No sooner had I written here about my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2017 than people began telling me about cures, usually in other countries but some that involved eating large portions of “good” foods while eliminating “bad” foods.
Even before pancreatic cancer raised its head in my life, I was a firm believer in the view that if there were a miracle cure for any given disease we would all know about it.
And so, within a day or two of the diagnosis, I determined that I would follow the instructions the doctors and nurses gave me. After all, they've been treating cancer patients for a whole lot longer than I had even thought much about it and although there cannot be promises, they know what has worked – and not – over time.
When I was recovered enough from the Whipple surgery two or three weeks later, the chief oncology nurse sat me down for a lesson in how I would need to eat from that point forward. It was my first test in believing what the medical experts tell me.
Until then, I had maintained a simple, healthy diet for a couple of decades: lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes, etc., a hefty portion of fish three or four times a week with a sweet treat (ice cream, a chocolate croissant) now and then.
The nurse explained my new diet that would include four-to-six small meals a day with the kinds of proteins and fats I had not eaten in many years. I objected. She insisted. I tried to explain some more and she cut in: “The cancer will kill you long before the diet will. So do as I say.”
Yes, ma'am. Of course she was right and her instructions, modified to expand my food choices as time passed, have served me well.
Then, this year, along comes COPD. Recently, there was a nutrition lecture in connection with the pulmonary rehab I attend twice a week and guess what? The nutrition advice doesn't match. How to eat to help make living with COPD easier is a lot closer to how I ate before pancreatic cancer than how I eat now.
What to do? What to do?
Well, all right – it's not that difficult. I'm adjusting the conflicts between the two diets and so far it is working well.
But it does reinforce the idea that we – you and I, patients in other words – need to be responsible for our own health practices. It was easy before the COPD was diagnosed and I had just one condition to be aware of. Now I need to balance the two.
Old people are much more likely to have several diseases or conditions that must be managed and one kind of doctor – an oncologist, for example - doesn't know a whole lot about COPD and vice versa.
So it is our job to bring up the questions and conflicts when they occur, and that reminds me:
We old folks are the number one experts on our own bodies. We each know how ours operates, how it feels when it is working well and when something is not right.
We know what kinds of pain or other discomforts occur and we have learned how to treat them with the help of our physicians. And we know when something is wrong enough to require a visit to the doctor.
Some of you undoubtedly think this is all elementary and obvious, that you have always lived this way in regard to your health. But it hasn't been so to me. Let me confess here and now that before the cancer diagnosis, I hardly ever saw a doctor. I often went four or five years, maybe more, between visits.
I was just lucky that hardly anything happened beyond a bad flu now and then.
It is only now, living with two serious diseases, that I have come to see that it is up to me in a much larger sense than I had thought about before, to manage my health, tapping the knowledge and expertise of the appropriate physicians when necessary.
Remember a week or two ago when I wrote about my mother's saying, “Too young we're old, too old we're wise?” This is a perfect example of it and instances of my ignorance are piling up fast recently.