April 2009

The Accidental Vegan

Seems I am always hungry these days.

After being a happy-go-lucky vegetarian for twenty years, on the heels of my breast cancer diagnosis and with the encouragement of several trusted sources, I’ve sworn off dairy, wheat, and sugar. And, given that my cancer is estrogen sensitive, soy may be next. (Even though soy lattés are the only thing saving my sanity at the moment, so you may have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.)

What do I eat? Mostly veggies, nuts, beans, rice, steel cut oats, and a few quixotic grains, such as quinoa.

Of course, I’m hoping to expand that list (soon). Any given day will find me wandering the aisles of my local health food store with a wild look in my eye. I skip sections I used to drool over, like the cheeses and baked goods. Instead, I hover dutifully in the produce aisle and fill my cart with purple kale, lush broccoli, and stumpy carrots. Then I take my greenery for a spin. We ride up and down every aisle hunting for something that will satisfy my gnawing hunger. Last week I discovered a bulk bin full of date bars sprinkled with coconut, and I felt like I’d won the lottery. Sure, they look like cat turds coated in litter, but I devoured them anyway. That’s how desperate I am. Besides, I’m cranky. I’ve got a caffeine headache. And I’m never in the mood to cook anymore. 

My predicament is made doubly painful by the fact that I love food. (And, by food, I mean anything that contain sugar, wheat, and dairy.) And, when I say love, I mean LOVE. Food is my hobby. I love to think about it, shop for it, and–once upon a time–cook it. For years I meticulously planned my afternoon outings according to what errand might take me within arm’s distance of a brownie or overpriced coffee drink. Mary laughs because I won’t even go on a dog walk without at least $2 in my pocket  in case I stumble across a bakery. If you’d told me six months ago that I’d soon give up every food I held dear, I would have laughed–hard. But then I got breast cancer and things changed. I changed. Funny how once you hear the doctor say, “it’s cancer,” you can’t help but stare at the food perched on the end of your fork and think “did you do this to me?”

Yes, trying to regain control of one’s life with a knife and fork is a cancer cliche. Whatever. Shortly after my diagnosis, I spoke with several breast cancer survivors. Our conversations meandered down the usual paths of diagnostics, surgeries, and treatment protocols. And, near the end of each chat, I’d ask about lifestyle changes. As in, “so, did you change your diet?” Without fail, every woman admitted that, yes, in the throes of the initial scare, she’d raced out to buy “The Juicer.” Then she’d guiltily confess that, after securing a clean bill of health from her oncologist, she ran straight back to her old ways of eating. Sayonara juicer (aka sucker). Once a symbol of health and salvation, the treasured juicer became just another discarded souvenir of her visit to Cancerland…a trip she’d rather forget. Besides, what better way to forget your troubles than with a triple fudge sundae?

Call me a control freak. Call me self-punishing. But I don’t want to forget my trip to Cancerland. How can I forget when I’m tossing back 20 milligrams of Tamoxifen every morning and wondering if the drug will make my uterus implode. Plus, HELLO, if something is going to have an impact on your body wouldn’t it be food…the stuff you’re gobbling by the pound instead of by the milligram? And so I trudge on…steering my cart through a world of temptation, listening to my stomach growl, and, eventually, heading for the cat turds.





Now what?

Life is so weird. Last week, after giving me a get-out-of-chemo-free card, my oncologist wrote me a prescription for Tamoxifen and told me to come back in six months. That was it. End of story. As in, don’t let the door hit you on your way out. Mary and I were giddy as we left his office. We drove home chatty with our good fortune, called our families to share the good news, and took ourselves to a celebratory dinner. Then came Thursday morning. With no doctor’s appointments, no medical errands, no looming surgery to fret about, I vacillated between a profound sense of relief and a disturbing sense of “now what?”  

Mary and I both felt the shift and quickly landed on metaphors as different as our personalities. I pictured Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I felt as though I’d spent the last 10 weeks tossed about in the eye of a tornado. My life turned upside down, shaken, rearranged. Then, a week ago Wednesday, the wind stopped howling, my world stopped spinning, and I dropped back to earth. Now, I’m struggling to get up and dust myself off, but I can’t get my bearings. I’m home, but I’m lost.

Mary, the media scholar, said it was as though her brain was no longer stuck on the “cancer channel.” As if someone had finally handed her the long-lost remote, giving her the freedom to choose her programming again. This past week, as I watched her get sucked back into her hectic work life, a part of me is jealous (something I thought I’d never say) because it feels like she can switch back to her “regularly scheduled programming.” I, on the other hand, have no idea what that looks like anymore.

The Chemo Verdict

Good news: the oncologist says no chemo!!!  I’m not one to indulge in triple exclamation points (okay, I sort of am), but who cares? Wahoo!!! I won’t bore you with the details of my first encounter with the big-wig oncologist (at least not yet…I’m sure I’ll get around to it) but suffice it to say that Mary and I both felt confident in his assessment that chemo, in my case, would be WAY over the top. So, I get to skip it. Yippee!!! 

Off to celebrate. 


Coming Home to Myself

Since I won’t know the answer to the chemo question for another few days, I’ve decided to use this “treatment lull” to get reacquainted with my body. As I’ve said before, thirteen years of yoga has made me hyper-aware of my anatomy. For the most part, this is a good thing. It helps me deal with a spine that has more twists and turns than a season of Lost, and apparently it’s quite useful for finding cancerous lumps. Yet, oozing awareness out of every square inch of one’s real estate has its downsides, especially when it comes to physical pain and trauma. So, last month, for the first time in a long time, I consciously checked out of my body.

I know lots of people distance themselves from their bodies. I know some people live entire lives unacquainted with their physicality. And, yet, I was surprised at how easy it was to say sayonara. In many ways, it felt like preparing the house to leave for a long vacation. But instead of checking the locks on the windows and putting timers on the lights, I busied myself getting in shape. For me, that meant doing LOTS of power yoga because it makes me feel invincible—something I knew I’d need for the trip. Then, the night before my double mastectomy, I took stock of my internal milieu, tidied up one final time, locked the door, and walked away.

Lest you think this is turning into some Sybil-like memoir, don’t worry, I didn’t go far. I just went around the corner; far enough that I could keep an eye on things. And, of course, Mary stood guard. Having a trusted sentinel at the gate made the disembodiment feel doable and safe. And, so, I became an observer of the process.

Like a medical voyeur, I sat back and watched things like the nervous resident jabbing my vein with a needle and Mary telling the drunk-with-power nurse for the zillionth time why the pregnancy-test protocol was a waste of everyone’s time. More importantly, the distance imbued me with a sense of calm in those final nightmarish moments in the operating room–before the anesthesiologist does his thing–when you can’t help but see things you don’t want to see. In the end, all things better observed than endured.

Immediately before and after my surgeries, the distance from my body was a blessing; but, alas, one can’t stay on vacation forever and, last week, I decided it was time to return home. Luckily, re-entry was easy. I simply rolled my yoga mat out and crawled on. Yoga is my fail-safe way to plug directly back into my body. Indeed, the transition occurs so quickly I almost get whiplash. That first day, I painfully arranged my limbs into the only pose I could muster–child’s pose–and I cried. My tears weren’t because my body felt ill-fitting after my long absence but because the body I’d abandoned the month before welcomed me back with open arms, no questions asked.

Since that day, I’ve been kicking the tires and, frankly, I’m shocked at the condition of my chassis. When I walked away, everything was functioning pretty well. My muscles were tone, my back was flexible, things were grooving. Yes, of course, I’m realistic; I didn’t expect my body to feel untouched upon my return, but I didn’t expect it to feel like someone had ransacked the place. While I was on my sojourn the muscles of my back turned to concrete, my arm muscles went AWOL, and my shoulders drifted forward, like settlers circling the wagons to protect their fort.

I am not a wuss. I usually get things up and running on my own. But my body was in shambles. I didn’t know where to start, and I could sense that mutiny was only one false move away.  It was time to call in reinforcements. I started with my Rolfer (for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Rolfing is a form of body work that releases connective tissue). To my relief, she put my shoulders back in their rightful place and reintroduced the front of my body to the back of my body—we agreed I’d obviously tried to back out of my body. A couple of days later a massage therapist began to demolish the concrete in my back. And this afternoon an osteopath gently steered several wayward vertebrae back into alignment. Yes, it takes a village.

And, of course, I’m gingerly returning to yoga. Restorative and Iyengar classes have taken the place of  power yoga, and I’m rekindling my home practice. Yoga channels me straight into the undertow of my subconscious. Normally, I resist–seeing the value in staying grounded–but these days I indulge by allowing myself to sink down into the deep. Breath by breath. Pose by pose. I tentatively explore the perimeters of stiffness and occasionally bump into the barbwire of pain. But I keep inching into territory that is simultaneously foreign and familiar because I’m on a rescue mission. I’m looking for pieces of myself that survived the looting. Specifically, I’m looking for that feeling of invincibility; I know it’s around here somewhere.