Weighty Matters: Four Things I Would Do Differently (#1 is the Hardest)

Caregiving can cause weight gain.

I don’t know why the numbers on the scales shocked me.

Now that Pedro was out of immediate danger, I could take a deep breath. It wasn’t a very deep breath, because I was walking up the eleven flights of stairs with a high quality ice-cream bar in my hand. I’ve gotta take the stairs more often, I thought to myself.

The next week, they added those same ice-cream bars to Pedro’s selection of foods on the menu. Think of all the money we can save! Pedro ordered one every lunch, but would only eat a few bites. I heroically finished off the bars for him. Wasting chocolate is NOT one of my sins.

***

I stood in the middle of the fast-food court, contemplating the horrors of Chinese take out or the blandness of another sub sandwich. Day after day, the same choices, the same expense. Sure, there were other restaurants, with healthier food, but they were further away—which meant more money for bus fare, having to actually stay in the restaurant until I finished my lonely meal. What if something happened to Pedro while I were gone? Eating out at a restaurant could suck 90 minutes out of my day.

Despite the well-meaning urgings and accusations of some people, I would take a stand on this issue. The farthest I would go to eat could take no more than thirty minutes out of the hospital room. A lot can happen in thirty minutes when someone is desperately ill.

***

On the airplane again, not sure which direction I’m flying. The flight attendant offers me a bag of peanuts and pretzels (more like three peanuts in a bag with two pretzels). I accept and squirrel away my prize for later. Peanuts are so fattening.

***

I’m in an airport. Something smells good. I turn into the restaurant like a cartoon character following a scent. I dump my backpack on the floor and stare blankly at the menu written in chalk above the cash register. I blink in distress at the prices. I smell the food. I order. I sit and wait for the food to come. My forty-five minutes between flights is almost over. I tap the table. My food arrives and I gulp it down and dash down the concourse, hoping to make my flight.

***

Home again. “What’s for supper?” Sarah asks.

How I hate that question. “I’m not sure, let me take a look at what we have, Sweetie.” There aren’t many options. I can’t remember the last time I went grocery shopping. My parents are gone for the weekend. I’ve dutifully eaten whatever they’ve prepared for us.
“Pancakes?” I look at Sarah, who nods. “I think we have everything we need for pancakes. You don’t mind eating breakfast for supper, do you?” She shakes her head and I turn the griddle on.

***

We sit inside an amazing Indian restaurant somewhere in San Francisco. We’re staying at a hotel, and this is the closest restaurant with food Pedro can taste. The stem-cell harvesting period is rough. Nupogen shots to the stomach every night, three hours in the hospital as an out patient every morning, waiting for the results, then finding another cheap hotel within traveling distance that has good restaurants nearby. Pedro can taste Indian food, so it becomes our staple. When he’s too tired to walk to a restaurant, we order in.
“Is that a drug deal going down?” I exclaim in a hushed whisper as I carefully nudge Pedro.

“Looks like it.”

“Wow.” I keep my voice non-committal. What have I gotten us into? We’re only three or four blocks from the hotel, which seems to be a decent one, yet someone is selling drugs on the corner. What other vices lie between the restaurant and the hotel? How am I supposed to protect Pedro from pushers on the street corner? He weighs a whopping one hundred and forty-five…what I used to weigh before all of this. I look down at myself; my men’s size 36 shorts are feeling rather tight. They just don’t make clothes like they used to, I guess.

***

Over the year that Pedro fought cancer, we literally exchanged sizes and weights (but not height). It happened gradually, and despite the fact that you’d think I would have known what was going on, I didn’t really—I was living in a river in Egypt, I suppose. I made at least ten trips between Bozeman and San Francisco, often with nothing more than a few pairs of clean underwear, my running shoes and a coat stuffed into my computer bag. Of course, I never used the running shoes—running in a big city terrified me. Pedro’s illness terrified me.

I glued myself to the chair in his room and only left for brief bathroom visits, to take a shower or to grab a bite to eat. I did walk around the hospital with Pedro on his daily exercise routine, but I doubt those walks did much for my cardiovascular health.

In retrospect, some of my weight gain couldn’t have been avoided. If you’re a caregiver, you will experience stress and the accompanying side effects. Stress causes an increase in cortisol in a person’s body, and cortisol makes weight loss more difficult. Needless to say, I experienced high levels of stress.  That’s the scientific excuse for gaining forty pounds in a year. The emotional excuses are a bit trickier. Since that time, I’ve lost all of the extra weight (but it wasn’t easy), and I’ve explored the emotional side of eating and weight gain. Here’s what I would do differently:

1. Not let stress and anxiety become an excuse for eating what I knew wasn’t healthy for me. I didn’t need an ice cream bar every day, but I felt like I deserved one—in the end, they didn’t make me happier about my situation.
2. Exercise more. Pedro’s room was on the 11th floor. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator would have been a small gesture, but doing it three times a day would have helped keep me in shape.
3. Incorporate stretches and muscle building into my daily routine—no matter where I was. There were long periods of time when no one entered Pedro’s room. He certainly wouldn’t have minded me doing wall push-ups or running in place.
4. Remember that spiritual health and daily quiet time for reflection and gratitude play an important part in mental and physical health. Some months I was better at this than others.

Do you have any tips for caregivers who want to maintain their weight and their health during their caregiving journey?

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a 'recovering cancer caregiver' who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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