My Kitchen

Following my retreat in May 2012, I purged our pantry and freezer of all flours, pastas, whole grains (including oats and rice) and sugars, and I cleared off shelves to make room for seaweeds, dried mung beans, Job’s tears, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and other staples.  I didn’t renew our share in a local meat CSA, because the only meats allowed on my new diet are duck and pork.  We donated most of the meat in our freezer (lamb, beef, chicken) to a food pantry.  Almost all of our spices and herbs moved to a high shelf, out of my reach.

(By early fall, rice and some other grains were back in the kitchen, mostly for John, but, I confess, sometimes I need a little rice–brown/black/wild–along with the usual beans or lentils to liven up my steamed vegetables and pork/duck/fish.)

I stored the coffee maker and grinder (to use when we have company) and got a single cup machine for John’s breakfast.

Next, I replaced all our plastic food containers with glass storage jars and dishes.  Even BPA free plastics can leach out chemicals, so why risk it?  Three years ago, before my diagnosis, we bought a Sodastream carbonator so we could make sparkling water in glass carafes, mostly to reduce environmental waste, but also because I think of water in plastic bottles as “hormone water.”

Twice a week I cook up large quantities of mung beans and Job’s tears and refrigerate them in glass containers.  I also store all our dried foods in either glass or ceramic jars or in stainless steel canisters.  Of course, most non-fresh foods are sold in plastic containers, so I’m sure there’s going to be some chemical contamination.  (By the way, those carbonless receipt copies that you get from ATMs, restaurants and cash registers are loaded with BPA–avoid prolonged contact with them and don’t recycle them.  See  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/plastic.)

I didn’t have to upgrade our cookware.  Herbalists just don’t use aluminum or non-stick pans for cooking, since those surfaces can react with herbs and food, altering taste and efficacy while adding toxins.  All my pots and pans are stainless steel, glass, or ceramic.

I am consciously trying to let food be my medicine, using my newly organized kitchen as a compounding pharmacy.

This whole dietary endeavor isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, though.  I often enjoy the alchemical challenge of transforming a narrow range of ingredients into a variety of dishes.  The condiments, herbs, and spices that support my treatment goals, though quite limited, add enough zest to stave off total boredom.

John gallantly offered to eat only what I eat–to show solidarity with this restricted diet–but I let him off the hook.  My diet targets specific and shifting internal conditions in my body.  John and I follow a plan that has worked for more than a year.  For most breakfasts we prepare our own very different foods (I have Job’s tears and asparagus), except for a shared bacon (local, nitrate free) and eggs breakfast two or three times a month (he gets toast and honey).  John has whatever he wants for lunch (at work), while I have mung beans, seaweed, and shiitake mushrooms.   Dinner at home together follows my diet but he augments his meal with bread, cheese and sometimes wine.

I’d like to report that I follow this diet all the time.  Not so!  When we travel or eat in restaurants with friends I try to stick as close to Daoist dietary principles as possible.  But, for all my braggadocio about kitchen alchemy and the intellectual challenge of whipping up enticing meals of steamed vegetables and legumes, I occasionally cheat–sometimes outrageously, but always joyously.  Food really is medicine, and sometimes sharing an apple galette with friends is just what the doctor ordered.

Retreat, Part 3

The most urgent task for the week was to learn what I should eat and how to prepare it.  I brought bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried and canned legumes, black olives, varieties of seaweed, shiitake and portabella mushrooms, dried rosemary, olive oil, tamari sauce, pork from our meat CSA, white fish, Job’s tears (coix lacryma-jobi), and nuts and popcorn for snacks.  I also brought an intimidating new juicer.

Class notes had outlined mostly what I couldn’t eat:  no sugars or artificial sweeteners, dairy, red meat, seafood with legs…  In April I had consulted with Cissy Majebe, founder and president of the Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville.  Cissy specializes in cancer treatment.  She urged me to eat, every day, mung beans, asparagus and rosemary for their detoxifying properties.  These meager guidelines obviously needed fleshing out, so to speak.  First Step (9/5/12) sums up how that project went.

After each morning’s hike, I made vegetable juice to accompany my daily bowl of cooked mung beans (yum).  Some juices were more successful than others.  I experimented with blends of kale, celery, cucumbers, and other gifts of the garden.  I tried to learn to like juices that contained no fruit to sweeten things up, but, no joy there.

I had bought this machine because juicing was so helpful to Kris Carr in Crazy Sexy Cancer, even though I had been a bit unsure about juicing, since too much raw food–according to Chinese medical theory–injures the Spleen.  Cooking starts the digestive process, thus sparing the Stomach and Spleen’s energy to do what they do best–“ripen and rot the food”, and sort out and distribute the “clear and turbid” components to their proper organ systems.  The general guideline in Chinese medicine is 80/20–no more than 20% of your food should be raw, and people with weak Spleens should avoid raw food altogether.  But Kris Carr’s results from juicing were so compelling, I ignored my own doubts and gave it a go.

(Seven months after this retreat, I attended a Jeffrey Yuen class about treating cancer with diet.  Chinese medicine uses basically two strategies to treat cancer:  “induce latency” and “clear fire toxins”.  I learned in class that raw foods–especially juiced foods–induce latency in cancer, cooling down tumor activity to buy time for the body to rebuild its immune system and basic qi until there’s enough strength to advance to the “clear fire toxins” phase.  Raw foods, even at room temperature, are “Cold” and “Dampening.” These two qualities act like water around nuclear reactor rods to contain the toxic fire of the cancer.  This works for Kris Carr and others, but it isn’t the best treatment strategy for me, since Brendan judged my qi to be strong enough to work on clearing the tumors.  I rarely juice foods now.)

That week I learned how to prepare mung beans and Job’s tears (which dry Dampness).  Not so hard, as it turns out.  Soak mung beans overnight with a 2″ square of kombu, then rinse and cook in plenty of water for about 30 minutes.  Job’s tears also cook in 20-30 minutes but don’t need to be soaked.  Job’s tears, by the way, should be purchased from Chinese herbal pharmacies (it’s called “yi yi ren”).  “Job’s tears” sold over the internet often is pearl barley, which it resembles but actually isn’t.  These accomplishments in the kitchen don’t sound like a lot for a week’s effort, but I had much resistance to overcome concerning my diet.  Sequestering myself in the woods, far from grocery stores and restaurants, with limited ingredients to work with, forced me to grapple with the inevitable food issues that came up.  The diagnosis was recent enough to motivate me to make radical changes in my diet, and that was a good start.  Tweaking the food plan and recipes could, and did, come later.

The qigong portion of the retreat went less well.  I liked Nan Lu’s DVD (Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Woman’s Guide to Healing from Breast Cancer), but I preferred the more meditative version of guolin qigong that Jeffrey Yuen teaches, “Huff Puff Qigong” (http://daoisthealingarts.com/Huff%20Puff%20Qigong.html).  Nan Lu’s video is “one size fits all”.  Jeffrey Yuen’s video offers modifications for gathering qi (when you’re weak or tired) or dispersing qi (when you’re feeling strong enough to get rid of the fire toxins or if you need to expel unwanted energy, such as anger).  My problem with learning qigong that week was my confusion about where I was energetically.  Clearly I had enough qi to take long walks, but was I ready to clear the fire toxins?  My overthinking on this question left me spinning my wheels, so I shelved the project for the week.  Food seemed the more pressing task to work on.

After lunch I worked on my stack of 3 x 5 cards, a card for each fruit, vegetable, legume, spice, etc., discussed in my books on Chinese dietetics, noting the different qualities each food possessed (such as “Heating”, “Dries Damp,” “Tonifies Qi,” “Tonifies the Liver”…).  As I’ve written earlier, complete consensus among the authors was rare.  I had hoped for a definitive list of foods to eat and foods to avoid; I settled for a list of foods that probably are good for me.  I can live with a lot of ambiguity, but it took the whole week for me to accept that, even with intelligence, diligence, and high motivation, I would not end up with a food plan in which I felt completely confident.  To muddy the waters further, there are excellent and totally unambiguous books on cancer and diet written by biomedical researchers.  The best of the lot, Anticancer; a New Way of Life, (David Servan-Schreiber), has charts of foods that help fight different types of cancer.  The breast cancer list looked great, and probably will be useful to me someday when the tumors are gone, but many of those foods messed with my current treatment strategies.

I spent the remaining time each day writing in my journal, meditating, pretending to do qigong, and reading my “for fun” books.  Cissy Majebe had also recommended a daily three-part regimen for detoxifying the body and for boosting the immune system:  dry brush the skin, soak in a hot bath (“as hot as you can stand”) with epsom salts and rosemary essential oil (for at least 20 minutes), then shower off in tepid water.  A hot soak was a lovely way to end each day.

I was busy!

Though an introvert, I’m not much of a loner.  I surprised even myself when I conceived this retreat.  I think it was a brilliant move.  Without the usual distractions and temptations and busy-ness of my home/work environments and social life, I was able to focus and think deeply about the big issues of my life, celebrate my strengths and assets, and make peace with my shortcomings.  I know that such celebrations and peace-makings are fragile states, but I left the woods feeling fundamentally certain that I’ll do just fine.

Retreat, Part 1

My insurance company pays for one MRI a year, and the next one is coming up on June 24.  I’ve had two ultrasounds in the interim, each one has shown a progressive shrinking of the tumors, so this MRI shouldn’t be such a big deal.  But I’ve been a student for a good part of my life, and I still get anxious before big exams.

I’m preparing for this exam by 1) maintaining the regimen I established last year (I’ll outline this later), 2) following Sun Si-Miao’s 100 day exorcism program to expel “Worms/Ghosts” (definitely more on this later), and 3) gardening like my life depends on it (turns out, it just might, gardening being a major source of joy for me).

I also plan to use the next 4 weeks to reflect on this past year’s events, both external and internal.  How much “history” gets covered before the Big Day depends on the June weather (remember the gardening part of the program–if it’s sunny, I’ll be outside).

It seems I was in constant motion, physically and emotionally, most of April, 2012.  So many hoops to jump through at the medical center, so many health care providers to consult with, and so much information to gather up and evaluate.

By the end of the month, I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the changes and the choices I needed to make in my life.  So, like Henry David Thoreau, I went to the woods to learn how to live deliberately.  On May Day I packed the car up with my dog, food, clothes, books, 3 x 5 cards, class notes, and altar materials, and drove an hour to the Wildlife Conservation Trust in southern New Hampshire.  I had rented a house there for a week in the middle of nearly 3000 acres of conserved woodland.

WCT isn’t terribly remote, but the houses there are secluded, cell phone service mostly non-existent, and the forest pretty deserted during what we in Vermont/New Hampshire call “mud season.”  Caretakers, a husband and wife team, live on Trust property and share a party line with the rental houses.  For me, it was the ideal blend of solitude and reassurance. I needed time to figure things out sans distractions.

My goals for the week:

1.  Plan a diet that would nourish me and not the cancer, be varied and palatable enough to sustain for what might be a long time, and would support my treatment goals (at that stage, to dry Dampness and to cool Heat in the Stomach).

2.  Teach myself qigong from videos, especially guolin qigong, a form developed to treat cancer and other chronic illnesses.

3.  Identify the stressors in my life and figure out how to minimize them and/or change my response to stress.

4.  Take stock of whatever activities and beings make my heart sing and rearrange my life to do/see more of that/them.

5.  Call upon, though meditation, ritual, and journaling, whatever inner resources I might have to see me through this crisis.

It rained most days, sometimes hard.  The woods, which were already pretty wet from the spring snow melt, became downright boggy. Katy and I ventured out every morning, anyway, with map and compass (trail maintenance and markers neglected in recent years).  We explored a different trail each day, bushwhacking our way through the woods and discovering old cellar holes and farm walls long abandoned and forested over, waterfalls, and vernal pools.  Our only encounter with wildlife involved a couple of nesting geese overreacting to our presence on the other side of their pond (Katy and I fled).

I have a glitch in my brain, no doubt from one or more auto accidents, that gives me vertigo when I cross streams that have turbulent water, to the point that sometimes I get stuck mid-stream, too flustered and disoriented to move, even in shallow water. I usually walk along busy paths, so I’d always found help when I needed it.  Near the end of a three hour loop on the second day of my retreat, I came to a small stream with rushing water almost 18 inches deep.  Big trouble.  I couldn’t turn around to get home, having engaged in some exciting mud sliding down a steep ravine just a while back where the log “bridge” was too slick to negotiate.  Also, I didn’t have the energy for another three hours of hiking, even if I could have scrambled up Mud Mountain.  My only real option was to cross.  I took a few (or a hundred) calming breaths before devising a plan to make my own stepping stone path across the brook.  After twenty minutes of searching for large rocks, prying them out of the earth, and lugging them to the brook, I managed to build a serviceable, though underwater, path to the other side.  I crossed the torrent with two sturdy sticks to support me against the inevitable vertigo.  Luckily the plan worked, because there would be no helpful hiker to rescue me.

I mention this episode because I had brought, in addition to a stack of books on breast cancer and on Chinese dietetics, a few books to read for pleasure.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was one of them.  Cheryl’s solo wilderness trek across the Pacific Crest Trail taught her who she is and what she’s made of.  I hadn’t intended for this retreat to be that kind of challenge, but I did feel a small measure of triumph when I crossed that blessed creek!  I believe it’s true that, each time you refuse to let fear stop you, your courage gathers strength for the next challenge (like video games in which you get more powerful with each victory?).    I made it back to my woodland house muddy, thoroughly soaked, and exhausted, but also exhilarated and lighthearted.  Crossing the brook that day quelled a sense of helplessness that had been growing in me faster than my tumors.

First Step

Jeffrey Yuen says that a cancer diagnosis is “an invitation to change your life.”

I had been meaning to get around to overhauling my life, anyway, sometime soon, but my schedule kept filling up.  Trust me, though, when I tell you that Samuel Johnson got it right.  He said, sort of, that “when a women is diagnosed with breast cancer, it concentrates her mind, wonderfully.”  Time to change!

I quickly outlined a master plan:  eat differently, exercise more, have more fun, and avoid negative thinking and negative people.  I needed to live more consciously, to change old habits, take charge of my life.  Simple!

Oh, if only.

Today I’ll just discuss food.  We’re all familiar with “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” sound advice from Hippocrates that’s rarely followed until our health hits a wall.  Cancer can’t be dieted away, of course, but certain foods, as well as body fat, feed tumors, and other foods enhance the body’s ability to fight tumors.

My class notes on breast cancer and diet are sketchy.  In general, avoid all sugars (including most fruits and carbohydrates), give up alcohol completely, limit dairy to occasional low fat yogurt and perhaps small amounts of cottage cheese (since I’ve become lactose intolerant recently, all dairy is off the menu for me anyway).  Eat 10 black olives every day.

Easy guidelines so far.  Now it gets complicated.

Chinese/Daoist dietetics classify foods by flavor (sweet, pungent, salty, sour, bitter), temperature (Cold, Cooling, Neutral, Warming, Hot), organ influence, and action (such as draining Damp, resolving Phlegm, nourishing Yin, …).  Know, too, that the way food is prepared affect its properties.  I need to eat foods that drain Dampness, resolve Phlegm, and clear Heat and Fire Toxins, while avoiding foods that promote those qualities (foods that are too sweet, fatty, warming, or hot).  I also need to nourish my Spleen Qi, moisten my Lungs, and strengthen my Intestines and Kidney Qi.  It’s a delicate dance to drain dampness without injuring the body’s vital fluids.  Likewise, too much nourishment can clog the system, giving rise to more stagnating dampness.  What’s good for the Spleen may not be so great for the Liver…   You get the drift.

Here’s a typical Daoist dietary maze:  the Sweet flavor nourishes the Spleen and Stomach, but too much Sweet food overwhelms the Spleen, hindering its ability to distribute fluids; these stagnating fluids generate Dampness, the accretion of which eventually leads to Accumulations (such as fibroids and tumors) and then to Heat and Fire Toxins.  I need to nourish my Spleen but also avoid most Sweet flavored foods, because breast cancer cells feed on sugar (in all its forms).  How much Sweet is enough but not too much?  How else can I nourish my Spleen?  (Aargh!  Just cut the damn things out and let me eat in peace!)

After I figured out the general dietetic principles involved (I’ve been studying Chinese medical theory for over 20 years, so I can do that without flow charts most of the time now), the time arrived to learn what foods I can eat. I have a master’s degree in library science.  I also have 3 x 5 cards, since my MLS degree predates personal computers and therefore Excel spreadsheets.  I gathered up five or six books that classify foods a la Chinese medical theory.  How hard could it be to compile from these books a list of foods that match all criteria?  Too hard, and I’ve mostly given up, as has my friend Judi, a professional researcher with a doctorate in epidemiology from Harvard, a woman who has taught statistics, for Pete’s sake.  I ended up with a thick card file on individual foods and their properties, but I’m still pretty confused about what to eat.  Did I mention that worrying also damages the Spleen?

My diet, as of today, is pretty limited.  Breakfast: a bowl of Job’s tears (there’s an irony in there somewhere), asparagus, and ground flax seed.  Lunch:  mung beans cooked with seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, and occasionally bits of pork.  For dinner I eat any of the following:  steamed veggies (chard, bok choy, napa cabbage, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, watercress, okra, celery, fresh corn), shiitake or portabella mushrooms, chick peas, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, buck wheat groats (rarely), animal protein a few times a week (haddock, flounder, cod, tilapia, scallops, lean pork, duck eggs).  Raw foods can damage the Spleen, so I severely limit the number of salads I eat.  I’m hoping it’s okay to flavor with wheat-free soy sauce, sesame oil, and olive oil.  Snacks:  almonds (just a few–they moisten the Lungs in small amounts but create Dampness in larger quantities) and black olives.  Popcorn is iffy, but I indulge frequently anyway.  Chocolate!  After abstaining completely for two months, I relaxed the rules a bit and now treat myself several times a week to some organic dark chocolate that has just a tiny amount of sugar.  I can also eat, in limited amounts, watermelon, blueberries, apples, and Asian pears.  No wine or any alcohol again, ever (not a loss) and no coffee (ouch).

I’ve lost almost 40 pounds since March and my pulses indicate I’m achieving my dietary goals:  less Heat in the Stomach, less Dampness overall, and stronger Spleen Qi.

Classical Chinese medicine, even more than other medical modalities, requires active participation in your own healing.  Yes, I get acupuncture treatment weekly and take Chinese herbs several times a day, but I also need to support Brendan’s efforts (or is that vice versa?) by eating properly, exercising daily (specifically, doing quolin qigong), managing stress, and shedding useless stuff.

Figuring out the diet has proved to be my greatest challenge so far, and I’m still not comfortable that I’ve got a handle on it.  But I refuse to worry about that.