In February last year, a month before my wedding, the unthinkable happens. I am diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My acupuncturist, Sue Cheetham, finds a lump on a routine visit. It’s totally unexpected: at 42, I’m reasonably fit and healthy. As the news sinks in and I struggle to come to terms with what lies ahead, I wonder what I can do to give my body the best chance of responding to the treatment.
A week before the wedding, I’m in bed recovering from surgery to remove my thyroid gland. Following the wedding, I’ll receive radioactive iodine treatment and will have to go into solitary confinement for three weeks to protect people around me from my radioactive state. It’s not exactly the honeymoon I was hoping for. I look around for ways of mentally preparing myself for the treatment. Sue gives me a book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life by Dr David Servan-Schreiber, and I’m riveted.
Dr Servan-Schreiber was a neuroscientist who developed an interest in integrative medicine when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in his thirties (which, sadly, killed him in his forties). “All of us have cancer cells in our bodies. But not all of us will develop cancer,” he explains in the book, which was published three years ago and became a bestseller, before going on to describe theories about how certain factors can encourage cancer to take root. These include the typical Western diet, stress and lack of exercise. All of these are present in my life to some degree. I decide to tackle my diet and as I extend my research, one theme jumps out at me: sugar. I have a seriously sweet tooth and it may not be doing me any favours.
Where once it was fat that was considered the demon of our diets, now we’re turning our attention to sugar. The American endocrinologist and author, Dr Robert Lustig, who last year published a book called Fat Chance – the Bitter Truth About Sugar, calls it a “poison”, that is responsible for obesity, diabetes and all manner of other ills. Last month, one epidemiologist and government advisor even went so far as to say that “sugar is the new tobacco”.
Dr Servan-Schreiber’s book explains how glucose is the primary fuel for most of the cells in the body, including cancer cells. Eating sugar increases blood sugar levels, which in turn stimulates the release of insulin. He goes on to say that if we eat refined sugar regularly, insulin levels remain elevated, causing an increase in inflammation of the body’s tissue. Then, through a complex series of events, Dr Servan-Schreiber believed, the inflammation acts as fertiliser to the tumour cells, signalling them to multiply.
There are many who have questioned the science behind Dr Servan-Schreiber’s theories. But I’m not inclined to take any chances. I decide the sugar’s got to go. This is something I’d rather not tackle alone, so I contact a retreat I’ve heard about, Amchara in Somerset, where therapies such as juice fasting and colonic irrigation are employed to help people recharge their batteries, improve their health, or recover from illness. Its mission, it says, is to help people “change for good”, and this is what I want: sustainable change. They are not fazed by my quest to go sugar-free and have a varied programme to support me. In a few months’ time I will attend a 10-day detox programme. It won’t be cheap, but it sounds like just what I need.
But first, I meet with its naturopath, Rhaya Jordan, who listens to my situation, asks me about my sugar habits and calmly responds: “You’re describing typical addictive behaviour.” A sugar addict! I didn’t see that coming. The fact that I reach for sugar when I’m emotional or stressed means I am, in effect, using sugar as a drug. Serotonin is released when we eat sugar, giving us a happy feeling, and that’s what I’m after. She advises a total ban. This is a challenge. I miss the well-earned reward, the comforting consolation, the enjoyable treat and the quick energy fix. There’s a hole I can’t fill with carrot cake or a muesli bar. Without sugar, I feel tired, and must experience the emotions that I would usually stifle with a sugary serotonin hit. I find eating protein at breakfast curbs my physical cravings, but it doesn’t sever my emotional associations, which can still have me gasping for a sugar hit.
I feel self-conscious making this dramatic change. It seems an imposition on friends and family and I feel a real killjoy refusing sugary delights. But it’s when I’m declaring my new sugar-free status to a friend over lunch – and she suggests that I might want to hold off on the brown sauce – that I realise I’m still eating sugar hidden in processed foods.
Her observation begins the dispiriting process of checking everything for added sugar. It’s everywhere: yoghurt, bread, even the healthy seaweed snacks I’m smugly eating. I become a woman obsessed with ingredients, and find myself bamboozled by what “going sugar-free” actually means.
Dr Nyjon Eccles, a medical doctor working with Amchara, comes to the rescue. “The body needs glucose,” he explains. “It occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat, so we don’t need to add sugar. While refined sugar is arguably the most detrimental to our health, we’re not doing ourselves any favours by switching to a healthy alternative such as honey, thinking we can then eat as much as we like. We are not designed to eat large quantities of sugar.” I learn that our genes developed in an environment where one person consumed maybe 2kg of sugar per year. This increased by the 1830s to 5kg and rocketed to 50kg by the end of the 20th century.
Five months in and my emotions are more balanced, my energy has increased and my skin is clearer. But I’m still not 100 per cent sugar-free. While I’ve quit “using” it when stressed or emotional, I still like to indulge in a treat on special occasions. I attend a family wedding and, in the spirit of celebration, I give myself a day off. Well, I’m two ice-creams in and we haven’t had lunch yet, and when we do, I wolf down the dessert and wonder when they’re going to cut the cake. I’m like a child at a birthday party – once the sugar is in my system, I just want more. I leave the party with a doggie bag, filled with wedding cake. I feel sick but I can’t resist it. I’m shocked. Is this what addiction feels like?
In October, I head to my detox programme at Amchara’s country retreat in Somerset. I’ve signed up for a vegetable juice fast, optional daily colonics, yoga and meditation. To my surprise, I don’t feel hungry switching to the juice, but once my body goes into detox mode, I don’t feel so great. I feel heavy and listless and wonder why I’m putting myself through this. Then, after five days, my mood lifts and I have renewed vitality. I’m conscious of my energy in a new way. It’s life-affirming. I understand why religious traditions often include fasting; without being full of food, I am more sensitive to life itself.
When I introduce food near the end of my stay, my taste buds go into orbit. The butternut squash soup tastes out of this world. But after eating, my energy drops dramatically as my body digests the food. I’m learning that when it comes to energy, eating isn’t always the answer. To my surprise, salad tastes better to me than a brownie. Now that is new!
It’s while I’m at the programme that I receive the news that my cancer treatment has been successful. I am given the all-clear. I return home glowing with energy. I’ve realised that the feeling of happiness that I sought from eating sugar can equally be found in taking care of myself. I also find great alternatives to sugar such as cinnamon, vanilla powder and liquorice extract – they’re delicious, but not irresistibly so. I have a new creative flair in my cooking, appreciating new tastes. I walk past a patisserie and do a double take when I realise I haven’t had a “Mmm” moment as I look in the window.
I’m not a saint – and I can’t say what will happen at future weddings – but I’m satisfied with the progress I’ve made and trust there’s more to come. Life is sweet.
Rose Long is a certified health coach with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
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