Blood. It drains from our face when we’re shocked, flushes our cheeks when we’re embarrassed, heats our veins, and is chilled by bad news. Blood is reputed to offer immortality to those who would drink it, and its symbolism is potent enough to ostracise women through history during their monthly flow.
Blood is life’s most basic building block, and yet most of us never think to feed it.
The only time I remember consciously ‘feeding my blood’ was when a bad case of influenza left me with the white blood cell count of a leukemia victim. As well as my usual whole foods diet, I included vegetable juices every day with a slice of aloe vera in them as I read that aloe boosts liver function (that great engine room for healthy blood cells). Once healed, I returned to feeding my soul, nurturing my family, and winning hearts with vast feasts. I forgot all about blood once again.
And then came the day that my beloved Mama got blood cancer, or Hodgkins lymphoma.
My first instinct was to rush to the US to feed her – the best way I know how to help those in need. To take a thrice-daily task from her burden, to nourish and support her and Dad, and to ensure she would be aided by a whole-foods diet as she faced chemotherapy.
As my own blood ran cold with the shocking reminder of Ma’s and all our mortality, I read. I read that Hodgkins lymphoma attacks blood cells as it replicates its foreign, mutating cells throughout the lymphatic system. To treat it, patients undergo a chemotherapy regimen that… wait for it… also attacks the blood cells. It should not surprise me that humans came up with a way to cure cancer by injecting people with carcinogenic substances, one of them so toxic to tissues that if a drop lands on the skin rather than into the vein, the result is necrosis, and the consequence might be that though you survive the cancer, you lose an arm.
So, blood. Normally, when I think about nutrition, I think about maintaining a healthy weight, keeping the heart healthy, those who suffer bowel issues or a toxic load on the liver or kidneys. In short, I mostly think about organs. I’ve never thought much about the blood that courses through all of our organs, the fundamental *lifeblood* without which our organs would just stop. And if you think about feeding the blood, it all comes together so beautifully.
So I read everything I could find on supporting red and white blood cells counts, because between the cancer and the chemo, they are under a sustained attack. Transfusions are not uncommon during chemo, but we figured we would use everything in our nutritional armoury to avoid yet another foreign influx into Mama’s embattled mortal coil. Two very simple lists are below if you want to see our top food choices to support blood cell counts.
And in cooking for Mama’s blood, I still nurtured her soul and mine, just as every cook does. To feed the blood is an intimate act of love – a visceral offering of life sustenance.
By focusing on feeding the blood, one doesn’t count calories (chemo patients should keep their calorie intake up, especially with lots of protein), and our list of things to restrict was very short. But being mindful that it is blood (life) that we’re feeding makes a focus on whole foods so obvious as to be unthinking. When you’re feeding the blood, you don’t think ‘Cheerios or Corn Flakes?’, you think ‘tomatoes or mushrooms?’ I disposed of the containers of ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ with the glee of one who’s believed it for quite some time.
Mama still has a couple more months of chemo ahead, but she has a positive prognosis (Hodgkins is one of the most curable forms of cancer, thank the goddess) and the same buoyantly positive attitude that has stood her in such good stead all her fabulous life. And with my siblings, nieces and Dad still over there feeding her blood, she can’t fail to see just how deeply she’s loved.
Finally, at a time when it’s hard to know what to do and how to cope with a loved one’s suffering, we all get the pleasure of nurturing and loving her through the everyday act of feeding her. We’re even sharing our recipes on a private family blog, and so building our little community, nourishing it too. Yet again, food is love.
Some tips for feeding your blood
Protect red blood cells (RBC) with foods rich in B12, folate, and iron
- Meat (fish & organic, free-range chicken are best, limit red meat to no more than about 500g or 18oz per week)
- Oranges & other citrus
Protect white blood cells (WBC) with foods rich in beta-carotene and Vitamin A
- Green tea
- Swiss Chard
- Mushrooms (especially shiitake)
- Protein-rich foods like meat, beans and eggs
Other particularly nutritious/anticancer foods
- Tomatoes (pair them w broccoli when possible!)
Vitamin C aids absorption of iron, so using lemon when you cook spinach or kale is beneficial.
Ginger is great to help control nausea.
A diet rich in fruit, vegetables and nuts is high in fibre! 🙂
Aim for 25% protein, 75% vegetables on your dinner plate
- Processed foods
- Unhealthy fats (saturated, polyunsaturated, trans – which includes those that say ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’, eg margarine)