To mark World Cancer Day on 4 February, Munira Premji shares what she has learned from her relationship with food while battling the ravages of three cancers over the past five years.

Five years ago today, my world was shattered. Within a two-week period, I was diagnosed with two advanced blood cancers: stage 3 multiple myeloma and stage 4 non-hodgkin lymphoma. I had enjoyed good health until receiving my diagnoses, so it was a very difficult time for me and my family.

As my body went through chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments to combat the cancers, I experienced many side effects: from painful mouth sores to extreme fatigue; from constipation to diarrhoea; from not being able to eat food for days to eating a whole tub of ice cream in one sitting. My weight fluctuated — I lost and gained anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds, depending on where I was in my treatment cycle.

When I first started to lose weight, I was elated! I looked better, I shopped for clothes that were two sizes smaller and I smiled every time the numbers on the scale dropped. But soon I realised that this came at a price. Not eating meant I was becoming progressively weaker and more fatigued.

I was forced to re-define my relationship with food — to start seeing it as a source of energy that would help my body fight the illnesses I was going through.

I learned to love meal replacement beverages because they quickly gave me the nutrients I needed in a glass. I would drink my high-protein meal supplement in style, pouring it into a fancy tall blue glass filled with crushed ice for added crunch, taste and experience. I also learned to eat smaller meals throughout the day.

On days when all food tasted like sawdust — a side effect of the chemotherapy — I had to patiently seek something with flavour. Sometimes it was yoghurt and banana, for a period I had a love affair with oranges, and then the only food I could tolerate was hot and sour soup! The key was to continue to experiment with food that I could eat, because it was so easy to simply not make the effort.

In the past year, I have battled yet another adversary — Stage 3 breast cancer. In order to give my body the energy it needs to fight this new illness, I am slowly discovering through trial and error how to balance between eating food with high nutritional value and maintaining a healthy weight. My biggest food lesson when dealing with the ravages of cancer is to be kind to yourself and to eat nutritionally when you can.

My son, Shayne Aman, has been a huge influence in how we eat at home. We have replaced corn oil with olive oil and coconut oil. Snacks now comprise carrots and celery with hummus, apples, nuts, Greek yogurt and Shayne-approved protein bars.

Salsa is now a mainstay as a condiment. White bread has given way to rye and wholegrain breads. Grilling has replaced frying. Refined sugar is frowned upon, and processed foods are simply not encouraged.

It is incredible how a few changes over time have made a positive difference to how we feel. Shayne has also taught me about portion control — eating small meals throughout the day and taking the time to savour what we eat.

The challenge of eating well with cancer continues to be a work in progress, but it has whet my appetite for learning more about food and how it impacts my body.

Munira Premji resides with her family in Toronto, where she continues to live her life fully and fearlessly.



Peer Review: Shirzad Chunara MHSc RD, Shahzadi Devje RD CDE MSc, Shameera Somani BHSC MHSC | Edits: Afshan Khoja