Marlys Johnson is a cancer widow, author, speaker & blogger. We first met her through her work coordinating St. Charles Medical Center’s Survivorship Program and her beloved husband, Gary – a CHN Support Volunteer for many years. Her passion for helping others navigate life’s challenges inspires us every day and we are delighted to share her insights.

To read more of Marlys’ work – and discover her love of all things outdoors – visit her blog Cancer Adventures.

When my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with cancer, we asked the professionals about diet and exercise. One doctor said, “That’s like closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out.” Well, thank you. That was helpful.

On our own initiative, we increased our veggie and fruit intake, eliminated unhealthful fats and sugars, sticking with extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, avocados, honey, and molasses; and we ate more whole grains and legumes.

And then Gary died. And I quit cooking for myself.

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In time, I came to understand that the good nutrition we implemented for Gary during cancer and for me as caregiver would also serve me well in widowhood. Here’s where my daughter, Summer – a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach – comes in. “I want to eat better and feel healthier,” I told her.

Summer suggested a plan that was developed by Dr. Sara Gottfried, a conventional women’s health MD. When Dr. Gottfried realized that what she was prescribing for her patients wasn’t working on her own hormone and gut issues, she developed the Hormone Reset Diet.

On this particular cleanse, meat is eliminated in the first three days, although I could still eat organic chicken, salmon, and sardines.

Next, sugar is eliminated. And then I went fruitless, caffeine-free, grain-free, dairy-free, and toxin-free, all the while eating veggies (1 lb. a day), beans, legumes, and nuts.

food (1)After the 21-day cleanse, food groups are reintroduced, and I’ve been paying close attention to how they’re affecting my body.

Detox diets. They’re controversial. A WebMD article reports that detoxes “are popular, but they aren’t proven to do what they say they’ll do: flush toxins out of your system. … Potential side effects include low energy, low blood sugar, muscle aches, fatigue, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and nausea.”

I didn’t feel weak or hungry, maybe because I was actually eating more food than normal. I had no muscle aches or fatigue. No low energy or low blood sugar. In fact, while on the detox, I hiked the Green Lakes trail in the Cascade Mountains with my cancer-kicking hiking group. Nine miles round trip with an 1,100-ft elevation gain.

The WebMD article continued: “Detox diets are typically very rigid and involve eating the same few things over and over.” That wasn’t the case for me.

“Think anti-inflammatory,” Summer had instructed earlier, “like garlic, onions, carrots, beets, squash, beans, tea, raw nuts, pineapple, blueberries. Sweet potatoes are great. So is salmon. Cinnamon and turmeric, lemon, mint, and ginger can be added into most recipes.” I’ve not eaten such a variety of healthful whole foods since Gary died.

“Don’t forget the fats! Super important,” Summer said. “Eat avocados and raw nuts. Drizzle flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), or sesame oil over salads or raw veggies.”

food (1)Here’s what I learned from my 21-day cleansing diet:

  1. I wasn’t eating as healthfully as I thought.

It wasn’t that I was eating unhealthful foods; it’s that I wasn’t eating enough of the healthful options. A normal day looked something like this: Homemade granola for breakfast; a small spinach salad, or a cheese quesadilla on whole wheat tortilla for lunch; and soup, or a rice-and-bean bowl, or air-popped popcorn (often) for dinner. You see the lack of a variety of nutrients in that diet. During the cleanse, I ate more food. And quite a nice assortment. The key for me is keeping a good supply of healthful offerings on hand.

  1. A healthy gut is invaluable.

The bloatedness that had become my norm is now gone and my stomach is flatter and tighter (I’m doing some tummy exercises, as well). This, alone, is worth the regimen of the diet.

  1. I realize how much I enjoy cooking and how fun it is to try new things.

I tried new recipes, and tweaked a couple of my old favorites, i.e., the rice-and-bean bowl. At the time, I was off grain and dairy, so I used cauliflower rice in place of the brown rice; eliminated the grated cheese; and drizzled EVOO over all: rice, beans, green olives, tomatoes, fresh cilantro, green onion, and avocado. Seriously delicious.

* * *

On Day 21, Summer texted to ask what I was planning to eat the next day. “Chocolate cake?”

Me: “Yes, chocolate cake with French fries, and a Jello salad with Cool Whip. And nothing green. In that order. And you?”

Summer: “Haha! I was thinking the same thing.”

On Day 22, though, there was no desire for fries or cake or sugary non-foods. Instead, I continue eating the variety of foods I’ve enjoyed these last few weeks as I re-introduce fruits, some grains, lean meat, and a bit of honey for my tea.

Back to the WebMD article: “The only type of detox diet that is worthwhile is one that limits processed, high-fat, and sugary foods, and replaces them with more whole foods like fruits and vegetables. That clean-eating approach is your best bet to getting your body in tip-top shape.”

Bingo. That’s exactly what this cleanse did for me.

Bottom line from Daughter Summer: “The main thing is not to get too caught up in what you can’t have. Focus on what you can eat: Fresh vegetables and fruit, beans and legumes, whole grains, healthy oils and fats, fermented foods, oily fish and lean meats, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, herbal teas.”

That’s what I plan to do going forward. Because I love how I’m eating now. And so does my gut.

Those of us who are cancer patients, cancer caregivers, even the bereaved – we’ve been recruited for a tough job. It goes without saying that our love and service can extend a good deal further as we replenish our bodies with good nutrition.