Friday 20 September 2019

Emily Hourican's Cancer Diary: I've discovered there's something worse than trying to lose weight

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

I bought a weighing scales the other day. This is the first time I have ever owned such a thing. Before now, I have operated on the basis that allowing one into the house was tantamount to inviting what has always been a minor but constant preoccupation, to become a major obsession. That preoccupation, of course, is weight. My weight.

Not that not owning a scales meant I didn't seize every opportunity to step on someone else's. And every time I did, I was hoping for a particular outcome: to weigh less. Now, I don't need to be told how pathetic that is - I have never been fat; I have been a weight that I am basically happy with for most of my life. These days, though, I know just how pathetic it was. Because now, when I stand on the scales - which I do every day - I am hoping for a very different outcome. Actually, I seem to be living a kind of mirror image of my life right now. As if I have stepped through the looking-glass, into a place where anxiety has been reversed. Now, the days when I step up and see that I weigh the same are good days. The days when I find I have gained a pound or two are great days. The days I have lost a couple are devastating.

You see, I recently finished treatment for cancer of the tongue base. The cancer was viral, which is great (as these things go . . . ) because it means the prognosis is very good. The problem is that the treatment is particularly vicious. Seven weeks of daily radiotherapy, all concentrated around the throat and mouth, and weekly drug infusions. The result was that, by the end, I was admitted to hospital for excessive weight loss, dehydration, and to have a tube put up my nose and into my stomach, through which a high-calorie, high-protein shake was injected four times a day.

None of that was pleasant, at all, but somehow I trudged through it, and, a week-and-a-bit after treatment finished, the tube was taken out. There was a deal to be made though: "We'll take the tube out, but you have to eat!" By then, I was down about 7kg, to a weight I have never been in all my adult life. Even to the eyes of someone who has always admired thin, I looked horrible: no soothing covering of flesh, just the angry angularity of bones.

I badly needed my weight to stop falling, and to start the slow climb back to a healthier number. "Eat butter," said the hospital dietician. "Eat cream, ice cream, milkshakes . . ." It should have been welcome advice, except my taste buds have been damaged (temporarily, I hope) by the radiotherapy, and I can't taste much. Some things get through - potatoes, almonds, steak, coconut - but nothing sweet at all. Eating ice cream is just like tucking into a bowl of cold fat. No hint of sweetness, nothing delicious there at all. And, therefore, no incentive to eat it. So I have had to look elsewhere for my weight gain. It's not easy - some of the foods that I can taste sting my still-sensitive mouth badly, and on days when I'm tired, my appetite tends to cut out, like a car on a frosty morning. But by always veering towards the high-calorie option, and being ruthless about filling a plate or bowl and sitting with it until it is finished, I am holding the line. It is remarkable how fast your body will tell you you've had enough when there is no pleasure in the process, only duty.

Everything I consume is calculated, measured, considered, chosen for impact rather than taste. It's a diet, basically, but a looking-glass world diet, and it brings a looking-glass perspective. The idea, now, that people do this by inclination - voluntarily miss out on the glories of a wide and varied diet, strikes me as a travesty. How well I understand now that life without the joy of food is distinctly lacking flavour, no pun intended.

For me, this is a temporary state of affairs, I hope. And once I am back to eating for greed and pleasure, I will, I hope, hang on to my newfound wisdom. But not the scales. Those are heading out the door again just as soon as I find myself reaching for second helpings, not because I'm hungry, but because something is too damn delicious not to.

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