Had enough of cancer, urine and assorted penis facts for now? Good, let’s talk about food!
I doubt I’ll ever know for sure the exact role my particular diet played in cancer’s attack on my prostate gland. But scientists do know that what we eat and drink is linked to the development of disease in many of the body’s organs, even if they don’t know exactly how.
So while I’m not going to waste any time regretting bad habits of the past, I will be very mindful of that connection as I move forward.
A session with a nutritionist and a bunch of books convinced me that food can play a role in my fight against cancer. After all, if certain foods had created a cozy environment in my body for cancer to flourish, it could only help me to stop eating them. Further, other foods might actively rally my good cells for the battle against the evil ones.
Within a few days of my diagnosis, I started making radical changes in my diet. That's not as difficult as it sounds. In fact, it has been a rather fun distraction, and it feels like the single most self-empowering thing I have accomplished in this entire journey.
When I learned I had cancer, I wanted to do something. I immediately pored over books and Web sites on prostate cancer, becoming as well-informed as I could, but it didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything to help my cause. With every book I read, those cancer cells kept right on multiplying. I spent a lot of time agonizing over what treatment option I would choose, which added to the feelings of inertia. Once I realized that a change in diet was something I could do immediately, all by myself, I felt like I was finally taking positive steps toward a cure.
I won't bore you with the detailed lessons in nutrition I delved into, but the general theme isn't exactly breaking news: Eat your fruits and vegetables, especially those high in antioxidants; cut animal fats; bulk up on whole grains; get enough protein.
When it comes to prostate cancer, the advice gets more specific, some of it based on differences in cancer rates among ethnic groups. For instance, men from Asian countries have a much lower incidence of prostate cancer than men from Western nations. But when Asian men adopt typical Western diets, generally as the result of moving here, their rate of prostate cancer goes up. Researchers theorize that native Asian diets, low in animal fats and high in soy products, are the reason. Fat has long been suspected as a possible cause of many cancers, while the isoflavones in soy are thought to fight or possibly prevent them.
By some standards, my old habits weren't all that bad. I was always a vegetable eater and my regular lunch for years had included a piled-high plate from the cafeteria salad bar. I never had much of a sweet tooth, but I had recently acquired a fondness for ice cream. And I had begun to indulge more in the cookies, doughnuts and such that are a fixture in any newsroom.
Food, glorious food!
But my real downfall was the conspiracy of fat and chemicals that bring gastronomical joy to life, the mellifluous harmonies of meat, cheese, salt, hydrogenated oil and MSG that make taste buds sing like Oliver Twist in the workhouse. Fried chicken and New York steaks! Gorgonzola and camembert! Pizza! Prime rib! Biscuits and gravy! Nacho cheese chips! And downfall of all downfalls: sausage! Sausage in any size, shape or form, from the plump pork links I ate nearly every morning to corndogs slathered in Chinese mustard to the most exquisitely seasoned Italian delights served over polenta in Seattle’s finest bistros. Food, glorious food!
But somehow, after hearing the word "cancer," these foods weren't that hard to give up. As someone who has kicked both smoking and drinking, quitting beef, pork, eggs, dairy, refined sugar and most oils and prepared snack foods wasn't all that difficult.
I realize that's far more drastic than many doctors would advise. But I've always been an all-or-nothing kind of person. So I invented my own modified version of a macrobiotic diet.
My goal is to have whole grains, fruits and vegetables provide about 75 percent of my daily food intake. Legumes, including soy products, provide another 10 to 15 percent. Small amounts of fish, poultry, nuts and juice make up the rest.
What does that look like? I eat a lot of salad, usually with spinach and romaine for the greens and olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dressing. I hit the broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts hard because, as cruciferous vegetables, they are believed to have special cancer-fighting powers. Tomato-based sauces and juices are also high on my list because they contain lycopene, which is thought to be another key anti-cancer chemical.
For grains, it’s mostly brown rice, bulgur wheat, barley and whole-grain pastas. From legumes, I make vegetarian chili, lentil soup, or I just eat plain black beans wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas.
I eat a lot of blueberries, which are very high in antioxidants, bananas and melon. My fish intake is almost exclusively wild salmon and the Pacific Northwest is a good place for that. For poultry, I stick to skinless white meat. I use only olive oil.
It’s hard for me to tell if my new diet is giving me more energy, because I always had plenty, but I feel great. Shopping at the organic grocery store near my home has become a new hobby of sorts. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, so I’m also having a lot of fun making up my own recipes for tabbouleh, stuffed cabbage and so forth. When in doubt, dump marinara sauce on everything — organic, of course.
Two other new additions to my diet are pomegranate juice and green tea. Recent, albeit still preliminary, studies have shown that pomegranate juice may significantly slow the rate of prostate cancer’s growth.
Even though I am hopeful that my surgeon and his robot got all the cancer out of my body, I am still following the regimen used by patients in those studies: an 8-ounce glass of 100 percent pomegranate juice each day. While studies about the possible benefits of green tea seem to contradict each other, it's very high in antioxidants so I am subbing it for most of the coffee I used to drink.
Since I stopped eating all the other stuff, I’ve only once had a true moment of longing for something that wasn’t on my list. At a recent barbecue, my boss served up the most tantalizing grilled brats that I have ever seen. But I quickly grabbed a big bowl of delicious, healthier shrimp etouffee instead.
Now, not next year
I think that experience shows how much motivation the C-word has pumped into me. Before I had cancer, I never would have passed on those brats.
For much of my adult life, I have wanted to eat healthier and trim my weight, but there has always been tomorrow, next week, next year. Now it seems like eating better is perhaps a much more important step toward getting to next year instead of something to do once I’m there.
On top of making me feel like I have taken personal charge of my own cancer fight, my dietary shift has had another positive benefit. Without any attempt to eat less, I lost 18 pounds between the time I was diagnosed and had surgery. I’m looking forward to roping up at my new weight as soon as the doc gives me clearance to climb another mountain.
MSNBC.com writer Mike Stuckey was diagnosed with prostate cancer in April. He is chronicling his battle in "Low Blow," a series appearing every other Wednesday.