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September 10, 2017

The rethink.

Cancer | Diet

I am about to make a small request. I am already uncomfortable about it. But my feisty-writer-self will not let me proceed to other ideas without first getting this off my chest. So here it goes:

I do not wish to offend or intrude – but would like to ask that you rethink your food.

There. I have said it.

So let’s just acknowledge this up front: food is a sensitive subject. I am wading into a protected, personal space. (But I am a stage IV bowel cancer patient who is staring this food issue in the face. So do me a solid by sticking with me for a minute or two. Please.)

Australians love food. We don’t just eat to survive – we eat to enjoy. And perhaps on occasion, we eat to enjoy first and survival is an afterthought (I’m looking at you, Mum’s lasagne).

Food is at the heart of how we live. It is culturally, emotionally and socially important to us. Meaning at times, we can possibly be a little protective of our food and defensive of our food choices.


And so we should. That is our prerogative. You have your dietary preferences and favoured Instagram filter, and it is lovely that you share it, but in the main, I am not concerned as long as you don’t start getting too vocal. Because ultimately, diet is a personal choice.

Isn’t it?

I, like so many others, was happily chomping my way through Melbourne’s freshest produce and best restaurants, with my own set of strong opinions on any number of food-related matters, until a minor speedbump in March of this year: a stage IV bowel cancer diagnosis.

Now, food becomes a focus when we start to process any major health shock. Or at least it should. Food fuels us and everything that occurs in our bodies, so it makes sense that we consider it. But let me assure you, ‘diet’ has quite the starring role when getting to grips with cancers of the gastrointestinal tract (aka – where the food hangs out).

Friends and strangers alike become very keen to offer their insights. I was soon to learn that for every ‘must try’ restaurant endorsement, there is a ‘must ditch’ food proclamation, crafted especially for cancer patients – often made with some kind of sympathetically knowing smirk or vague reference to “all the evidence”.

These statements come from a place of love and care and interest. Nevertheless, such well-intentioned advice can start to grind the gears of a devoted foodie.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was frankly irritated by the dietary advice I received. I had spent years eating broccoli when I could have been eating steak. My choice. I ate meat, but preferred a diet rich in leafy greens. I actually enjoyed fruit and vegetables. Just as I enjoyed gorgonzola and champagne.

When I was hit with a terminal bowel cancer diagnosis, I was just 32 years of age. I was a young, healthy, active female. I had made sensible food choices for my entire life. I had followed the rules. Only the healthy fats. Only the freshest greens. And as a new mum, I felt like I had only just been reunited with all manner of the best foods (including the gorgonzola and the champagne).

So when I was told to stop dairy and meat and alcohol and sugar, and start alkaline and vegan and raw and ketogenic, I was angry. Resentful. Peeved that my cancer could be interpreted as somehow my fault. A result of my reckless eating. My indulgent habits.

I immediately compared my diet to those being lived out around me and defensively rejected any suggestion that I needed to make some changes.

I kicked off my chemotherapy treatment and smiled politely when I was asked whether I was sugar-free yet (I wasn’t).

I ate as well as I always had and focused instead on an area where I saw emerging, important science: exercise. Exercise has a role to play in defeating cancer. I studied and I read and I got in the gym. I ignored well-intentioned requests that I rest and instead, I followed the science.

I saw immediate benefits to my lifestyle, my treatment regime and my state of mind. Not to mention, a regression in my cancer.

Before my cancer, I was physically active. As a cancer patient, I am now fitter than I have ever been.

Ponder that for a moment. I certainly have. I have a terminal cancer diagnosis and I am in the best shape of my life. Could my diseased body really be my fittest body?

As I got comfortable with this idea from an exercise perspective, I went in search of other areas for improvement. I had to. I am fighting for my life.

Food was nagging at me. I knew it had to be reconsidered. I knew there were improvement opportunities. But as a fiercely defensive foodie, I needed to take the emotion out of it. Research was required. Facts.

So, let’s get a couple of facts straight:

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The IARC exists to promote collaboration in cancer research, ensuring we understand where cancer comes from and how we can reduce the burden of this disease.

  • In 2015, the IARC concluded that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer (including bowel cancer). Processed meat is simply meat that has been salted, cured, fermented and smoked in order to flavour and preserve. Think hot dogs, ham, salami and canned meats.

  • Processed meat has been placed in the same carcinogenic category as tobacco smoking, alcohol and asbestos – meaning there is just as much scientific evidence behind its cancer-causing effects.

  • Red meat has also been evaluated by the IARC, although the evidence is not as clear. Beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat have been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans. And where the links do exist, the resulting cancer is colorectal. Bowel cancer. (My cancer).

I was vaguely aware of research into the cancer-causing potential of certain foods. Just like I was aware of the risks of alcohol. But I, like the majority of people I know, was comfortable enough wearing the risks. After all, I am one of the few people I know who actually tries to hit those daily fruit and vegetable intake targets. So really, what are the chances of something like bowel cancer actually happening to me?

Well, I got a chance to answer that question: real. The chances are real. The risk is real.

I don’t know if my cancer is a result of my diet. Or the occasional champagne. We cannot work backwards to pinpoint the cause of cancer. The science is not there. Yet.

But we can work forwards, to identify the real risk of exposing ourselves to carcinogenic substances.

Every human body is different. Our lifestyles are varied and our fuel requirements are diverse. The foods that we enjoy are equally wide-ranging. However, the risks that we face are the same. Our comfort level doesn’t change the science. Meaning, if you are someone who has become comfortable with the direct link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, it is now time to acknowledge the relationship between processed meat and bowel cancer.

I have enough cancer in my body. I do not need any more. When I considered the risk landscape surrounding me as a stage IV cancer patient, it became pretty clear that I wanted processed meat and red meat out of my life.

So I cut it. Just like that. It was gone. And I have not looked back. Okay, I have missed the odd lamb shank. My bacon with my pancakes. But the benefit – remove some cancer risk from my cancer-ridden body – was too significant for me to sidestep, even if I do enjoy a lamb shank.

When I considered my desire to outlive the statistics, to drive my baby boy to his first day of school, to celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary hand-in-hand with my sweetheart, foregoing the odd lamb shank seemed achievable.

My decision to cut meat from my diet was made by me, for my health. I am telling you about it because any life-saving opportunity is worth a conversation. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Would I have made this decision without my cancer diagnosis? To be honest, I do not know. But I am fairly sure I would have been prepared to give meat the flick, even for just a week.

Food is life. And for that reason, it is worth a rethink.


Bowel Cancer Australia are asking all Australians to use Meat Free Week, 18-24 September 2017, to rethink the impact of our meat eating habits. Take a meat break and fundraise for Bowel Cancer Australia while you are at it! Sign up here:


Nic x