Cutting Through the Food Noise

Fresh seaside calamari at Sansome’s Lobster Pool in Hillgrade… not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure!!

I clearly remember the first time that I started to think about my food consumption. I was eleven years old. I had gained a little weight, as many kids do during their pre-pubescence, and my pants were tight. I was sitting in class and I coughed, and the button popped right off my pants and flew across the room.

It could’ve been an embarrassing situation, but I don’t recall anyone else really noticing. I just remember an arrow of a thought deftly skewing my happy childhood oblivion – You have to lose weight!

Like most kids of the 80’s, I sometimes ate cheez whiz and chips ahoy. We barbecued regularly in the summertime on charcoal, and on Sundays we happily filled a brown bag with penny candy at the neighbourhood shop to enjoy after leaving family swim at the Y. But we always had plenty of fresh local seafood and home-cooked meals every night, and Mom usually drew the line at sugary donuts, chips and pop, unless it was a special occasion like a long car ride. We almost never had fast food, because my father refused to eat it. He referred to it as “cardboard.”

In my family, I was the one who loved food the most. Mom says that on those long road trips, when I would get cranky and fight with my brothers, all she would have to do is ask, “Where should we stop for lunch?” and I would instantly drop my fists and cheer up.

So, at age eleven, when I first started worrying about my diet, my parents helped me to make healthy choices and limit myself to eating three meals a day, reminding me to eat when I was hungry. My mom encouraged me to listen to my body. As I grew and stopped eating whole sleeves of crackers out of boredom after school, my weight leveled off. But after that moment in grade-six, I was always wary of food. I think most of us are.

We are now bombarded with “information” about food, and sifting through it can be exhausting. There are so many different types of diets, many of which advocate removing whole food groups from your life. Throughout my thirties I was dealing with bowel issues, and I spent a lot of time reading about food and adjusting our family’s dinners to make them cleaner, more plant-based, higher in fibre, more organic, and on and on.

After my diagnosis, I read that cancer cells love sugar, and that diets such as the keto, which are absent of sugar, can help slow the growth of cancer. Now, the keto diet is generally high in animal protein and red meat consumption has been linked to bowel cancer, so I didn’t know what to think of that. Most books I read that specifically detailed an anti-cancer diet promoted a plant-based diet that is chock-full of fruits and veggies, legumes and whole grains. These are some of my favourite foods. But, after my surgery, I developed stomach issues and even the thought of a raw fruit or veggie made me really sick. This has continued throughout my chemotherapy regime. Raw food sometimes makes me feel gross, and if it is cold it causes nerve pain in my throat. For the first number of weeks of chemo I ended up eating a lot of immuno-bark and white things, so thank goodness for my friend Vi’s tea-buns.

So there I was, eating chocolate and white things and wondering whether I was doing enough to discourage the growth of cancer in my body. I was trying to avoid dairy, meat, and sugar, while eating lots of vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains, but I was failing miserably.

And then one day, a conversation with my friend Robin turned it all around for me. I was telling her about my food difficulties and she said, “What makes you feel good?” I stopped and thought about it, and I wasn’t sure. I told her all the conflicting nutritional information I’d read and she said, “You need to forget about that, and eat intuitively.”

Basically, she said to listen to my body and give it what it needs. She said that if I eat something and it is no good for me I will know. And she gave me some really great tips about easy snacks to prepare.

It sounds so simple, but I’d spent so much time reading and digesting information and trying to make sense of it that I’d forgotten the basics. Eat intuitively. Your body is wise.

Food is one of the pleasures of life and I am fortunate to have access to affordable, healthy food. I thought about my grandparents, who worked so hard to feed their families simple, nourishing food. I remembered the basic guidelines I’d been teaching my kids as I’d been taught – cook fresh food for your family and eat together at the table and don’t eat when you aren’t hungry. I decided then and there to eat mindfully and enjoy my food as much as I could and to stop feeling guilty about it. My choices have been mostly healthy since then, but when I have a treat I delight in it and I tell myself it’s okay.

On a recent getaway to Knight’s Landing in Moreton’s Harbour, my friend Jenn delivered Asher and I a lovely, healthy breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

To lead healthy, mindful, fulfilling lives, sometimes we need to cut through the noise that is all around us. The food noise is big, and looms large on the internet, in book stores, and on television. I’ve cut food research out of my life for now, and I am happier for it.

Is there anything you’ve had to stop investigating, dear reader, for the sake of your own mental health and wellness? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

If you drop it, we will eat it. And we won’t feel bad about it at all!!

Art and Life, Intertwined

Book Crossed Lovers, 1997

I have always measured my life in books in the same way we categorize events by the song we were listening to at the time.

1990 – Riding around Badger Lake on my dirtbike with Robin, my best friend, hanging off the back balancing a ghetto blaster, while my dog Midnight tore up the road behind us? It could only be John Cougar Mellencamp ringing out loud in that memory. And what was I reading at the time? Cynthia Voigt, Norma Klein, Stephen King, and as many weird and dark accounts of para-psychological misfits as I could get my hands on. I liked strange, oppressive, scary or sad things in my art. I still do.

The other day, Deanne, a friend and book club buddy, nominated me for a book challenge, which involves posting a picture of a book you love every day for seven days on facebook. What fun! I started scanning my bookshelves and digging through old boxes. I had dozens of books I wanted to share, but in the end I picked mostly recent loves and one old childhood favourite – The Secret Garden. I read it 18 times if I read it once.

As I dug about in my pile of books, I came across a forgotten pair.

Literary Criticism, 1996

This pair of books were purchased separately in early September, 1996 by myself and Asher. When we bought our books at the Acadia Bookstore we did not know one another. But this particular novel was one of many on the list for the Literary Criticism course that Asher and I were both enrolled in as a requirement for our English degrees.

We met on the first day of class. I was walking up Linden Street, carting a backpack full of groceries. He was jogging lightly down the street in boxer shorts and a t-shirt, on the way to the corner store to get a newspaper.

When I saw him I did a double take, and not just because he was running down the street in his underwear. He just had an aura. He was happy, he was comfortable. I just knew he was a good soul. Of course, as we neared one another, I was faced with the unnerving prospect of running into him head on. I felt very Meg Ryan as I swerved one way on the sidewalk. He, true to script, swerved the same way. Our eyes met, we giggled, and then we both swerved the other way. We stopped, laughing, and he hopped aside while performing a gallant sweep of his arm, indicating the direction I should take.

I went home and told my roommates about this interesting young man I had met on the sidewalk. I still remember them laughing as I told the story.

Two hours later, I walked into Literary Criticism. Guess who walked in behind me? We looked at each other and grinned and both said, “You’re the girl/guy I ran into on the sidewalk earlier!” He sat next to me and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to the pair of books. We were assigned certain books to critique and given approximate dates to be prepared to present on. We never quite knew when our professor would call on us. It was a very serious seminar class and there were so many smart people there. They were always ready to present. Asher and I, getting to know one another, were not so interested in the class. We were probably really annoying to the other students. And, as the term went on, we got a little lazy. Or, at least, Asher did.

I will never forget the day Asher was called on to critique Loitering with Intent by Muriel Sparks. He ambled up to the podium and held up the book. “Flirting with Intent,” he said, “was a very interesting read.”

I felt my face grow bright red as his freudian slip registered with the rest of the class and a few people tried to suppress giggles. Asher, either not noticing or caring, continued to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. I felt myself slipping lower in my seat. But, Asher, always cool and calm and unconcerned with impressing others, continued by soliciting the class as to their opinions of the book. He ran a nice little discussion, thanked everyone and returned to his seat. “Well,” he whispered to me as our professor glowered at him over his glasses. “I think that went pretty well.”

He never did read the book first nor last. I did read it, and I honestly remember nothing about it. Yet, when I came across this pair of books, unenjoyed and uncelebrated yet kept for many years, the sight of them brought me right back to that fateful class. Asher and I sat there that year, getting to know one another, and we had no idea what was ahead of us.

Asher cooked fajitas and played Buddy Holly on the guitar on our first date. I wanted to impress him so I called my friend, Jude, and said, “what do I pick up to go with Fajitas?” to which she replied, “Corona, of course!” Oh, she was so much more worldly than I was! I could always, can still always, count on Jude.

We are 18 years into our marriage now. We have been busy. At one point, in the span of five years, we had three babies, moved three times, changed jobs four times, and completed two masters degrees. We have also spent a lot of time building traditions, some of them as simple as our morning coffee and chat. We spend time with our kids and our friends and families. We work hard, but we have fun together.

We never thought we would be dealing with a cancer diagnosis this early on in our lives. But, as hard as this must be for him, Asher doesn’t step back any more than he stepped back from that long ago book critique. He just does what he has to do. He doesn’t agonize over things, or wonder, “why.” That carefree, boxer-wearing, newspaper reading, comfortable-in-his-own-skin guy, he just takes life as it comes.

Dad practices piano everyday, and sometimes I like to relax and listen.

I was telling Asher over our coffee this morning that I am starting to feel this difficult time peeling away from me like the skin of an onion. The first, toughest layer is shedding off. I will get there.

But I will be looking back on this time and remembering my dad playing piano to me while I lay on his couch hooked up to my chemo pump while my mom makes me tea. I will remember how Dad and Mom and I shared books together, and these books will go in my collection and I hope I will run my hands over them in 20 or 30 years and think of this.

Minimalists would like me to toss these books, but I never will. I will never toss any of my books. I am doomed to forever carry these books around and someday, hopefully a long time in the future, my loved ones will be forced to sift through them and get rid of them, or decide what to keep. They will not know the stories of all of my books, any more than I know all of the thoughts and memories etched in their hearts, but they will know some.

Like any work of art, each book tells more than one story – there is the story the author laboured over, and the story of the life of the reader.

Why do writers write? Why do writers share their innermost thoughts, their perspectives, their observations? Even a work of fiction reveals so much about the way the author sees the world, or moves in the world.

Why do I share things in a blog? I have asked myself this question many times, and I’m sure people wonder why I put this out there. But, for some reason, I am compelled to. Mostly it is because I hear from others who have experienced similar things or who simply enjoy reading it. This connection feels so right. It is humbling and empowering at the same time.

When you write for an audience, you share ideas and experiences. You start a dialogue. You leave something outside of yourself in the world and you hope it will resonate with just one other person. Your onion skin sheds off, and you become lighter. Awareness can be raised, and changes can come about.

Deanne, the same friend who nominated me for the book challenge, gave me a book about writing through trauma just before my surgery. It was a catalyst for me. It was one of the many perfect gifts I have received lately, not the least of which is your time, dear reader.

I want to thank you. Your time is precious, and I am so glad you lingered here with me and my ramblings for a little while.

The Chemo Emo and her Cloud

Pathetic Fallacy in real life. (So maybe “pathetic reality?”) This cloud appeared as I was battling a terrible dark, low mood. I know I don’t look sad in this picture. I was trying really hard to be “normal.”

On our first summer weekend at the lake, I set out to do what I always do – take solace in the water. Whether it’s playing mermaids with my daughter, water-skiing, swimming, or paddling a canoe, my favourite thing in the world is to be buoyed forth, coasting weightlessly on endless peaks and troughs.

After some time chatting with neighbours on the beach, I pushed my canoe into the water and waded in. There was a sudden rush of fire up my legs and I ran screaming out of the surf, pushing the boat away from me in my efforts to escape the biting pain.

Realization washed over me. Because of the oxaliplatin in my chemo regime, I haven’t been able to tolerate anything cool for weeks. I can’t drink cold water or even cut up carrots without wearing gloves. How did I think I would be able to frolic in the lake? I stormed up the hill to our cabin in my flip-flops. I smacked trees and threw rocks in anger as the dog trailed behind me. I started to cry but had to stop as chemo-induced starbursts exploded behind my eyes. On the deck I composed myself and sent my youngest son down to rescue the canoe, which was floating off toward the beach at the base of our cove.

Like one of my wonderful chemo nurses said, “If you take a turkey from the freezer with no gloves, you’ll break a toe!”

When Asher came along I told him about the water. “I can’t even go for a paddle,” I explained, distraught. He looked at me and exclaimed, “Because if you fall in, your whole body might go into a spasm…” I finished his sentence, “And then I might drown!” Asher raised his arms and shook them about and flailed his legs up and down and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s one summer, Janine. Next year you’ll be back at it.” He was right, but I still stuck my tongue out at him sneakily as he gave me a hug.

Chemo can make one feel cranky and sad. Steroids and other medications are prescribed to ease the side effects for the first 3 to 5 days of your chemo cycle, but these steroids and the processing of the chemo drugs, and maybe my own emotional reaction to the whole process, can send me into a very dark place. My cancer care team recommended I pare down the amount of steroids I take, and that has helped, but I still have bad days. I’ve become friends with a number of people who have been down the cancer path, and we have discussed this darkness. One of my friends referred to this feeling as the “chemo emos.” I thought this was the perfect name. Physically, chemotherapy can make one feel sick, fatigued, cognitively weak and, in the case of my particular regime, can set off the nerves and muscles in bizarre ways. But the mental and emotional grind of a series of chemo cycles can be even tougher to endure.

How does one endure? One method is distraction. As Tolstoy observed of the pitiful, adulterous Oblonsky in Anna Karenina:

He could find no answer, except life’s usual answer to the most complex and insoluble questions. That answer is: live in the needs of the day, that is, find forgetfulness.

It is relatively easy for me to find forgetfulness when folding the laundry, doing things with the kids, or reading a book. I get up everyday and I stay busy. Even on the days I feel the worst, I actively engage in things. I may not have the stamina to run 5 km or attend large social events, but I can always find something to do.

I’m heading into my 5th round of chemo tomorrow, and I’ve come to respect my mood swings. I am fortunate that I get 4 or 5 really good days each time before I go back for my next infusion. And the last number of days have been fantastic – I have been energetic and happy. Rediscovering my yoga practice this week has helped immensely, and as I come close to the halfway mark of my course of chemotherapy I am starting to visualize my “after.”

I don’t want to get overconfident or to tempt fate, but in the past few days I have started to feel like I really do have this in the bag. I have not developed an infection or illness yet, my immunity has not dipped into the danger zone, and my side effects continue to subside in time for my next round of treatment, which means I am tolerating things well. Each day I run through all of these positives in my mind.

When I have a hard time focusing on the positives and the darkness sets in, however, I simply sit with it. In the style of Kristin Neff, I use a self-compassion technique.

I place my hand on my heart and think, “I am having a really hard time right now,” and I breathe for a few minutes. And then I think,”What do I need to do right now to feel better?” Sometimes the littlest thing makes me feel better. A cup of tea. Sitting in the sunshine. A walk. A hug. A chat. Reading. Or, more recently, some yoga.

Yoga on the dock with my downward dog.

Writing this post has been a two-week long struggle for me. I did not want to seem negative or whiny. But I needed to highlight the importance of maintaining one’s mental health during cancer treatment. If we focus only on the physical and ignore our moods, our sadness, our anger, our thoughts and emotions, our bodies will still be stressed.

Healing requires a holistic approach. Mind, body and spirit.

Talking to a professional, yoga and nature walks, healthy food and family meals, mindfulness, visualization, self-compassion and a little old-fashioned Tolstoy-type “finding forgetfulness” (or task-engagement) are some things that help me support physical, mental and emotional health on a daily basis.

I might not be riding the waves this summer, but I am learning to manage these peaks and troughs.

We all go through tough times. See a counsellor or a psychologist if you need to. Talk to someone, develop strategies that work for you, and find a little something to look forward to each day.

Relaxing in the garden with some fruit tea and a book can make the infusion process a little more tolerable.

Gladys Learns the Art of Letting People Help

Gladys and Mabel sample some immuno-bark and gin and tonics on the deck.

At some point in the course of the last 4 months, Gladys and Mabel appeared. Whether these gals are alter egos, imagined incarnations of our future selves, or just a hilarious take on the two old ladies who walk around the pond on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” I don’t know. In a typical Newfoundland dual-matriarch situation, Mabel also answers to “Nan,” and Gladys is known to be called “maid.” But they speak mostly over text and pass on advice and comic relief at the most opportune times.

A recent text from Mabel: “Eat your bark, Gladys. It will give you sustenance!”

This is in reference to a concoction Krista whipped up – delicious dark chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, and a clove/cinnamon oil blend that is meant to boost immunity. It really did sustain me through the first two days of my last chemo cycle, so as usual, she was correct. It was about the only thing I could stomach, and I feel it has magic powers.

I have no problem graciously accepting gifts like immuno-bark now, but when I was first diagnosed Krista took it upon herself to make me understand how important it is to accept help. I was pretty obstinate in my selfish belief that I could handle everything on my own, and I balked at the idea of people going out of their way for my family and I. I didn’t want anyone going to any trouble. Maybe this is when Gladys and Mabel came to be. It was probably easier for Krista to point out the foolishness of determined old Gladys than it was to argue with her best friend who’d been diagnosed with cancer.

Now, Gladys, you are being stubborn. People want to help. Now let me handle it. I’m serious.

Finally, I quit arguing. Krista and other friends of mine and mom’s arranged meals for my family, rides to activities and practices, and even the recording and sharing of my children’s performances during a play and music festival. During the weeks I was away for treatments, appointments and surgery, Krista and our friends and neighbours helped keep my family’s routine normal. Friends from all stages of my life journey kept me connected to the world and smiling through text conversations and messages. My husband, parents and parents-in-law, who were all running our household at different times depending on who was away with me, had lots of support. Things happened that I still don’t even know about, and I’m so grateful.

Krista and I have been friends since we met in an art class about 14 years ago. Our kids and husbands are the best of friends, and we have had many crazy adventures. A couple of years ago, Krista and I were training for a 50 km ultra-marathon on the East Coast Trail. For months we arose early before work to run in all kinds of weather, and took weekend getaways to get our long trail runs in. One epic trip saw us running Gros Morne Mountain and the daunting Green Gardens Trail in a 24 hour period that also included a 3 course meal, hours of dancing to jigs and reels, and the closing down of a bar where we entertained the tourists with a rousing rendition of “The Ode to Newfoundland.”

I was always a little worried about keeping up. Krista is a triathlete and has even finished a half-Ironman competition in very good standing, a fact our friend Kyla, a formidable athlete herself, often repeats to impress younger and presumably fitter people than us on girls’ trips: “She’s an Ironman, you know!” she has been known to shout, pointing emphatically at Krista. I shouldn’t have worried, however, because in true Krista fashion, she always adjusted her pace to match mine.

The ultra-marathon itself was held on a foggy day in late October. I had had the stomach flu only a couple of days prior, and wasn’t sure how I would hold up. Once we started, however, I sensed a lightness in my feet I didn’t usually have. We trotted along cliff-side, up and down the heights, in and out of fairy woods, across streams and creeks. To our left, the coastline marked our journey. There were times we felt the spray. We lost precious minutes gingerly sliding down sheer spots on our bums, hanging on to rocks with outstretched legs and arms like water bugs. We saw ships. Later, farms. Cows and horses. Concrete observation structures left from World War II, made friendly with graffiti.

We knew from all of our training that we usually hit a bit of a difficult spot around the 12 km mark. This was when our legs would become tired and jelly-like, and our moods would plummet. But we had devised ways to get through this plateau and, on this particular day, we sang back and forth in an effort to work it through. After a while, though, Krista grew quiet, and I started talking. Telling stories, edging her on. I knew something was wrong. It turned out later it was her knees, but she didn’t say it out loud at the time.

She just continued on quietly, one painful step after another.

I started to fret. But then there was a man running ahead dressed all in orange. For a number of kilometres he was our beacon. Squinting forward, we’d see him crest a ridge or emerge from the shade of a grove of spruce and we would call, “Orange Man!” There would be a little boost for a moment, as we tried to keep him in our sight.

Then, another man chugged up close behind us. He had an interesting duct tape arrangement on his legs. Occasionally we would hear him stop and cough, his hands on his knees. We stopped, too, because he was violently winded and we were worried that he was going to tumble hundreds of feet to his death. Feeling conflicted, we conferred each time he stopped, “Should we stay with Duct Tape Man? But… Orange Man is getting away!”

For a while, Duct Tape Man and Orange Man helped us feel less alone there near the craggy fourth corner of the world. Ultimately, though, the decision to abandon our trek was made for us by the race organizers at the 42 km mark, when we missed the cut-off time for the last stage of the race by 10 minutes. I was secretly glad, because I knew Krista was hurting.

That night I couldn’t stop thinking about Krista’s day. How could she run in pain for so many hours straight? What culmination of will, training, strength and stubbornness would allow someone to keep putting one foot tortuously in front of the other for hours at a time? It could easily have been my knees that acted up that day, and I do not think I would have had the fortitude to continue.

It was impressive.

For now, though, Krista and I have gone from refusing rides from confused moose hunters who want to save us from the wilderness to deciding whether to have peppermint tea or wine when we go out for lunch. Her knees are better and she continues to train and work out and compete in events, but she also makes time to take trail walks with me on Sunday afternoons when she has already done more than her fair share of exercise for the day.

As the ultra-marathon of my cancer experience continues to unfold, she makes me laugh daily, sometimes as Krista, and sometimes as Mabel.

Id spare my right hip for you if I could, Gladys. Well, maybe my left.

I have always believed that people are intrinsically good, but I have learned more about compassion and caring in the last 4 months than I ever thought I could. And I think more about the trials and suffering of those who do not have the social support that I do.

In much the same way Krista and I latched onto Orange Man and Duct Tape Man when we were faltering on the East Coast Trail, my family and I gather strength from the support we feel around us. Our human nature means we look to other beings for connection in our time of need. Sometimes going through surgery or treatments is unbelievably difficult, but being alone would be the worst thing. Plus, I need my family and friends to make sure I take care of myself.

I hope the hell you got a nap after, Gladys!

And, just like Krista on the East Coast Trail, I am putting one foot in front of the other. While I do, I am learning to accept help when it is offered and even to ask for it when I need it. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a part of this amazing network of family and friends. I hope in the future to help support others who are going through similar experiences.

Thank-you my family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and blog readers for being the Orange Man on the horizon, the Duct Tape Man to the rear, and the coastline on the left marking the way.

Now, if what goes around comes around, I’ve got a lot of casserole drop-offs in my future. So if you need anything, Gladys is here for you, maid. And if I’m not up to it, I’ll call Mabel. She’s an Ironman, you know.

A birthday card from Mabel to Gladys.