How I Used Food to Complement my Cancer Treatment

July 06, 2021
How I Used Food to Complement my Cancer Treatment

Written by Viney Kirpal 

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Micheal Guerrera

The report shook in my hands. My eyes fell on the ominous diagnosis: “Ductal carcinoma in the right breast,"I tottered.

I called my sister. She made the doctor’s appointment for me.

The next morning, my sister and I sat opposite the oncologist. He looked grave as he studied my reports. “The cancer appears fairly advanced, but we’ll get the accurate picture after a biopsy,” he said.

“Are you okay losing a breast?” he continued.

“Yes.”

“When?”

“As early as needed.”

I was desperate to get well. The doctor set my surgery for radical mastectomy for 17 October 2007. I was 58. I needed six cycles of chemotherapy and 33 of radiation.

“Cancer is a lifestyle disease,” the doctor told me. “You’ll improve your chances with exercise and a change in diet.” 

A week later, the biopsy report revealed I had stage 3 cancer. 

The Nutritionist’s Visit

Shortly after my surgery, a nutritionist gave me a diet chart for cancer patients adapted from that of Johns Hopkins Medicine and supported by other cancer research studies. (Although the dietary changes are no ”magic bullets,” they have been recommended by the National Cancer Institute for cancer prevention.)

The diet includes cancer fighting foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, because they contain antioxidants that can prevent cancer, according to Johns Hopkins. The charts also recommend reducing the intake of fats and meats to less than 30 percent, eating fewer cured, pickled, and smoked foods, restricting alcohol intake, and losing weight.

The nutritionist told me not to eat raw foods like salads, or undercooked foods because they can cause food poisoning, as well as to avoid thin-skinned fruits like figs and chikoo to prevent infection from entering my body. I was to eschew eating red meat, fried stuff, high-fat dairy foods, and tropical oils like palm and coconut oil. I could consume oatmeal and whole wheat bread, as well as green tea and wheatgrass to increase my immunity, which gets weakened by the treatment.

I wasn’t obese, but my hectic high-travel lifestyle as a corporate trainer had made me neglect my diet and exercise regime for the last two years. I was contrite and wanted to make amends quickly.

But the first six months were a nightmare. I was anxious about post-surgery secretions taking time to dry, about my reaction to every chemotherapy cycle, about seeing my long hair slither away from my scalp like snakes in the bathwater. I felt diffident going outside after losing my right breast. I felt scared, foggy from my medication, and depressed by the others receiving chemotherapy with me.

During my chemo cycles, I could eat only rice with sweetened milk because of the ulcers in my mouth and throat. All the same, I started exercising and meditating daily because of their role in helping me reduce my weight and overcoming depression.

At the hospital, I met Leena, a college lecturer half my age with end-stage cancer. We took to each other right away, perhaps because I, too, had been a lecturer once. She looked terrified when she told me she was on her 14th cycle of chemo since her cancer had recurred. Her words shook me.

I resolved not to let regret into my life and to learn from others’ wisdom.

How I used food to complement my cancer treatment

A poor diet can clog arteries, make us overweight, and even cause chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and strokes.

While many uncontrollable factors, including our genes, could cause cancer, the risk of getting cancer from them is less than 30%, according to Harvard. The rest are within our capacity to change.

While research has been mostly inconclusive about the ability of diet to cure cancer, researchers agree that the right diet can support traditional cancer treatments

Thus, I made five significant changes to my diet:

  1. As soon as I could, I began to follow the dietician’s chart scrupulously. 

  2. At the advice of the doctor at the radiation center, I incorporated plenty of rainbow (bright-colored) vegetables and fruit into my diet.

  3. Also at the advice of the radiation center doctor, I drink 8-10 glasses of water every day.

  4. When a friend shared a link to a Cancer Survivors Network connecting sugar with cancer, I confirmed it with my oncologist and stopped eating sugar.

  5. I knocked off fast food and confectionaries from my diet. We routinely eat these foods without realizing how calorie-rich, harmful, and devoid of nutritional value they are. 

With my dietary changes, I realized an unintended benefit. I’d been wanting to shed 10 pounds but hadn’t been able to for years. After changing my diet to cancer fighting foods and exercising regularly, I successfully shed off 15 pounds.

Today, I base my diet on the science-based dietary habits I picked up in 2007. I’ve maintained a steady, healthy weight. I feel good, confident, and active again. 

Outer transformation aside, I’m healthier now. My cancer is in remission and my cancer treatments are over. I have neither high blood pressure nor diabetes. My body and mind generate positive, good feelings.

What started as a ‘treatment’ for cancer has gifted me a healthier way of life. 

Viney Kirpal (Ph. D) is a cancer survivor and trained health writer. She was a former professor of English at IIT Bombay. She’s published personal essays and health articles in HuffPost, Cure Today, You& Me Magazine, two articles in Reader’s Digest, and The Hindu.

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