It is the #1 mistake cancer patients make during treatment — and it’s encouraged by their doctors! Let’s talk about how to avoid it and what to do instead…
In just a few days, it will have been one whole year since I finished my last chemo treatment for Follicular Lymphoma.
(If you don’t already know my story, you can read more about my cancer journey and how it all started in this post.)
I know I should be more excited, but it’s hard to feel like celebrating this first anniversary of finishing chemo when I still feel so crumby. Granted, I’ve been sick in some form or fashion most of my life, so it’s not anything entirely new, but having ZERO immune system — as opposed to just my previously LOW functioning immune system — means I’ve spent most of this past year sick on the couch with zero energy to do anything more than write.
I try not to write about how cruddy I feel most of the time because it’s just a downer. Really, who really wants to read that?
But today, it feels incredibly important to give just one fact and one quick piece of advice to other cancer patients and their caregivers on the biggest mistake we cancer patients make — and the most important thing you can do to help the situation.
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As always, I am not a health professional, and I do not play one on the internet. I am simply a mom sharing her best tips and tricks for supporting her family’s health and wellness. Always talk with your doctor before beginning a new wellness routine — bonus points if you can find a holistic practitioner or Functional Medicine doctor near you! View my complete terms & conditions here.
If there was ONE thing I could go back and do over again with this whole cancer thing, it would be to stick to my guns and AVOID refined sugar and carbs during my treatment.
I started off with great intentions. I’d done all the research on the GAPS diet and was all set to use that protocol to help my body heal from both the cancer and the damage from the chemo.
Then, I got lightheaded during treatment a couple of months in, and one of the nurses handed me a packet of peanut butter crackers saying, “It’ll make you feel better!”
And it did. For the moment…
One little pack of peanut butter crackers.
What I wouldn’t give to go back and just say, “No, thank you. I just need to go back and sit down.” Or at the very least, not have let six little crackers completely derail me!
What I Didn’t Know Then
See, what I didn’t realize at the time is that my body is severely addicted to sugar — and even something as tiny as those crackers revived the addiction. It was like handing an alcoholic a drink and saying, “Oh, one little drink won’t hurt anything. You can stop whenever you want.”
It’s just not that simple.
My body IMMEDIATELY went back to craving sugar, and I felt like the only way to avoid the whole lightheaded situation repeating itself was to keep MORE peanut butter crackers on hand. Just for emergencies.
Of course, now that my body knew sugar again, those “emergencies” happened more and more frequently. Emergencies became “preventative snacks” which just became regular, old snacks. Every. Single. Day.
Before long, my daughter and I had two or three “snack times” built-in every day, each with a sugar- and white-flour-loaded treat.
Then, mealtimes deteriorated. I still tried to cook one GAPS or Paleo meal per week, but most of the time we lived on pasta, bread (homemade whole wheat at least!), other carbs, and whatever was easiest and cheapest to make.
Where I Am Now
Now, I’m an entire year past chemo, and I’m STILL fighting this sugar addiction. There are times when I do REALLY well. I make healthy food for us, I avoid refined sugars and carbs, and I feel pretty good.
Times like that I can be proud of the baby steps I’m taking toward getting my family healthy. You can read more about those baby steps here:
Then — because the chemo killed my immune system even more than it was dead before, and then I did nothing to help it by gorging myself on sugar and carbs — I inevitably get sick again.
A cold. A sore throat. A general and complete lack of energy.
I land right back on the couch, miserable, and ready to eat whatever I don’t have to expend energy to cook — which typically means more sugar & carbs, and since I don’t keep those ingredients in the house anymore due to my non-existent willpower, we end up eating out a lot while I try to recover — without the actual nutrition I need.
See how this is a vicious cycle?
Poor nutrition → no building blocks for health.
No building blocks for health → no ability to fight infection.
No ability to fight infection → sickness.
Sickness → no energy.
No energy → poor food choices and poor nutrition.
And we start all over again.
The #1 Mistake Cancer Patients Make
If you haven’t guessed by now, the #1 mistake cancer patients make is caving to the pressure to rely on sugar and carbs for our “nutrition” during treatment.
As much as I would like to cast the blame for this mistake squarely on someone else’s shoulders, I really can’t blame our oncologists too much. According to this report, doctors receive less than 20 hours of nutrition training across all four years of medical school. (Honestly, even that number seems high, since most medical schools do not require ANY dedicated nutrition courses — and any small amount of nutritional instruction ends abruptly at graduation.)
They truly don’t know any better.
They were never taught that proper nutrition is VITAL to health. They were mostly taught how to diagnose health issues, treat or mask the symptoms of those issues with the latest technology or pharmaceuticals, and move on to the next patient.
I once asked my gastroenterologist what I needed to be doing with my diet to help the GI issues I was experiencing, to which he replied, sounding rather offended that I would even ask, “That’s not my area. I’m not a dietician.”
Seriously?? You are a doctor who SPECIALIZES in the functioning of the DIGESTIVE SYSTEM, but you don’t know anything about how the digestive system responds to FOOD??
Needless to say, I found a new doctor after that visit.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon. Medicine has become more about managing patients rather than creating health.
What Can We Do?
So, it really is up to us — the patients and caregivers — to do the research and understand how nutrition plays into our disease and our healing. Or we need to find a holistic practitioner who truly understands nutrition to help guide us through the process.
I can say from experience that it is EXCEPTIONALLY hard to walk this no-white-sugar, no-white-flour road alone.
Between my own exhaustion, inability to stay away from sweets, and just not feeling like I KNEW enough to figure it out on my own, I WISH I had had a guide for the journey! (If I ever find a great holistic practitioner to help, I’ll be sure to let you know! ?)
Here is my BEST advice for anyone undergoing cancer treatment (or any autoimmune disorder!) or their caregivers:
#1 Tip for Thriving in Cancer Treatment: Focus on nutrient-dense foods.
Nutrient-dense foods are ones that have traditionally been used in ages past — before the advent of modern medicine to help keep human bodies healthy and strong. Think bone broths and broth-based soups with easy-to-digest vegetables, grass-fed beef liver and other organ meats, as well as plenty of pastured animal fats.
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read my post on Nourishing Your Body During & After Chemo. This post walks you through much of what I learned going through it myself and gives you lots of specific ideas for nourishing your body and healing your gut (which helps with SO many of our issues!).
If you’re interested in learning more about healing diets to strengthen your gut and immune system as you go through treatment, be sure to grab a copy of Gut And Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride. It is THE most comprehensive guide to healing the gut I’ve seen yet, and she walks you through EVERYTHING you need to know to start the GAPS diet, including a TON of recipes and protocols.
To help break down the GAPS diet into more manageable chunks (it can be a LOT to process and remember day-to-day and stage-to-stage), check out What Can I Eat Now? by Cara Comini of Health, Home, & Happiness. I got the eBook version of her program with the Gut Health Super Bundle and it’s been super helpful in reminding me what I already know about GAPS and why I need to be focusing more on healing my gut to deal with all this sugar-induced nonsense and to improve my immune function.
Cara also gives lots of great tips for batch cooking and freezer cooking for the GAPS diet, so you aren’t spending your entire life in the kitchen. (Which is definitely an issue when following the GAPS diet means there is a LOT of cooking involved.)
The What Can I Eat Now? program really simplifies this fairly complicated protocol. And when it comes to our health and the desperate need to get healthy again after a health crisis like cancer, we need all the help we can get to make it happen!
Bonus Tip #2: Don’t Worry About Your Weight
Yes, your doctor is going to obsess about your weight. A LOT. For them, if you’re losing weight, you’re not getting enough calories each day, which truly can be a struggle when cancer treatments make us sick to our stomachs and eating is the LAST thing we feel like doing.
I get it. I really do.
Remember, though, that the goal here is to provide your body with NUTRITION, not just empty calories from carbs and sugar that will deplete your body of the healthy building blocks it needs to heal.
Just focus on eating nutrient-dense foods that will help your body heal, and try not to worry about what the scale says. (Even if your doctor does.)
If your doctor is truly concerned and you aren’t getting adequate nutrition, go find a holistic nutritionist or a GAPS practitioner to work with during your treatment. Just DON’T fall into the trap I did of relying on sugar and carbs!
A typical hospital nutritionist is going to give you a recipe book designed especially for cancer patients that is FULL of sugar. I wish I had the booklet I received to show you, but I threw it in the recycling bin nearly as soon as I walked back in the door after my last admission. (Trying to talk with the hospital nutritionist about my needs was one of the most infuriating parts of my hospital stays. But, that’s a story for another time!)
Your doctor will tell you to eat ice cream and drink milkshakes if they sound good. ANYTHING to get food in you. They don’t care what KIND of calories you get, as long as you get “enough” of them.
Now, I agree it takes more work to get food down when we’re in treatment and making sure we are getting the nutrition we need. I do NOT agree, however, that just eating “whatever sounds good” is the best approach.
Why Eating Whatever Sounds Good Doesn’t Work
If you are focusing on eating nutrient-rich foods, even if it’s mostly bone broths those first few days after treatment, you’re going to be much better off than if you just “eat whatever sounds good.”
Why? Because your gut is likely overrun with bad bacteria right now. Bad bacteria feed on SUGAR. CANCER feeds on sugar.
Those bad bacteria in your gut crave sugar, so they tell your brain that you need to eat sugar. It puts to mind piles of crackers, donuts, breads, milkshakes, and ice cream. It makes it so those things are the ONLY things that “sound good.”
The bad bacteria NEED those sugary, starchy treats to survive. The CANCER needs those bad bacteria to stay in power, so that IT can thrive.
Do NOT feed the cancer!!
In case I haven’t beat this dead horse enough, let me be exceptionally clear and concise:
Sugar gives a death blow to an already compromised immune system by FEEDING pathogenic bacteria in the gut and de-stabilizing blood sugar.
A dead immune system cannot protect you from infections, cannot fight a cancer recurrence, and cannot rebuild healthy teeth and gums (hence all the dental problems cancer patients have!).
Once you get your body in the habit of relying on sugar for your “nutrition,” it is INSANELY difficult to give it up later.
PLEASE do yourself a favor and AVOID sugar during treatment and beyond. Focus on those nutrient-dense foods for your doctor-required calorie consumption.
Your body will thank you!
As a former University Resident Director, Career Counselor, Certified Personality Trainer, and high school Spanish teacher, Laura has quite the “scattered” background — with one underlying theme: education! She writes to teach and inspire women on topics related to faith, family, and lifework. She is also a resume writer, specializing in resumes for moms, career changers, and new graduates.