Food Break Ups & How I Learned to Manage Chemo Side Effects

It was a nightly trip for me back in 2001. A few weeks into my treatments for stage III colon cancer, I could hardly keep anything down. Water tasted bad, and the sound of canned pears and peppermints, two tricks the oncology nurses thought would help battle nausea, made me want to throw up even more.

I couldn’t get the metallic taste of chemo out of my mouth, yet I desperately needed to eat.

Finally, of all things, a soft taco supreme from Taco Bell was put before me and a bite of it actually stayed down. I ended up eating the whole thing.

I repeated this daily for the next several weeks.

I wish I could accurately paint the shocking picture of my oncologist’s thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows lifting above the rim of his glasses at my next appointment when he learned of my new diet.

“Well, if it’s working for you right now, do what you need to do. It’s better to eat than not eat.”

Little did I know, I’d carry his advice not only into the remaining rounds of chemotherapy and radiation but into the decades of survivorship that lied ahead.

Teenage Goodbyes

I come from a Midwestern family where the first words out of my grandma’s mouth were, “Can I make you a sandwich or get you a Pepsi?” Food has, is, and always will be a big deal.

But after I underwent my first colon resection surgery, and then chemotherapy and pelvic radiation, my relationship with food soon changed.

My favorite creamy casserole at Thanksgiving, buttered popcorn at the movies, and a basket full of fries sent me running to the bathroom faster than a kid sliding down the stairs on Christmas morning. They were no longer comforts.

This was frustrating and sad, especially when my beloved soft tacos soon had the same effect. Although disappointed with my side effects, I coped with them the only way my 17-year-old self knew how to cope… I broke up with them.

I decided to avoid the foods that made me feel horrible. I focused instead on what I could eat, and the good that was to come.

Learning From My Younger Self

If there’s any advantage to facing cancer at such a young age, it’s the naivety and aloofness of a growing mind. As I’ve gotten older, breaking up with foods has continued to be a practice I need to undergo. I’m well into my survivorship and cancer-free; however, my body continually changes in what foods it can and cannot handle well. For example, anything greasy, creamy, nutty, and hearty is likely going to cause me struggles.

The tragic thing is that some of my favorite foods are deep-fried in traditions, chocolate-dipped in favorite memories, and smothered in yummy, creamy decadence. It’s not always easy to let these foods go or only take a few bites.

As depressing as it can be on some days, one trick that helps is channeling my younger self’s motto of “breaking up” with foods. A sense of empowerment comes when I choose to walk away and take my doctor’s advice – eat what works for me.

It may mean I no longer delve into the Thanksgiving table, or drive through Taco Bell, like I used to. But it does mean I get to have a say in eating what I like, and what makes me feel good. And if at any time my food starts to become a problem, it’s also up to me to choose to walk away.

Danielle Ripley-Burgess is a two-time colorectal cancer survivor who was first diagnosed at age 17 in 2001. Her personal story has been told around the world through numerous interviews and articles. She’s a contributing author to the Huffington Post blog and a published devotional author.

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