Sunday, August 27, 2006

What Does it Mean When your Most Pampered Organ Develops Cancer?

So, here's the weird thing about my gallbladder cancer. Of all the organs in my body, except perhaps my skin, it's the one I've spent the last twenty years taking extra specially good care of. Before I describe my pampering, I wans to answer a question some of you may be asking (as one friend did after hearing of my diagnosis): Where is the gall bladder and what does it do? The National Institutes of Health website defines it this way: "The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that lies just under the liver in the upper abdomen. The gallbladder stores bile, a fluid made by the liver to digest fat. When food is being broken down in the stomach and intestines, bile is released from the gallbladder through a tube called the common bile duct, which connects the gallbladder and live to the first part of the small intestine." That's the medical explanation. How did I come to pamper my gall bladder?

Growing up, I heard about the gallbladder from an early age, because my mother had hers surgically removed when I was just a toddler. There were foods she didn't cook for us, mostly pork and other fatty foods, because her doctors had told her to avoid pork after her surgery. So, I had heard about gallbladders early on, even if I didn't understand what they did. In my thirties, I had my first "gallbladder attack" (my words, I didn't see a doctor then) when I was awakened in the middle of the night by pain going up my back. A heating pad and sitting up finally eased the pain so that I could go back to sleep. (I attributed the event to trying out a new Chinese restaurant in town, and I didn't return to that particular greasy spoon.) After, on the suggestion of friend, I began drinking one-half a lemon squeezed into warm water each morning. It made intuitive sense to me that it might break down grease in my liver or gall bladder, it tasted good to me, and it was cheaper than a glass of orange juice. I continued to drink the lemon water almost every morning until my cancer diagnosis last May.

How else did I pamper my gallbladder? I only ate peanuts or peanut butter in the morning or mid-day, never at night, and the same with fried foods, which I ate only occasionally anyway. Apple cider gave me indigestion, so I avoided it even though I like it. My doctor had told me that "cruciferous vegetables" (broccoli and cauliflower) or apples might give me trouble, but they didn't. I ate low fat meats, enzymes to help my food digest, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoided any food I thought would make my gallbladder flare up.

Only twice more, in the last year and a half, did I have painful indigestion. I thought I was taking really good care of my gallbladder, and helping to prevent stones. Gallbladder cancer was nothing I'd ever heard of.

Oh, and I should mention that my father had his gallbladder removed about twenty years ago, in his 60s. I've known for a while that in my family, gallbladders didn't do well, so I intensified my efforts to take care of mine.

I don't have an answer to the question that begins this blog, but I do know that it feels really, really strange to have the most pampered organ develop cancer. If I thought I was eating well before this diagnosis, and I developed cancer, then what do I eat now? If I thought that drinking the lemon water was being good to my gallbladder, then do I now think that I was too good, and perhaps would have had my stone-filled gallbladder removed a decade ago? I know from talking with others with cancer that it's natural to second guess our behavior before diagnosis and wonder if we could have done something different so that the cancer would not develop.

But, the purpose of my question is also asking whether or not there is anything I can do now to help keep the tumor from growing, the cancer from spreading. Should I eat organic food? Should I keep drinking lemon water, or stop? What would be a healthy diet? Does what I eat matter now? Reading some discussion boards, and responses to various blogs, I see that lots of people have opinions (tumors feed on sugars, cancer patients need to eat organic, everyone should try alternative therapies, see a nutritionist, etc.). I'm not sure whether or not my diet before the cancer developed had any impact on the development of the cancer, and I'm not sure whether or not what I eat now matters. Lots, and lots of questions. For now, and possibly never, no real answers.


Anonymous said...

Wow! That is so amazing, Lynne. I had no idea you had this special relationship with your gallbladder. Spooky, to say the least...

I had my own "if-only"s when I had cancer (endometrial). If only I'd been the one to try to get pregnant, maybe doctor's would've discovered pre-cancerous cells before the tumor developed or would've discovered the tumor before cells spread into the lymph node. If only I'd eaten better, exercised more, been more spiritual, etc., etc.

What to do now? How to maintain trust when faced with this kind of betrayal? Keep asking the questions with compassion, with love...

Anonymous said...

I am leaving a general comment to all of your posts, Lynne. I have found them insightful and touching. My father died of throat cancer and I asked many of the same questions you are asking. My number one question to the doctors was "how does a non-smoker, with no family history, get throat cancer?" The answer: "Sometimes bad things happen to good people." He was 49 when he passed and he missed his first grandchild by mere months. Like me, he was a control freak, so how he lived with his terminal diagnosis was by making lists of things that my mother should know and written explanations (how to deal with the oil heater, how the escrow comes out of the mortgage check etc.).
What I learned most from him has been reiterated here in your and in others comments. I do not take my time for granted. My son jokingly tells me that I live my life as if I am in a race (you remember my dissertation!). I prioritize my time and know that work is simply a pay check but my family is my life. In fifty years, it won't make a difference that I left dirty dishes in the sink, but it will make a difference that I took my kids for a ride in a kayaak. Most importantly, I learned to distinguish between a problem and an inconvenience. So many people around me get so flustered over what I term "a lump in the oatmeal." I read once that there is a profound difference between a lump in the oatmeal and a lump in the breast.
Finally, I learned that my father, who I always suspected had a secret superhero identity, really was superman. He faced his illness with a courage that still amazes me.
Lynne, you too, are incredibly brave and insightful. Your children are so fortunate to have your example...

Bobby Griffin said...

Hi Lynne,

Great blog you have here. The link back to my site unfortunately doesn't work. Please come back and leave a comment once you get it fixed. Thanks!