Thursday, July 17, 2014

SLOing Down and Fattening Up

What is the antidote to chemo? Hedonism. Pure, unadulterated pleasure-seeking. And in that, I am finding SLO county to be the perfect stomping ground, launch pad, and co-conspirator.

Since the move, I have experienced a profound physical change. The irony was not lost on me that to achieve a new, less stressful and more restorative lifestyle by moving to Morro Bay, I had to pass through one of the most stressful periods of my life—Micah transitioning from a high-profile job, getting a house sold, moving a family of four, uprooting from community, getting the kids through the last of the school year—all while suffering the rigors of treatment and investigating new experimental protocols….it was a wild ride. It really can’t be any surprise that I would not be able to get through the wash-out period for the trial I wanted to participate in—I was soldiering through, checking down my to-do lists, but the bearing down, resolute, getting-things-done posture is not really the way to get your health back on track. In addition to everything else, I experienced an inadvertent and rapid weight loss. Um, bad sign.

Doctor’s prescription: eat cheesecake. First I did a double-take (“Wha…that is NOT what I was expecting you to say!”) but then I didn’t need much convincing (see my previous post, “Why I’m Not Giving Up Dessert” and then double-down on that). Sudden weight loss in cancer patients can be a supremely bad sign: called cachexia, this wasting syndrome robs patients of energy and muscle mass and directly leads to up to one-third of cancer deaths. Eat cheesecake? You got it.

Waking up in our new house in Morro Bay, you can see the ocean. From bed. As soon as the move was complete, I felt physically transformed. Not merely the effect of a new treatment, but also because the burden of stress was gone. No more deadlines, no more traffic jams, no more parking headaches. My body settled and released. Thus commenced the hedonism.

At first, my program of eating to my heart’s content was disrupted by one of the first side-effects of the new chemo: mouth sensitivity and taste changes. Couldn’t eat anything spicy or crunchy or acidic. Strawberries tasted like metal. Cheese tasted like chalk. Lots of things hurt to eat. So I started focusing on texture, alternating between healthy delights like avocado-cucumber gazpacho and indulgent treats like Jello Chocolate Pudding—something I hadn’t put in my mouth in thirty years, but that satisfied a intense nostalgia from when I was a kid. And I took Theo to the supermarket and let him pick out five different ice-cream flavors to store in our freezer.

Around here, there is a farmers’ market in one of the surrounding towns every day of the week. If you miss it, you can still stop in at Dot’s farm stand and U-pick on your way home and grab some green beans, corn, or strawberries. Cal Poly has groves of peaches falling off the trees. Our days started to revolve around meal planning: I would start with huevos rancheros or a really custardy French toast, and by the time I was sopping up the last syrup, I would already be planning the gooey cheese on baguettes and watermelon-feta salad for lunch—or the chocolate mousse I’d need to chill for after dinner.

After two weeks of probably doubling my calorie intake each day, I saw a nutritionist at Stanford. I had “only” lost one pound. She told me to start adding avocado, sour cream, nut butters, and coconut oil to everything I could. Still more fat! Well, OK, if you say so.

I have never been a dieter or a calorie counter. I spent way too much time in France to ever go for the nonfat versions of anything. But I have for sure been dedicated to healthy eating, whole foods, home cooking for a couple decades now. And yet it is surprising to see what it’s like to really lift the bar and gorge. You take a step back and see all your prejudices (both good and bad) in a new light.

All of this eating has been accompanied by tons of fresh air and outdoor activity. Luckily, the beauty and the weather here just pulls you outside. Our place is located on a State Park and I walk or hike every day. Yoga, swimming—my energy and endurance have been steadily building.

And now I can report that I’m back up to my fighting weight. Hooray! But that doesn’t mean my renewed food obsession has gone away. My mouth is better now. I can crunch on the mushroom-leek tartines we made last night and savor the sweetness in the peaches. My mom offered us her ice-cream maker and for a second I hesitated (“another appliance?”) but only for a second. Think of the flavors we’ll make with the fruit around here! Raspberries are just around the corner.

They say San Luis Obispo is one of the “happiest” places to live in the U.S. This comes from a study by Dan Buettner, in his book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, where he identifies cities in the world with the highest quality of life. I don’t want to overplay this Oprah-endorsed, Tourist-Board-wet-dream sloganeering, but I do have to say that the man has a point. Perfect climate + no commute + natural beauty + food and wine galore + nice people = if not nirvana, at least rejuvenation. I’m certainly feeling it.

And if you come to visit, we’ll definitely fatten you up. The ice-cream machine is at the ready.


  1. Like your earlier posts, this one is delicious. Like ice cream.

  2. Erin, I am thinking of you and your family so often these days. I want you to know how much your writing has meant to me. Your words about post-traumatic growth in particular offered insights that I needed to hear, and made a difference to me. You occupy a special place in the world, Erin, and your gifts to others, like ripples in a pond, extend further than you probably know.