Pain is such a destructive force in our body, not only in its obvious sense but also because of the impact that being in pain has on our appetite. When our body hurts and aches, or feels tender and sore, eating is often the last thing on our mind. Strong pain killers, such as the morphine-based drugs I had to take for years as a young woman facing health challenges, can also annihilate the appetite and make you constipated – another symptom that can cruelly take away our desire to eat. It’s almost as if the body says, ‘If I can’t get rid of anything, then I’m going to stop you wanting to put any more in your body’. It’s the opposite of what we actually need. Being in pain is exhausting and depleting, so if you don’t eat much you feel weak and low, both physically and emotionally, which makes the pain feel worse.
Eating the wrong foods can intensify pain, so it’s a question of finding ingredients that will soothe and comfort. But before I talk about these, I wanted to talk about distraction and relaxation as ways to reduce the amount of pain you’re in. It’s an issue that’s particularly relevant now, as concerns about the addictive nature of opioid drugs are so much in the news.
When I was reeling in pain and feeling doped out from the drugs meant to ease the discomfort, it was my mum who suggested that she read to me or that I listen to an audio book. It was one of the most effective ways I found to distract myself, because it meant that my mind could focus on something else, so the pain was reduced. I find with my patients that if we can adopt some relaxation or distraction strategies, it can help to protect their appetite so they can manage small amounts of nourishing foods and, in many cases, reduce the need for such hefty medication.
Distraction doesn’t have to be calm and quiet! It’s about finding something that works for you– comedies that make you laugh, YouTube videos or Ted Talks that absorb and intrigue you, a playlist of your favourite music… I found that, rather than meditative songs, I wanted to listen to uplifting, louder tunes with little space between the notes to allow my brain to realise it was experiencing pain.
Relaxation works for others. A warm bath scented with relaxing oils, a change of scene or environment, a meditation app… Sometimes, the physical sensation of a foot rub or hand massage can prove a soothing distraction; the feelgood sensation in one area helping to override the pain in another.
Finally, certain foods are more likely to exacerbate pain. Cabbage, broccoli, artichokes, beans and lentils, for example, produce wind that can cause discomfort in the gut. You may find that fatty foods make you feel sick, as they can feel heavy on a liver overloaded by disease, medication, or treatment. High-fat foods can also increase diarrhoea, which is far from needed when you’re in pain.
It can be wise to flip to lighter foods for a while, such as delicious grilled fish and new potatoes with a little butter, instead of traditional fish and chips. Or pasta with olive oil and freshly chopped tomato and basil, instead of a thick creamy carbonara. And rather than coffee or tea, which might aggravate the gut or cause headaches, try sipping chamomile or lemon verbena, which can soothe the mind as well as the body.
‘Cancer can be a lonely place’
Illness is just one part of who you are
Grieving not eating