Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
13 Jul

From Cancer Back to Health

It’s Friday, everyone! And that means another Primal Blueprint Real Life Story from a Mark’s Daily Apple reader. If you have your own success story and would like to share it with me and the Mark’s Daily Apple community please contact me here. I’ll continue to publish these each Friday as long as they keep coming in. Thank you for reading!

Hi Mark,

I’ve been holding off on writing up any “success story” about myself even though I have met and even surpassed my weight loss goals with Primal eating and the Primal Blueprint Fitness plan.

That is because this journey, for me, has been much more about regaining and maintaining my health for life. Looking good in a swimsuit is just a side benefit.

Five years ago, at the age of 45, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a fast growing invasive bugger that surely would have killed me without medical intervention. Over the course of two and a half years, I had eight surgeries and six rounds of chemo. That is a lot of time with a lot of enforced inactivity and the pounds just piled up. Chemo also does a number on your thyroid function which didn’t help any.

And then there is the psychological aspect of being seriously ill. The feeling of, screw it, I’m going to finish the pizza if I feel like it. I have cancer. A few extra pounds are the least of my problems.

As it turns out, those extra pounds were a major problem. When I asked my oncologist what I should be doing to help prevent a recurrence, his first words were a no-nonsense, “You need to lose weight. Extra fat cells are a source of estrogen which can trigger cancers such as this.”

That was the kick in the pants that I needed to start doing something about the problem. But where to start?

I had always been an active, healthy kid and young adult, into surfing, backpacking, hiking, swimming and even taken a detour into bodybuilding in my 20’s. My diet had always been the health food version of CW, lots of veggie and tofu stir-fries with brown rice, never the SAD at all.

A few pounds had crept up on me as I passed 40, but during my illness I ballooned up to a size 16 and 210 lbs. I am 5’10” but that is still too big.

Note my chin’s evil twin and the tank top strap disappearing into squishy stuff.

I tried white knuckle calorie restriction and got nowhere. A friend had some good results with Atkins so I started looking into lower carb eating and came across several interesting articles about ketosis as an adjunct to cancer treatment.

In addition to battling cancer, I have also had a seizure disorder since college. I had also been doing some research into the ketogenic diets that have worked so well for many with epilepsy.

At Johns Hopkins they are using something they call the “Modified Atkins Diet” or MAD in the treatment of epilepsy with excellent results.  This spurred me to look further into Atkins, but I was dismayed by all the fake ingredients in the bars and shakes you supposedly need to do their program.

So, both my cancer research and my epilepsy research were pointing me in the same general direction as I went looking for an all natural alternative to Atkins.

On the way to Primal I stopped off for a while with the book called “Diet Evolution” by Dr. Stephen Gundry. Its induction phase is basically the same as Primal and it worked beautifully. I lost 30 pounds like falling off a log. Gundry explains about neolithic/paleolithic dietary changes and that made a lot of sense to me. But then Gundry goes on to “evolve” the diet further back in time so that you are basically eating like a gorilla, only veggies with a protein garnish and then he re-introduces grains. At that point it stopped working, surprise, surprise.  That’s where he lost me and I went looking again.

So this was my long and winding path to Primal. I thought I had found the holy grail. I lost five pounds in the first week, in hindsight probably water weight due to ditching the dairy and soy.

I was already grain and sugar free and had always been a big fan of lots of veggies and salads all my life. Primal just gave me “permission” to embrace all that evil animal protein and fat. And I did, with a passion and with excessive portions.

This is where I would like to say to all newbies around here: READ THE BOOK FIRST before you listen to forum advice. In The Primal Blueprint there is an entire chapter on portion control and calorie targeting. Much of the forum “wisdom” however said to chuck your scale out the window and just eat your bacon and be happy and the pounds would fall off magically.

Guess what. Didn’t happen. I gained back those first five plus five more and then read the book and realized I needed to cut portion sizes and get my calories under control. I think Taubes got part of the story right. There are good calories and bad calories, but even with just good ones, too much is still too much.

I dialed back on all that yummy fat and increased my lean protein intake while cutting overall quantities of food. The scale started moving again and kept going down for another 35 pounds to 145, five pounds under my goal of 150 and a size 6 when my goal had been an 8.

Since then I have put on a few pounds by taking a cruise, and taken them off again the same way, Primal with sensible portion control. All in all I have been maintaining here quite easily.

Every time the subject of calories comes up on the forum, people seem to square off into two extreme camps. One side is the “It doesn’t matter what you eat, only how much you eat” strict CICO approach. In the other corner there are is “CICO is bogus, you can eat as much as you want as long as you eat the right things.”

And then there is me saying wait a minute. Why does it have to be either the quantity OR the quality of the calories. I think it’s BOTH. Eating the right kind of foods (Primal) makes it easier to restrict the quantity of food without feeling like you are going to faint from hunger.

The people who say that you can just “eat when you are hungry, stop when you are not” don’t get what it’s like to have a completely messed up metabolism. When you can’t just “listen to your body” because it’s telling you lies about how much to eat, you need to impose some control on the situation from the brain down.

Now that I am at a healthy weight with a well functioning thyroid, I can listen to my body and trust what it’s saying. It’s wonderful.

Last year I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and it was pretty easy. My knees don’t hurt anymore. I don’t get puffy ankles like I used to when I was heavy.

Then a couple of weeks ago something wonderful happened for me. I had my five years post cancer check up including mammogram, bone density scan, and blood work.

The mammogram was clean and the post chemo osteopenia I had is gone. My thyroid is healthy again and I have healthy levels on all the vitamins and such.

This all-clear was the news I was waiting on before calling myself a success.

I want to shout out to all the people out there who have suffered an accident or illness that has put them way deep in the hole of despair mentally as physical health spirals out of control. I know how you feel. But, please don’t give up on yourself. Yes it is hard to battle back from the bottom of that hole, but it is SO worth it.

I am so glad to be to be healthy again.

Sure, there is scar tissue. I don’t care. I’m alive.

These undies (NSFW – scroll to last post in thread) were something I bought for a cancer fundraising campaign when my size 16 behind would never have fit into them. Now cancer can kiss my size 6 behind.


You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Outstanding! Stories like this restore my faith in humanity in regard to being able to change.

    Doktor Jeep wrote on July 14th, 2012
  2. That’s a great story that really shows how holistic our approach to health has to be. Thank you for sharing this. I have a neighbor who is in a bout with cancer and this is a good story I can share with her to pass on some of the PB benefits my wife and I enjoy. I get a lot of mileage out of this site!

    P.S., on the CICO thing…Yup.

    Jeremy wrote on July 15th, 2012
  3. Awesome job Paleobird :)

    Shane Roelofs wrote on July 15th, 2012
  4. Wow! Thank you for sharing your amazing story! I also want to say thanks for your advice. I have been trying to go Primal and falling off because I am not losing any weight. I love what you said about having a messed up metabolism that is probably me. I will listen to your great advice, thanks.

    Jennifer wrote on July 15th, 2012
  5. EXCELLENT!! What a great testimony!! I am 5’11” and currently sitting around 196, I have already dropped 36+lbs and have some more to go!! You just gave me a little fuel to keep moving….!! You also made me realize that 145 is not an unrealistic goal. My whole family tells me I will be too thin if I get down to that and I just think now after seeing you that they are blowing smoke up my you know what!! 😉 Kudos on the great work!!

    Lori wrote on July 15th, 2012
  6. Wow! Very inspirational…I wondered what happened when I, too, being new to this Paleo path, lost the first 5 lbs, then a few crept back on. Low and behold I was eating the really good stuff (bacon, jerky, steak) with abandon and not including enough of the other good stuff (veggies). I agree that it’s both – the kind of Paleo calories you consume and the quantity – thanks for confirming. Thanks for sharing your story!

    Leslie Thomas wrote on July 15th, 2012
  7. Hell, YEAH! I love your story and your fighting spirit. Congratulations on passing the 5 year mark and on your continued health!! That is the best gift of all but being a size 6 is pretty damn awesome, too. How in the hell are you 50? You do NOT look 50 or like someone who’s had 6 rounds of chemo, for that matter.

    I am a breast cancer survivor, as well, who ate the “healthy” version of SAD for years and was overweight to boot so your story has a lot of resonance for me in many ways. (gettin’ all teared up now.)

    One of those ways, and thank you for bringing it up, is the whole issue of caloric intake in regards to weight loss. Like you, I cannot eat too much fat, or my weight loss stalls out. It’s really easy to maintain one’s weight Primally but losing weight requires a little more concentration on calories in even if they are, as you say, all good calories. Again, good on you for taking charge of your health and I wish you many happy, healthy years ahead.

    Tina wrote on July 15th, 2012
  8. Great story with lots of great advice!


    The only problem are the pictures. You really expect people to believe the last two pictures are of a 50 year old woman?

    Be honest, you took those twenty years ago.

    David Singhiser wrote on July 16th, 2012
  9. Super inspiring story. I am so happy for your improved health and your victory over cancer! One thing I like to correct every time I see it, however, is that Atkins in no way requires you to eat their products for the program. They offer them. It is up to you to eat or not eat them. Even their nutritionist, Collette Heimowiz will tell you that.
    Keep up the good work!

    Brandon wrote on July 16th, 2012
  10. Congratulations on your recovery.

    My mom, who died of breast cancer in 2010, received the opposite advice.

    She underwent several surgeries and chemo over the last few years of her life, and she was encouraged to eat what she wanted, when she wanted, to keep as much weight on as possible.

    Despite that advice, she kept losing weight due to the treatment she was on, and because she, like so many other cancer patients, found much food to be unpalatable in the face of nausea and dead taste buds.

    Since she passed, I’ve read articles about how low carb diets starve the cancer, and ultimately can slow or even reverse the progression of the disease.
    I read Gary Taubes’ article about sugar causing cancer and contributing to its growth, and it just about broke my heart.

    getfitkatie wrote on July 16th, 2012
    • Yes I wish I had know about Paleo/Primal 20 years ago, I believe it would have helped my late Mom as well

      Gayle wrote on July 16th, 2012
  11. I love how she wasn’t afraid to experiment within some general concepts with a basic goal in mind. The fact is, no program is a 100% perfect fit for any of us. Mark talks about that discovery and improvisation being important and this is a super example. Not only inspiring but a very practical story Paleobird.

    Cheryl Boswell wrote on July 17th, 2012
  12. Wonderful, inspiring, beautiful!! Congrats on your wonderful health!!!

    Joanne - The Real Food Mama wrote on July 17th, 2012
  13. Yahoo Robin!!
    So glad you finally wrote your success story and submitted it.
    You go girl :)

    Rhoda wrote on July 17th, 2012
  14. extremely happy for you…what a character! wow! I wish you nothing but the best!

    semir wrote on July 18th, 2012
  15. so happy for your success, if you are reading this, can i ask, do you think you would have had success if you tried portion control on Gundrys diet?

    john wrote on July 20th, 2012
  16. sorry, methink calories do count but we should not be counting them. a successful diet should minimize the role of will power.

    paleobird, you look stunning!
    u were pretty good looking (in the before photos)


    pam wrote on July 21st, 2012
  17. Amazing story paleobird! I’m sharing your story with a friend, I hope it may inspire her to not give up.

    primal me wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  18. Hi, I’m so glad you were able to find your way back to health! My mom was diagnosed w breast cancer last fall, has had a mastectomy, a couple rounds of chemo, and is now getting to the end of her radiation treatments. She’s doing well, which is so exciting, but lacks energy, and doesn’t often even feel like eating, and so depends on so much processed food to feed herself and my dad (though she does include quite a few no organic fruits and veggies, following CW) Now, they are much older than you, at 70 and 75, but how did you have energy to fix whole foods while you were sick? I’ve wanted to encourage a change, but am not close enough to help fix food for her, and don’t want to place undo burden on her. Especially since I’m not doing well eliminating the carbs from my family’s diet, and barely have the energy to run my own household, at 30 weeks pregnant with a 3 1/2yo and almost 2yo, so I can’t even practice what I would like to preach, Though I did pretty well during the first trimester. Anyway, so I would appreciate tips. Blessings,

    Rebecca wrote on July 24th, 2012
  19. Wow, this sure did hit home. I am a 9 yr breast cancer survivor and still battling the extra pounds from the steroid treatments given to me with the chemo, WEEKLY for 4 MONTHS. You are an inspiration…thank you.

    sue devore wrote on August 12th, 2012
  20. Thank you for your post. I too have had epilepsy since college and for the past year or so have been “playing around” with primal eating. My most recent EEG showed no spikes but I didn’t put the two together. You have motivated me to take this more seriously and put 100% effort into a paleo lifestyle. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.

    Liz wrote on August 15th, 2012
  21. Congratulations Paleobird! You look amazing, but more importantly have regained your health! I’m a one-year breast cancer survivor on a Primal path too, so your story is especially inspiring to me. Thanks for sharing!

    Mary Shaw wrote on September 16th, 2012
  22. I am trying to survive cancer by improving my health. I was just introduced to this site/book and was wondering if this is the best way to go to avoid cancer. It all sounds good, but eating meat or at least as much as it seems this lifestyle requires scares me. This story really is inspirational.

    Yaya wrote on September 17th, 2012
  23. I really enjoyed reading your story! You are a true inspiration PB. I agree 100% about CICO, I enjoy your no nonsense posts on the forums too. The only time Ive lost wt is when I track calories (no matter what kind of “diet” I follow) Thank goodness for Primal/Paleo. You’re so right, this way of eating is so much easier even with counting calories because we can actually stay full for a long time AND enjoy REAL food!

    Connie wrote on November 15th, 2012
  24. There is no way you’re 50! Seriously the single greatest inspiration I’ve ever seen, page firmly bookmarked, thank you!

    Louise wrote on December 12th, 2012
  25. Hey, I missed this story when it was posted. Too bad because it’s awesome! I’m glad you put out that calories do count, because a lot of people think they don’t. My friend and her husband both ready Gary Taubes’s book, and they both dived head-first into a VLC diet. She had a ton of success initially, but her husband wasn’t losing weight because he would eat an entire brick of cheese in one sitting. Now he’s just watching his portion sizes and, lo-and-behold, he’s lost a bunch of weight and looks great!

    Speaking of looking great, what an amazing photo! That swimsuit is so Paleo-sexy that I’m having a moment of jealousy that you have the cajones to wear something like that! Wow!

    Deanna wrote on May 19th, 2013
  26. Thank you so much for this. I, too, had an agressive form of breast cancer and then found paleo. Pretty much just followed my instincts because the overriding theme for anti-cancer diets is to ditch meat completely, eat lots of beans and whole grains. Don’t really know why, but that just didn’t make any sense to me and then I started reading the science behind paleo (thank you, Mark Sisson) and feel confident that I’m on the right path. Just got my 5-year mammogram today. All clear. Feel fantastic. Have regained some weight in the past year, but am aware of my wanderings and why it’s happened. Just want to say to anyone who is wondering what on earth to do with their diet when facing cancer, I say go with your gut, literally and figuratively, and pay attention to the science. Also, I highly recommend checking out the website and Dr. Attia’s blog.

    Christine Mathews wrote on March 18th, 2014
    • Thanks Christine. Have been diagnosed with BC (rare, potentially agressive) since going paleo. However wonder whether didn’t originate when was overweight + eating way too much sugar. My sub type doesn’t show up on scans (incidental finding on biopsy of fibroadenoma) so don’t know for how long it’s been around. Have checked out articles on Pubmed and decided against changing my diet, except for more green tea, cruciferous vegs, mushrooms, turmeric, and pomegranates. Highly recommend Dr Susan Love’s book + videos (youtube).
      Paleobird, congratulations, you are an inspiration!

      Palatina wrote on March 15th, 2015

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