When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no idea it would turn out to be such a gift. That might sound awfully strange to you, but if you read on you’ll understand why I feel this way.
I was a new dietitian when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had finished my Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.Sc.) at the University of Guelph, my clinical dietetic internship at Toronto Western, and two full-time temporary job contracts.
Then, when I was 27 years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (stage IIB extensive), a cancer that originates in the white blood cells (lymphocytes) and spreads to the lymph nodes.
I had masses in my neck, under my arms, and a large 15cm tumour in my chest. By the time I arrived at the cancer centre, after all the preliminary staging tests, I could barely breathe. My lungs were filling with lymphatic fluid, drowning me in my own body. I was deteriorating quickly.
The treatment is worse than the cancer
Rather than being sent home after my bone marrow test at the cancer centre, I was admitted. My lungs were cleared of fluid via a thoracentesis and chemotherapy was prescribed. I started ABVD chemotherapy (Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine, Decarbazine) and continued with it for the following six and a half months.
The chemotherapy program (and the month of daily radiation treatments that followed) pushed me to my limits. I experienced severe loss of appetite, prolonged nausea, and gut wrenching vomiting, along with the inevitable weight loss.
Boy, can I relate
Because of this experience, I can draw on those memories of what it was like, and make recommendations to other cancer patients from a place of genuine understanding and compassion.
I completed my treatment and after over a decade of follow-up, I have been referred to a new oncologist. I’m part of the High Risk Breast Cancer Screening Program at a cancer centre in Toronto. Since I was under 30 when I received radiation to my chest, I’m now considered higher risk for breast cancer.
As you can imagine, I am particularly keen to understand how diet can affect breast cancer and I am eager to read the latest studies and try new recipes with potential cancer-fighting ingredients.
But cancer wasn’t finished with my family yet
Fourteen years after my cancer diagnosis, my father was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer originating in his gallbladder.
Although it had been over a decade since my family had dealt with my cancer, we once again came face-to-face with this threat. We struggled to help my father maintain his weight and strength so he could survive not only the cancer, but also the treatments that were meant to extend his life.
Unfortunately, just five months after his diagnosis, he succumbed to his illness. The treatment had devastated his body, but he took the risk to spend more time with his family. I learned from my father’s experience, as I had from my own, and this knowledge is woven throughout all of the support that I provide to cancer patients and their families.
Walking beside my patients on this journey
When it comes to cancer, I have an understanding of what people are going through, no matter what their connection – patient, survivor, caregiver or health professional. The feelings of fear, confusion, and loss of control are all ones that I have struggled with. I get it. I really do. I used to feel the same way. But here’s what I found: although it may not always be easy, it’s best not to focus on what’s wrong but on what you can do
to help make things better. Fear, confusion, and feeling out of control are three of your greatest enemies in this battle.
How I conquered the fear
One of the biggest turning points in my relationship with my cancer came after my last radiation treatment. After that last treatment, I totally expected that the doctor would meet me at the radiation suite and shake my hand and say, “You did it. Your cancer is gone.” That didn’t happen. When I think about it now, I know I was naïve to think this, but that was my honest expectation.
I had my first follow-up after the radiation was over, and again, I expected the doctor to give me the thumbs up. That didn’t happen either. He just said, “I’ll see you in three months.” And that’s how I lived my life. In three month chunks, naively expecting to hear the word “cure” every time I went back for follow-up.
This caused an emotional rollercoaster, starting with relief when I didn’t have cancer, to a gradual build-up of anxiety and fear that overwhelmed me until the results of the next follow-up. These follow-up appointments were only telling me that I didn’t have cancer that day. They weren’t doing anything to protect me from having cancer at my next follow-up.
I began to realize that I was not powerless in this situation. I began to understand that there were changes that I could be making to help myself. The fact that I could make a difference regarding my prognosis might seem obvious as you read this, but it wasn’t obvious at the time. When you are going through cancer treatment, so much attention is paid to the chemotherapy, your blood counts, your x-rays, scan results, radiation dosage, and side-effects that once that was all over, I continued to look to my medical team to tell me what to do next. However, they weren’t – they were just running more tests every three months. The fact that I could have an impact on my own cancer outside of the walls of the cancer center didn’t occur to me until I was several months out of treatment.
Through my professional training as a registered dietitian, I have come to understand at a deep level that there are incremental changes I can make in my diet and lifestyle that will reduce my risk of redeveloping cancer. These changes work through a variety of channels, including supporting my immune system, reducing chronic inflammation, and acting on cancer cells directly. These changes also boost my overall health and vitality, while allowing me to overcome my fear and thrive after cancer.
Sharing what I have learned
Over the ensuing years since my cancer diagnosis and treatment, I have returned to work as a dietitian, run a successful private practice, researched and written a best-selling book called, “The Essential Cancer Treatment Nutrition Guide and Cookbook,” and started a blog called Cancer Bites. I devoted my career to helping cancer survivors realize the power they have in their own disease. I also launched both one-on-one and group mentorship programs and my Thriving After Cancer Coaching and Support Program.
Yes, it really has proven to be a gift
Despite everything that happened to me during my bout with cancer – the fear, the pain, the worry, and all the side effects – I see my cancer as a gift. It has taught me to never take my health for granted again. I now live my life in a different way – a better way.
Even with my father’s cancer and death, there was a gift there too. I was able to communicate with my father in a way that had not been possible up until that point in our lives. In addition, I learned so much that I am now better equipped to help others.
As a professional, I have found my passion; in fact, it transcends a professional passion. I feel that I have found my purpose here on this earth. I firmly believe that I am here to help reduce the fear of cancer patients, caregivers, and the professionals that look after them, by shining a light on their path, helping to reduce their fear, and allowing them to see that they are not powerless.
Editor’s note: It's incredible that Jean is able to use her experience battling cancer to help so many others going through the same thing. What an inspiring story!
When I asked Jean for one tip for dietitians working with cancer patients this is what she said:
“Cancer patients are usually serving two masters -- they want to get their treatment side-effects under control and they want to eat in a way that reduces their risk. Sometimes, this means they cannot accomplish both goals at the same time. Let them know it's OK to temporarily set aside their long-term goal to eat a risk reduction diet in favour of the short-term goal of symptom management.”
Please share your thoughts, comments, and questions for Jean below.