I have always had a passion for food. As a kid, if my parents went out to a restaurant, I would always ask them to tell me what they had eaten, from appetizer to dessert, in delicious detail.
By: Alyssa Burkus Rolf
I have always had a passion for food. As a kid, if my parents went out to a restaurant, I would always ask them to tell me what they had eaten, from appetizer to dessert, in delicious detail. Food has been a reward, a comfort, a joy, and a favourite way to connect with friends and family.
During chemo however, all of this changed. Food became a huge struggle for me, and much of what I had previously sought as comfort was gone. Most food had a horrible taste and texture, and I was constantly nauseous. I found it frustrating that at a time when I needed great comfort, my comfort foods could not deliver. Ginger ale tasted like metal, creamy pastas were out, and it was difficult to find foods that tasted as they should. I was supposed to drink a ton of water to flush the drugs out of my kidneys, but the nausea made it difficult to do. Food and meals became a constant challenge, and I had no energy to try and find new options.
The ritual of bringing food to those who are struggling is often one of the easiest ways people find to show their love and support in difficult times. I was so fortunate to have a loving community around me who went out of their way to bring meals to us. One group of friends created a schedule to ensure that a home-cooked meal from one of them was dropped off each week, which took my chemo-addled brain six weeks to realize it wasn’t just a coincidence. We had a neighbour who made us a Dutch casserole we loved, and we often received baking and soups which were always a treat. Our “love cooked meals” delivered on schedule and sometimes unexpectedly were delights in a dark time in our lives. We rarely went out for dinner, worried about risk of illness or knowing I was too tired to enjoy it, but having treats delivered to us at home reminded us that while we might have fallen off the social map, we were definitely not forgotten.
Despite getting physically weak during treatment, I was determined to continue to be the one in our home who did the grocery shopping. I had severe pain in my hands and feet which made it tough to push a cart, and it took three times as long as usual to get around the store, but I was determined to do it. It feels stubborn and silly looking back on it, but at the time, it was one of the few things I could do that felt normal and allowed me to contribute something to the meals in our house.
My relationship with food has changed significantly in the years since treatment, and has been a series of ups and downs. I have sought guidance from nutritionists and naturopaths, and I dabbled for a while with macrobiotics, one of the most limiting eating guidelines I have ever tried to follow. It became difficult to socialize or go to restaurants because there was very little that I could eat (if you’re not familiar with macrobiotics, picture rice, beans and tofu, and not much else), and eventually I realized surviving cancer wasn’t worth it if I wasn’t enjoying my life. During my pregnancies, I let things swing too far the other way and healthy limits were exceeded in favour of ice cream and French fries. Over time, I’ve tried to get it back to a point that feels manageable and realistic, and generally fairly healthy.
I know now that in the years after treatment, food has been my way of trying to assert some form of control over my disease. If I could find a magic combination of greens or vitamins, I might be able to achieve an enduring remission. In the time between treatments, at least I could still feel like I was doing something to keep the disease at bay.
A few months ago, I was talking to Anwar Knight, who is the weather anchor for CTV News and is also now a Board member with LFC. He completed treatment for Hodgkins lymphoma less than a year ago, and is continuing to focus on eliminating certain foods, particularly white sugar and white flour, from his diet (find his blog at http://anwar.ctv.ca/). His determination was a reminder to me about the importance of food as a weapon in my ongoing battle.
I have reached a comfortable point where the majority of what I eat is generally clean (no white flour, sugar, or processed food) with the addition of lots of vegetables and greens in various forms. I’ve started juicing again (throwback to my macrobiotic phase), and beautiful bright green juices are blended into smoothies a few times a week. On days when I don’t have time for juicing, I’ve found green powders to add to our smoothies, or even handfuls of Swiss chard, which blends into tiny specks when added as a last step in my blender. I save about 10% of my diet for fun, where a glass of wine with a friend is ok, and a chocolate brownie with the kids is divine.
Ultimately, I have realized that healthy food isn’t just a gift to give to someone in need – it’s the gift of love we give to ourselves as well. What we choose to eat has a profound effect on our physical, mental and emotional well-being, and taking time to plan for healthy eating has to be an essential part of our day. Choosing to take the best possible care of your body, through healthy food choices, regular exercise, good sleep, all these things need to be part of a daily routine.
I have spent a lot of time learning about which foods will keep me healthiest, and I’m not sure I’ve found the right combination yet. But I know when I eat right, I feel incredible, with tons of energy that lasts all day. When I add pumpkin or wheat germ into cookies for my family, or make them a bright green smoothie, I know they see food as love in their lives too, a love that I hope will always be part of my legacy to them.
Food is love – pass it on!