Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Mashed potatoes and gravy, roast beef, hot chocolate, warm homemade cookies and milk, macaroni and cheese, hot fudge sundaes and Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls . . . these are a few of my favorite comfort foods. Maybe some of them are also yours, or maybe you would add different ones to the list. They are those forms of sustenance that play a larger role; not just nourishing our bodies, but soothing our souls when things aren’t exactly right.

Things weren’t exactly right for me this past fall. In September I was diagnosed with a recurrence of ovarian cancer. I spent much of that month recovering from a hysterectomy and experiencing the side effects of having a lot fewer hormones coursing through my body . . . mood swings, fatigue, hot flashes, etc. I was also emotionally fraught trying to come to terms with the fact that though I had fought cancer and won four short years ago, another battle was looming.

It is not the diagnosis so much as the treatment that causes so much dread in the heart of a cancer patient. I watch pharmaceutical ads on television that are required to state the long list of side effects – incontinence, depression, suicidal thoughts, night sweats, kidney problems, etc. etc. – and I wonder WHO would ever want to take these drugs? I have been through chemotherapy once, and I wasn’t eager to do it again. Though I tolerated the side effects well, it was still a miserable four months for me, and it took my hair more than a year to regain a somewhat normal state.

This time though, I was mostly concerned about the long-term effects – the stuff they don’t necessarily tell you about unless you are savvy enough to ask. My savvy has been increased by friends who are experiencing secondary cancers that are a result of the TREATMENT from their primary cancer. WHAT? Chemo and radiation can actually cause cancer? When you hear the C word and you are scared, you will do whatever you’re told to rid your body of the ravaging monster of disease. But once you’ve already been down that path, and you know what it holds, the second time around can cause you to question things more.

My questioning has led me to an alternative treatment plan this time. In some ways, this path has been MUCH easier than the first time. From outside appearances nothing really seems wrong. I look normal, feel really good and can function pretty much as I did before the diagnosis. Internally though, this time around has been somewhat harder. Emotional issues have distracted me from my normally productive frame of mind. I just haven’t felt as on top of things as I usually do.

I tried to be gentle with myself this fall as I adjusted to the lifestyle changes that are part of my alternative treatment plan, but I am my own worst critic, and it is sometimes difficult to turn off the voice that says I should be getting more done, should be more relaxed, should be less stressed. A wise friend told me years ago not to “should on” myself. That’s great advice, but not always so easy to follow.

I know that stress isn’t good for me, and most of the time I feel as if I’m controlling it pretty well, but no matter how many hours I log on my yoga mat, in meditation or soaking in a hot bath, worries about money or health insurance or future career paths or finding a soul mate manage to creep in. I know I can do a better job of accepting that where I am right now is perfect, and that the universe will support me in whatever I choose to do. Not only the universe, but those closer to home are supporting me as well. So many have been so great as I transition to a mostly vegan diet and give up sugar, white flour, meat, dairy and most processed foods.

Support is all around me from friends, family, colleagues and even total strangers. I am in a much better place than I would have been without all the support I continue to receive. However, support is very different from comfort, and I just haven’t felt very comforted. They say life disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Perhaps I have been just too comfortable lately, and the universe is trying to shake things up a bit for me.

Maybe part of my discomfort is the fact that I’ve given up those foods listed above and can’t turn to them any longer when the going gets rough. I’m sure the fact that I live alone and don’t have someone here to hug me and talk to me about things on a daily basis probably plays a role. My mom came to stay with me for a week after my surgery, and she was so incredibly helpful cooking and cleaning and being with me for appointments and surgery itself, but comfort and nurturing and talking about feelings aren’t her strong suit. I am so appreciative of all she has done for me, but sometimes I just wish she would put her arms around me and tell me everything is going to be ok.

I love to travel, and I’m called to do it quite often for work, but lately, I’m much more appreciative of the comforts of home. With the new diet, even eating out can be a drag with my menu options reduced to 1-3 items typically. Full-on travel now requires a great deal more planning ahead than it used to depending upon where I’m going. I often have to take snacks with me, and be super-conscious of what, where and when I’m going to eat. Previously, I was the least picky eater ever, and would literally eat almost anything, but now, that reception food often doesn’t work for me, and neither does waiting to eat until all the meetings and events are over around 10 p.m. at conferences. I can’t even imagine trying to translate a menu from a foreign language into a meal option for me. It’s hard enough in English to weed out those things that don’t fit.

I’m sure in time it will get easier and become second nature to eat this way. That is happening already to some extent. For now, though, it’s easier to be home, to cook for myself, and to know what is in that sauce. Not only that, but I’m enjoying it. I never particularly liked to cook, but now I do. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but there it is. It feels good to know that I’m eating healthy, and it’s fun to discover new exotic foods and recipes and try them out. You might even say it’s comforting.

We all need comfort in our lives. I still have hot tea – a huge source of comfort and warmth for me, especially in the winter. I am also grateful for the energy work and massage that I receive on a somewhat regular basis, and I am truly thankful for all the friends and family members who have told me they love me a little more often the past several months. I also appreciate down comforters, crackling fires in the fireplace and walks in the sunshine. Maybe if I pile enough of those up, after a while, I will feel comforted in a deeper way than a big bowl of macaroni and cheese could ever accomplish, though I did recently find a recipe for vegan mac and cheese, so who knows . . . I might be able to have some of those comfort foods after all.