The cancer diet
Global history is driven forward by ever-shifting currents of fundamental conflict that pit entire civilizations against one another. During the Cold War it was East vs. West. Then after the Soviet Union collapsed our planet seemed more divided along lines of North vs. South. Lately, as we’ve been led to believe, the future will be even more sharply defined by the outcome of the struggle between Radical Islam and The Rest Of The World.
But now I see showdowns looming that will dwarf them all. First up: Dietitians vs. Dermatologists. And after that: Dietitians vs. Everybody Else. And when the smoke has cleared from that one, and I the only man left standing, the final conflict: Dietitians vs. Me.
My first inkling of this came in my consultation session with a registered oncology dietitian named Lenore at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. I went to see her on my first day of radiation treatment, because I wanted to know about the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of nutrition that I should be following over the course of my six-week treatment.
One of the first things Lenore told me immediately set off alarm bells. She said I should spend about 15 minutes each day in full sunlight wearing only shorts. The reason is that I need to build up my Vitamin D reserves to help keep my immune system strong during the oncoming onslaught of chemotherapy and radiation. Exposure to sunlight will do that. So I told her I walk my dogs twice a day, putt around in the yard quite a bit, and was also planning to walk or ride my bike to and from radiation treatments each day. That should be enough sun, shouldn’t it?
“Will you be doing all of that with your shirt off?” Lenore asked sharply. “Because unless your shirt is off, you won’t be getting enough sun.”
Now, anyone who lives in Florida would probably fall over dead upon hearing any medical professional tell them they needed to get MORE sun. We’re constantly being told by dermatologists that we should only venture out of our homes after suiting up in NASA-approved spacewalking gear to avoid the harsh effects of the intense sunlight here. And we’re programmed to reinforce that message with one another on a daily basis. Some of my friends practically put on 50 SPF sunblock just to step out in the driveway to get the morning paper. My friend Robyn, who was the medical writer at my former newspaper and as such is an expert on the ravages of skin cancer, somehow manages to live in Florida year round without ever letting so much as a single photon of sunlight touch her skin. She even took an extended vacation to Hawaii recently and come back without a hint of a tan, let alone a sunburn. She’ll have a lifetime with perfect, lily-white skin as a reward for her diligence. Decades from now, when the rest of us are wrinkled up prunes in nursing homes, Robyn will still be sitting on a beach somewhere with her luminous skin, sprawled under an umbrella in a big, floppy hat and fully protective white clothing, sipping pina coladas and fending off Hollywood casting agents as she laughs at the flash-fried idiots prancing around in speedos and string bikinis.
I, on the other hand, am an expert at ignoring most medical advice. I lather up with sunblock if I’m doing something like going to the beach or playing golf, but the rest of the time I figure it’s just too much trouble. I’ve paid the price with a rough and ruddy complexion that I blame on having cheap Irish skin. But that’s just an excuse. Most of it is really my fault. Shortly before being diagnosed with a brain tumor, in fact, I had been ordered to see a dermatologist who promptly dug a bunch of freckles out of my body and sent them off to a lab to be analyzed. All clear, thank goodness, but the sticker price for that information was about $600.
Anyway, being the health scofflaw that I am, I was kind of happy to hear Lenore’s advice about the sun. She did say that I shouldn’t spend a minute more than 15 minutes in the sun. But she repeatedly hammered home the importance of making that part of my routine, particularly during the period of chemotherapy. Okay, I’m sold. Thanks Lenore.
Then she moved on into a lifestyle area that is a bit more touchy for me: Grilling meat. She asked me if I engaged in that sordid, primitive activity. When I informed her that my gas grill is basically my kitchen for cooking daily meals, year around, she wrinkled up her nose. “You must know,” she said, “that when fat from meat you are cooking drips down into the heat source, and the resulting smoke from that burning fat rises back up and touches the meat, it has a carcinogenic effect.” Lenore suggested I ditch my grilling habits altogether, or at the very least wrap everything I cook in aluminum foil so as to keep said fat from ever falling into said fire. At that point, I wanted to interrupt the meeting so I could step outside and place an emergency phone call to Kansas City, Missouri, in order to inform all of my best buddies there that…Soylent Green Is People! And my buddies would laugh at me just like everyone laughed at Charlton Heston. In Kansas City, you learn how to eat and cook barbecued food just a few months after you are weaned from mother’s milk. So if Kansas City suddenly had to drop everything and follow Lenore the Dietitian’s grilling tips, it would be worse than any terrorist attack imaginable, worse even than having a suitcase nuke go off in the middle of downtown. Kansas City as we know it would cease to exist without barbecue. So I knew that, as a proud son of Kansas City, there was no way I would be following that dietary advice from Lenore. Next subject, please.
Alcohol: Okay, here’s another touchy one for an Irish guy. My main oncologist had informed me that it might be beneficial for me to drink a glass of merlot each evening to relax and soak up whatever anti-oxidant properties red wine supposedly has. I kind of liked where he was headed with that, but I’m not much a wine drinking type. So I asked Lenore if I could substitute the word “Budweiser” for “merlot” and enjoy the same health benefit. And maybe even could I occasionally slip in a nice, chilly “Martini”? I knew deep down that the answer would be no, but I thought it was worth a shot. Then Lenore made it even worse. She just wrinkled up her nose again and told me I shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol, not even merlot, really, and said she might have to have a little talk with the oncologist who had led me to believe otherwise. Wow, I thought, I’m setting off all kinds of wars between medical disciplines here. But whatever. I’ll be ignoring that tip too. Next subject, please.
Caloric intake: Now me and Lenore got to be friends again. Because she said the most important goal of my cancer-treatment diet was to keep my appetite up and maximize my caloric intake so that I didn’t lose a bunch of weight and shrivel up like a boiled green bean. Anyone who knows me would laugh at the possibility of such an outcome. But I was pumped, because Lenore’s advice basically green-lighted me to eat all kinds of things I normally wouldn’t be eating even before I found out I had a brain tumor: Ice cream. Milkshakes. Mashed potatoes made with real butter. Steak and eggs for breakfast….on, and on, and on.
Okay, now we’re talking. I’m on board with the cancer diet now. I might even sell my house and move in next door to a Dairy Queen. But everyone keeps telling me that this brain-cancer stuff is all about cultivating a “one-day-at-a-time” mentality. So in that spirit, the timing couldn’t have been better. My brother Brian is here for a visit this weekend. On Saturday, he whipped up some delicious cheeseburgers on the grill for lunch. For dinner, we fired up the Weber again to make some savory baby back ribs.
In a nod to my changing lifestyle, I saved all the carcinogenic meat drippings from both meals and have set them aside in a small, sealed container. My plan is to gargle with these drippings each night after I finish brushing my teeth with a cold beer.
Then I will put on some sunblock and go straight to bed.