It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I lost my brother-in-law, Craig. Craig actually hadn’t married my sister yet, but they were engaged to be married and we’d spent enough time with him to be “family” to me. Craig was one of these guys you immediately liked. He had a hearty laugh, a whip-smart sense of humor and knew his way around the kitchen. He got his greatest joy from cooking, eating, traveling and talking about food and beer, which makes the type of cancer he had all the more cruel.
Craig was diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 intestinal cancer in the winter of 2016. He never told us what stage he had, but I knew it was bad when he told me he would do the chemo, knowing it was palliative only. For a while, you’d never know he was sick. While I didn’t see him daily (he lived in Youngstown with my sister), he’d email or FB message me about his treatments. I felt a special bond to him at this time since he trusted me with medical and nutritional questions given my previous employment in critical care. He told me when he’d felt tired or lacked energy, but he never lost his hair and didn’t start losing weight for several months.
He spent the last 6 months of his life like anyone dying should. He and my sister traveled where they could, visited his sons in Chicago and Pittsburgh and came down to see my family over the 4th of July holiday. It was then when I realized how sick he was. He’d lost a LOT of weight and was unable to eat much of anything. I wanted so badly to show him one last taste of Cincinnati- Findlay Market, Terry’s Turf Club, Madtree Brewing- and we did all of it. He was such a good sport, despite not being able to eat and drink as much as he’d used to. I’m so grateful for that last visit with him.
Craig eventually needed to go on IV nutrition because the cancer had grown too much, he’d lost a lot of weight and his digestion was severely affected. He and my sister relied on me for information as I used to advise doctors on how to order IV nutrition when I worked in a hospital. I knew he was really malnourished and that his gut function would likely not come back. I last saw him on Sunday, October 1. He was weak, nauseous and exhausted. Sadly, he committed suicide October 2. I look back and wonder what I could have done to help him. Could I have suggested Hospice sooner? Could we have talked about his pain control more? It’s heart breaking to know this is how his life ended and that my sister had to find him this way. We are still processing it. Never take family for granted.
So while this post was NOT very diet-related, here are a few tips to protect your gut:
- Get a colonoscopy if you’ve got a family history of cancer or when you turn 50. Yes, the prep is a “pain in the ass”, but having colon cancer is much worse. Pay attention to changes in stool habits- constipation, abdominal pain, diarrhea, etc.
- Eat more plants. Fiber is really on your side here. Based meals around more vegetables and fruit- especially dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Eat berries, apples, pears and melon for fiber and cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
- Eat whole grains. Research is finding that younger people are developing GI cancers sooner and there is question if it’s related to the “anti-carb” phase that’s so popular. What most people don’t realize is that whole grains are protective against disease. Choose steel cut oats, 100% whole wheat bread, bran cereal and shredded wheat, bulgur, quinoa, barley, brown rice, farro in place of processed grains.
- Limit alcohol. We all love a good beer or glass of wine, but excessive alcohol consumption is linked with several types of cancer. Be moderate- one drink/day (or less) for women and two or less per day for men.
- Limit red meat and avoid processed meats. Consumption of beef, pork, lamb, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, brats and mets are linked with increased risk of colon and other gastrointestinal cancers. Enjoy fish and chicken as well as meat-less protein sources such as beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh or other vegetable-based foods.
- Stay active. Regular exercise may help you lose unwanted pounds, which in turn helps reduce your risk of cancer. Exercise also improves immunity to prevent disease.