Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

Traumatic, both physically and psychologically. This is cancer and its “cures”. Pathologically, trauma is a physical wound. Psychologically, it is an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting damage to the psyche. Battling malignant DNA gone rouge in your own body produces both. The toll of the trauma becomes most telling to me when I must interface with a basic necessity of life: food.

A year ago, I began my treatment for head and neck cancer: a seven-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. [1] The chemo set up a mind-bend on food as it left most smells faithfully resonating with my memory while playing sleight of hand with my taste buds (e.g., looks like potatoes, smells like potatoes, tastes like baking soda). Sights and smells cannot be trusted. No taste is guaranteed. But of the two, radiation has left the most damage in its wake as it wiped out the cancer. My voice is deeper, but my soft pallet is softer; and my throat and tongue are dry enough to strike matches on. The tumor on my tongue made eating difficult. The cure has brought its own host of challenges.

I have grown accustomed to the background tension present at every meal. As I stare at the food and try to determine the appropriate size for my next bite (always smaller than I think, even after I adjust down from memory), I find that my body has folded into a defensive position. My shoulders are hunched over. My brows are knit. My posture is bad. It requires a conscious effort to unwind myself and be open to the experience; to embrace the necessity of the contest. This has become a daily discipline.

Unlike eating, grocery shopping doesn’t happen every day. Furthermore, I am blessed with a wife that manages that function quite well and children who enjoy going along for the ride. I haven’t been bothered with it in a long while. A long while, that is, until a couple of weeks ago when we all headed out together for the grand tour of wholesale clubs, organic food grocers, and traders in tasty treats.

I was honestly looking forward to the outing. Like all growing children, my kids love food and aren’t shy about expressing their discontent when the larders are low.[2] Their excitement was infectious as they discussed what they would sample, buy, and bake. Heedless of eating having been a daily challenge for over a year now, I indulged in a case of temporary amnesia and waltzed into the organic groceries superstore only to be slapped rudely awake by the assault on my psyche in the presence of such beautiful produce and foodstuffs.

“These peaches are huge!” I’m not sure if they will taste like peaches. What if they wind up tasting like prunes instead? “Those spices smell marvelous!” Which of my two tastes will they trigger: salty or sparky? “Look at those baguettes!” Crusty-dusty, death-dealing wads of dough. How much water will I have to down just to swallow one small bite? “Buy this super-blender. You can liquefy your vegetables!” Thanks, pal. Bought one, live on that. Are we having fun yet? And this was only the first stop.

My brain beat on me aisle after aisle, store after store. It wasn’t until the final stop that I started to beat it back. There I stood in the painful recognition that I was not only distressed, but depressed as well. While my family scurried with joy to try treat after treat from the various sample servers in the mega-warehouse store, I barely avoided skinning my knees after tripping over my drooping lip. All I could see were things I used to enjoy that I could no longer eat. That’s when I gave my mind a piece of my spirit.

My counterattack began with a change of perspective. Instead of feeling down because I couldn’t sample the pastrami sandwich, I decided to be thankful that I was even around to look at it. It was a good place to start: I’m alive. Take that, depression! Next, I reviewed several of the items purchased that I consume on a regular basis: all beef hot dogs, coffee, cod, steak. Considering that drinking water was an excruciating experience a mere nine months ago, these were considerable milestones to be grateful for. And then there was the chicken, fresh rotisserie chicken about to come off the spit. No lack of saliva was going to keep me from it.

Like a crack-addict mouse hitting the button for another dose in the lab, I kept going back to the counter to see if they were done. Distress gave way to expectancy, depression to hope. As soon as the cook slid them down the display shelf, I snatched up two of them. I couldn’t get to it quickly enough. We pressed through check out. We pushed out the door. We rolled to the van. I grabbed one of the chickens and jumped into the shotgun seat. While the family loaded the rest of the groceries into the back of the van, I broke open the plastic container and tore a drumstick off the bird. I went after the tasty morsel like the Fantastic Mr. Fox.[3]

As I ate the chicken (chased by copious amounts of water), I reflected on how easy it is to sow the seeds of bitterness and discontent when we decide to only see the ground we’ve lost and none of the ground we’ve retained or regained. Nearly two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy that “…we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.”[4] Simple lesson, tough battle.

Our minds naturally work through a system of references. Intuitively, the measure of our qualitative state is determined through our frame of reference. For instance, is $25 per hour a good wage? It’s fantastic if you currently only make $15 per hour. If you are used to making $24.25 per hour, it only amounts to a cost of living increase. If you are used to making $100,000 per year, it represents a major cut in pay. But suppose you were accustomed to a six-figure salary, but had been unemployed for nearly two years and were facing the very likely prospect of being homeless? How would the $25 per hour job look then?

The answer may seem obvious, but in practice it is not. Taking a pay cut and staying employed presents the options of being thankful or dissatisfied. Resentment is easy in such circumstances. Loss of health exposes one to the same challenge. I’m better, but not as well as I was before cancer. What I decide to focus on determines the state of my soul. I can mourn the loss or count the blessing. Thankfulness is a battle that must be intentionally waged. And battle I shall.

[1] For more background, see “Dealing with a Death Sentence” from my February 2014 posts.

[2] One of their favorite refrains is, “All we have is rotten milk and eggs”; a reference, oddly enough to one of the main staples of my diet: a protein shake made with kefir and raw eggs.

[3] My previous disclaimer stands: no mention of a movie (or movie character) is an endorsement thereof. That being said, The Fantastic Mr. Fox has some very funny moments, this being one of them: Mr. Fox eating.

[4] 1 Timothy 6:7-8 KJV

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2 thoughts on “Food Fight: Battles in Thankfulness

  1. I have always loved your approach to life, Nikolas. Seems that the horrid cancer has only served to hone that and make it even more robust and beautiful. Good on ya! Miss you guys more than ever.

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