Kick Sugar to the Curb!



The most awkward speaking engagement I’ve ever done was a few years ago. I was asked to speak at a nurse’s retreat on the topic of nutrition and stress management. Because, apparently, learning how to eat healthy is stressful.


I spoke just before lunch, and then was invited to stay and eat with the group. A fast food company catered the event.


Imagine. One minute, I’m telling them all about how to eat a plant-based diet that is low in saturated fats and fried foods. The next, the room is filled with the sweet smell of salty, greasy food.


I could tell they couldn’t wait for me to leave.


Nutrition is a touchy topic! No one wants you to mess with their food. Ever since the serpent used food to tempt Eve in the garden, it has been a weakness for us. We want to eat what we want and let that be the end of it.


I understand. In fact, for most of my life, I never really gave much thought to the foods I ate. I had a HUGE sweet tooth.


Yes, you read that right. I couldn’t get enough sugar. Ice cream, cookies, chocolate….I indulged in them all! I have been an avid exerciser since the age of 5, so I used that as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted.


This all caught up to me during my pregnancies. I have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes a total of seven times. Sometimes, my blood sugar was so out of control that I had to go on medication to try and control it. My babies were always born a few weeks too early and looked like tiny linebackers. After each pregnancy, I continued to struggle with dramatic highs and lows with my blood sugars. After my fourth child, I was diagnosed as a boarder line diabetic.

This was when I finally received my wake up call.

It took that diagnosis for me to realize that my health was important. Just because I exercised, I didn’t have a free pass to eat whatever I wanted!

I started to realize that eating a diet rich in sugary foods was not just impacting me physiologically, but physically and emotionially as well. I noted that when I ate high amounts of sugar, I would feel more fatigued. I would also be moody. I experienced constant cravings for more sugar. My joints ached in the mornings.

As a mother of young children, I knew this was not how I wanted to live my life! So, I took charge of my health. Being a nerdy researcher, I studied all I could about sugar. I learned that sugar contains no nutrients, no protein, no healthy fats, and no enzymes. It is not a food group. It is just empty calories that are quickly digested. As it is digested, it actually pulls minerals from the body, creating a hormone cascade that begins a positive feedback loop in the body that makes it crave even more sugar. It can increase cholesterol and triglycerides, contributing to Leptin Resistance, weight gain, cravings, sleep troubles,  and an addictive response in the brain.

This led me to do something drastic.

I cut all sugar out of my diet. Cold turkey.

Yes, I almost died.

BUT, I got my blood sugar back under control! I also lost a bunch of weight and had more energy than I have had in years. My mood improved. My joint pains were gone.

That was nearly 7 years ago. Of course, I have had some slip ups here and there. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine my life without Graeters Cotton Candy ice cream every once and a while! But for the most part, I have maintained a sugarfree lifestyle.

That is all to say that this is DOABLE!! There is life after sugar!! A pretty sweet life, if you ask me! (See what I did there?)

Maybe you have been thinking about reducing your sugar intake. Here are some tips things that helped me, and I hope they will help you as well!

1.     Go cold turkey. Yes, the initial 48 to 72 hours are tough. Really tough. But, that is what it took for me to diminish my cravings. You see, I'm generally an all-or-nothing gal. Why eat one cookie when you can have a whole box? So little bites here and there would never cut it for me. I'd never be satisfied with simply reducing my intake and trying to manage that. It wouldn’t work for me, and I would bet that if you are still reading this, it won’t work for you either. Cold turkey is the only way!


2.     Grab some gum. If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum. Sugar free, of course. But it really works!


3.     Reach for fruit. Genesis 1:29 reveals that God gave us every seed-bearing plant and every tree that has fruit in it for food. Some people get hung up on natural sugars, and use that as an excuse to avoid fruit. But naturally occurring sugars are balanced with enzymes and are easily digested. Further, they are full of fiber and important vitamins and nutrients, so enjoy! The natural sweetness is sure to kick your craving to the curb!


4.     Get up and go. When a sugar craving hits, walk away. Take a walk around the block or do something to take your mind off the food you’re craving. In 5 minutes, you will have forgotten all about that cookie!


5.     Drink Ice Water. It sounds crazy. But I have found that drinking a full glass of ice cold water does wonders for my cravings! It also gives my belly the feeling of fullness so that I don’t overeat on something else while I’m trying to avoid sugar and rehydrates me! Win, Win, Win!


Good luck! You totally got this!


Weight Management During Cancer Recovery

Cancer treatments often cause side effects that can significantly impact your eating habits, appetite, energy levels, and body weight. For some, this might cause you to lose weight. However, more often than not, patients tend to gain weight – sometimes as many as 25 to 35 pounds - during treatment!


As you can imagine, weight gain, along with changes in appearance brought about by surgery and hair loss, can significantly impact a cancer survivor’s self image, confidence, and self esteem. Physiologically, additional weight gain puts the patient at an increased risk of ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. It also increases their risk of cancer recurrence and cancer mortality.



WHY Some Patients Gain Weight


The reasons why some patients gain weight during treatment (and others don’t) is complex and multifaceted. For starters, chemotherapy often causes metabolism to slow down, making it difficult for the body to maintain a healthy weight.


In addition, sometimes treatments include the use of corticosteroids for relief of nausea, swelling, and other side effects. This is associated with increased appetite and the development of fatty tissue.


Finally, many chemotherapy treatments given to pre-menopausal women promote an early transition into menopause, where women tend to experience a reduction in lean body mass and an increase in fat mass.


One more thing – Physical inactivity also contributes to weight gain during treatment. In fact, it has been cited as the primary reason patients gain weight! Of course, the side effects of treatment are tough. Stress, fatigue, nausea, and pain make it difficult to have the motivation to exercise! However, physical inactivity during treatment lowers your energy expenditure and decreases your lean body mass…and causes you to gain weight.


There is hope, however!


Weight reductions of just 5-10%

can have significant health benefits to the cancer survivor!


Recommendations for Weight Management


·      Physical Activity: Research strongly supports physical activity as safe and effective during cancer recovery, and demonstrates that those who are active have higher survival rates compared to those who remain sedentary.

Also, low-to-moderate exercise will optimize the immune system during treatment!


In order to obtain a healthy weight, the American Cancer Society recommends patients practice the following:

o   Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activity as soon as possible after diagnosis.

o   Aim for at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each week. Engage in low impact activities, such as walking, biking, or swimming.

o   Perform strength training exercises at least twice each week.


·      Nutrition Recommendations: Eating a healthy diet will promote overall health and help protect the body from other diseases.


During cancer treatment, nutrition goals should be to prevent or resolve nutrient deficiencies, achieve or maintain a healthy weight, preserve lean body mass, and reduce nutrition-related side effects.


Some nutritional guidelines set forth by the American Cancer Society to maximize quality of life include:

·      Limit high-calorie foods and beverages.

·      Reduce consumption of white flour.

·      Choose 100% whole grain foods (brown rice, quinoa, whole grain breads).

·      Eat at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day.

·      Limit intake of red and processed meat.

·      Limit saturated and trans fats, found in red meat, fried foods, margarine, and donuts.

·      Eat “good” fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats), found in olive and canola oil, nuts, natural nut butters, and avocados.


To summarize, strive to be

physically active and eat healthy during treatment!


If you would like to make a change in your exercise or eating habits, but don’t know where to begin, we would love to help you! Join our Survivor Strong online weight loss group! In this program, you will be given the tools you need to succeed in losing weight and optimizing your quality of life.


Our next program begins October 1! You can register here. I would love to work with you!





The Woman Who Changed My Life

I didn’t exactly pick cancer. Cancer picked me.



I had wanted to study bilateral deficit in grad school. How cool is it that the sum total of force produced in an individual limb is greater than when those same limbs contract at the same time?


But when I proudly announced that research topic in my interview for my doctoral program at the University of Northern Colorado (a.k.a. the ‘other’ UNC), I was quickly shot down.


“Well, that’s nice, dear. But all of our grant dollars are allocated for cancer and exercise research, so you’re going to have to study that.”


I’m pretty sure I had an internal panic attack when she said this. I had never known anyone who battled cancer. I literally knew nothing about it. Everything I did know was wrong! Immediately I pictured my great grandmother. She was 102 years old, had severe osteoporosis, and would never have been able to walk on a treadmill.


How on earth would exercise make a difference in the life of someone like that?


But in that moment, I did what any 23-year-old interviewing for a doctoral program she had no business being in would do. I smiled, nodded, and quickly agreed to anything and everything my future research advisor said!


Six months later, my first patient walked into my office. Her name was Patty. She was a young mom who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She brought her 9-year-old daughter with her to our appointment.


So many thoughts raced through my mind in that moment. Up until then, I had never thought about the fact that moms could get cancer! I didn’t have any children yet, so I questioned if Patty should hide her cancer journey from her kids. Wouldn’t it scare them? Isn’t it just too much for their little minds to grasp?


And yet, here was Patty. Like me, she didn’t pick cancer. Now she had no other option than to fight it back with everything she had. And she wanted to make sure that her daughter saw her doing just that.


Patty quickly became my hero. Week after week she would show up to exercise. Pink bandana around her head and daughter by her side. I had never seen so much courage in all my life.


Patty gave cancer a face.


But more than that. Because of Patty, I realized God’s call on my life.


For three years at UNC, I worked harder than I ever thought I could. I did exercise training with our patients, and also spent hours upon hours in our animal lab – which is ironic, because I have been a vegetarian for most of my life…and before you get too huffy about it, let me be clear that these were very large rats we worked with…. not the cute little puppy dogs I know you’re picturing! Honestly, though, I loved every second of it.


We had a little rat treadmill that we would use for our exercise sessions. Then, either before or after the exercise protocol, we would inject them with Adriamycin (that is the chemotherapy known as “Red Devil”, because….well, use your imagination….). After that, we would study their heart function.


Amazingly, every single exercise protocol we employed was cardioprotective. The animals who exercised and received the chemotherapy had hearts that were no different physiologically than the sedentary controls. Even if they just did one bout of exercise before their treatment!


By the time I graduated, I was a strong believer in the benefits of exercise during cancer recovery. I mistakenly thought it was already part of the standard of care. I thought I could walk into any cancer ward of any hospital, introduce myself, and volunteer in their exercise oncology division.


But I quickly learned that this was not the case. With very few exceptions, no one else in the country was offering exercise for cancer patients.


How in the world could this be?


I knew that exercise made a difference in the life of someone battling cancer – a tremendous difference! Therefore, I believed that every patient should have the opportunity to receive exercise training. For free, of course, because we all know how expensive cancer can be!


And so, Maple Tree Cancer Alliance was born. In 2011 we received our non-profit status, and have had the honor of serving thousands of patients since.


Fifteen years have passed since I first began working with Patty, but I still think of her every day. Her daughter is now older than I was when we first started training together. Patty has been able to be there to watch her grow up. She saw her graduate from college (UNC, of course!) and get married. This spring, she will welcome her first grandchild into the world.


Of course, many things can be attributed to Patty’s success. Answered prayer. The wisdom of her medical team. And I’d like to think that maybe…just maybe….her exercise sessions had something to do with it, too.


This is why I have made it my personal mission to advocate for exercise oncology to be part of the national standard of care for cancer recovery. I invite you to join me on this journey as we make a difference in the lives of those who bravely battle cancer. Together, we will fight cancer back!


Maple Tree Cancer Alliance: A Model Exercise Oncology Program for Getting Cancer Survivors Active In Your Community!


Nationally, there are 15.5 million cancer survivors. Of these, more than 95% experience side effects that negatively affect their quality of life, whether it be fatigue, cardiac abnormalities, or range of motion limitations. Exercise has long been considered a safe and effective way to manage treatment related side effects. However, less than 5% of cancer survivors are ever referred to, or participate in exercise oncology programs.


Maple Tree Cancer Alliance has developed a successful model of individualized exercise oncology. We currently have offices across Ohio and Pennsylvania, and are poised to expand nationally over the next 3-5 years.


Upon referral, patients complete a minimum of 12 weeks of prescribed, individualized exercise that includes cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility components. The intensity level for the cardiovascular exercise varies depending on the current treatment status and training level of the patient. Generally, it will range from 30-45% of the individual’s predicted VO2max, to protect patient immunity during treatment. Strength training involves a full body workout, with emphasis on all major muscle groups. Machines, free weights, and tubing are all employed. Patients work up to completing 3 sets of 10 repetitions for each exercise. Flexibility training includes static stretching of all major muscle groups for 15-20 seconds at the completion of each workout. Patients meet with a trainer a minimum of once a week, and are given instructions on how to remain active at home. We recommend comprehensive fitness assessments be completed every 12-weeks to monitor for program effectiveness and to allow the exercise oncology instructor to make changes to the exercise program as needed.


Our program demonstrates improved treatment outcomes, reduced symptom severity, and cost savings for the patient, payer, and providers, alike. For more information on partnership opportunities with Maple Tree Cancer Alliance, or to sit for our nationally recognized Exercise Oncology Instructor certification, join our email list on our website. Together, we can change the way that cancer is treated in this country!