Britt SHARES: Off the Menu

It’s been three years since I’ve eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet.

Removing both gluten and dairy from my everyday routine was not as challenging as some would suspect. Don’t mistake me, eating clean definitely has its challenges. But the transition to omitting the foods that were causing harm to my body, felt like a no-brainer.

Let me explain.

When I was nine-years-old, I lost my aunt to breast cancer. She was 42-years-old with a husband and two young boys. Shortly after, my grandmother followed her unfortunate path. She also passed away from breast cancer. At such a young age, cancer and the fear of either dying from it, or losing another loved one because of it, hung over my head like a black cloud. It felt like the woman in my family were cursed and it was only a matter of time before the curse caught up to me.

I was twenty-two when I first noticed something off about myself.

At that point in my life, I worked Tuesday – Saturday full time as a hairdresser. I also bartended Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Then Sundays and Mondays, I styled hair for a photographer and his models down on 18th and Broadway in NYC. I worked like a mad woman, which was why I ignored the symptoms and changes I was experiencing.

Throughout the day, during random hours, I felt light-headed and nauseous. It felt as if I could pass out or collapse right there on the ground. The only way I felt better was when I would lay down, or eat a hungry man’s portion of food. But day after day, I experienced these symptoms all over again. I felt sick and weak, as if I were slowly withering away.

It wasn’t until three years later, when I was twenty-five-years-old that I decided to see a doctor. And sure enough, my blood work came back abnormal. I was working as a platform artist at the IBS hair show at the Jacob Javas Center when I got the call from my doctor. She told me to leave what I was doing immediately. She informed me to go straight to the pharmacy where she had already filled a prescription. She instructed me to pick it up and take the pill right away.

It turned out I had hypothyroidism, aka, an underactive thyroid.

I met with my doctor the day after and learned I would have to take a tiny pill called Synthroid for the rest of my life.

Quick lesson:

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland situated at the base of the front of your neck, just below your Adam’s apple. It’s responsible for all aspects of your metabolism, and for maintaining the rate at which your body uses fats and carbohydrates. It helps control your body temperature, influences your heart rate, and helps regulate the production of proteins.

Hypothyroidism results when the thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones, or in my case, when it fails to work at all.  There are several different reasons why one’s thyroid fails, such as medications, auto immune disease, pregnancy, etc. But none of those reasons applied to me. There is no proof of it being genetic, however several of my family members also have hypothyroidism.

I was not happy about having to be dependent on a pill for the rest of my life.  

I found an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in thyroid disease and other things. I went in for blood work every three weeks for him to check my hormone levels to make sure they were up to speed. Thankfully, after six months of blood tests, the doctor was able to regulate my medication.

When taking the pill, along with a strict exercise routine and better eating habits, I began to feel better. The dizziness and nausea spells subsided but never left for good.

I carried on. In the midst of a busy work schedule, I quit bartending and went back to school as a full-time student. I was tired all the time, which wasn’t anything new. At my yearly endocrinologist appointments for checkups, I would tell my doctor how I felt in terms of tiredness. I would tell him, it felt like I had a small block of energy per day, and then once I exerted that energy, I felt weak and wanted to lay down. I had to force myself to keep going. He said, with such a busy schedule, it was natural for me to feel that way. My levels were normal so what else could it be? And so, I trucked on.

Until, the day my aunt approached me with some news. I was twenty-eight. It was fall, my last semester of undergrad. I was in the process of applying to MFA programs. My aunt Rose, my father’s sister. The same aunt who lost her mother and sister, my grandmother and aunt to breast cancer. My warrior Aunt. She’s had cancer at least five times and fought like hell to survive. She has always been my hero, my champion. Not only is she a single mother who raised three strong children, she is the foundation of our family. Our oracle, one with all sorts of knowledge I’m certain one can only learn from the gods. A storyteller: my aunt always offers her wisdom, support and direction.

Which was why, that day when she handed me a piece of paper that stated she carried the BRC II mutated gene, I did as she said and took it to my doctor.

Unfortunately, my OBGYN at that time was on the verge of retirement. I can only assume she was not up to date on the latest with the BRCA II mutated gene. She dismissed the paper I handed her. Told me that because the mutation was on my father’s side meant I had nothing to worry about.

She was wrong.

And when she retired five years later when I was thirty-three; I was smart enough to hand that same piece of paper to my new doctor, who took the mutated gene that ran in our family seriously. She had me tested that same day. One month later, sure enough, I was also diagnosed with the BRCA II mutation gene.

Quick lesson:

Everyone is born with close to 20,000 genes, which is basically a blueprint for your body. For example, genes contain the information that determines the color of your eyes. They also contain information that affects how the cells in your body grow, divide and die. The information in your genes are inherited from both your mother and your father.

In terms of the BRCA gene, every person is born with two copies. One copy from each parent. If one of your parents is a carrier of a mutated gene, then your chance of containing that mutated gene is 50/50. Which is something my first OBGYN should have known off the top of her head.

Each copy of BRCA in your body is there to help repair DNA-breaks that can lead to cancer and the wild growth of tumors. BRCA genes are known as tumor suppressor genes.

But when a gene becomes altered or broken, it doesn’t function correctly. This is called a gene mutation. Also known as BRCA I mutation and BRCA II mutation. I have BRCA II mutation, which means I am at high risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and other things like melanoma and pancreatic cancer.

Most women have to wait until they turn 40 to get screened for cancer. But because I am now proven to be high-risk, I am cleared for screenings twice a year.

At first, my diagnosis felt like a death sentence. I thought, I was right – the woman in my family are cursed. My worst nightmare had come to life. I sat in a chair across from my doctor in her office in a state of terror as she suggested that I start trying for a family now. She said, it would be best to get the necessary preventative surgeries – the sooner the better. She handed me a card with a surgeon’s number on it and told me to consider the double prophylactic mastectomy, explained how I should have my ovaries taken out by age 40. Because 40 is when my chance for cancer peaks.

I have two sisters who I immediately informed of my results and urged to get checked for the mutated gene. One sister came up positive like me, the other sister, negative.

That same month, I had my first breast mammogram and sonogram. I met with a surgeon and saw a genetic counselor, who also suggested I consider the surgeries since there is an 85% chance of getting breast cancer in my lifetime, and a 40% chance of ovarian cancer, which believe it or not, ovarian cancer is something they may not be able to detect, even with a screening.

My head was spinning. Thankfully, my screenings came back normal, which gave me time to think and do my own research and allow all the information to settle.

There’s a community called FORCE – Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered. I reached out to a couple of ladies who were eager to share their experiences with me, both who contained the BRCA II mutation gene.

One lady, who was in her mid-thirties, had gone through with the prophylactic mastectomy – the surgery to remove all your breast tissue to prevent cancer before getting cancer. She said it was the best decision she ever made. For years, she had watched her mother suffer from breast cancer. They wound up curing the breast cancer, but due to the radiation and chemo, her mother developed leukemia and was not able to survive that. She said, having the prophylactic surgery puts her mind at ease.

The second lady from FORCE that I spoke with was a breast cancer survivor. She was in her early forties and went for her screenings regularly. They caught the cancer early. She underwent chemo and they removed the tumor. And then right after she had the double mastectomy. She told me that she wished she had gone through with the prophylactic surgery so she could have avoided getting cancer in the first place. 

I let both stories sit with me. My family was worried that I was going to make a rash decision. But I knew better. And I never do anything I am half certain of. What I needed was time, and thankfully because of my age, and ongoing screenings, I was granted it.

One thing I came to understand and quickly was being a carrier of the BRCA II mutated gene did not guarantee I was going to get cancer.

So what could I do to prevent cancer from hijacking my body?

Eat well and exercise, right?

I did all that. But I still didn’t feel well. I still got those dizzy/nauseas spells and I was always very tired.

I went back to the doctor and got every test they allowed me to take: CBC, cardiac diagnostic test, stress test, head MRI, etc. All which came back normal.

Then what was wrong with me? Something was. I knew it. I felt it.

So finally, I sought out a metabolic specialist and nutritionist.

I sat with him and told him about my symptoms, about my underactive thyroid and BRCA II mutation gene. It was clear he had in-depth knowledge about both. He explained how the food I eat could be affecting the way I felt. How our bodies are built like machines and it’s important to properly maintain the machine/our bodies with the exact care it needs.

We proceeded forward with the tests.

That same day, he called me back in the room and showed me the results.

Indeed, something I was eating was attacking my immune system. Everything on the screen was bright red and flashing “body heading towards critical condition.”

We had to figure out what exactly was hurting me and the only way to do that was through the elimination diet. A cleanse.

For a month, I only ate certain meats and vegetables. I was taking a 300 billion gram probiotic, drinking a metabolic shake that would clean out my intestines, along with a powder to put in my water every morning. I stayed clear of gluten, dairy, soy, egg and other things. After a month, we slowly re-introduced one food at a time, gluten, dairy, soy, etc.

Very quickly, it was clear, my body rejected gluten and dairy. Based on those results my doctor suggested we take a biopsy of my intestine to check for celiac disease, but I refused. I had enough surgeries to take into account; I didn’t want another added to the list.

I would simply avoid eating gluten and dairy. Especially if it decreased my chances of getting cancer.

Quick lesson:

Gluten is a protein that is planted with wheat, barley and rye. It is meant to help foods maintain their shape and act as a sort of glue that holds the food together.

Unfortunately, the proteins in gluten are gut irritants. It’s like a paper cut or a nail digging into the lining of your intestine, which causes inflammatory, discomfort, and many more irritable symptoms.

And also, because gluten is an added ingredient (some would say preservative, cough cough) added to wheat, barley and rye, which is found in many types of foods, even ones you wouldn’t suspect, people with a gluten sensitivity like me, when consuming it, your body may not recognize the foreign object, or know how to properly break it down to digestion.

That was the case for me. My body had a great deal of trouble digesting gluten and worked on overload to try and process it but couldn’t. So instead, it stored gluten as fat, all while using all of my energy to try and break it down, which in result led to my fatigue.

Dairy is milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt. Basically, everything that comes from business organizations established for harvesting and processing animal milk. My body has trouble producing enough lactase enzymes to break down the lactose. It doesn’t have the same effect on me as gluten; however, I avoid it. 

You can’t control your body and how it wants to function. But you can control what you feed it. I am lucky that I listened to my gut and kept on top of my doctor about the mutated gene that runs in our family. I am happy I was smart enough to listen to my body and take action when I knew something felt wrong.

And thankfully, I am feeling much better. I have more energy and I no longer get those dizzy spells.

I am grateful for my aunt, Rose, the guardian of our family.

I am grateful for science and for how far we have come.

A few years later, I no longer see the mutated gene diagnosis as a death sentence; I see it as a blessing. I think of my late grandmother and aunt, and wish they had the same opportunities offered now. I go for my checkups every six months and when time comes, I will get the surgeries I need to prevent cancer. It scares me to know what lies ahead. But I am at ease when I think of my family. When I think of my grandma and aunt knowing, I will be brave for them.