My previous blog post introduced the topic of how being an ovarian cancer patient has influenced my relationship with food and transformed my attitude toward eating. I’ve always valued my relationship with food and I appreciate how it enhances the quality of my life. But in the spring of 2012 each day that passed only seemed to make my abdominal pain, nausea and other digestive symptoms worse. On May 11, 2012, I received my fifth round of chemotherapy, 72 hours later I was facing a life-threatening medical crisis—it had taken time to gradually materialize, but my aggressive cancer treatments had led to an extremely serious bowel blockage. Vomiting and in pain, I was transported to the emergency room through early rush hour traffic. It was a bright May morning when I entered the doors of Calgary’s largest medical centre. I had already been to the ER twice during my cancer treatments with similar complications, but this time my instincts told me that it would take a miracle or another surgery to save my life.
I was quickly readmitted to the gynecologic oncology unit, by this point I had formed a close relationship with many of the nurses and support staff. I could tell that many of them empathized with my setback and were hoping like me that I would somehow make it through such a terrible predicament. At first my doctors took a wait and see approach, they thought that perhaps with a little time and rest my bowel blockage might correct itself non-surgically. When my condition hadn’t improved after about a week in the hospital, a crucial decision was made, my doctors told me that I would no longer be able to consume any food by mouth! Even liquids were basically forbidden, I had to suck on ice cubes or take tiny sips of water to moisten my mouth. A certain degree of panic set in as I thought about the prospect of not consuming food, surgery also seemed more imminent.
Nothing had prepared me for the invasive medical procedures that I would endure in the coming weeks or for the length of my hospitalization. Forty-eight agonizing days elapsed, during which time I received virtually all of my nutrition through a large intravenous device called a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC or PIC line). It was continuously hooked up to a large bag with total parenteral nutrition. TPN is a thick whitish liquid containing essential nutrients, about every twelve hours the nurses would come to hang a new bag of “food” and remove my empty one. It was during my hospitalization that I first met with a registered dietitian, a food and nutrition expert. Even when they don’t encounter a crisis as substantial as mine, the nutritional well being of cancer patients often requires consultation with a professional. In my situation, we discussed the specifics of a low fibre diet that I would be required to follow before I could resume a normal eating regimen.
On June 18, 2012, a critical surgical procedure was skillfully performed. When I awoke in the recovery room I sensed that my crisis was at last resolved. Although only half-conscious, I was filled with elation as they informed me that the procedure to correct my obstruction had been successful. The primary cause was established to be scar tissue from my previous operations and now my digestive system was expected to function normally again. Most of all, I was comforted and reassured by the fact that my cancer had not metastasized to other regions of my body. Following my surgery, I spent a couple of more weeks in the hospital recovering and learning how to eat all over again. I was required to start cautiously with liquids and semi-solids such as soup, Jell-O, and pudding. When I was ready to try my first solid food, I commenced a strict low fibre diet, whole grains and the majority of fruits and vegetables were forbidden. My goal was to consume less than 10 grams of fibre daily and eat only foods with 2 grams or less. White bread, egg salad, chicken and low fibre cereals became some of my staples.
Two years after this ordeal I’m grateful that my ovarian cancer continues to be in remission, I’m just as thankful for the fact that I am able to consume a normal diet and enjoy the pleasures of eating. I become frustrated when I look around me and I witness people who don’t realize how important it is to eat properly—I see so many individuals who rush through meals without a second thought. “Oh, I’m too busy to cook,” they argue. “With my work schedule and social obligations, who has time to prepare a meal from scratch?” I would argue back that making time should be a priority—self-care and proper nutrition are essential for your long-term health and can’t be pushed aside without eventually facing the consequences. Ultimately you might discover, as I have, that cooking and dining are two of life’s greatest pleasures. Learning to cook can be enjoyable, and the shared experience of savouring a meal with friends or loved ones considerably enhances your quality of life. As for me, I’m determined that even if my cancer returns I’ll never let it destroy me relationship with food.