A few changes…

Have you ever made a radical lifestyle change? I don’t think I ever have. Like most people, I’m not good at sustaining new habits. I never bother with New Years resolutions on the basis that I will never stick to them. But somehow, last week, I decided that I was going to give up white flour and, since then, I don’t think I’ve had any. This is a very strange state of affairs.

As you will know if you have read previous posts on this blog, I like to bake and I like to eat the results of my baking, see here, here and here. I’ve never been one to turn down cake, or scones, or a nice, freshly made sandwich. This week I have said “No thank you” to each of these and truthfully, it hasn’t felt like a hardship.

So what precipitated this change of diet? I had a bit of a ‘light bulb moment’ last week while doing my shopping, a ‘moment of clarity’ if you like. I decided that something had to be giving me the terrible stomach ache that I was suffering from. Not only that, I realised that only I could do something about it. It sounds simple doesn’t it?  So many people swear by cutting out wheat and dairy that I thought it must be time to give it a try. I figured that I could do it as a late ‘give something up for Lent’ activity, as there are only a few weeks left.

As I mooched through the supermarket my plan changed. I would not be too radical to start with. Cutting out dairy would be a big challenge for me. I can’t explain why but I have a real aversion to the dairy substitutes that are on the market. I don’t mean that I don’t like the taste of them, I mean I can hardly even bring myself to try them! Nevertheless, I decided that I would buy some soya yoghurts and tell the Middle Miss they were a new treat for her. She would have no idea that she was being a guinea pig. If she took one mouthful and said “Yuk”, I wouldn’t have any, but if she approved it, I would just have one spoonful, to start me off.

Middle Miss tucked into her yoghurt so I said “Could I just have a little taste please….”

Of course, if you have ever tasted one of these yoghurts, you will know that I was mentally making a big fuss about nothing. If I had been doing a blind tasting, I don’t think I could have told the difference between soya yoghurt and regular, dairy yoghurt. I’m still not keen on the idea of  them but at least now I know that it’s completely irrational. I can keep working on my ‘dairy substitute phobia’ by trying one now and again. I may eventually summon up the courage to try some sort of milk substitute, any recommendations gratefully accepted.

So, back to the supermarket….

These days it is reasonably easy to buy products that are free of gluten or wheat. I picked up a bag of own brand wheat free pasta (there’s no way I could survive without pasta) and continued into the home baking section. I wanted to get a bag of wheat free bread flour. If I was going to go wheat free, I would have to get back into the habit of using my bread making machine.

Unfortunately for me, Tesco had run out of wheat free bread flour so I went for the next best thing – spelt flour. I have heard lots of good things about spelt bread, specifically that it is sometimes easier for the gut to tolerate than modern wheat flour. A bag of organic spelt flour is not a cheap thing; 1kg costs £1.99. That translates into about two loaves. However, a loaf of standard, industrial sliced white bread costs over a pound. I bought a bag and later that day, I made my first loaf.

As you can see, I only made the dough in the bread machine, I baked it in the conventional oven. I was pleased with the result, though it wouldn’t have won any prizes; the middle was slightly underdone. When the children came home after school, the loaf was demolished fairly quickly. I was amazed. I didn’t think the ‘brown-ness’ of it would appeal to them at all.

Since then, spelt bread is the only bread I have eaten. Considering that I am a big fan of toast (see here), I think I have done well to stick to my intentions. If I have needed a quick snack I have taken to eating rice cakes instead. When I look back and think of the amount of processed white flour I would normally have eaten, I am quite shocked.

What is more, when I consider the number of cakes, scones, biscuits and pastries that I have turned down this week I realise how much sugar and fat I have also avoided consuming.

Now so far I’ve been eating my new diet for just over a week and a strange thing has happened. Normally I suffer with the most horrible, pre-menstrual headaches. Last month I had a nagging headache and a feeling of being cold and tired for at least five days. This month I have not had a single symptom. If this change of diet has cured me I will stick with it forever! These hormonal headaches have bothered most of the women of my family. I am the third generation (at least) to have suffered from them.

Last night I did a google search and came up with some interesting results.

According to www.womentowomen.com

“The mineral magnesium and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) have both likewise been demonstrated to decrease migraine frequency in people who normally have multiple migraines a month. By effective, we mean at least a 50% reduction in migraine frequency.”

So I checked out the nutritional value of spelt flour and guess what…

“Spelt is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, iron, and manganese. It has vitamin E and B-complex vitamins too (especially niacin)”  For the source of this information see here

And then this came from www.migraine101.com

“If your blood sugar is not steady and goes extremely up and down, this will also trigger a migraine headache. The extreme varying of blood sugar causes a corresponding increase and decrese in blood insulin. The wide varying of blood insulin causes the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norephineprine (noradrenaline). The adrenaline and noradrenaline release causes the vessels in your brain to contract and expand. The vessels contracting and expanding is implicated in causing a migraine headache.

Here again, estrogen dominance has been shown to cause insulin resistance[1]. Women taking estrogen had a 31 percent lower utilization rate of insulin compared to postmenopausal women not on estrogen replacement therapy. [2] In other words, excess estrogen causes your body to become less sensitive to insulin. Thus, for a given sugar load your body has to produce more insulin. More variation in insulin, more variation in adrenaline and noradrenaline, more vessel expansion and contraction gives rise to more migraine headache.

The link to estrogen dominance as a contributor to diabetes type II and insulin resistance is clearly seen in the side effects of birth control pills. Some diabetes type II women blood sugars are greatly affected by birth control pills. Also anecdotally, many women that I have treated with natural progesterone have been able to lower their requirements for their diabetes medication.”

If I understood that correctly, the kind of hormonal migraine that my family is prone to is potentially exacerbated by too much sugar in the diet.

Could it really be that cutting out this flour (or perhaps the attendant sugar) is having such an instant and positive effect on my health?

I suppose I will just have to stick with it and see what happens next month. After all, it’s not such a hardship, eating fresh, home-baked bread.

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How do you cope when a child is diagnosed with cancer?

I was trawling through blogland last week and I found an invitation to help promote CLICSargent, the charity that supports families dealing with childhood cancer. You can read the piece that prompted me to get involved by clicking here.

It didn’t take much to persuade me because I have personal experience of CLICSargent and the work that they do.

My son was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, on the 17th of July 2008. You don’t forget the date your child is diagnosed. It goes into your consciousness, along with birthdays and other anniversaries. It is the start of a different phase of your life.

Everyone thinks that diagnosis is a terrible shock, something that you must have to spend ages coming to terms with. It wasn’t like that for me. I felt that diagnosis was a relief. I knew there was something amiss with Son Number One, I’d taken him to the doctors with a few different complaints and I was starting to feel that I needed some answers. In hindsight, he must have been feeling ropey for quite a while, poor child.

Falling asleep in his dinner was one of many signs that Son Number One was not on top form

The only time that I felt emotionally out of control was the first time I walked the length of the children’s oncology (cancer) ward. There were some very sick looking children there, several of them were hooked up to drips, most had lost their hair. It’s an image I can still conjure up. I realised that my son would soon look the same. He was going to be a cancer patient.

I remember speaking to my Mum just after that. “He’s going to loose his hair” I wailed down the phone. “That’s ok”, she said, “It’ll grow back”. She was probably more devastated than me at the time but her common sense shook me out of my emotional state.

About three months after diagnosis when the first intensification drugs started to kick in and make him really sick

We spent about a week in hospital after the initial diagnosis. The Husband and I shared a single bed for a few nights until I was able to get a bed in Crawford House, a ‘home from home’ run by The Sick Children’s Trust on the RVI site.

Despite what it means to us, I still love the old RVI building

We were very lucky that there were Grandparents on hand to hold the fort at home. The Middle Miss was 11 months old and we probably hadn’t spent a night away from her at that point. Not only did our parents look after her, they cooked for us (parents aren’t provided with food on the children’s wards in the Newcastle RVI) and visited us. That sounds like anything a normal family would do but it involved a round trip of 70 miles and negotiating the traffic of an unfamiliar city.

Children’s cancer is rare, so the units that treat it are often far from the home of the patient. That was one of the shocks to me; I had assumed his treatment would be in our local hospital. I am still thankful that I wasn’t living in West Cumbria. Children living there also travel to Newcastle for treatment. Their trip is 95 miles in one direction.

CLIC Sargent know all this. That is why they aim to visit all newly diagnosed families as soon as possible. We were visited by one of their staff during our first stay in hospital. She immediately offered us a grant of £200 to help towards travelling expenses. We spent that very quickly. Our fees for the hospital car park were about £35 for that first week! We were allocated to a CLIC Sargent social worker who helped us to apply for any benefits we were entitled to. She also listened to our questions and worries about how we would cope with Son Number One’s treatment.

This is what five weeks on high dose steroids will do to you

Finally, we were told that CLIC Sargent provide holidays for families in our situation. At the time we just thought “That’s nice, there are some perks to your child having cancer!” Later we realised that you can’t really risk booking any other kind of holiday because your child could be admitted to hospital at the drop of a hat. I suspect most travel insurance is unlikely to cover that kind of eventuality. For some families, the holidays that CLIC Sargent provide are about more than this practical solution to an expensive problem. For some families, these holidays are a way of creating lasting, precious memories.

Happy days on the beach, not long after diagnosis, courtesy of CLIC Sargent

So, how have we coped as a family? There’s no doubt that having extended family nearby has been a complete blessing. We have been able to drop everything and take Son Number One to Newcastle whenever we have needed to. Occasionally Grandma has been the one resident in hospital with him. Even Grandma who lives further away in Cumbria tried to come and visit each time Son Number One was admitted. Grandparents can be so invaluable. One of the other mothers we met on the ward told us that her parents had temporarily moved closer to them in order to help out.

The Husband’s employer was extremely understanding. He was given five weeks compassionate leave at the time of initial diagnosis, provided with the means to work from home and had the terms of his ‘flexi-time’ made even more flexible. They even treated Son Number One’s numerous clinic appointments as if they were the Husbands, allowing him time off for them, no questions asked.

The single rooms in the old RVI ward. The TV’s were at a rubbish angle!

I have often felt very guilty at the amount of time the Husband has had to take off work. I really wanted to be the one in hospital with Son Number One. Experience showed us that this was something I frequently did not cope with. This upset me a great deal. I felt that as a stay-at-home mum I was really letting the side down by not being the one doing the hospital visits. However, when I did go I regularly developed a massive migraine and often came home sicker than the boy. Well, vomiting more anyway. I was tempted, occasionally, to snaffle a bit of his anti-sickness medication.

The Middle Miss has grown up knowing nothing other than having a big brother who got a lot of our time and attention. She is fairly adaptable and seems to cope when she has to stay behind while Son Number One gets whisked off to hospital. In the early days when he was very sick, she tried to cheer him up in her babyish way (she was only just a year old) by bringing him toys. Whenever he was tucked up on the sofa she would want to get up with him. Unluckily for her, he was having none of it! I sometimes wonder how their relationship has been affected by his illness. He was really sick just at the time when they should have been forming a strong bond by playing together. I suppose time will tell.

Our friends promised to help us if they could, and when we’ve needed to lean on them they haven’t let us down. One of my lovely friends happened to visit us one day when I was in the throes of one of my migraine attacks. Despite having two children of her own at home, she stayed with us and made sure we were ok. Another friend, who lived closer to Newcastle than us, brought Son Number One porridge sachets one cold winter night when the city centre supermarkets were shut and it was all he wanted to eat. Local friends and neighbours have babysat for the Middle Miss without hesitation. One dear friend used to drop by unexpectedly with delicious, home made casseroles for our freezer. I feel like an Oscar recipient now (sniffles) “I’d like to thank anyone I’ve missed out – I love you all”.

When things were at their most difficult, I asked for some help from Rainbow Trust. Our CLICSargent social worker referred us and it was one of the best things we did. Once a week one of Rainbow Trust’s support workers would come to visit. She was a big hit with both the children from the start. She took Middle Miss out to local soft play areas so that I could completely focus on Son Number One’s needs. When he was feeling better she took them both and gave me a few hours alone. There was one occasion when she came and the Husband was at home too. I felt quite guilty that we had taken her time up  unnecessarily but she said we should just enjoy having someone else around caring for the children and relax. If you ever get the chance to support Rainbow Trust, please do. They look after families with seriously sick children, whatever the illness.

On September 15th last year we celebrated Son Number One taking his last dose chemotherapy. That’s another date etched into my memory. We celebrated by taking him and his friends for a ‘Happy Meal’. Who was I to argue with such simple request when he’s put up with so much.

In a couple of weeks Son Number One should have his portacath (the device that sits under his skin and allows powerful drugs to be delivered, literally, to the heart of his circulatory system) accessed for the last time. This is a pretty uncomfortable procedure that he has learnt to tolerate over the last three and a half years. When he wakes up it will have been removed and another stage in recovery will begin. He has already changed so much since the chemo stopped. He has slimmed down, increased his energy levels and developed a massive appetite.

He will always have a few scars from his treatment, mainly physical I think. Hopefully, the pain and discomfort will soon be a fading memory. We will always wonder about the possibility of a relapse. It is very unlikely, but it could happen. Some families don’t get to the recovery stage. I’ve known two mothers who’ve lost their children to cancer. I can’t imagine how they coped.

If you would like to support CLIC Sargent by hosting a Yummy Mummy event, please go to the website here. If you use social media like Facebook and Twitter (er, I have no idea how twitter works so forgive me if I’m talking rubbish) you could support the cause by simply sharing a link to this blog post. The more people who know about CLIC Sargent, the better. Thanks for reading this far.