I didn’t meet with much resistance when I didn’t eat my vegetables as a boy growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, and that’s how my food revolution began. Come to think of it, I don’t recall being told that Twinkies, Ding Dongs, or Doritos would spoil my dinner for that matter, or that food would one day almost kill me then save my life.
Like all growing boys, I could devour a dozen chocolate cookies with the best of them, and still have room for dessert… errr, I mean dinner, then yes, dessert afterward. What’s the harm, anyway? Growing boys are like little furnaces, constantly in need of fuel.
When I was a kid, we had a day of the week for everything. There was meatloaf night, chicken night, chicken soup night (that logically followed chicken night), hamburger night, then of course Hamburger Helper night, and sometimes Tuna Helper night. There were typically copious amounts of potatoes or Kraft Macaroni & Cheese served along side the meat with the dreaded vegetables. The Green Giant was a very familiar face around my house; the pantry was an arsenal of canned vegetables and freeze dried dinners in boxes.
Looking back, I realize that the only thing that’s green in canned vegetables is the label. In general, my meals were drab, beige, gray, muted and colorless. I don’t think the term, “eat the rainbow” had yet been invented, and no one ever told me that red fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of prostate cancer, lower blood pressure, reduce tumor growth and LDL cholesterol. This was only the beginning of the food revolution, and I was about to engage in a fight for my life.
I had no idea that yellow and orange provide beta-carotene, lycopene, potassium, vitamin C, while reducing cholesterol and blood pressure, or that those disgusting green vegetables and fruits would fuel my body with much needed fiber, calcium, and beta-carotene while reducing the risk of cancer and boosting my immune system.
And, I certainly had no clue that blue and purple fruits and vegetables support retinal health, fight inflammation, and act as anticarcinogens in my digestive tract. Little did I know that the severe lack of white fruits and vegetables in my diet could leave me vulnerable to colon and prostate cancer.
I could sometimes tolerate some canned peas or corn, but I’d absolutely refuse anything else. Don’t get me wrong, there was no actual refusal to eat. I didn’t take a stand and turn my nose up, and I never actually verbalized that I didn’t want something. There were no options – no questions asked. Meals were served, and I was expected to eat what was served – all of it. We were all keenly aware of the repercussions, otherwise.
Of course, as any normal red-blooded American boy knows, there are numerous ways to avoid eating something, if you set your mind to it. The cushion on my chair at the dining room table became a safe-haven where undesirable food would be discretely tucked away until further notice. One night at the dinner table, as I fidgeted around, I discovered a loose thread under the cushion, and began pulling at it. The seam eventually gave way to my poking and prodding, exposing a secret opening where anything I didn’t want to eat would be covertly stored.
Chicken, fish, green beans, or anything else that I didn’t fancy found its way to the cushion. It became my confidante, and I could trust in its silence. Once, I even managed to stuff an entire pork chop into that poor, abused cushion. Eventually, the inevitable happened. I grew up and moved out.
You probably thought I’d say I was caught and force-fed vegetables, or that I was locked in the boiler room for three days. No, I got away with it. I got away with eating junk food and sugar, and stuffing food into a cushion.
I was always active. Back then, we didn’t spend hours in front of the television or playing video games. We didn’t have PC’s, DVD’s (or even video tapes), and movies were shown in theaters. We had forts, go-carts, bicycles, Big Wheels, and trees to climb. I’ll never forget the sound of my mother’s voice, as she’d yell from the kitchen window or back porch for us to come in for dinner. This was the routine.
As I grew up, I discovered sports. I looked like a healthy young man, and nothing told me or anyone else that I wasn’t. I didn’t become aware that I had high cholesterol until a check-up by a U.S. Air Force physician when I was 20 years old.
Vegetables were not a part of my life, and I was completely fine with that. In fact, I was proud of it. I made jokes about it, and grimaced at the thought of putting something like broccoli in my mouth.
It was nearly 25 years ago when I realized that I hadn’t fed myself properly for 20 years and I was seeing the result. Shortly after I left the Air Force, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and high blood pressure. The years of carbs and sugar were slowly taking their toll, and I hadn’t realized that was just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t think it was serious. After all, my girlfriend thought that my little pot belly was cute, and didn’t seem to mind the love handles. I didn’t feel sick, and I convinced myself that I just needed to get active again – like I was when I was a kid.
I hit the gym, I played sports on leagues, I hiked, climbed on giant boulders, I took up boxing, and ultimately became an active outdoors-man. I was feeling good about my life. I became more aware of what I was eating, and felt healthy and I looked healthy. My meals became a colorful, flavorful medley of meat and vegetables, and I virtually cut the sugar out. My Diabetes was well under control and I was more active than I had ever been. By my thirties, I had taken up long-distance cycling.
By age 38, I had long completed my education, and was well into a highly successful career. I remained active through my thirties, and enjoyed a very jubilant social life. I had just completed a cycling road trip from San Francisco to Big Sur and felt like I was on top of the world. At first, I thought the dull aching in my lower abdomen was just something I had eaten on my trip. After a few days, the dull pain became a throbbing pain, then a stabbing pain accompanied by fever, fatigue, dizziness and a loss of appetite.
Years of primarily red meat in my diet and very few vegetables for more than 20 years, combined with heavy doses of starch and sugars took a toll on my body. The last words I expected to hear from my doctor were, ” it’s irreversible.” And, when he said I had colon cancer, I finally understood the definition of the word, “surreal.” In fact, nothing seemed real at that moment at all, and I literally thought that I may just be dreaming.
First and foremost, I was healthy and fit. And, I was far too young for something like colon cancer. There had to be a mistake.
If a lack of vegetables and an abundance of red meat, starch and sugar is bad for us, why is it all available in such abundance? It tastes great and I didn’t feel bad when I ate it, so how can it possibly be bad? I tried to reason with my doctor, “I was just a kid. There’s no way I could have known I needed to eat the broccoli that I stuffed in the cushion… come on, give me a chance… it was funny, doc. I didn’t mean any harm.” I negotiated with him as if it were his decision for me to have cancer.
He tried to save my colon. He really did. He worked with me for more than a year, attempting this treatment or that… radiation, chemotherapy, and a combination of both. I became as notable in his practice as any of the regular staff. The inevitable happened, though, and I found myself in his office one last time when he broke the news to me; it was time for surgery.
My surgeon removed my sigmoid colon – the last part of the colon, which connects the descending colon to the rectum. Post-surgery, diet became the most important factor in my life. I knew that I had already done significant damage to my body, but I was given a second chance.
My life returned to a normal course over the next year, and I continued a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Despite my efforts and successful surgery, though the cancer metastasized and spread to my lungs. I was on business in Switzerland when I was overcome with a high fever.
I hadn’t been feeling myself for a few days, but thought it was just jet lag and a hectic travel schedule. I returned home to San Francisco with severe fever and fatigue. Two days later, I collapsed in the living room of my apartment and was rushed to the hospital. The oxygen saturation in my blood had dropped to a critically low level, and I was barely breathing.
I spent the next two months living in a controlled environment room. I still remember vividly the “whoosh” sound of the doors, and thought they sounded like something from Star Trek. And, again I was confronted with a reality that I thought I had long overcome. After dealing with the cold, harsh reality of news of colon cancer a year prior, the last thing I expected was devastating news.
This time it was far worse. This time, it wasn’t improving, and this time there didn’t appear to be a way out.
“You need to understand how serious this is,” the doctor said. He stood to the left of my bed, several feet away. A distant, labored look of concern or fear dashed his face. I did understand. Of course this was serious. I was laying in a controlled environment chamber with eight colorful bags of liquids connected to my IV’s. “You need to prepare an Advance Directive. Do you have a Will?”
Do I have a Will?
If you’ve never been in a situation where a doctor tells you that you are going to die, I hope that you never are. I was severely malnourished and underweight. My body had completely shut down and wasn’t absorbing any nutrients. In essence, my immune system stopped, and my 114 pound body was succumbing to cancer.
I fought back. I refused. Having fought once before and won, I wasn’t about to allow this to happen to me. I gave it everything I had. I could write a book about those two months in my own little Star Trek. I was the captain on the bridge, and I’d surely find some evasive maneuver to steer my ship out of this pinch. And I did. I worked with my doctor and refused to give up. Eventually my body responded and I gained half a pound.
The entire nurse staff on the floor came to my room to give me the news. See, they had become my family.
Eventually, of course I left the hospital and I’ve recovered. Yes, there are still a lot of risks and possibilities ahead, but for the time being, I’m OK. That’s not the end of the story, though. In fact, it’s somewhat the beginning. It’s the start of an entirely new chapter.
With my extremely challenging recovery came an extreme weight gain. Sure, in the beginning it was highly celebrated. I was even cautioned to “go with the flow” and not worry about gaining too much weight. The last thing I needed was to lose any weight.
I gained 20 pounds, then another 20 pounds, then another 50 pounds, then another 75 pounds. Earlier this year, my doctor told me that my diabetes is out of control, my cholesterol and blood pressure are high, and I’m at risk for heart, liver and kidney diseases. “We’ve got to do something about your weight,” he said.
Music to my ears! So since mid-April, I’ve worked closely with a health coach at Take Shape for Life, a program for healthy living that begins with changes in eating and ends with habits of health—healthy eating, healthy activity, and healthy sleep. My health coach, Sherry Brown is helping me to not only get my weight under control, but to live a healthier life.
I’m eating six meals per day, including five medically formulated, nutritious meal replacements made by Medifast, and a “lean and green” meal that I make at home or eat at a restaurant or food truck. The lean and green meal consists of anything you’d expect – 5-7 ounces of lean protein and three servings of low-glycemic vegetables, and I’ve lost 56 pounds. I’ve got energy, I feel better, the aches and pains are gone, and I’m a few waist sizes smaller.
Of course, I’m not finished yet, and I’ll need to continue working with my health coach, Sherry along with my doctor, but the good news is it doesn’t look like I’m destined for a hospital bed (or casket) anytime soon. People who are close to me who have seen first hand what I’ve been through these last few years tell me that I’m an inspiration. They ask if I have any regrets in life, or do I appreciate life more now than I did before any of this happened.
The answer is quite simple and nothing has ever been more crystal clear to me. I was forever changed by this experience – in good and bad ways – and I will never look at life the same way again. Yes, I certainly have regrets. I do regret my poor diet as a child that stayed with me until young adulthood. I wish I would have known or been taught the value of a proper diet. I appreciate all aspects of life in a way I can’t describe now. And I appreciate food – I appreciate it in a way I never thought possible.
Behind this blog is this story. I developed a passion for food years ago, and I’ve developed a discerning palate along the way. But I really came to an understanding of the psychological, emotional, and physical relationship I have with food after going through this experience.
That is something I will cherish for as many years that I can remain on this earth. I am very grateful for my doctor, my health coach and the Take Shape for Life program that’s truly helping me to live a better life, and for the first time in several years, I’m very optimistic and excited about the next chapter.
Here’s to good health and good eating.