As moms, we are biologically programmed to put everyone else first. Going for days without make-up (or a shower, for that matter!). Sleep deprivation. Lunching on cold crusts of grilled cheese sandwiches....
As cancer patients, we are told, you have One Job. Get better. Focus on yourself. On making it through treatment, recovering, staying alive, moving forward....
For seventeen months, I have been both.
And let me tell you, we're not talking yin and yang here.
I consider myself one of The Lucky Ones. During chemotherapy, Jason was around as work allowed. And my Mom and Dad stepped in significantly. Living under their roof, I was provided nourishing meals and there were always loving hands available to bathe toddlers or rock the baby, even when I wasn't well enough to do it myself. Since I travelled to MDAnderson in Houston for my bilateral mastectomy and radiation, I truly was able to focus on treatment and healing. It was a daily comfort that the kids were home, in the best of hands with their Grammy, Daddy, and their own personal Mary Poppins, Mrs. Sara.
I expected recovery to be a time of peace and healing and renewal. I didn't anticipate that I would lack the stamina and focus to return to my old routine, let alone start new, healthy habits.
Diagnosed with IBC as a brand new mom, I was overweight when I started treatment. The doctors never chastised me, but you would need to live under a rock to remain unaware of the links between obesity and most cancers. When the last of my radiation burns healed, my oncologist finally talked to me about losing weight. Thanks to months of inactivity, emotional eating, and hormone therapies, I had gained a little over 25 pounds during treatment. The doctor explained the best thing I could do to reduce the chances of a recurrence was getting active and shedding some pounds. The science behind it, for me specifically, is this: estrogen is stored in the fat cells. My cancer is estrogen receptor positive, meaning it relies on estrogen the way I rely on coffee. Less fat=less estrogen=unhappy cancer.
This conversation was about six months ago. Today I still weigh exactly the same. The following months went something like this:
I started doing a yoga DVD before the kids got up. Summer days got longer, sunrises earlier, and with that, Eli and London started waking up before I could finish. Then London decided she DID. NOT. LIKE. my yoga DVD. With exquisite four-year-old flair, she protested with tears, sulking, stamping her little socked foot....Naturally Eli concluded what's not good for big sister must not be good for him, either. Yoga was shelved.
While I successfully overhauled our meals to include almost entirely whole foods, upping the veggies, making sauces from scratch, even tackling my own whole wheat bread, a typical inner dialogue regarding sweets would go like this:
The Doctor wants me to lose weight, so no more cookies. Sad. I love cookies. Crap, now all I can think about is cookies. You know what sounds great right now? Cookies! I'll just make the cookies. For the kids. Those cookies smell great. I don't want the kids to eat too much sugar. I'll eat some of the cookies. For the kids' sake. I can start losing weight tomorrow. And I would eat those cookies like it was my job.
I also found myself justifying unhealthy choices based on the fact that I have cancer. Cancer is sad. And hard. Don't I deserve whatever makes me feel good?
The healthy habits I tried to establish in February slowly eroded. I found myself adding extra sugar to my morning cereal, and then craving sweets throughout the day. Mindlessly snacking all afternoon. Opening a beer as I prepared dinner, even when I didn't really feel like one. As I rinsed dishes, sneaking chocolate as a reward for making it through another meal time war zone with the Littles. Collapsing in exhaustion after they were all tucked in, bowl of cereal or ice cream balanced on my knee.
I thought about food all. the. time. My mind was confettied with excuses, guilt, and shame, and my cravings were calling all the shots.
Until last week.
I realized, if I am diagnosed with a reoccurrence in the next few years, I don't want to wonder what would be different if I'd said "no" to the cupcakes. My doctor has told me: This. This is the one thing within your control. The only way you can impact your odds of seeing your children graduate high school. Start their careers. Get married. Perhaps have kids of their own.
And I chose the cookies?
I recommitted to clean and nutritional eating for our entire family, as I shared on Facebook and Instagram a couple weeks ago.
I joined a yoga studio. I've been going to the Hatha Yoga class, a hot one! I was so nervous for my first hot yoga, since I usually hate heat. And let me tell you, I sweat. And it's tough. Like muscles shaking Icannotholdthisposeanothersecond tough. Perfect. I started taking gentle walks before the house wakes up. And when I can't get away to work out, I settle for weeding. Like I mean it. I also do yoga most nights with the kids.
I know, I know. Little Miss I DON'T LIKE YOGA London?
This started with a conversation one night at dinner:
Me: You need to eat enough of your food to grow strong and healthy.
London: So if I eat A LOT of food, will I grow to be a redult (her word for 'adult') sooner?
Me: Well, no. When people eat more food than they need, the body just stores it, and that's how we become overweight. Being overweight isn't healthy for the body. That's why Mommy is working so hard to make her body healthy again by eating the right food and exercising. Like yoga and walking.
London: Oh. Ok.
After dinner that night, she asked me if we could all do yoga? Yes. YES! We found a super fun program on YouTube called Cosmic Kids Yoga. The kids are led though different yoga poses as they act out a story, many of which are familiar to them (like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and even Frozen!).
Something else shifted in the universe. I took back control from the food. I wish I knew exactly how. I would tell you all. Honestly. And by next week I'd be famous and invited to appear on Ellen. I can tell you what it's not. I am not doing this to look better in my jeans or swim suit. I currently don't have a "goal weight." I'm not on a diet, counting calories or fixating on which foods are off limits. I'm just eating the way I know...I've known all along...that I should. I'm eating to be well. To live.
I swapped my usual bran flakes and berries in the morning (and yes, a heap of brown sugar) for an egg with cheese and tomato, occasionally with toast. Cutting back on sugar and adding protein for breakfast has gone a long ways toward curbing my late morning and afternoon sugar cravings. This should come as no surprise. I've lost track of the number of articles I've read outlining the science behind this. It was never that I didn't know how to properly fuel my body. Until now, I didn't want to bad enough. I was especially scared to step from the ledge and "detox" from sugar. Afraid to give up that sweet reward. The pacifier. But as we've all heard repeated time and again, the definition of insanity is to try the same approach and expect different results. How would I grade my previous efforts at "cutting back on sweets"? Hmm...D-? At best...
It was time to let go. Of the insanity. Of the faux sense of comfort. Of the sugar. I'm in the deep end now, friends. And you know what, the water feels great! I can open the cabinet stashed with sweet treats for the Littles, and they don't even call to me. I mindlessly popped a jelly bean in my mouth the other day and I didn't even like it. That's not to say I won't be eating a slice of cake for Eli's birthday, or hunting down a huckleberry milkshake at Priest Lake next weekend. But treats are going to be just that...treats. And I will savor them.
When I have been tempted to overeat, or default to a carb-rich lunch because I've waited too many hours to fuel my body, I have a couple images to lean on. My favorite is thoughts of growing old with Jason and the Littles. But also this: Hot Yoga. Me. Full length mirror. My skin is bright red and glistening from the heat. My muscles are shaking from exertion. And I am overweight. Big. Bigger than I should be. The fat around my middle that I see in the mirror...that fat can, and will, slowly kill me. So no thank you, I will not eat until I am full. I will not snack because I am bored. Food is my medicine, and I will stick to the recommended dosage.
That's not to say I am not still enjoying food. Healthy eating can be amazing. Especially living in an agricultural pocket, bursting with fresh and ripe fruits and vegetables. I've been gorging myself on just-picked blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. And just look at this list of dinners we've had recently:
"Tamale Bowls"...polenta, shredded chicken breast, steamed chard, tomato, fried egg.
Chicken sausage grilled with sweet potato, red potato, brussel sprouts, and fennel bulb.
Glazed salmon, roasted carrots, spinach and radish salad with tahini dressing.
Leftover salmon as lettuce wraps, with caprese salad.
Rigatoni with sautéed zucchini and summer squash, caprese salad.
Cheeseburger lettuce wrap (I went bun-less!!), corn on the cob, sautéed zucchini, and avocado.
Roasted chicken thigh, beet stacks with goat cheese and fresh herbs, roasted carrots.
Petite Sirloin, polenta with fresh tomato sauce, and salad.
Thai basil chicken with brown rice, stir fried peppers and zucchini.
Ribs (a weekend splurge...I do still live with a Texan!) and salad. Lots of salad. :)
At the start of my treatment, I had an appointment with a nutritionist who outlined a plan for anti-inflammatory eating. I followed this as closely as I could during chemotherapy, which helped manage the side effects. But it's also a great foundation for managing weight, a lifestyle dense with nutrients, and no excuse to go hungry. There's a few changes I still need to make to get on track with the anti-inflammatory plan. Partaking in more beans and legumes, for one. Not a favorite in our household...I'll be on my own for this one. Lunch would be the perfect time to get my lentil on, while my brood tucks into their PB&J. Also cutting back on meant, in general, and adding in more salmon and other oily fish. During chemo, I had salmon 2-3 times a week. No, really.
But have you lost any weight? Well, 6 pounds, actually. Don't sign me up for The Biggest Loser yet.
I remember sitting with a scheduler at MDAnderson, after the doctors recommended staying in Houston to finish my treatment (mastectomy and radiation). I remember saying, but the kids. Halloween...pumpkin patches and cider and first snowfall and hanging stockings and decorating the Christmas tree....
My grandmother told me 'you can't pour from an empty cup', he said.
Ultimately, I put my health first, and finished my treatment in Houston. It was an investment. A little time spent away then to (fingers crossed) have many more years ahead with my family. An investment that I need to continue to manage by putting healthy choices first. Sometimes even putting me first.
After all, you can't pour from an empty cup.