My Story: Cancer, Nutrition, and the Mind-Body Link
For decades, the ketogenic diet—which shifts the body’s metabolism from burning glucose to burning fat, lowering blood sugar and insulin and resulting in a metabolic state known as ketosis—has been used to successfully manage pediatric epilepsy. And now, emerging research suggests that a ketogenic diet, in conjunction with conventional treatments, offers new hope for those coping with cancer and other serious diseases.
Take it from Patricia Daly, whose personal journey with cancer led her to follow a ketogenic diet alongside more traditional treatments, in order to cure her disease.
The following excerpt is from The Ketogenic Kitchen by Patricia Daly and Domini Kemp. It has been adapted for the web.
Patricia Daly – My Story
It was an ordinary morning in the office of the Bank of Ireland on a warm summer’s day in July 2008. Almost ordinary, I’d say, because I had this odd flickering in the corner of my right eye that seemed to be determined to stay there, day and night, even when I closed my eyes. Initially I didn’t give it much thought, but because I’d had some temporary loss of vision for a good while the previous evening, I finally decided to pick up the phone and call an optician.
When I described my symptoms to the assistant who answered, I was told to make my way to their practice immediately. I got a bit concerned because in Ireland, it can sometimes take forever to get a doctor’s, consultant’s or any appointment.
I left work and cycled over to the optician. Then everything happened very quickly. As soon as the optician looked at the back of my dilated eye, I knew something wasn’t right. Apparently, I had a detached retina that needed to be operated on immediately, which is why I was referred to one of the top ophthalmic surgeons in the country. A few hours later, I sat on a chair enduring more gruesome eye tests. Finally, I was told that yes, I did indeed have a detached retina, but that wasn’t all. It was detached because a large tumour was growing underneath it – a melanoma.
To be honest, at the time I was not very well versed in medical language and I didn’t realise straight away that I was dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I guess it was a mix of denial and ignorance.
Because my type of tumour was still very rare in Ireland at the time, I had to get treatment abroad. We travelled to Liverpool in the UK three weeks later, where I went through eye surgery twice within four days and had radiotherapy.
One of the key moments during this time – and probably one of the key moments in my life – was when I asked my consultant if there was anything I could do to recover from surgery and treatment, to feel better and to protect myself from a possible relapse. He looked at me with a mix of slight bemusement, pity and impatience. ‘No, there’s nothing you can do apart from taking it easy for a little while and then get back to your old life.’
Now, this answer totally piqued my curiosity. Did I really want to go back to the same lifestyle that had got me where I was now, with cancer at the age of 28? Don’t get me wrong – I was never filled with guilt and I never beat myself up that I had brought cancer upon myself or anything like that – but deep down I knew that it was time for a change.
This is when my journey started.
A journey of learning more about myself and of researching everything that had to do with cancer, nutrition, the mind–body link and other lifestyle aspects. So in a way, I thank my consultant for his answer because ultimately it pushed me into taking action myself.
Just four weeks after finishing my treatments, I started to study nutritional therapy. Initially this was with a view to supporting myself, but very quickly I realised that my life really had been turned upside down. I tried to go back to work in the bank about two weeks after returning from the UK, with disastrous results. Working on a computer screen for longer than 15 minutes proved to be impossible and resulted in vomiting and headaches
I had to seriously think about a new job that would take the pressure off my eyes and an office job didn’t seem to be the right choice any more. That’s when I started to study even harder – by recording all the study material so that I wouldn’t put any strain on my eye – because I felt that becoming a nutritional therapist wasn’t just a way to help myself, it was also an amazing opportunity to build a new career that I was genuinely passionate about.
About eight months after my treatments, I got pregnant and a beautiful baby girl was born in November 2009. My life was great: a new baby, a loving partner, we had just moved house and I had a new career perspective. But then my old symptoms returned; my baby was just two months old when I went for check-ups. I voiced my concerns over the flickering in my eye, the floaters and the fatigue, but the scans were clear and I thought it was probably just the tiredness that motherhood brings.
I left the hospital with a bad feeling that something was terribly wrong. At that stage, I was so in tune with my body that I knew I could trust myself more than a scan. And four months later, my worst nightmare came true: another set of scans confirmed that the tumour had doubled in size and was growing aggressively. I was shocked and a lot more shaken than when I had initially been diagnosed.
More surgery and strong external radiotherapy had to be performed immediately. I was told that because the tumour had moved so close to the optic nerve, I would lose the sight in my right eye within 12 to 18 months of finishing treatments.
I went through radiotherapy while feeding my six-month-old baby and everything felt like defeat. Although I had worked hard, educated myself and had made a lot of lifestyle changes, I found myself in the same place as I had been 18 months before, but this time with a baby in tow.
I felt that I had done everything I could, including dietary adjustments. My diet was full of healthy whole grains, lots of fruit and vegetables, juices and smoothies; I ate oily fish and hardly any meat; and I had replaced all sugars in my treats with dried fruit.
In April 2012, when my second baby was eight months old, I was struggling with a lot of side effects from the radiotherapy and surgery. I had developed radiotherapy-related retinopathy and there was lots of swelling in the eye. On top of everything else, I had to learn to adjust to major sight loss. My consultant told me that I was at risk of developing more serious conditions and eventually losing my eye itself, not just the sight. The one option I had was to try Avastin injections to stop excessive blood vessel growth, and if that didn’t work, we’d have to consider removing the eyeball.
But I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet.
I asked for a grace period of a few weeks and went back to researching more frantically than ever. And this is when I came across the emerging concept of cancer as a metabolic disease. I read studies conducted by a German researcher, Dr Johannes Coy, showing that most cancer cells rely heavily on glucose for generating energy and promoting growth. The suggested therapy to cut off this constant supply of sugar to the tumour was a radical dietary change: adopting a so-called ketogenic diet.
It sounded very counterintuitive to me initially: I had to start cutting down on carbohydrates. I’m not just talking about white pasta, bread, rice, cakes and biscuits. This also included whole and gluten-free grains like my beloved millet, quinoa or buckwheat. To compensate, I had to increase my fat intake drastically to 75–80% of total daily calorie intake. I started to eat avocados, olives, oily fish, duck and other fatty meats, and treats made with coconut oil and cacao butter. Getting my head around it wasn’t easy in the initial stages, even though I was almost a fully qualified nutritional therapist at that stage.
I had nothing to lose.
According to studies, it was safe to follow a diet that had been used for epileptic patients for a long time, and if it didn’t have any effects, at least I could reassure myself that I had tried everything to save my eye.
Admittedly, at the beginning it felt really odd to eat that much fat after being ‘low- fat’ for all my life, especially saturated animal fat; thank goodness this myth has been largely debunked, along with many others. For me, turning the food pyramid upside down (with the very top chopped off, of course) was radical, but the results were astonishing. At my next check-up a few weeks later, my consultant said that the inside of my eye looked like ‘the calm after a big storm’. My eyesight had also started to come back. He said that if this development continued, I might move myself out of the danger zone and could possibly save my eye.
Ever since then, my eye has been stable. Five years after treatment, I still have my eyesight and I’ve regained my health in general. My energy is great and my digestion and hormones have finally settled, which makes my skin glow. And my tumour hasn’t grown back.
In the past two years, I’ve guided many cancer patients through the implementation of a ketogenic diet. The nutrition world is changing fast, governments are finally starting to change their food pyramids and oncologists are now getting interested in how nutrition can support their work.
Although research into nutrition is and will remain challenging, I’m hopeful that we will get more and more clear on how to use food as an invaluable tool in the support of cancer patients and people affected by chronic illness in general.
I’m a big fan of using evidence-based information and I research everything before making recommendations. But there is one big lesson that I’ve learned on my journey: despite all the modern technology and science, we mustn’t forget our own inner wisdom and intuition. I will never forget the day when all my scans were clear but my inner voice told me that my tumour was growing again. A client of mine who had a similar experience couldn’t have said it better: ‘My oncologist is a body of knowledge, but I have knowledge of my body.’
It is now my greatest passion – and privilege – to support and guide clients on how to safely combine science with their own intuition and experience so they can become as healthy as possible, whether or not they are living with cancer. And it is my hope that this book will inspire many of you to become as healthy as you can be, too.
– Patricia Daly 2016
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