mediterranean diet, pasta, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, healthy food

Breaking Good

by Steve Fisher on August 26, 2015

Five years ago, when I was in my late fifties, I had one of the worst days of my life. After a blood test for an annual physical revealed a PSA level of 4.1 – not excessively high, but a possible warning sign for prostate cancer – a biopsy indicated that I did, in fact, have cancer.

I got the diagnosis over the phone from a staff nurse.   I had to wait a month before a specialist could see me, and despite indications that my cancer was low grade, he advised that I have my prostate surgically removed. There are several kinds of treatment for prostate cancer – from the implantation of tiny radioactive isotopes to a method of freezing the affected organ – but I quickly learned that what they have in common is that they all suck. Frequently there are very unappealing side effects such as impotence and incontinence. No one treatment appeared to me to be superior.

One of my three daughters, Katie, is a nurse, and she had gone with me to the doctor. “Surgeons like to operate, Dad,” she said, and urged me to wait for a second opinion. So I consulted with a urologist, a woman educated in the States but born and raised in Barcelona. She had me get an MRI of my prostate, which revealed only a small lesion, so she advised a “watchful waiting” approach rather than surgery. She also advised a significant change in my diet.

I was born in Iowa, and when I was growing up a balanced meal consisted of a steak, potatoes, and a vegetable. Though my eating has evolved over the years, my diet in the past five years, post-diagnosis, has changed pretty notably.

Since my “second opinion” doctor was from Spain, she knew the general health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with its dependence on olive oil instead of butter and plenty of tomatoes, raw and in sauces. I’ve learned about the benefits of foods high in lycopene – tomatoes, of course, but also broccoli, leafy greens, green tea, pomegranate, and some soy. Not long afterward, I heard another doctor’s lecture on the Mediterranean diet, and if I needed further convincing, his talk did the job.

So every morning I start the day with 16 ounces of green tea and a six-ounce glass of V-8. I had begun to be caffeine intolerant, anyway, so giving up coffee wasn’t a big leap for me. I never have loved broccoli, but I do like cream of broccoli soup, so that provides much of my intake of that part of the diet. Along with the change in nutritional regimen, I’ve doubled down (more or less) on my already regular workout habits, going to the gym five to six days per week, and going through my week’s worth of reading The Economist while on a stationary bike.

So far, my diet and exercise changes have made my watchful waiting far better than the stressful waiting it might have been. I’m also taking a low dose of a prostate-shrinking prescription drug.  My last PSA was 2.5, well within the normal range.  I certainly would have preferred not to have to deal with prostate cancer, though I am hardly unique in that regard. But as a result of the food I eat, and the care I take of myself, I’ve lost fifteen pounds and I’m probably healthier now than in the days before my diagnosis.

Steve Fisher is an economist living in Colorado.

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