Since the surgery, since the sentence, since the reality set in that the diagnosis is breast cancer, my palette has shifted. I used to be a voracious grazer and at times eater - a snackaholic, storing crackers, cookies, chocolates in my desk drawer at work.
That was the old me. The old me, I sometimes reminisce, detested drinking water. I was a Diet Coke girl and loved to swing by the 7-Eleven and pick up M&Ms or Tim Tams. I went through a phase of pineapple buns and milk teas, which almost became my staple breakfast. I went through a stint of ramen noodles for lunch and dinner. I acquired and consumed food without much thought, perhaps taking for granted my health and well-being.
Don’t get me wrong, I was never a junk-food junkie. I cold-shouldered vending machine cuisine. I once (at the time 61kg and 163cm) joined Weight Watchers. I get nervous if I start tipping the scale. Before the diagnosis I swam four days a week at top speed. I did afternoon tea and buffets with friends but never pigged out.
Here in Hong Kong, I thought I ate considerably more healthfully than I had back in meat-and-potatoes country (aka my homeland). I ate mostly Chinese, a lot of veggies, rice, the occasional fatty and sweet Shanghainese dishes (delicacies from my ancestral origins). I thought I ate healthfully (we have a domestic helper who is good enough to open her own café).
Of all the things I loved most about Hong Kong, food was first and foremost. In nearby Causeway Bay, I could easily pick up sweet soy milk, rice and fried noodle balls. I could head to the upper floors of shopping centres such as Times Square and enjoy some of the best foods in the East and West. I was a lucky girl.
Since the surgery, and being told I have a mildly fatty liver too, something shifted, mostly a mindset. I didn’t need any pushing or prodding. I was perhaps scared into my new norm of eating.
When my father – who is in the medical field – recommended eating more apples and bitter melon, I had apple and bitter melons for lunch and dinner.
For the first month after my surgery, I refused to take a single bite of meat and ate begrudgingly, all the joy strangely sucked out of something I once looked forward to. Dim sum became a chore, for my family too, when I declined to eat a pork bun or even the spring rolls. No, fried food, I thought. Anything fried, fatty, milk-based and hormone-related would fuel another cancer. No wonder the joy has been sucked out.
But I’m not alone, in talking with other ladies (similar vintage, same problem), they’ve all said they’ve undergone a food facelift. They are big fans of green tea, water and most have converted from being carnivores to vegans. I met one woman with breast cancer who flatly told me she gave up all chicken since they are hormone producing.
A few weeks after my shift in eating habits, the aunt (she mostly fearing I wasn’t getting enough nutrition) talked with the surgeon about my change. The surgeon recommended eating a bit of everything. READ: moderation and not starvation.
A social worker at the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation recommended the same. Since then I’ve learned there is an anti-breast cancer diet — low fat, cut out artificial sugars, eat fewer dairy products and avoid red meat.
Change is not all bad.
I have shed a few pounds now. Water is good for me, and it feels good to be lighter, especially in this humid weather.
Over the last weeks, my appetite has awakened slowly from its slumber. I am finding a seemingly happy medium between the old and new me. I still stick mostly with greens, have cut out most dairy products and am cautious about processed food, but I happily snack on Jagabee potato sticks (tres addictive) and trail mix. I even made cupcakes (pink, of course) with a friend and savoured a margarita with another.
The other week I craved McDonald’s French fries. It happened in the last 15 minutes of yoga class. Afterwards I walked to the nearest chain, queued up and ordered a lunch set. Call it defiance or pure enjoyment.
I relished the French fries and thought: “Hey, why not live it up?” What was life without the joy of eating? It made total sense especially amidst the backdrop of disease.