The photo on the right was taken last October. I was almost done with radiation, and my hair, eyebrows, and lashes were starting to make a return appearance. I was very emaciated and the radiation had sucked a lot of energy out of me. But, I knew I was getting through it, and the end was in sight. I had a scan after chemo that showed the cancer was gone (which was miraculous) and I did the radiation as a preventative against any returns. I knew that the situation was temporary, and now 3 1/2 months after this picture was made, I am reveling in feeling normal and enjoying my new self, as you see in the photo on the left. One way to describe how I was feeling at the end of the chemo and radiation is to say that it felt like my physical self had been taken to bare minimum. I felt I had been handed (carefully…fragile) a ball of unformed clay and a voice said to me, “Okay. Let’s see how you make this work.” I am in the process of rebuilding my body, and my life. Every day I wake up and I am thankful to be alive. Every day I get a little better. One gift from this past year is that I have learned not to be hard on myself and to love myself just the way I am. Another gift is my remarkable hair.
My first thought when I heard the seriousness of my prognosis was, I AM GOING TO LIVE AND NOT DIE. I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen, but I was sure that it was going to happen. I had 4 weeks between surgery and starting chemo and I used that time to listen to my guidance and put together my team of alternative medicine specialists and my plan. In the midst of whatever chaos was going on, I found it empowering to take control of everything I could.
One extremely important thing I did was to radically change my diet. I researched and learned that there are some foods that encourage the growth of cancer cells, and if you eliminate these foods, you can literally starve the cancer cells to death. I consulted with a nutritional doctor and went on a very strict diet. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I also believe that chemotherapy was the essential key to my recovery. I do also believe that the diet combined with the chemo really delivered a one-two punch. Since I haven’t eaten red meat since the 1960’s, eliminating that wasn’t a problem. The main changes I made were no sugar, no dairy, no gluten, no processed foods, no unhealthy fats, and no alcohol. When I say no sugar, I mean nothing that turns to sugar quickly. My fruits were limited to green apples and berries. I was rigidly strict with myself. You can learn all the details of this diet in Mike Herbert’s book, “Stay Healthy During Chemo,” which is available on Amazon. If you, or someone you love, is faced with this health crisis, please order this book.
In my mind, every single day, several times a day, I reminded myself that I was starving the cancer cells. That, and the powerful drugs of chemotherapy, were getting the job done. I finished chemotherapy cancer-free. My liver (which was in stage 4) was restored to health. I intend to stay on this diet for the rest of my life, with some slight modifications. I now eat whole grain, organic bread, and I have added pears, bananas, and papayas back to my diet, along with an occasional baked potato. Those are the only changes. In the beginning I also added fish to my diet, as I gave up soy, my protein go-to. I also eat organic eggs.
That is basically the diet that I have followed. While it seems strict, it is pretty doable. The other side of the diet issue is body image, and what happens when you lose about 30 pounds in 8 months, starting at what seemed to be a fairly normal weight.
When I was twelve years old I was super skinny. Over the top skinny. So skinny that I was harassed and insulted about it on a daily basis. One reason for this was that at that age I was living in the Ignorance Capitol of the South, and that’s pretty ignorant. The people, especially the ones between 12 and 20, were also rude enough to make nasty comments. North Alabama aesthetics had no place for a young girl who was Twiggy-sized, 15 years before Twiggy made it big. This was a time when the desired body type for a young female was short and curvy. I had grown to my full adult height by the time I was thirteen. I grew up, but not out. I had to spend the years when one forms her body image being assured on a daily basis that I just didn’t make the cut. The only class I took at that school where I actually learned something useful was typing. I find typing a right-brain activity. I can still really get into it. I learned how to type, and I could type really fast. I still can, thanks to my amazingly long fingers, and to my typing teacher, Catherine Blankenship. She was wonderful to me. The story was that Mrs. Blankenship (who had moved there “from up North”) had once been a model. She zeroed right in on me, and frequently made remarks that the whole class could hear. “Margaret, you could be a model. You are so tall and slim. You look so stylish.” Yes, I was tall and “slim.” I was also awkward and probably moved a little like a goose. But, that didn’t stop Mrs. Blankenship from boosting me and I will never forget her. Maybe it was her way of lifting up a kid she knew was suffering. Maybe it was her special way of battling the ignorance she had been somehow dropped into. (I never knew how she ended up in that God-forsaken town, and I hope she managed to get out of there.)
I gained some weight between the time I was fifteen and twenty-five, and spent my early adulthood as a normal, but slim, person. I think it is my natural state. I “porked up” a bit in my forties and fifties, mainly due to sloppy eating habits, too much business travel and the sugary food involved with that, alcohol, and only sporadic exercise. At my chubbiest I weighed 161 pounds and I was never happy about this. I hated shopping, which was unfortunate because I was constantly exposed to it. I became, as do many women in that weight category, a master at camouflage. I amassed a collection of Eileen Fisher that extended over the years. (Side note: Eileen Fisher is a brilliant designer. She had the only line where I could wear a medium instead of a large.) Seeing a photo of myself at this all-time high…in shorts, from the back…was shocking to me. I was appalled enough to do something about getting things under control. I eventually ( in my early sixties ) hit a sort of happy medium, but it required lots of regular exercise and changing to a vegan diet. I decided that if I could keep my weight under 140 I could live with that. When we left Nashville in October of 2015, I weighed 137.
When you go on a very strict diet, you generally lose weight, no matter what your motivation is. My motivation was simple and very compelling. I really wanted to stay alive and I was willing to do whatever was required to do that. The weight loss started happening pretty quickly, and by the time I finished radiation (which had its own dietary restrictions…no fats allowed!) I weighed 106 pounds. I looked very much like I had escaped from a concentration camp. Happy to say my various hairs have grown back, and I now weigh 114 pounds.
While I think that chemotherapy and radiation were essential to my being alive and well in this moment, I also credit this diet to playing a huge part in that success. And, yes, there are those times when I definitely remember and reconnect with that very skinny kid, and I look at voluptuous women with a bit of envy, just like I did as a teenager. But, this skinny time around I am determined to love my body, make the absolute most of being alive (which includes enjoying fashion), and be happy in my skinny skin. While I could handle a few more pounds, I really do feel better in general at a lower body weight. Shopping is also a motivator for me, and I have to say, it is more fun to shop for a chica than a grande. So, long story short, if life has once again dealt me the skinny card, this time I intend to play it like a royal flush. And once I hit 120, I intend to hold the fort right there. I believe that this diet is magic not only for health, but also for weight control. Giving up sugar, alcohol, and dairy is the ticket. And, of course, red meat, processed foods, and unhealthy fats.
I know there are lots of folks that battle with their weight and body image. Whether you are dealing with a disease or not, having a negative attitude about your physical self is no fun, and is dangerous to your mental and emotional health. Only you know whether you are happy being where you are. I never was happy with being overweight, but for years I lacked the discipline to really change it. I was also unhappy when I was an underweight teenager. I suspect most women have these issues even if they are perfect. At my heaviest weight I faked myself out by saying that I wasn’t “that overweight” and I knew how to dress to camouflage. I knew how to get that 45-degree angle in a photo. Regardless of all the Photoshop in the world, no one can really change you but you! I know that even if someone is battling a disease it can be hard to muster the discipline to eat healthy and exercise in the midst of it. However, I had little problem with the discipline issue. I was so highly motivated to stay alive that it was easy for me. Staying alive is perhaps the highest motivation.
I don’t know what it takes to motivate another person. It is totally an individual thing. Looking better, feeling better, enjoying life more…these are definitely pay-offs for clean-eating and exercise. Defeating cancer and staying alive were huge motivators for me. Being free and staying free of cancer is a wonderful payoff. Perhaps each of us has to ask ourselves if we are happy with the shape we are in. If the answer is no, then today is a great time to make the changes that need to be made, and do whatever it takes…with no excuses…to make ourselves into our very best. The most important part of that formula is to begin by loving yourself enough to get started, right now, right where you are.