Some years ago, I was in a luxurious hotel room in Beverly Hills, glancing at sun speckles dancing on the wall, remembering how good it felt to read a book and slide comfortably into an afternoon nap. My husband and I were enjoying a long-awaited and much-deserved long weekend to celebrate his birthday—an event that had gradually evolved into an annual opportunity to get away from our lives to relax and reset.
As I settled myself in to nap, I moved the book, brushing against an odd spot on my chest. It was definitely a lump. I wanted to doubt the accuracy of my clinical skills, but I could not. The odds were high it was cancer.
The next steps.
Back in Boston, I was diagnosed within seven days. That week was a whirlwind of tests and appointments that flew by at lightning speed. I felt blessed for having access to some of the best medical care in the world. Despite immense support from colleagues and friends, for the first time in my life I was facing something I had not anticipated. No one wakes up thinking it might be the day they get cancer, and I felt completely helpless.
I kept thinking about what I might have done wrong, but my strong Hindu roots helped me reframe my situation. As my grandmother and mother had taught me growing up: “This is part of the karma you must face. Approach and handle it with grace, have faith in God, and it will all be OK.” While my family and I were all devastated and in tears, those words still rang true.
Even so, I struggled to work through my emotions. My professional training as a psychiatrist didn’t make it any easier to master the roil of feelings that swirled through my brain. For the first time in my life as a doctor, I could not control the outcome of this disease.
This cancer was out of my hands. I could do nothing but stretch out my forearm for blood tests and know that soon I would be doing the same for the massive IV bolus treatments of chemotherapy. I went from feeling desperate and panicked to feeling like my emotions were suspended. There was no laughter or tears, no fear, or joy. There was only a bone-chilling numbness. Advertisement
How my diet helped me cope, physically.
As I got up the morning of my first treatment, I decided I should have a calming cup of turmeric tea. I kept replaying how life had instantly taken a 180-degree turn. I was nervous, afraid, and trying to be brave. I knew intimately all the traumatic side effects I might face, even if my treatment was ultimately successful. Yet something about turning the switch on the electric tea kettle metaphorically set off that light bulb in my head: “I know how to cook, I know about my body, and I can help myself through how I eat.”
That may seem like an elementary conclusion for a nutritional psychiatrist to reach, but it’s quite different to be the patient than to be the clinician, especially since I had always been lucky enough to be healthy. In that moment, I resolved to take care of my mind and body through eating healthy food—no matter what the cancer threw at me.
The next 16 months was an intense cycle of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. During each chemotherapy appointment, the oncology fellow I worked with asked what I brought to eat that day. I would pull out my lunch bag with a nutrient-dense smoothie made from probiotic-rich yogurt, berries, almond milk, kefir, and cacao.
Because of how I ate, I was never nauseous. My appetite increased and decreases as a side effect of medications, which made my weight fluctuate. However, I continued to eat food I loved, even when medication changed their flavor.
Through all of this oncologic assault on my body, I felt surprisingly healthy. The food I ate helped me maintain energy, even though I should have been drained from the constant round of treatments.
How my diet helped me cope, emotionally.
It was admittedly a greater challenge to stay on top of my mental health, but once again, the food I ate was crucial to keeping an even keel and positive emotional outlook.
I cut back on coffee and gave up wine. I ate fresh fruit that I washed, cleaned, and prepared at home. I made soothing high-protein, high-fiber Indian lentil soups (dal) loaded with folate-rich spinach. I made a delicious hot chocolate from scratch once a week as a treat on Thursday nights, giving me something to look forward to after treatments.
I was careful to make smart food choices that were not loaded with unhealthy calories. Fatigue prevented me from working out, so I chose to take brisk walks regularly. These walks also uplifted my mood (exercise does raise endorphins).
I ate to lower my anxiety around weekly Thursday chemo treatments and to help lift my mood when the dark, wintry days closed in on me.
The same recommendations I made to my patients were not bolstering my health, and that gave me strength. I had to test myself to see if these strategies could quell my anxiety, soothe me to sleep, and lift my mood. I was not sure I would be a success story, but I felt I owed it to my patients and to myself to give my own treatment plan a real fighting chance.
I have now completed treatment, my hair is back, and I walk through each day hoping to reach remission while remembering that what I eat truly affects how I feel.