A cancer survivor's new struggle: Holidays without eating

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Denise Teter with her daughter Victoria, who shares her genetic predisposition to colon cancer.

I have given birth to three children. I have survived cancer. But in some ways my greatest challenge ever came this Thanksgiving.

It was tough, really tough, to smell the food and know that I couldn’t have even one bite.  My family rallied around me, gave me encouragement, and made me laugh – a lot.

Still, I wanted to plant my face in the bowl of leftover stuffing and just chew!  I miss chewing.  Who knew you could miss chewing?

Camera icon Denise Teter
Denise Teter snapped this photo of her family preparing to enjoy the Thanksgiving feast she prepared, but couldn’t eat herself.

When I was diagnosed with FAP, a genetic form of colorectal cancer, I was told that after treatment I might develop benign tumors. But I was too focused on beating cancer to think about the after-effect – until it happened. These inoperable desmoid tumors worked their way into my small bowel, establishing fistulas, or abnormal connections.

By late October, the pain was so severe I couldn’t walk my dog or even sit comfortably.

I needed to heal, but the only way to do that was to stop eating.

Since Oct. 30, I have been hooked up to Total Parenteral Nutrition, or TPN, for 12 hours every night in hopes of giving my bowels a rest so the fistulas will close. I’m not hungry, but I’m not satisfied either.

My situation would almost be comical if it wasn’t so frustrating.  I’m Italian.  I love to entertain, cook, bake, and eat. Don’t get me started on my meatballs – big, juicy balls studded with fresh parsley, parmesan, and garlic.

I’m grateful to be alive. I would never minimize that.

But when it comes to daily living, not eating is the most challenging thing I have ever had to do.

I don’t even like fried shrimp, but still I wanted to shove fistfuls of them in my mouth at a recent work gathering.  Before TPN, my quality of life was hampered by fevers, chronic infection, and lethargy.  Those are all better; but not eating is a real quality-of-life issue, too.

When you get together with friends, nine times out of 10, you go out to eat.  Going to the mall, the smell of food smacks you in the face from all the restaurants.  At the movies, the smell of warm, buttery popcorn wafts through the air. At work, even a colleague’s leftovers warming in the microwave smells amazing when you can’t eat anything.

Christmas is coming, and yes, I will cook dinner with the help of my family. It’s a tradition I’m not willing to give up. As hard as it is to not eat, missing out on any part of this season would be even worse.

Everyone comes home; the house is full of life and laughter.  Homemade crepes for the manicotti, freshly made sauce and meatballs, prime rib, sweet potatoes with a hint of cardamom and cinnamon, sun-kissed carrots.  Rosemary shortbread cookies, chocolate crinkles, and a luscious chocolate crème pie. We will continue the tradition of cooking together and listening to carols, and laughing – a lot.

And I’ll try very, very hard to be patient and wait for the day that I will be healthy again, ready to eat, be social, and have my life back.

Denise Teter lives and cooks in Kimberton, Chester County, with her family. She may be contacted at deniseteter5@gmail.com