Updated: Sep 5, 2019
When I started treatment my oncologist told me to eat whatever I wanted. It did not matter. He said drink alcohol, eat red meat, do whatever you want just make sure you keep your weight up and the chemo will do the rest. When I asked him about alternative methods like fasting, acupuncture, green juices, etc. he pointed at me and said “If you do that you will die!”. That was enough to get me to listen. I knew this didn’t sound right but I was too overwhelmed with all the changes in my life to make sense of it.
I tried my best to eat as healthy as I could but I didn’t pay too close of attention to my diet at first. The doctor said it would be fine and eating unhealthy foods felt comforting. I made some green juices at home that I would drink every day but other than that my diet stayed about the same. As time went on I began to feel weaker and drained. I started losing weight quickly and my brain began to slow down. I would have trouble making simple decisions like what to wear or which bread to buy at the store. I would wear a hoodie to the grocery because I would get so confused I would cover my head to cry from frustration and confusion making decisions. I could feel myself falling apart and deep down I knew my diet needed to change.
I found a specialist who talked to me about intermittent fasting and multi day water fasts during treatment days. During the surgery to remove the tumors and resection of my colon, the surgeon found I still had cancer in my lymph nodes after the 28 sessions of chemo and radiation I had already done. My oncologist recommended I do another 12 rounds of chemo through a port in my chest. I would be connected to a pump starting on Wednesday lasting through Friday every other week. I was too much in shock and in denial to take the first 28 rounds seriously but now I was feeling the effects and knew I had to do something differently. This is how I started my relationship with fasting.
I was always a late eater. I was always an early eater too. I was always a nonstop eater. I didn’t think I could fall asleep at night if I was hungry. I felt I definitely couldn’t function in the morning if I didn’t have a full belly. This is the way I thought and lived for my entire life. Eating late at night puts your body into digestion mode when it should be in repair and rest mode. I can’t remember a time in my life where I’ve ever had restful sleep. I thought it was just how I was. I sleep 5 hours or so, getting up and down a lot in the night. It’s just how I am. What happens when you never give your body a break from eating is it never has the chance to clean itself out. It can only do one function at a time. It is either digestion or repair. This leaves so many toxins in the body from processed foods, sugars, chemicals, etc. Practicing intermittent fasting gives your body that break it needs to get rid of all the things that don’t need to be in your body. It made sense to me that this could be a big contributor to why I had late stage colon cancer at such a young age. Fuck what that doctor said. This seemed like common sense.
The next 12 rounds were done through a port in my chest. Taking the chemo through the port was so much more powerful than it was taking it orally. I did the first few rounds while still eating. I would make healthy smoothies that were simple and easy to digest. I felt absolutely terrible. It would wreck me and it would burn so bad coming out of my ostomy. The doctors would say I needed the food to keep up my strength but it didn’t feel like that is what it was doing. My body felt too weak to be doing digestion. It needed time to rest. I began fasting starting Tuesday night to Friday evening after the chemo was removed. If no food is going in, no food will be coming out. I saved myself the pain and issue of dealing with a burning ostomy during treatment. Much less if I had an issue with the seal of the bag, which I often did, and had to change it with an active ostomy under the haze of chemo. Of course I would get hungry but feeling hungry pales in comparison to the pain and nausea I felt dealing with digestion during treatment days. I would be as smart about it as I could to keep down cravings. I tried to avoid smelling food or seeing commercials with food. I loved watching Anthony Bourdain but not on those days.
My schedule would go like this: Starting on Monday I would begin to prepare for treatment. I would distance myself from people and try to minimize stress as much as possible. This is easier said than done. For me, receiving chemo was like meeting the devil. It’s terrifying and overwhelming and painful. The trepidation I felt going into treatment always seemed to be worse than the actual treatment. I would slow way down and try to take care of anything that was on my mind before I went into treatment so I could relax. I would try to eat lighter and healthier meals but I still needed to get in the calories to remain strong during the upcoming days. I spent my days hiking, riding my mountain bike or going for light jogs. Being outside always boosted my spirit and energy. On Tuesday afternoon I would stop eating and stay home to meditate and relax as best as I could. Wednesday morning would come and I would basically be in a trance. I’d go to my oncologist’s office and go through the motions without a lot of thought.
The nurses would offer me donuts while they were running labs and connecting me to chemo. There were always donuts in their office. I’d see other patients with boxes of snack cakes and large gas station sodas. These treats obviously brought them some joy or solace. I would always turn them down and once I began fasting I explained it was because I wasn’t eating. The nurses would laugh and say maybe it was helpful but I was probably just starving myself for no reason. They were concerned about my strength. It never made sense to me how donuts would make you stronger. Weren’t they just feeding the exact thing they were trying to kill? The way doctors test for cancer is by avoiding sugar for a length of time then they connect you to an IV and place you in the CT machine. They add a dye and then sugar. When the sugar hits cancer it will make it glow from the reaction. Again, I’m not a doctor but common fucking sense says if sugar makes the cancer glow from activity then it’s something I should probably try to avoid, especially at my weakest moments when my body is taking chemo to kill these cancer cells.
As time went on the fasting had the opposite effect of what they explained it would. My weight loss began to stabilize and I began to put on weight even though my body was taking more and more treatment. Typically when I was eating constantly I would be too wiped out to get off the couch until Monday or Tuesday but now I was back out jogging as early as Sunday, just two days after removing the chemo. The results made it a no brainer for me to continue. My simple understanding of being able to gain weight even while eating less calories was that my body was too weak to digest and use the calories I was putting in me. By fasting and giving my digestion a break it would give my body time to heal and process what I had put into it. It was making my digestion more efficient.
Since doing the multiday water fasts during treatment were going so well it made sense that I should be giving my body time to repair itself when I wasn’t taking treatment as well. This is how I started intermittent fasting. Even with this specialists advice it took me a little bit to put it into action. I needed to see the results for myself. As I said earlier, I was a nonstop eater. But now I had proven to myself I could go multiple days without eating. With this new confidence I believed I would be able to go to sleep with an empty stomach as well. I began my schedule of eating which I keep to this day. I begin eating around 10 am and don’t eat past 6 pm. These are basic guidelines.
To me stress is one of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves. I've read a lot articles that say stress can cause more damage to our body and clog arteries worse than smoking cigarettes. With this in mind if I was really hungry at night to the point of having stomach pains and couldn’t fall sleep I would get up and have a little light snack. Not a giant burger and fries with a soda but maybe a little oatmeal or a banana. Not enough to fill me up but enough to get the hunger under control. The next day I would reflect on how I felt. Did I feel better after eating? How was my sleep? How was my digestion during the night? What was my energy like in the morning?
With these questions and other similar ones I tried to give myself honest feedback after every meal I ate and eat only the things that were beneficial. I learned that listening to that hunger for sweets or garbage food was betraying me. That the reason it had become so strong is because I allowed it. I was feeding and strengthening that belief that it was what I needed by indulging. It takes a long time to put fasting into practice and it’s constantly something I’m working on. I’m far from perfect and I still allow myself to eat some desserts but it isn’t to the extent or anywhere as often to where it used to be. I am constantly trying to get better. It is a life choice, not a diet.