One of the classic symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially as it becomes more advanced, is a feeling of fullness when you try to eat and a general lack of appetite. This was my experience as I tried to eat meals and enjoy food prior to my diagnosis, something was definitely wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. Throughout my life I’ve always had what I consider to be a positive relationship with food. As a small boned and extremely petite woman I enjoy eating from a full range of food groups—I’ve never been obsessed about dieting trends, such as low carb diets or low fat diets. Even before my cancer diagnosis I was a health conscious individual, aware of the strong connection between our physical and mental health and proper nutrition. I would deliberately avoid such temptations as eating large quantities of prepackaged or processed foods or dining regularly at fast food restaurants. I generally prefer the wonderful taste of home cooking and meals prepared from scratch anyway.
As my symptoms progressed I was sometimes just going through the motions of eating, and I wished that the doctors would find out what was wrong so my meals would be pleasurable again. Leading up to my diagnosis, even many of my favourite foods such as homemade spaghetti sauce, fresh stir-fries and strawberry smoothies were quickly losing their appeal! I ultimately had a hysterectomy performed in the fall of 2011, one week following my surgery the pathology report came back positive for uterine and ovarian cancer. I was in shock and emotionally devastated, but at least I knew what the enemy was that was trying so hard to destroy my life and my relationship with food! What is more, my cancer journey had begun. I was immediately referred to Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre where I underwent a highly specialized surgery to remove my remaining ovary and to more accurately stage my disease.
My second surgery was performed on December 13, 2011, and much to my consternation I nearly spent Christmas Day in a hospital bed. While it came as a relief when I was discharged on Christmas Eve, a scrumptious turkey dinner was definitely not going to be part of the celebration for me. I could still hardly stomach solid food. There had been complications following my surgery in the form of a partial bowel blockage. My situation was unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising. Not only had I undergone two surgeries within about six weeks of each other, during the second procedure my surgeon chose to remove a section of my small bowel in order that it may be tested for cancer. I experienced severe nausea and vomiting in the days following this operation and they used just about every medication in their arsenal to get it under control. At one point we even placed a patch commonly used to treat seasickness behind my ear!
As soon as I was recovering at home, my mother made a special effort to prepare meals that are my favourites, we both hoped that my appetite would return to normal and that I would gain weight. It was wonderful to taste home cooking again after nearly two weeks on hospital food, but I could sense that something wasn’t exactly right in terms of my digestion. Meanwhile I was assaulted with more bad news, the pathology report from my second surgery revealed that cancer cells had spread to some of my abdominal lymph nodes. It was recommended that I undergo six rounds of chemotherapy, which I started almost immediately. I was given the customary warning about nausea and about how people on chemotherapy often experience a lack of appetite. Typical symptoms also include, constipation and a metallic taste in your mouth that impairs the normal flavour of certain foods.
Once my treatments began, I became completely focused on making it through my chemotherapy and I assumed that the bowel blockage issue that I had experienced was resolved. As my symptoms such as nausea and constipation grew worse, I just attributed it to the carboplatin that I was receiving every three weeks intravenously or to the other medications that I was taking. Soon I was forcing myself to eat what little I could—and even more disturbing was the fact that I hadn’t gained any weight since my recent surgery. The only positive experience I can remember from this period is my discovery of the Living With Cancer Cookbook by Kris Ghosh and Linda Carson, a fantastic volume of recipes specifically aimed at women going trough cancer treatment.
There’s an abundance of comfort food here and a sense that the authors truly have compassion for those of us who struggle to eat, for example breakfast recipes include cheesy ham and asparagus bake and home-style oatmeal with raisons. I also love the way this cookbook is organized to deal with the specific symptoms of cancer treatment. The four most common side effects are nausea, mouth sores, diarrhea and constipation. Eating the right foods can help alleviate these issues and make them more bearable. But as I would soon discover, I’d developed extremely serious complications with my digestive system that would require more surgical intervention. In my next post I’ll discuss my ordeal when I was hospitalized and unable to eat or drink for over a month!