In 2011, my gynecologist felt a lump alongside my right breast and sent me to a hospital for my first mammogram. The morning after I returned home from a four-day Thanksgiving trip to St. Maarten, the radiology department called and said I needed to come in for a follow-up exam.
“It could be nothing, it could be something,” the receptionist said when I sat stunned on my end of the line. “Better safe than sorry.”
Five biannual mammograms and two ultrasounds later, I was toting two peppercorn-sized lumps in my right breast and one in my left but still hadn’t been diagnosed. A friend who works as a medical transcriptionist wondered why no one had recommended a needle aspiration or biopsy, but I’d read dozens of failure-to-diagnose stories while blogging for medical malpractice attorneys, so I wasn’t too surprised they hadn’t.
To make matters worse, cervical dysplasia resurfaced nine years after I’d undergone cryotherapy and LEEP surgery to remove precancerous cells and two days before I lost my job and health insurance. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone gave me X number of months to live, so I booked a trip to Maui to celebrate my 38th birthday and cross a third Hawaiian island off of my bucket list.
While paddling an outrigger canoe on the silent blue Pacific with Kihei Canoe Club one morning, I bonded with a 54-year-old redhead who’d abandoned everything she owned in Calgary and spent six months sleeping on the beach and paddling with the club before moving in with a man who forgot her birthday and had already proven himself to be undeserving of her affection in other ways. She and I shared similar backgrounds (bad taste in boyfriends), names (Miranda and Melinda), birthdates (July 18 and July 20), and breast lumps.
As she spoke about her own, she pointed to the same spot my first pair resided.
“Increase your vitamin D intake,” she said. “After doing a lot of research, I started taking 2000 IUs of D3 every day, and my lump went away. Doctors will never tell you that.”
Long before this conversation, I learned that we meet the people we meet because we all take turns playing teacher and student. Sometimes, I inspire others to be more compassionate or open-minded. More often, people show me who I never want to become. In this case, after consulting Google and heeding Melinda’s advice, my lumps disappeared by my sixth mammogram, and my Pap smear returned to normal.
You’d think one cancer scare let alone several would prompt me to eat better, but old habits die hard, sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine, and I hail from a family of alcoholics, including a mother and grandmother who drank themselves into an early grave for reasons I’ll save for my memoir. Thankfully, aside from swilling fuzzy navels and other peach nectar-flavored cocktails in bars between ages 19 and 21 when it was illegal and fun to see if I’d get carded, I never developed a taste for liquor. Three weeks before my first mammogram, lawyers who flew me to Napa Valley to entertain clients shook their head as I drank some of the finest wines in the world and grimaced at every sip.
Sugar, on the other hand, should have sent me to rehab decades ago. After growing up in a sweet-free home with a diabetic-since-birth younger brother, I made up for lost time by stashing Little Debbie snack cakes in dresser drawers the second I passed my driver’s test. Binge eating didn’t stop my mentally handicapped, epileptic, and diabetic sibling from suffering grand mal seizures as he slept or spending weeks in the hospital, nor did it prevent my father from slapping, punching, and choking my defenseless 5-foot-3 mother on a near-daily basis. But shoveling sugar down my throat did keep me from telling him to turn down the f_cking TV, so he could hear whether his son was swallowing his tongue upstairs. It also kept me from defending my mom as I did when I was 9 and big, bad bowhunter Billybob shoved my shoulders against the refrigerator and snarled at me to keep my mouth shut or he’d shut it for me.
When I moved out, I packed my coping mechanism among my clothes, shoes, and stuffed animals and referred to it often while living with my 26-year-old porn-addicted Mac geek boyfriend whose mom paid his bills from their joint checking account until the day he absconded to Columbus without a note and stuck me with rent and utilities I couldn’t afford.
Since then, binges have bolstered my serotonin levels while dating other duplicitous men, studying for algebra exams at age 32, burying my mom and brother six weeks apart, and working for a touchy, tyrannical personal injury attorney who a) accused me of treason and aiding the competition when I added my job description to LinkedIn, b) asked if I was enjoying “playing cripple” the day after I broke my ankle and hobbled into the office on crutches, and c) thought it was a great idea to include fellow attorneys’ favorite quotes in the next newsletter to clients but changed every single one of them because Albert Einstein and Abigail Adams said things that were “too highbrow” or “didactic.” Next to Oscar Wilde’s words, the attorney – who was named after a disciple but earned the behind-the-back moniker The Devil Wears Polo – wrote in red Sharpie, “A gay Brit convicted of indecency. Obscure source?”
I’ve always been obsessive about burning off every calorie I consume, but even at age 20, I couldn’t deny the difference between my toned physique and that of a diabetic and carb-free 40-something-year-old coworker I never would have gone to the beach with if I’d known her mid-calf kindergarten teacher-like dresses hid svelte Victoria’s Secret model angles, ribs, and concave hips. As I aged and maintaining my buns of steel required more effort, I assumed my metabolism had slowed down and blamed binges on my anorexic mother who lived on peanut butter toast and tea but crammed my umbilical cord full of Cool Whip during pregnancy cravings.
In 2001, while staring at my reflection flickering across bungalows outside a bus window on the way home from work at dusk, I had an epiphany: To me, food = love. Before my brother was born, my parents would go roller skating on Saturday nights, and my mom would bring me a McDonald’s cherry pie. Once her forceps-wielding obstetrician botched Bo’s delivery and his afflictions demanded every minute of her attention, I raised myself in my bedroom, where I lived vicariously through new wave lyrics, expanded my vocabulary reading Stephen King novels, and developed a dark and smirky sense of humor watching “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” reruns. After a decade of solitude, I came home from yet another “Breakfast Club”-like day of high school to a plump bismarck doughnut piled high with fluffy white frosting and sprinkles. I still swear light flooded the cupboard and angels sang as my beaming mother opened the cupboard door Vanna White-style to reveal the Dunkin’ Donuts box.
Despite realizing I was living a cliché-cum-ABC Afterschool Special, I continued to console myself with cream-filled doughnuts when stressed, sad, disappointed, mistreated, or provoked to say something I really, really wanted to say but couldn’t. By my mid-30s, I could devour half a dozen Krispy Kremes before the cashier even handed me the receipt.
The Proverbial Straw
When my ex-boyfriend’s 80-year-old dad contracted a second infection post-hip replacement surgery in 2013 and couldn’t venture eight hours north for their annual Labor Day trip to Canada’s Bruce Peninsula, the ex invited me. My teeth chattered and a tremor rumbled down my spine as I read the email that promised shopping, hiking, stargazing, and s’mores, so I should have declined, but curiosity and optimism trumped foreboding and bad memories. Since 2007, I’d witnessed him plan months in advance for their guys-only trip to Lion’s Head, so I wanted to see what evoked so much excitement. I also wanted to believe that nine months apart had changed the person who was 18 years my senior but rushed home from work to watch Judge Judy, Cheaters, and Maury Povich DNA-test episodes and thrived on conflict, which he instigated by pointing out physical imperfections, plotting solo trips to Florida behind my back, and surprising me with walnut brownies or cherry frosting each time I told him I’d given up sugar. To my dismay, he picked up where he left off pre-breakup and said I looked like a long-haired lhasa apso before we even crossed the border. I spent the next seven days suppressing swear words with store-bought Key lime pie and carrot cake.
Two weeks after I came home, I began shedding long blonde hair in the shower like a chemo patient. Colorists, stylists, and strangers have always complimented my voluminous mane, so losing half of it was traumatic enough. But then I began waking up with green fingerprint-sized bruises polka-dotting my legs from my knees to my ankles. At night, Bill Gates couldn’t pay me to stop tapping my feet or bouncing my legs, and my forever-cold feet felt like they’d been set on fire. During the day, I got dizzy each time I stood up and couldn’t amble to the kitchen from the living room without wheezing. After meeting a friend for Indian-hot paneer makhani, which I’d treated myself to on a regular basis for 12 years, I struggled to breathe and thought I was going into anaphylactic shock. Having read about Oscar the therapy cat who lives in a nursing home and predicts when residents are going to die, I assumed I was next when my own cat began leaning his face toward my mouth, wiggling his pink nose, and then bolting from the bed.
Some symptoms denoted hypothyroidism, which was possible since I’ve taken diet pills on and off throughout the years. Other symptoms indicated anemia or celiac disease. It wasn’t until I flipped through channels one weekday morning and heard Dr. Oz mention smelly scalp that all of my symptoms leapt on top of one another like an NFL team trying to claim the football. For months, I hadn’t turned my head to the left or right without catching a whiff of something unpleasant like the plant-based Aveda shampoo and conditioner I used was fermenting. That scent turned out to be candida, or yeast.
During the above-mentioned Napa Valley trip in October 2011, I came down with a cold that lasted seven weeks and necessitated both an antibiotic and an inhaler. It didn’t go away until after my St. Maarten trip, when I stepped backward onto a thorn that became embedded in my heel and needed to be treated with a second antibiotic. A few months later, a glycolic acid-based facial cleanser triggered a rosacea flareup, so my dermatologist prescribed a third antibiotic. Not one doctor recommended taking a probiotic in conjunction with those pills, and companies weren’t advertising them back then like they are now, so I exterminated both the bad and the beneficial bacteria in my stomach. Thereafter, every time I ate anything that contained yeast – such as doughnuts during binges – I repopulated the bad bacteria but never replaced the good. Over time, I developed candida overgrowth, which perforated my intestines and caused leaky gut syndrome. Those holes allowed everything I ate and drank to slip straight into my bloodstream and cause inflammation, which first resulted in constant exhaustion, soreness, and weight gain and then led to food allergies, wheezing, and other nonsense.
Once I learned I had a leaky gut, I was forced to turn my home into a deprivation chamber and give up every food I’ve ever loved in exchange for vegetables I’d never tried. I couldn’t even eat ketchup or barbecue sauce on the super strict candida diet because condiments contained too much sugar, and I’d spend the next 24 hours burping like a guy who intended to remain a bachelor. Worse, I had to eschew pescetarianism for five months and grill free-range, antibiotic-free chicken on the George Foreman because fish might contain mercury, radiation, or smiley-faced parasites.
From January through March of 2014, I ate nothing other than chicken, spinach, and kale, killed the candida with raw garlic, probiotics, and supplements, shampooed with Neutrogena T-Sal, and thanked God that I was both single and able to work from home while I suffered die-off symptoms, such as vision-impairing migraines, worsening dizzy spells, and constant sleepiness.
Just as I thought I was well enough to add foods back into my diet, “Wheat Belly” appeared on my library’s nonfiction recommendations shelf. With its cover facing me at eye level, the nearly 3-year-old book may as well have been propped on a white satin pillow with neon red arrows blinking in its direction.
After renting and reading it, I tested Dr. William Davis’s 304-page hypothesis by turning my body into a laboratory. Selfies documented how wheat-“enriched” products and their gluten-free doppelgangers affected my appearance. For starters, months of inflammation had inflated my face to the circumference of a bowling ball, so ten years of expensive retinoids were rendered useless when the puffiness decreased and ravines remained beneath my left eye, making me look older. The first time I tried a hard-as-a-hockey-puck gluten-free English muffin, I wound up with a bloody lip, jowls, pronounced frown lines, and itchy shins. After eating gluten-free pizzas, pancakes, and tortillas, I could fill the furrows running from my nostrils to the corners of my mouth with whip cream and let ants go sledding. One day I could slip into a size two, the next I would squeeze into an eight. After abstaining from all grains for six weeks, I fell off the wagon, ate pizza, and woke up to one swollen cheek, a distended stomach, and an insatiable, Tasmanian Devil-like desire for more carbs, more destruction.
Since chronic, or long-term, inflammation has been linked to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, I keep those selfies on my phone for quick reference during cravings. But sometimes I get angry that self-proclaimed foodies earn a living writing about new restaurants and everyone else in the United States eats fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, yet I can’t even enjoy a gluten-free waffle without suffering serious adverse side effects.
Moreover, everyone indulges in a vice, whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, shopping, or escapism via video games, television, travel, or porn. Unlike secondhand smoke and some other addictions, my occasional binge doesn’t hurt anyone, so I resent the fact that I’m one bad dietary decision away from renouncing all food and threading an IV tube into a vein.
When these feelings got the better of me one unseasonably warm spring day after my ex stood me up for a drive-in theater date he’d suggested, I shrugged my shoulders, devoured 1.5 quarts of peanut butter cup ice cream, and prepared for the worst.
The worst arrived in the form of an inch-wide tumor on my forehead, which I glimpsed in my phone screen as I vegged through a sugar hangover. In a panic, I consulted a dumbfounded pharmacist who talked to me for 45 minutes, felt the lump, and told me to call the local free clinic after the holiday weekend. In the meantime, I confided in a former classmate who’s a Facebook friend and the only Christian I know, hoping she had a direct-dial number for God, who would tell her to tell me what to do.
“I think it’s just an adenoma,” she said. “Try eliminating all brown foods – bread, chocolate, coffee, tea. I had an overnight lump years ago, and my doctor asked about my diet.”
Of course, I thought. Because Edy’s and Diet Pepsi were my last remaining pleasures. Like a good little girl, I listened to my father who art in heaven and gave up dairy, soy, sugar, and pop in addition to my grain-free lifestyle. However, the sugar and dairy hiatus only lasted through June and part of July as I attended free clinic appointments and underwent blood work, a long-overdue pap smear, and a CT scan. As soon as the doctor said he thought the tumor was benign but couldn’t be sure because it lies behind my skull and needs to be biopsied, I accepted my newfound facial deformity, was grateful I’d always worn bangs, and with an air of defiance, stopped at Wendy’s for a chocolate Frosty on the way home.
If God’s going to cut my life short over a cup of ice cream, so be it, I thought. I have already given up goals, dreams, and doughnuts. I’ll be damned if I’m foregoing frozen treats and chilled cherry frosting, too.
Glutton for Punishment
As it turns out, I may be damned if I don’t. For one thing, I can’t eat either in moderation and, says gotquestions.org, “Gluttony seems to be a sin that Christians like to ignore. We are often quick to label smoking and drinking as sins, but for some reason gluttony is accepted or at least tolerated [even though] the arguments used against smoking and drinking, such as health and addiction, apply equally to overeating.”
Second, while on this Earth, Christians are supposed to practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control because those are the qualities Jesus espoused, and if we all adopted those traits, life would go a lot smoother for everyone.
“If we are unable to control our eating habits, we are also probably unable to control other habits, such as those of the mind (lust, covetousness, anger),” the Got Questions? website says.
Fair enough since I swear and, with my hand magnetized to my car horn while driving, I belong in Manhattan, not heaven. But like many people who think God will forgive one deadly sin as long as you refrain from the other six, I always imagined He would overlook my gluttony and impatience in favor of my compassion for people, animals, and the planet. After all, when I worked downtown, I handed homeless people dollar bills, leftover pizza, frosted Pop-Tarts, or whatever else I’d packed for lunch. If a guy stands holding a cardboard sign at the I-90 off-ramp near my condo, I will drive to the nearest ATM, get back on the highway, turn around, and then hand him a twenty. I roll shopping carts into stores if they’re blocking handicap spaces. I sponsor a goat named Gus at the Gentle Barn and donate money each month to Leilani Farm Sanctuary on the Big Island. I pick up other people’s garbage from beaches and sidewalks. And in 2010, I drove 14 hours to Mobile, Alabama, to help clean up BP’s oil spill. I’d like to think I’m a good person, so why am I now doomed to a Nutty Bar- and Banana Twin-free existence?
To my knowledge, Joyce Meyer is the only televangelist who’s addressed the topic. As usual, her answer was succinct: You can’t resist the devil if you can’t even resist a chocolate chip cookie.
Also, per the Bible, we’re renting our bodies from God like tuxedos, so we’re supposed to handle them with care. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” 1 Corinthians states. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”
That seems to explain the cervical dysplasia, the breast lumps, the leaky gut, and the forehead tumor. Furthermore, since God is a jealous god who forbids people from bowing down to idols (or doughnuts), and we’re supposed to trust Him and refrain from worrying, He’s fed up with me turning to food during trials, tribulations, and emotional turmoil.
The Good News is, He wants to give me beauty for ashes. Or in my case, crumbs.
“Ashes,” writes pastor Doris Sykes, “are the useless things in your life that no longer serve a life-giving purpose.”
On this subject, Joyce Meyer, who was sexually abused by her father and held onto bitterness for years, has assured viewers that if they will relinquish those thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that have been hindering progress, God will replace them with something better: His peace.
Until then, “The drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,” according to Proverbs. So if you think it’s a coincidence that I lost my job while grocery shopping my first day of vacation on Kauai, you haven’t been paying attention. And you’ve probably neglected to notice what God’s trying to do in your own life. But don’t feel bad. I connected my dots while licking chilled lemon frosting from a dishwasher-spotted spoon on my lanai.