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.