meat and dairy are generally well-loaded with fat, and sugar is, well, sugar. So eat too much of them, and what happens?

It's not rocket science. (And you don't have to be overweight on the outside to have your internal organs nicely swaddled with blubber.)

As for the gazillion forms of the 'salad cures cancer' meme, if you eat only herbs and vegetables, what happens? No Nobel Prize for working that one out, either. Give that top model a hamburger, for christ's sake, before you snap her in two thinking she's a pretzel.

So the bottom line here for me was lose weight or die. I've had my head wedged firmly up my arse for most of my life about the risks to my health of being more than generously curvy. The scales, which I generally avoid like the plague, had said various unwelcome things to me when I could no longer avoid them at my local GP's premises, but that didn't make me change my habits.

I've spent half my life dieting. It doesn't work. It just makes my body adjust to functioning using less food, so when I fall off the wagon the weight piles back on twice as fast.

I've sometimes been motivated by the desire to look good, but even that has never provided a permanent solution. Op shopping for clothes before my diagnosis, I'd discovered to my horror that even the size 14's no longer went anywhere near me. My answer was to buy bigger clothes- up to size 18- that disguised the problem pretty well, and to go on eating whatever I wanted.

Well, the Freeloader saw straight through that one, didn't he? I had to find a better way.


I've got no doubt that my biggest enemy when it comes to eating more healthily has been lethargy. When I'm motivated, I can make almost any food look appetising- I owned a restaurant, FFS! When I'm motivated, I'm a damn good cook. But it's always been much easier to just reach for whatever was at hand that tasted good, especially when I was the only one eating.

I was just lucky, I think, that Ferdinand's sudden dislike of sugar after chemo set me on the road to change. Nothing like a bit of free aversion therapy. Even now, when I've discovered that I can cheat a little and eat some sweet things, I'm reluctant to overdo it in case I get that chemo-taste back in my mouth. That helps. It gave me a head start. (Read, "I stopped reaching for the chocolate and sweet biscuits as a solution to every problem".)

The other head start was provided by the exercise. It makes me less lethargic, gives me an appetite and puts me in a better mood at the start of the day. Read my lips: I am not a morning person. Read them again: I don't do breakfast. Both those elements have changed beyond recognition.

This is what my breakfast looked like this morning, after I'd spent a good 35 minutes on a dance workout. (Hey, I'm getting better at this salsa routine. I look less like an octopus with Parkinson's and more like a superannuated groupie.)

Those are unsalted roasted cashews on top. I LOVE cashews. I also love limes. So, you see, I'm still eating what I like, when I like. Who cares that it doesn't look like breakfast? Cereal is mostly crap anyway. It's full of sugar.

And this looks so much prettier. I love red and green, especially on my plate. Rule One of food presentation: contrast. Why the hell do you think Italian restaurants sprinkle all their tomatoey dishes with parsley?

Under the cashews and limes is a little medley of stuff picked from our vegie garden after I watered it this morning; English spinach, silverbeet, parsley, basil, coriander, rocket, cos and mignonette lettuce. (The only thing that didn't come from the garden is the red capsicum, because ours aren't ripe yet.) Dr Rosie's best advice to me on how to move on from here was 'eat food that doesn't know it's been picked yet, and everything else in moderation', so this came straight from the garden to my plate and got dressed with the lime juice. It was surprisingly delicious and filling.

Oh, and I worked out I wasn't drinking enough water, because I was waking up thirsty in the night. So I've added lime slices to my water to make it more appealing, and I top it up every time I finish it so there's always a glass of infused water waiting for my attention on the bench.**

Sometimes I have fruit and little cubes of cheese with my cashews for breakfast, instead of the salad stuff. It depends on what I feel like. So here we are again: not whether I feel like a healthier breakfast (that's 'healthier than nothing till I'm ravenous at 11am and eat crap'), but which healthier breakfast I'll have.

I haven't turned into a different person, mind you. I still snack, and I still like foods which are what we in the Early Childhood profession diplomatically call 'sometimes' foods. But I buy the healthier options from amongst what I like, so I can then choose which, not whether, and not feel deprived.

Right now my fridge boasts Lindt dark chocolate in four different flavours. (You can afford Lindt if you stop buying all the other crap.) On the bench are some wasabi peas, crackers to go with the two varieties of hard cheese in the fridge, peanut butter (low fat /low salt) and grain bread, and the cashews, of course- along with the apples, pears and bananas- for snacking. There's so much nice stuff that I couldn't possibly eat it all in one sitting. That lets me listen to my body saying what it wants and eat what I crave, not hoover up the lot with an overlay of guilt (read, "so I can't rationalise that if I scoff it all now I won't be able to eat any 'bad' stuff tomorrow and ruin that day as well". What a load of horseshit that is.)***

There are little cans of tuna in the shelves, to go with the goodies from the vegie garden. If I feel like a toasted sandwich with tuna and cheese for lunch, that's what I'll make, and if I feel like just fruit or maybe some biscuits and cheese, I'll have that. I have the energy to listen to myself when I'm hungry and make what I want, instead of just grabbing some processed crap that's no trouble.

Today I happened to feel like spiced gouda on wholegrain crackers, strawberries and freshly squeezed orange juice. Dear me, life is so hard.

Oh, and that's a Mikasa plate from my dinner set. Because what the hell am I saving the good china for?

Dinner is still pretty much the same as ever. I cook what I feel like cooking, though I use olive oil or real butter instead of margarine and I sprinkle my vegies with lime or lemon juice to reduce the GI of those spuds.**** The biggest differences are the ratio of meat to veg on the plate and how much I serve myself. Often, I can't eat it all even so. I think my stomach shrank. (I did manage to force down all of this... mmm, home-grown turkey schnitzel...)

And then... a little Lindt for afters. Mmmm, again. Yeah, sometimes we eat half the block between us. Dark chocolate is good for us, right?


Of course, it doesn't work every day. I have my off days, and plenty of them, because I'm human. I have days when I'm busy or depressed or stressed or worried, I have days when my 'morning exercise' takes place at 2.30 in the afternoon and I've eaten half a block of chocolate before I get there for no good reason at all.

But there's no point worrying about that, right? You just have to get back on the horse. Or the bike, or the Wii, or whatever.

Is it working? You bet. Remember how I was in the op shop and buying up to size 18? Well, I had to go back to the op shop yesterday, because all my pants are falling off.

Here's what I bought. The pants? Nothing bigger than a size 12.

Yeah, sure, the jeans are a little... snug. What the hell. They're stretchy.

And even if this doesn't beat the Freeloader in the end, I will have felt better about myself in the meantime. That's a win, right?

And now, back to my dancing. Uh, uh, uh, uh....


* Don't ask yourself whether you want to do it, just do it: I learned that one from Jools. The which is my own addition to the rule, because like any toddler I always need to have a choice before I can do something that wasn't my initial preference.

** The infused water idea came from Hellen and Mandy, from my Young Pink Sisters wellness group. Bless you both.

*** The buying-more-shit-than-you-can-possibly-eat-in-a-sitting idea comes from Susie Orbach's 'Fat is a Feminist Issue', one of the few books that promised to change my life and actually did affect the way I looked at things forever.

**** And the idea of adding citrus to food to lower the GI of the whole meal also came from Jools. It sounds loopy but it's verified by science. A low GI diet is one of the few diets that is backed by medical evidence in terms of improving health outcomes.

1 comment:

  1. Ah Ah Ah Ah Stayin aliiiiiiiiiiiiiivvvvvvvvvvveeeeeee