93. Always Read the Label

I’ve written literally loads of blogs between 1st November (the last proper one you see up here) and today (31st January), but the trouble is they’ve all been in my head. Events seem to move so swiftly that we’re onto the next thing before I know it, and those precious thoughts have flown and I’m having another ‘Ooh look!’ moment in another direction, which is deeply ironic considering how mindfulness is such a big theme in my life. I suppose a positive take on that would be that at least I’m actually noticing that I’ve gone off track – but maybe I didn’t need to write about that stuff anyway. Whatever it was. But the whole thing got me thinking about why I started the blog, and why – exactly – I continue with it. Winding back the clock to January 2013, you would find me close to the beginning of this crazy journey – Blog #6 in fact – where I was trying to understand how to survive in the alien and terrifying place I had been thrown into. I opened with this quote from the Sufi poet Kabir:

The way of love is not

A subtle argument.

The door there is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

They’re given wings.

Because what I was learning, aided and abetted by my dearest Swami Ambikananda, was that at the moment of my diagnosis I’d effectively been thrown off a cliff and was having to learn how to fly very, very quickly. For me, personally, that meant gathering as much information about the disease as possible, followed pretty rapidly by leaving no stone unturned in my quest to explore each and every avenue of nutritional and therapeutic support available.

That’s the way my mind works – get as deep and scary and awful as possible, throw it out in the light for a good bit of examination and discussion,  then you have the tools to fashion some kind of plan. For me, knowledge is power, and in a treatment regime where I was completely disempowered, that was vital. Six cycles of very aggressive chemo and a stem cell transplant focused my mind wonderfully, and as my poor body began to struggle with the chemical onslaught I became totally fixated on what I was putting into it, and how I could best help it to survive. Now, I appreciate that not everyone feels the same way; judging by a couple of reviews of my book, some readers found that a very odd approach, and a haematology consultant who was himself suffering from Mantle Cell Lymphoma thought I was completely nuts to even be considering that nutrition and supplements could play a part in my survival. Each to their own, I guess, but learning a lot more about where our food comes from has been a massive part of this journey, and it’s certainly given me a fair few soapboxes to drag out should the moment arise. And those moments do arise quite a lot, actually, which I realised is part of the reason I keep the blog going. That plus the lovely people who check up on me if I don’t post for a while. To them I say a big ‘thank you’ for caring, and yes, I’m fine :-)

Due to recent and ongoing conversations with friends/family/readers of the blog/people in the health food shop/our Nordic Walking family I’ve decided to drag those soapboxes out for a bit of an airing and stack them neatly together in one place. This blog is #93, and I can pretty much guarantee that at least 75% of my blogs have some kind of discussion about food/drugs/ways of staying or getting well in them, but it’s not a lot of use if that information is scattered all over the place when people ask me how I survived chemo, and how I live now. Which they do. Whenever I see the blog stats rocket I’m grateful that someone is reading the blog, but I’m also sad that it usually means they have just had a diagnosis and that I’ll soon be getting an email. But hopefully if this blog suddenly rockets, it will mean that people are reading because they’re interested in what they eat.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

Being interested in what you eat means more than liking the taste and wondering how many calories it has. Being interested in what you eat surely means having some idea where your food actually comes from and what processes it went through to get there. Here we go. 1st soapbox and it’s a nice big one. My forays into exploring exactly what I’m eating have led me down some very dark alleyways indeed, and I am shocked at the way we are manipulated by the food industry. And a massively ironic thought occurred to me when I couldn’t sleep about 5 a.m this morning (and yes – I know some of you are already up then. I wasn’t). When we get a prescription from the pharmacy, it has in prominent letters somewhere on that box ‘Read enclosed instruction leaflet before use.’ Hmm. So we’re happy to read a long list of ingredients we don’t understand, dosage (obviously) and the (probably) very long list of side effects, but do we actually pay the same attention to our food choices? I’m hypoglycaemic (as opposed to diabetic), which means I have to be extremely careful about eating sugar and sugar substitutes, and in conversation the other day somebody mentioned that I must have to read a lot of labels when I go shopping. Hell, yes! Am I the only one? If you want to enjoy a good bit of fiction at the same time as dreary food shopping compare the ingredients on the back with what the food is supposed to be according to the flashy label on the front. I loved a particular meme on Facebook which I shared the socks off because I totally agree with it:

For low sugar/low fat, read ‘chemical shit storm’

Because if the food companies who insist they have our best interests at heart are taking out the sugar and fat we’ve been brainwashed to think we should avoid, WHAT ARE THEY PUTTING IN INSTEAD? You’d think that a low/no sugar product would be of interest to me due to the blood sugar issue, but having no sugar doesn’t mean it’s not sweet or that it’s better for you. Nope. Substitute sweeteners are up to 25 times sweeter than sugar which explains why people using them as part of a diet are outrageously hungry about twenty minutes after eating/drinking such a product. So they need to eat something else, which will almost certainly have the same ingredients in it, then they get hungry again and the vicious circle is well and truly up and spinning, and they never lose weight. I’m not making this up. Enough people have talked to me about this that I know it’s the case, plus on the very odd occasion that I’ve unwittingly eaten something containing glucose fructose syrup/rice syrup/artificial sweeteners, I’ve had the same experience. And don’t even get me started on aspartame, which has been shown to be carcinogenic but is added to certain medication to make it more palatable. Oooh, and probably a bit hungry. And then when I tell said people this small fact they ask what they’re supposed to do, and I possibly somewhat harshly respond that it’s not rocket science. Same as I had to do all those years ago once I realised I had a sugar problem. Ditch the sugar, don’t use substitutes and re-educate your palette so you don’t need sweet stuff. Trust me, it will change your life and you’ll rediscover what your taste buds are for.

In the early blogs covering my visits to hospital, I relayed how the lovely Dot (who had to go on literally loads of courses on food management in a hospital environment) brought in every single breakfast option for me so we could read the labels to check the contents, and she was horrified at what she found. So she’d learnt that rice has to be scorching hot in order not to accumulate dangerous bacteria (yes, that’s both true and sensible), but she hadn’t been told that cancer patients should avoid sugar, and neither was she aware that every single option except the sachets of porridge contained sugar or a sweetener in some form. There was much tutting and head-shaking at that little discovery. Before I skip over to the next soapbox I just wanted to impart this little bit of wisdom for sufferers of cystitis (and yes I get asked about that too). We know that cranberry juice is good for getting rid of the bugs in the bladder that cause this horrible and extremely debilitating condition. However, those bugs thrive on sugar. And guess what the shelves are filled with in the average supermarket? Cranberry juice ‘drink’ which has which ingredient? Picture ROFL emoticon here. Yes, sugar. They are seriously joking. Likewise yoghurt is also very good to encourage a healthy gut, or to help return a compromised one to a better state. And by that I mean live, bio, organic, full fat yoghurt, because any other ingredient suggests it isn’t actually proper yoghurt, doesn’t it? I think it’s true to say that the food demonstrators in the supermarket aisle don’t make eye contact with me any more.

By the way, I’m really not making this stuff up. You need to read Karl Elliot-Gough’s book The Seven Deadly Whites to discover exactly what goes on in the food industry. It’s a scary and challenging read, but it’s also the sort of book you’ll be glad you read because it is a real eye-opener, and you won’t ever look at food the same way again. While you’re at it, you could also order a copy of Dr. Steven Gundry’s Plant Paradox, which also makes very informative reading.

I didn’t used to be this grumpy about food – honestly. Before I was ill I was interested, but quite a bit more relaxed about it, although I did get seriously cross when I tried to buy a ready meal (this was a loooong time ago!) after a trip to the gym and the only item I could find that didn’t contain genetically modified ingredients was mushroom rice. They absolutely definitely got a letter (this was before emails – yes, that long ago). In fact this was shortly after the row over mechanically recovered meat and BSE that revealed all sorts of stuff was going into the food chain that shouldn’t. Nuff said on that one for now.

Probably the final, motivating factor in getting me to actually complete a blog after literally three months of non-starters (and the newest soapbox in the collection), is the recent trend towards veganism, which in my humble opinion has been totally hijacked by companies who have an awful lot of money to make from selling new products to an unsuspecting public. You could almost see them rubbing their hands in glee. When my body decided to go veggie – and yes, it literally did in the space of about 12 hours with no encouragement from me – a few years ago, it created a real problem. As someone who up to that point was eating meat on an almost daily basis, I didn’t really have much idea what to eat in its place. Something I did know, with my post-chemo awareness, was that I didn’t want a meat replacement to sit neatly between the potatoes and the veggies. I’d already read those labels a while back, and with products ranging from the ‘pseudo mince’ right up to the veggie escalope and sausage selection (none of which are exactly cheap), there was barely a single one that had words I recognised in the description. Words you don’t recognise, or end in –ose, or can’t pronounce in the list of ingredients probably don’t belong in our food. Just sayin’. The raw ingredients are there, lovely people. If you want to be veggie or vegan it’s perfectly possible to do so with lovely, natural ingredients. I’m currently amassing more recipes over on my ‘Lovely Recipes’ page if you’re interested.

It’s been a long blog, but I just want to share one more thing with anyone still awake out there. In these challenging times of fake news and dubious motivation it’s sometimes hard to know where to turn or what to believe. If you want a massive but ultimately positive dose of reality as viewed from the sharp end of farming, do yourself a favour and get a copy of Wilding by Isabella Tree.

She is an extraordinarily articulate and passionate woman, who with her husband inherited a farm on the Knepp Estate in Sussex that had failed due to the soil being over-treated with pesticides and fertilisers. Hers is an astonishing and deeply detailed tale of EU quotas aimed at over-producing highly treated grain (which is sold to farmers to fatten their cattle ready for public consumption). It’s a tale of rules, intransigent committees, exhausted soil, and apparently no way out of a desperate situation. However, they did find a way out, and returning their land to nature against much advice and opposition has resulted in it becoming a world class example of what happens when you leave nature to heal itself. In the words of Chris Packham: “A poignant, practical and moving story of how to fix our broken land, this should be conservation’s salvation: this is new hope.”

So that’s it for now folks. Wishing you good health and lots of fun reading those labels,




About Margaret Cahill

After diagnosis of Mantle Cell Lymphoma in 2013, I started this blog to stay in touch with friends, family, and and an ever increasing network of lovely people who sent me healing. The readership increased and I ended up blogging for all I was worth to try and stay sane through the chemotherapy and stem cell transplant. Then after I went into remission (thankfully) I was enjoying the writing so much that I have carried on, and the blog seems to have become a bit of a resource for people, which is lovely. The original year of blogs have now been made into a book, Under Cover of Darkness: How I Blogged my Way Through Mantle Cell Lymphoma. It fills in a lot of the gaps between the blogs, and the tone falls somewhere between graveyard humour and explicit details of chemo treatments. I do hope you enjoy it :-) Mxx
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