May 21, 2021
Chris Riley was 29 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. Facing intensive chemotherapy and already struggling to eat, he asked Jane for nutritional support to help him get through his treatment – and the results have been better than he ever could have expected…
Nourish: Your diagnosis of stomach cancer was a surprise. Can you tell us what led up to that moment?
Chris: I was finally told I had stomach cancer in August 2020 but I’d started feeling not like myself a few months before that. I went on a stag do in November 2019 and when I came back, I began feeling anxious. I thought I’d just overdone it, although I don’t drink that much, but the feelings didn’t go away. In fact, they grew worse.
How did your symptoms progress?
I started having panic attacks; feeling proper fear all the time. I went to my GP, who prescribed antidepressants. They calmed the anxiety but I felt as if my body was telling me something was wrong. I developed problems swallowing and began experiencing pain after eating. The GP gave me antacids but by June 2020 I was vomiting blood every time I ate and I’d lost a lot of weight, making me feel very weak.
I was referred for an endoscopy and CT scan, which detected stomach cancer. I went home straight afterwards, not knowing what to expect or how advanced my condition was. A few days later I received a phone call telling me I had stage 4 stomach cancer that had spread to my liver.
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That must have been a devastating diagnosis.
Yes, it was, but I felt it was worse for my family and my fiancée, Ellie, than it was for me. I’d been told I’d only have a few months to live, perhaps a year. But I would never want to be without them, and dying first would mean that could never happen.
You struggled with chemotherapy. What happened?
I was scheduled for six cycles of EOX chemotherapy. The hospital is opposite our house, literally a five-minute walk away, so after my first treatment I thought I’d be fine to walk home. I barely made it to my front door; every step was a struggle. I’d reacted incredibly badly to the chemotherapy and was sick every hour that night. I decided I couldn’t spend the time I had left feeling like this. I called the hospital and said I didn’t want to carry on with the treatment.
How did Jane become involved in your care?
I’d had a consultation with oncologist Professor Justin Stebbing and he recommended Jane to me. I decided to carry on with an amended treatment, without the chemotherapy drug I’d reacted so badly to, and Jane helped me to get well enough to handle it by looking at my nourishment and what I could eat, and building up my strength.
What changes did Jane suggest to your diet?
Well, before my diagnosis I actively avoided fruit and vegetables, so that changed! As I was having difficulties with swallowing food, Jane encouraged me to start my day with juices and smoothies, including ingredients such as carrots and beetroots that are shown to support the liver. She also prescribed certain supplements, such as milk thistle, which she described as like a massage for the liver.
Looking after my liver was one brilliant piece of life or death advice that Jane gave to me that no one else tells you. Before any chemotherapy cycle, the doctors will check your liver function to check it can handle the treatment. If your liver isn’t doing well, your treatment will be delayed. With Jane’s support, I only had to have one cycle postponed. This advice should be available to everyone having cancer treatment, not just the lucky few.
Did you make extreme changes to your diet?
No because that’s not Jane’s approach. If you tap ‘anti-cancer diet’ into Google it seems like everyone has a pet theory or agenda, like don’t eat meat or give up sugar. I’d read about a certain ‘superfood’ that’s meant to prevent cancer and would want to eat it all the time, but Jane encouraged me to eat a wide range of foods as that would have greater benefit – and she’d show me the science to back it up.
I had lots of soups and stews, as these were easy for me to swallow and were packed with calories and goodness. Jane recommended I buy good quality meat and slow cook it until it was really tender. I also had lots of salads, as I didn’t want to eat heavy meals. And on Jane’s advice, I had a shot of aloe vera juice before every meal, as it helped me to digest my food more easily.
I would have blood tests every week during my treatment, and Jane would look at the results and suggest tweaks to my diet based on the results. She also helped me to pace any changes, as I’m naturally impatient. I’d introduce a new food or supplement every four to six weeks, so that I didn’t overload my body. I noticed how much more alert and energetic I felt once I started following Jane’s advice.
How did Jane’s approach differ from that of the hospital?
The hospital dietitian did call me up and suggested I eat sandwiches and ice cream to gain weight; there wasn’t any mention of nourishment. Jane helped me to regain weight by eating lighter meals that were easier for me to digest and that had the goodness to give me strength and help my body recover.
Once you get a cancer diagnosis, you’re on a carousel of appointments and treatments, without really having the chance to discuss the medical decisions being made. It’s disempowering. I took responsibility to look after my body and my health, and seeing Jane was a big part of that. And with her help, I wasn’t just able to get through my treatment, I was also able to continue doing the things I love, such as cycling. In fact, she actively encouraged me to get outside and look after my wellbeing.
Jane was always cheery and friendly; she’d share ideas and tips with me, and would always get back to me if I asked her a question. It’s such a different approach from the hospital, where you’re given a dedicated nurse but it’s so hard to talk to anyone.
How are you feeling now?
I responded well to the new chemotherapy and I don’t currently need any treatment. The hospital said, you’re finished, come back in three months for a check-up, but I want to do more and not just wait for the cancer to come back. And Jane’s expertise is helping me to do that.