Real people: What will save me from cancer now?
Sunday 24 January 1999
There is a photograph of her, taken soon after, in our family album. Her skin is pulled taut over her skeletal frame, her cheeks are hollow and there are dark circles around her eyes. At the time, she weighed just four stone. I am at the front of the picture on my grandfather's knee. My rolls of baby fat look obscene in contrast to my mother's emaciated form. Twenty-eight years later, I now know that she was lucky to be alive.
Soon after the photograph was taken, she was rushed into hospital. Her problems had begun when she was eight months pregnant with me: she started passing blood. Doctors told her she probably had piles but one week before her 30th birthday she slipped into a coma. By the time they operated, her whole intestine had swollen up like a balloon.
Before she became ill, my mother was a glamorous, vivacious woman with two young children. When she woke up from her coma, she discovered that half her intestine had been cut out along with the whole of her bowel. For the rest of her life, she would have to cope with the indignity of wearing an ileostomy bag.
Her experience has bred in me a phobia of illness but it has also emphasised the importance of healthy eating as a serious issue, not something to be treated flippantly. The fear that I might develop the same illness is always with me. Ulcerative colitis is not hereditary but there is a risk that the children of a sufferer are likely to be predisposed to developing the disease. As soon as I have had any symptoms akin to my mother's I have headed for the doctor.
Once I spent eight hours in a hospital casualty ward because I was convinced that I was suffering from the onset of the disease. A check-up by the hospital doctor, followed by a visit to a specialist, put my mind at rest. The reason I was passing blood was because I had swallowed a piece of scratchy lobster shell.
So when my doctor said I would develop bowel cancer by the time I was 50 unless I added more fibre to my diet, I responded immediately. Part of his advice was to start eating vast quantities of All-Bran for breakfast, a meal I despised and had avoided until now. He also told me to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and to drink at least three litres of water. I complied out of fear.
By the time I got home from his surgery, I had already bought a box of All-Bran - in fact there is a half-eaten bag still sitting on my desk. I was reduced to eating raw spinach and vast quantities of vegetables, a miserable regime but I did it because I felt reassured that it would help guarantee me a long life without cancer.
This latest research, that roughage may be no protection from this disease, comes as something of a body blow. Doubt has crept in once again - what is the best for my health? The only conclusion I can draw is that there are no guarantees about preventing cancer. From now on I will exercise common sense in what I eat but I won't go to extremes. I can only hope that I do not die before I get old.
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