I’ve been doing a lot of reading about nutrition since being diagnosed with breast cancer. Especially nutrition that is supposedly good for cancer patients or those undergoing chemo. It’s not a topic that my oncologist has made much fuss over. Evidently oncologists are trained to rely on chemotherapy as a sole means of treatment, and give little credence to complementary therapies like nutrition.
There are nutritionists who work with cancer patients and I have consulted with a few of those. It was interesting to get conflicting information in some cases from the two ladies I spoke to. For example, one seemed to think that consuming soy had positive aspects for a breast cancer patient, while the other one warned against any consumption of soy in a very dire tone. As in an if-you-eat-soy-you-will-die kind of tone.
They were, however, in agreement with many of their recommendations. Getting a good, lean source of protein was high on both nutritionists’ lists. Both recognized that organic hormone-free chicken and small amounts of grass-fed beef were good sources of protein. Both cautioned against cow’s dairy for any hormone-driven cancer, instead suggesting goat’s or sheep’s milk dairy. Fish was suggested by both as a great source of the “good” omega fatty acids. Cruciferous vegetables rank high on their lists, as well as alliums (garlic and onions). Fruit in moderation, especially berries, were touted by both as being beneficial.
The things to stay away from were similar for both: sugar is evidently the big bad, followed by all the things that become sugar in our bodies as soon as we eat them (potatoes, pasta, white rice, etc.). Giving up dairy was the hardest change for me. I have always consumed a ton of it: milk, cheese, yogurt, cream, butter… If it was pumped out of a cow, I ate it. My German ancestry evidently gave me fabulous lactose-digesting genes, which I was determined to make good use of. Which was probably not a smart thing in retrospect, considering that my cancer is strongly estrogen-positive, and today’s cow’s milk dairy is high in hormones. Even organic milk is high in hormones because milk cows are kept constantly pregnant so they’re always lactating. I had never thought about this before my diagnosis. I always thought I was being safe by only buying organic milk, but evidently that’s not enough.
Fine, I think. I can give up dairy and sugar. I’ve always had a fairly healthy diet (except for those nights where nothing will satisfy except a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked FroYo). For the most part, I’ve always eaten minimal amounts of meat and a decent portion of healthy veggies, including cabbage, brussels sprouts, beets, and lots of garlic and onions. I should be good-to-go for this cancer-fighting diet, right?
Only once you start chemo, everything changes, and I mean everything. Your taste buds, for one. Suddenly all the foods I’ve liked and disliked in my lifetime are shuffled like a deck of cards, with things I would never have considered eating ending up as my cravings, and things I’ve always craved ending up as foods I couldn’t possibly consider eating now.
For example, I’ve always had a massive sweet tooth. But at the moment, to even think about something sweet turns my stomach. I seem to chronically have a strange taste in my mouth, sort of like the too-sweet aftertaste of a diet soda. My boyfriend made a pumpkin pie last night; I thought I’ll try a piece; it’ll probably be fine once I start eating it. It wasn’t. The pie tasted like a Listerine-drenched slab of congealed bean paste. Seriously.
Oddly enough, though, I can still enjoy fruit. The sugar in fruit doesn’t seem to affect me the same way that the taste of processed sugar does. So I can still eat the berries that are recommended. And my new fruit obsession: pineapple. I never really liked pineapple before, but now I crave that taste as well. I read in The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz that Australian researchers found that an enzyme in pineapple can block cancer-related proteins and prompt immune cells to attack cancer cells. Interesting. Does my body somehow know this, or is the new craving a coincidence? I’ve also read that pineapple is a great cleanser of toxicity in our bodies, so maybe that’s why I suddenly crave it: Maybe my body’s trying to hose out the chemo poisons.
The other thing that I’m craving is meat. I’ve never been a big meat eater, but suddenly I’m starving for barbecue, burgers, steak. Anything red-blooded. If a caribou (or quite possibly the neighbor’s dog) were to suddenly stroll across my back yard, I would be out there in a jiffy with a baseball bat, stalking it like a Cro-Magnon in the middle of a hard winter. Even my bony poodle has started glancing at me nervously these past few days.
I told my oncologist of my strange meat craving and aversion to sugar. She seemed to think it was a good thing. Most people going through chemo crave sugar, she said. At least if you’re craving meat, you’re getting protein.
I guess she has a good point. I’m not sure how much protein there is in the neighbor’s bluetick coonhound, but I think I’m getting plenty of protein from the other meats I’ve been stalking. I know I should probably try to make sure they’re more on the lean-and-healthy side, but it’s hard to mollify the beast’s appetite once it has awakened. Maybe this is how it feels to have a tape worm. Or an alien growing inside of you. Or just chemo-addled taste buds. Probably the latter.