Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

My mother was fond of catch phrases, song lyrics, movie quotes and other familiar axioms from popular culture. Repeating these at apropos moments not only helped define those moments but also cemented memories of similar ones.

In her posthumous notes to me, delivered on fitting occasions by family co-conspirators, she documented dozens of her favorites. I have used each and every one of them in this column as a means of preserving stories about her and our nine-year relationship as caregiver and care receiver. Just this morning I noticed that one was missing.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

I remember Mom reciting this when she was in a self-deprecating mood about her weight, when I was about to indulge in some ill-advised sugary treat, or when one of our pets grew a little too rotund for his or her own good. She wasn’t using it to bully anyone as kids apparently did on the playground once upon a time. It was just the first line to an old song she remembered from her youth; one that she quoted when the circumstances seemed to call for it.

At any rate, the phrase came to mind this morning when thinking about my health. Next week I have to go in for my first routine blood draw to determine if there is any cancerous activity brewing anywhere in my body. I have to admit, it’s nerve-wracking even though the tumor they removed from my breast last fall was very small, and I’ve been on a cancer suppressing drug for the last few months. I keep thinking about the random microscopic cancer cells they found in one of my lymph nodes and try to silence the “what ifs.” It’s much more productive to think about the things I’m doing outside the medical arena to discourage a recurrence.

Which brings me back to Fat, Fat, the Water Rat.

The entire time I was taking care of Mom in our shared home in the Nevada desert, I told myself that I needed to work on weight loss and physical fitness to avoid the many maladies that plagued her. Diabetes runs in our family and is fueled by obesity. Mom was an insulin-dependent diabetic. Heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and osteoarthritis are also caused by or exacerbated by excess weight. Mom was under a doctor’s care for all of these issues.

So, of course, I was keenly aware of the chance I was taking by carrying around much more weight than I should. But there was one risk that escaped me.

Breast cancer.

Did you know that?

I didn’t. Not until I was diagnosed with it.

Mom and Laurie - October 2013

Mom and me in October 2013, about two months before she passed away.

When Mom was alive, I did try to lose weight a few times and a couple of times I was successful. Invariably, though, something always happened to derail my progress. Stress, an injury or an illness (mine or hers) would pop up, and the pounds started coming back. I finally gave up when she was in her last year of life. She was my priority. Period. Then, for the first couple of years after she died, I was too grief-stricken and, coincidentally, under too much pressure at work to even think about self-improvement.

Finally, in January 2017, I took the plunge. I joined a well-respected diet program online, started walking regularly, and by the end of August had lost 44 pounds. That’s when I scheduled my first mammogram in six years, and my life forever changed. At first, it was a whirlwind of tests, surgery, consultations, decisions and overwhelming worry. Worry about my future, our finances, our kids, our grandsons, and how my husband would cope if things got ugly. Eventually, after the initial shock passed, I took matters into my own hands and read everything I could find about traditional treatment and alternatives. That’s when I learned about obesity and breast cancer.

As it turns out, fat cells create estrogen. My particular form of breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma – eats estrogen.

If you’re overweight, let that sink in for a moment.

As soon as I read this, I renewed my commitment to weight loss and fitness. I was able to lose another eight pounds before the end of 2017 despite the challenges of recovering from surgery and the temptations of the holidays. I gained a few pounds back the first couple of weeks of January when I continued to snack on high-calorie leftovers and skipped some of my daily walks due to the flu. But, when I uncovered another sobering fact while digging into the role of nutrition in cancer recurrence, I quickly got back on track.

What was the sobering fact?

Sugar – which I love as dearly as it loves my thighs and my belly – is cancer’s friend.

German Nobel Prize winner Dr. Otto Warburg first discovered the connection between sugar and cancer in the early 1920s. After more than 40 years of research and study, he presented findings demonstrating that the fermentation of sugar suppresses oxygen in body cells, which promotes cancer growth. Another study released just last fall by a team of Belgian scientists says the same thing. The best explanation I found is from a New York Daily News article written by Dan Gunderman and published October 18, 2017.

“Scientists explain the customary way non-cancerous cells get energy – through a process called aerobic respiration, where digested food is transformed into energy-filled molecules. The process … requires oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. Cancer cells, however, do not fall in line with that biological process. Instead, cancer cells harness energy from fermenting sugar. This means sugar can ‘awaken’ cancer cells and make them multiply and expand.”

Sugar can awaken cancer cells and make them multiply.

Oh my gosh, this is scary stuff. Sugar is omnipresent in the average American diet. I know it is in mine. Even when diligently dieting last year, I managed to include it in my meal plans and stay within the allotment of points my weight loss program allowed. I knew that sugar is a major contributor to obesity, but I figured it would be OK as long as I kept it under control. “Everything in moderation,” as the saying goes. The fact that I lost weight while consuming modest amounts supported my theory. I didn’t know about the cancer connection.

With these two ghastly realities about fat and sugar fresh in my mind, I’m now working on identifying the foods I should be eating to continue to lose weight and further reduce my risk of cancer recurrence. As you might expect, it’s mostly about fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. There are also some so-called “super foods” that bear consideration. However, I’ll leave the details for another column. Today I just want to spread the word about the two very important things I didn’t know but wish I had.

Fat cells create estrogen. Breast cancer (at least my variety of breast cancer) eats estrogen.

Sugar not only contributes to obesity but can encourage cancer cells to grow.

Laurie - January (2)I thank the good Lord that Mom never had to deal with cancer on top of everything else that plagued her. She was certainly a prime candidate for it, just as I was. Hopefully, I learned about the risks of fat and sugar in time to save myself further health issues in my retirement years. Time will tell. For motivation, I’m going to make a little sign and tape it to my bathroom mirror. Thanks, Mom, for the quote.

Fat, Fat, the Water Rat

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