November 16, 2019
Highly respected consultant paediatrician Dr Gopi Menon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2019 and prescribed chemotherapy. He came to Jane for advice on what to eat to support his body during his illness and treatment
I worked in Edinburgh as a consultant paediatrician specialising in intensive care of newborns, so I’m very familiar with the NHS. Much of my care involved medicines, although I have a particular interest in nutrition in babies. I didn’t have any experience in oncology, however.
After I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was prescribed chemotherapy and high-dose steroids. I didn’t tolerate the treatment well and had nasty symptoms, including bloating of my abdomen, griping pain that I needed drugs to ease, and discomfort that would wake me up in the night. The steroids also broke down muscle, so I lost a lot of weight.
When my treatment was finished, I was told my cancer hadn’t responded and it felt like falling off a cliff edge. I was recommended to speak with Professor Justin Stebbing and he put me in touch with Jane to see if she could advise on how to eat to ease my symptoms. One problem is that I don’t feel like eating when I’m bloated, as it makes me feel as if I will throw up. But that just puts me at risk of losing even more weight.
Jane has suggested eating eggs and fish to increase my protein intake, and to step up my exercise routine to help build muscle – aided by protein shakes. For my bloating and discomfort, she’s advised taking a probiotic to increase the beneficial bacteria in my gut. And twice a day I have a tablespoon of organic aloe vera juice, which is thought to work rather like an anti-inflammatory, easing my gut problems. I also enjoy stewed apples for breakfast, which slip down very easily. Jane has told me that apples contain pectin, a natural polysaccharide, which can help to settle an overactive gut and ease nausea – which it has. It’s such a delicious remedy!
I’m from a South Indian background and came to the UK when I was nine. In India, fennel is used in sweets. One of Jane’s suggestions is that instead of drinking my usual English Breakfast Tea, I swap to an Ayurvedic tea with fennel and ginger. It’s made such a difference to my stomach problems. Jane has also advised me to avoid dairy foods for a while to give my gut a rest, especially as Asians have a tendency to become lactose intolerant as they get older. I’ve been enjoying Rasam, a South Indian soup. It’s hot and spicy and full of turmeric – so tasty. My mum makes a very good version!
Nutrition in the health service is, ‘Here are some high-calorie drinks’. My illness has made me much more aware of the limitations of what’s on offer, and as both a patient and a doctor, I feel I have a responsibility to help bridge the gap between people receiving treatment and the medical profession. I want to advocate for improved palliative care. People think of it as end-of-life care, but actually it’s about relieving people’s symptoms to improve their quality of life, so it can help those living with chronic illness, as well as the dying. Palliative care shouldn’t just be about medicine, but could also mean access to psychologists to offer emotional support or nutritionists, like Jane, who can help people to become more aware of the connection between what they eat and how their body feels.
My wife Val has been helping me to keep a food and symptom diary to identify triggers that make my symptoms worse – fatty foods are difficult for me, for example. At the beginning of my chemotherapy, I would eat steak and chips and I can’t do that anymore. But I went out with friends the other night and had a pint of prawns and a gin and tonic. Dark chocolate seems to settle my stomach and also gives me much-needed calories. With Jane’s help, I’m starting to enjoy eating again, even if it’s just small mouthfuls.
'I was struggling to eat healthily and cope with chemotherapy'
Every mouthful matters
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