Patient #1: The cancer diet

"One day they are gonna do a study that shows chicken causes cancer and pizza is good for you." -Slim, Spring 1999

"Chicken is poison." -Dr. Matt; ER at Broward General who made my initial cancer diagnosis, Summer 2012

Two quotes, taken 13+ years apart and in completely different contexts, and yet they seem eerily similar, no?  The second was given to me by the admitting ER doctor at Broward General; he did a fellowship in age management and anti-aging medicine, and is a big believer in diet being the catalyst for our health.  We have mutual friends, bring our kids to the same beach/pool club, and are roughly the same age. He and I have stayed in touch, and he is a big supporter and source of information as our family examined the effects of what we eat on our bodies.

The first one?  That was what my one roommate Eric, aka "Slim", claimed every Friday night.  First year out of college, four of us crammed into a three bedroom apartment in Hoboken, NJ, and every Friday night was “Happy Hour at The 409 Café," our humble abode.  After work and working out, Avi, Dan, and I would usually make some sort of chicken dish with pasta or rice and a veggie.  Meanwhile, Eric swung by Filippo's Pizza for the early dinner special - two slices and a can of soda for $3 (there was really no better deal in North Jersey).   By the time friends stopped by for evening cocktails, the three "healthy" guys were rushing to finish cooking/eating our dishes, while Eric sat on the sofa enjoying all the grease and carbonation twelve quarters could provide.  FYI - Eric's comment was always in jest to poke fun at our obsession with what we deemed as healthy.  He's a nuclear engineer, but not Nostradamus.  And he is in fairly decent health after his wife helped put him on the straight and narrow, exchanging the pizza-and-happy-hour staple for family dinners long ago.

So… are they right?  Can chicken - long touted as the healthy alternative protein to red meat and THE staple of the gym crowd's diet - actually be causing health issues instead of solving them?  Jen and I have gotten a LOT of diet and nutrition advice since this all began, some from former cancer survivors, some from doctors, some from nutritionists, and others from well-intentioned Moms who changed diet habits in their homes for their children's health.  It is an onslaught of information, one no person can process easily - especially if they are trying to figure out what the hell just happened to their life when getting a cancer diagnosis.  To make things more confusing, one source almost always contradicts some other advice, and there is an endless variety of "good" things to attempt to integrate into meals.

My first trip to Whole Foods armed with a cancer-fighting shopping list made me dizzy; we were there for 90 minutes and barely got out of the produce section.  I learned that day that just reading about antioxidants doesn't equate to making healthy meals for a family of four; this was/is going to be a long journey of education and comprehension, to separate fact from fad-diet fiction and real health from "pick and choose" nutrition. 

You know, the friend who says "I had cauliflower and broccoli for dinner with a lentil couscous side last night," but declines to mention the cheese sauce the veggies were in, or the butter liberally applied to the couscous.  That selective nutrition was evident in the Sharpe household's pantry and freezer, and on our Sunday afternoon lunch tab.  How the heck were we supposed to give up chicken and pasta and even milk, when it was tough to simply follow universal nutrition basics?  Especially when the new "eating right" involved hours of understanding WHAT to buy, more hours of shopping and cleaning foods, and then preparing fresh meals, snacks, and smoothies.  The sheer volume of time investment (not to mention cost) became unsustainable.

So we are breaking our diet down into manageable changes.  Three main themes appeared in many of what was shared with us:

  1. Meat and dairy intake have a correlation with cancer rates and other indicators of health, especially obesity and cardiovascular diseases
  2. Raw and plant-based diets give humans the vital nutrients their bodies have relied on for generations
  3. Processed foods - especially processed sugars - not only make you fat, they rob your body of those nutrients while filling it up with chemicals and junk

I am the last person you would ever think would fall under the "vegan" stereotype - eating sprouts and hummus and extoling the virtues of beets, while criticizing the meat-processing industry for their horrific treatment of animals – that was never me.  I LOVE the Sunday night Italian feast, with meatballs, sausage, braciole, gravy, and good old semolina pasta out of a box; even in my healthiest days, rice and chicken were daily staples, and yogurt was the go-to "good snack." After watching a documentary called "Forks Over Knives" and reading a bit about The China Study, many ideas of what I had always thought of as "nutritious" went out the door.  Unprocessed whole and raw foods were favorable to my canned chicken, canned mushrooms, and Classico Four Cheese over angel hair concoction.

So now what?  Well, we are still evaluating how to proceed.  My surgical setbacks have made me put the "cancer diet" on hold somewhat, to focus on gaining weight - and, more importantly, strength.  Plus, hospital food is specifically designed to keep patients eating, not fight cancer with fresh veggies.  So it has been a juggling act for sure, and there have been nights where Ben & Jerry's or Peanut Butter M&M's won the battle over grapefruits and cucumbers.  Not to mention my uncle's suggested "weight gain" diet of soft pretzels, wings, and Sam Adams - as he put it, "it's worked wonders putting weight on me for years."  Being under 200 lbs. for the first time since my Senior Prom has made getting some strength back a priority, but with the major treatments behind me, it is time to refocus on the "normal life" diet we have hopscotched around between hospital stays, travel, holidays, and the like.

This is a post that could probably be its own blog; there is literally an endless supply of information, opinion, and talking heads promoting a certain diet or lifestyle to cure this disease, end that condition, or live longer and healthier.  What I have found is there is a severe lack of knowledge regarding the full-picture of a patient's health.  Most doctors are so focused on a particular area of medicine; they do not have the time to address integrative nutrition with their patients. 

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who many only know as the mid-day health talk show guru that gives quirky green blender drinks, is actually a world-renowned surgeon in NYC.  He has taken his spot appearances on Oprah and made them into a platform to "tend to all aspects of their (patients') health, head to toe, before they reach a point of no return."  This "all aspects" overview of a patient's health, which includes nutrition and diet as key components, is the balanced end result I am looking for.

How will the Sharpe family proceed?  Well, I can assure you three things:

  1. Our nutritional bank of data is (slowly) being turned into a weekly menu/checklist of healthy family meals, removing most processed foods in our pantry and normal diet, and learning how to tastefully prepare healthy meals and snacks that fit the guidelines of what we are continually learning.
  2. Vegetables and fruits, plus vegetarian staples like beans, fish, and soups, will play a prominent role in everyday meals, while meat and dairy products will be consumed on a limited basis.
  3. A few liberties will be taken with the "you need to put weight back on" hall pass to hit up some favorites in the next couple weeks;  Jaxson's Ice Cream parlor in Dania Beach, FL, just south of the FLL airport, is the best excuse to fall off any kind of diet I have ever seen.  We'll be seeing you soon, Jaxson's.  After all, Josie is almost 3, and deserves not just the healthy benefits she will be getting from #'s 1 and 2, but also the "special treat" that comes with #3.  All kids, big and small, need a little ice cream now and then.

Next time you are at lunch grabbing a Italian Hoagie or Tony Luke's Roast Pork with Rabe and Sharp Provolone (my favorite, and what I will get within an hour of landing at PHL next month), take a minute to think about how that sandwich fits in your overall diet.  If it is a weekly indulgence, then great - we all need some comfort food on occasion.  If processed meat and cheeses and flours make up the bulk of your diet and sautéed broccoli rabe is your daily "vegetable", then consider doing some reading and research on diet and nutrition.  It might not be "fun" to reconsider what you eat, but you are much better off changing your diet to prevent cancer and other disease than trying to treat them. Trust me on this one.