In this episode, Lisa interviews one of the members of the Small Steps Living community. Renee Wallace is a mother and bowel cancer survivor, who shares her insights on how a life threatening illness can change your priorities, and how important it is to know what is normal and right for your own body – and taking action if you notice a change.
You can connect with Renee and find out more about her journey here: http://reneewrites.net/
And you can get on the waitlist for the next round of the Small Steps Living membership here: http://smallstepsliving.com/ssl/
Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:
Lisa: Welcome to another episode of the podcast, guys. I, once again, am feeling a little bit excited. I tend to get excited about podcasts, because I’m sitting down, in my podcasting room, in my trackies, with a glass of water, and I have a very special guest on the other end of the line.
Renee is a Small Stepper, and when I asked if there were any Small Steppers who wanted to share their stories, quite a few people put up their hands, and Renee shot through some answers to questions.
Her story blew me away. I was trying to hold back tears. They were, kind of, sad tears, but then really happy, proud, tears, of the strength of a woman, and I think that that’s what you’re going to hear today. Renee, welcome to the podcast.
Renee: Thank you.
Lisa: And you’re dialling in from over the ditch?
Renee: Yes, I am.
Lisa: Whereabouts are you in New Zealand?
Renee: I live about 40 minutes south of Dunedin, in a small, rural town. It’s a farming community, so they’re quite nice, and cosy, and relaxed.
Lisa: And green?
Renee: Yes, very green.
Renee: Yes, very cold!
Lisa: So, cosy is, like, code word for slippers and big jackets?
Renee: Yes, fire on.
Lisa: Oh, fire on. Man.
Lisa: Oh, get out! It’s like my dream. People honestly don’t understand, the weather’s dropped to about 23 or 24 degrees, so everyone in Brisbane is wearing their long winter jackets, which is hilarious. I’m just loving life, and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so cold,’ and the Melbourne girl in me is like, ‘You ain’t seen nothing. Stop complaining!’ And I’m just glad to walk around without a sweat moustache right now.
Anyway, I should just move to New Zealand! Let’s talk about you. So, can you just give us that little bit of background as to, you know, did you grow up in the same small town? Where did you grow up? Was there anything unusual about your upbringing, or was it a pretty standard 80s, 90s, childhood?
Renee: Yes, I had a pretty standard 80s, 90s, childhood. I grew up in the city, in Wellington, and I spent most of my childhood there, and moved a bit further north, in Hawke’s Bay, to do my high schooling. It was, yes, pretty normal, just run of the mill, middle class family, your normal stuff that you take for lunch. You know, it was just a normal upbringing.
Lisa: And then, you’ve got a babe, you’ve got a kid?
Renee: Yes, I have an eight-year-old son.
Lisa: So, tell me a little bit about having him, and raising him, you know, with food. And then tell us a little bit about something that happened last year.
Renee: My son is fantastic. He’s very independent. He is an only child, and now it’s more than likely he’ll stay an only child. I’m quite lucky with him that he’ll just eat anything, so changing our lifestyle is no drama to him, because he still gets all the normal treats that another kid gets, just a little bit more healthy.
So last year, I was 38 years old, and I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, which was a huge shock, because it was not something that was ever going to happen, you know? Other people get sick, old people get sick. Not a young, healthy person like me.
Lisa: It must have been. I mean, as I told you before we kicked off the podcast, we have bowel cancer in both sides of our family. But this was to people much older than 38. How did you find out you had cancer? You know, were you going to the doctor for something, and then they’re like, ‘Ooh, hang on, let’s test for this?’ Like, how do you even know?
Renee: I didn’t know, and when it was picked up, my tumour was quite advanced. I went to the doctor one day, because I couldn’t walk, and I had extreme pain in my left side that just prevented me from being able to get up out of a chair. It hurt to walk, or anything.
I left it for a few days, as you do, because I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just something that’s happened,’ and so I went to my doctor and she sent me to the hospital for some tests, because she thought there was something wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong.
By that stage, I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe something could be wrong,’ and the hospital that I went to discharged me with a viral infection.
Renee: They said, basically, the symptoms I was showing, I was too young to have anything that was of major concern. So, luckily, we had private health insurance, and I went back to my doctor and asked her to refer me for an ultrasound. Just to put myself at peace of mind that there was nothing wrong.
Lisa: Yes. And she did that?
Lisa: What the actual? So, that would have been an undiagnosed, late form. You know, like, we’re staring down the barrel of that not being treated, and it going too far, and that being it.
Lisa: That’s terrifying.
Renee: It is. If I didn’t take action when I did, the next thing that would have happened is I would have ended up in A&E in a very serious way, because the tumour would have burst through my bowel, or started causing a blockage, very quickly.
Lisa: So, what are the normal symptoms for bowel cancer? Is that level of pain, and inability to walk, and that sort of thing, is that what are the normal signs? What should people be, kind of, looking out for?
Renee: No, I had no symptoms as per the bowel cancer-, whatever you call them, like, what they go off. So you’re going to your doctor. So, the main things are change in bowel habits, blood, losing weight really fast, and there are a few other things. But yes, I had none of the normal symptoms.
Lisa: Normal, typical symptoms. So you weren’t presenting as a normal bowel cancer patient?
Renee: No, not at all.
Lisa: Okay, so it was only because of your digging that, then, an ultrasound showed up something nasty. And what was that like? What was it like hearing your diagnosis?
Renee: I never heard a diagnosis as such. It was really weird, because I went for an ultrasound, and the lady that was doing it was really lovely. She was talking to me the whole way through, and pointing things out on the screen, and said, at this stage, she couldn’t distinguish between my bowel and my ovary, because the tumour was making my bowel push against everything else.
So, I was like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s alright, it’s just something on my ovary. I can deal with it. They’ll just take that out, and I’ll be fine.’ But yes, they sent me for further scanning, and that’s where they picked up the tumour.
Lisa: So then, was it surgery?
Renee: Yes. I went from having symptoms to surgery in about six weeks.
Lisa: Whoa. Whoa.
Renee: So it was all pretty fast.
Lisa: And still, then, were you kind of going, ‘I’m a cancer patient. I have cancer’? Or you still weren’t?
Renee: No, it was weird. Because everything was so fast, I never considered myself a cancer patient, because no-one really said to me, ‘Oh, you’ve got cancer.’
Lisa: Yes, right.
Renee: It was all, ‘Oh, you’ve got a tumour. You’ve got a blockage. We’ll get that looked at,’ and then the next things was they were ringing me up saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got space for you, for surgery.’ And it was all just taken care of. After my surgery, they started talking about chemotherapy and stuff like that. It still never really sunk in, for quite a while.
Lisa: Do you think that that was just your way of protecting yourself? Or you just feel like you go into some kind of shock, or some sort of autopilot?
Renee: I think you do. Because no-one really sat down and spoke to me, and said, ‘Look, you’ve got cancer,’ it was just one of those things, that it wasn’t talked about. So, I just carried on life like normal.
Lisa: Wow. It’s really quite extraordinary. I mean, I’ve known people who weren’t prepared for their own deaths, because they just actually didn’t quite hear the diagnosis as it was given to them. I’m fascinated by that, because I think that there must be something in our human condition that seeks out that, ‘This is going to be fine,’ kind of mode.
And lucky for you, it has been. Are you at your one-year surgeversary, which is what you called it when you were answering the questions?
Renee: Yes, I will be on Tuesday.
Lisa: That’s amazing! And so, are you cancer clear?
Renee: I am at the moment, yes. I’m regarded as cancer free at the moment, but I’ve got another four years until they’ll say that I’m actually cancer free.
Lisa: Okay. So, once all of this did start to sink in, no doubt you’re probably giving Google a bit of a workout? And you were starting to, kind of, seek answers as to why a 38-year-old has a large cancerous tumour on her bowel?
What sort of things did you start to uncover, that you, maybe, didn’t know before about cancer? About bowel cancer?
Renee: Oh, there’s lots. As much as I did read a lot of stuff, I also tried not to, because I was at a stage where I had recovered from my surgery, and was about to start chemotherapy, and there’s so much conflicting information.
I’d read something one day and be dead against having chemotherapy, and stuff like that. Then the next day I’d read some other stuff, which showed me the benefits. So, while I was researching for my own benefit, I didn’t read too much into a lot of stuff, until I had finished. Now, I really research a lot of things.
Lisa: And so, what have you found? Because what you said to me was that this has, kind of, become your mission, a bit? You don’t want to get cancer again, you want to keep yourself cancer free, and do all the things. What sort of things does that involve? How does your life change after what you’ve been through?
Renee: I don’t worry about things, I don’t stress about much in life, any more. There’s the odd day that I think, ‘Oh,’ if I have one little tiny symptom, or something like that. I think you can go back to a really dark place, really quickly. But I try not to stress myself with anything.
I eat as best as I can. A lot of vegetables, and a lot of fruit. I severely cut back my red meat intake, and upped my fish intake, and I’ll read, and I’ll research, something so much that then I’ll introduce it into my diet. But I won’t introduce it until I know that I’ve done enough research, that it’s going to be good for me.
Lisa: Yes, right. So, needless to say, it was definitely a line in the sand moment for you?
Renee: Yes, definitely was.
Lisa: I mean, was it something that you would have been conscious of beforehand? The power of food to, I guess, to disrupt our health, and then also to heal?
Renee: No way. No. Well, I was a healthy eater, but not in the way I am now. We were eating fruit, and veg, and meat, and all the good stuff, but there were a lot of additives we had no idea about, that have changed.
Lisa: Yes. I mean, what’s made you go down the path of reducing red meat consumption?
Renee: It’s one of the major factors that can lead to bowel cancer. So, it’s my choice to have it once a week, instead of four nights a week.
Lisa: Yes, right. It’s funny, because my father in law died of bowel cancer. When they found his, it had already spread. He was Croatian, and lots and lots of cured meats, like prosciutto, and all of that sort of stuff, big time. So, we always used to have that stuff as well, and Nick loves nothing more than an antipasto platter.
You know, beautiful cooked meats, and hams, and all that sort of stuff. It’s a bit of a tradition, but I just stopped doing those things after that, and have had the same ideas about red meat, as well. We don’t eat a stack of red meat, but now, I’ve just had our son-, his iron is really low. So, we’ve got him on a bit of a liquid supplement.
I feel like, you know, you can learn one thing, and do one thing, and then you kind of then have to be flexible in terms of how your particular body reacts, and what your particular body needs. And I loved reading that about you, and you know, you just said it then.
You can do the research, and you can find out the things, and then you put the food in, and think, ‘Well, how does this feel? What am I feeling right now?’ And you said you had a big issue giving up cheese on the advice of your naturopath?
Renee: I know. I find it hard, still. I’ve given up milk, and I had no problem giving up milk, but I can’t give up the cheese.
Lisa: This is the thing, though, isn’t it? Like, we’re also just humans, trying our best. So even although you can go through what you went through, you can get professional advice, sometimes we’ve got our little vices. And we also need to be flexible within those, I guess-, I don’t want to call them restrictions, but it’s more new choices.
Renee: Yes. I’m the same with cured meats and stuff. I had no problem giving up sausages, and salami, and things like that, but I can’t give up bacon.
Lisa: Yes. We still have bacon, but we have it in moderation. Like, we just don’t have it all the time. Or, if we have it, it’s just a little bit, to add flavour to things. Unless it’s on top of French toast, with Maple syrup, and then, you know, go and have the damn rasher of bacon with that.
Lisa: There was just a question that I wanted to ask you, on the back of that, as well. Now it’s totally slipped my mind! But what I’m interested in is the stress. So, you, sort of, said you don’t stress about things as much as you used to.
Is that because you’ve got this sense that, well, life is precious, and you don’t want to spend that time stressing? Or is it about what stress does to our body, and its impacts? Talk to me a little bit about stress.
Renee: It’s a bit of both. I, sort of, think that there’s a lot more in the world now, to not have to worry about things. I don’t stress about the little things, like my son going to sleep. I used to be a really bad mum, and think, ‘Oh God, if he doesn’t go to sleep soon, he’s not going to have enough sleep for school the next day.’ And I think, ‘Well, why am I worrying about stuff like that?’
The other thing is, I hardly ever watch the news. It’s just one of those things, and I think, ‘Well, I don’t need to know about all this stuff. It doesn’t worry me, but I know, deep down, it probably does. It’s got that subconscious feel to it.
Lisa: Yes. I totally hear you on that. And I think it’s just important to us all to, kind of, be able to-, I think we kind of move into catastrophising situations so quickly in our daily life. Nick and I have gotten very conscious of this recently. It’s like, ‘No, hang on a minute. Is this a catastrophe?’ Like, we’re moving down this line of catastrophising this situation, when in fact, ‘Who gives a shit?’
Renee: Yes, exactly.
Lisa: Why are we stressing about this? Yes, I just think it’s something we need to keep practicing, because there’s so much stress-inducing information out there. You know, even just the way that we live our life. Having to be at certain places by the time a bell goes, and, you know, it’s kind of built into daily life.
Renee: Oh, it is. Yes, it’s the whole ‘life is too short’ sort of thing. Because I could be in a whole different place right now.
Lisa: Yes. And man, I’m glad you’re still here, Renee, and kicking it, and sharing this story. And before you offer your Small Step, can we talk about poo?
Renee: Yes, sure.
Lisa: Because when you wrote down that you want people to get to know their poo, what do they need to know? Let’s just get it all out there. What do people need to know about poo?
Renee: People need to know what is their normal, basically. Because everyone has a different normal, but if you know what your normal is, you’ll know when it changes.
Lisa: Yes. And act on it.
Lisa: So don’t just accept it as a new normal.
Renee: Yes, exactly.
Lisa: Because I know that that’s absolutely what happened with my father in law. Stoic man, ‘It’ll be right,’ until it just really wasn’t. And, you know, probably would have been picked up earlier, if just coping, or just dealing with it, hadn’t been the status quo.
Renee: Yes. I was probably a bit like that. I don’t know if anything had changed, because I wasn’t conscious of anything being wrong with me. So, now I’m saying you’ve got to know what your normal is. And don’t be scared to go to your doctor because they’ve seen it all before.
Lisa: Yes. Doctors love talking about poo! They love it, just as much as a new mum. Seriously. Okay, so, to finish up today. I’ve just loved this conversation, and I know it’s not a particularly sexy topic to talk about, but it’s so important.
Also, it’s just this beautiful, amazing reminder, also, when you think about what’s coming out the other end, of what we’re putting in is a direct result. You know, it is the top to tail story of our gut, really.
Renee: It is, yes.
Lisa: And the health of a well working system should kind of be one of our biggest priorities.
Renee: Yes. You need to know what you’re putting in, and what’s coming out. Because it’s all related.
Lisa: Yes. I think so much of my message is, ‘Just go back to basics with food.’ You know, that was where I started, when I started to get really overwhelmed with all the different dietary theories. This in, this out. I was like, ‘What?’ And then, I just thought, ‘Right, well for my family, I’m just going to choose the most whole ingredients, as often as I can, and make them the best quality I can afford, and find.
Then, it’s only when you get to that stage, and your mind starts to open up to that, that then you can go, ‘Hang on, why do I always feel this way when I’m eating this? I thought I was eating well, but what’s not agreeing with me?’ And it can be that one of those wholefoods is still not a great food for you.
But it’s hard to find that if you’re constantly stressed, and going at 100 miles an hour every single day. And it’s hard to find it if you’re-, I always give the example of chasing a Mars Bar with a Diet Coke. It’s hard to get to know your body, and what works for it, when it’s being filled with crap. But when you go back to basics, it becomes about tweaking, doesn’t it?
Renee: It does, yes. It does. I’ve learnt a lot about my body in the last, probably, six months. When I went through chemotherapy, my oncologist said, ‘Just eat whatever you want,’ because the treatment’s so harsh on you, sometimes you don’t feel like eating.
So he’s of the opinion of, as long as you try and eat the best you can, they don’t mind if you eat a bit of crap because it makes you feel better. And after that, when I finished was when I got stuck into my change of lifestyle, and changed all my food, and everything. I just had to do it, little by little, and now I’m very conscious of the reactions my body has to certain things.
Lisa: Yes, and it’s a powerful position to be in, I find.
Renee: It is, yes.
Lisa: Because I think so many of us are out of tune with our body, and with the messages that it’s trying to give us. So, you know, to really be tapping into that, to be thinking about what’s working here, what’s not, what do I need right now?
And sometimes, it might not even be anything to do with food. It might just be, ‘Man, I need to go out and go for a walk, and get this system moving.’ Or, ‘I just need a bit of fresh air,’ or, ‘You know what I need right now is I just need to call my mum, or my best friend.’
Because once we tap in, and really think about what it is that we need, then we’re fuelling ourselves with stuff that matters, instead of just, you know, the superfluous stuff that most of us fill our lives with, and it’s all just, kind of, noise.
Renee: Yes, exactly.
Lisa: So, to finish up, if you had a Small Step for people to take in their health journey. You know, I guess you’ve been a Small Stepper for a while, but you’ve also had a major life event. You know, what would you say to people?
Renee: I would say to change the way you live, just do it one step at a time. One ingredient, one meal, one day, one whatever. To take it as slow as you can, and you won’t feel the overwhelm.
Because most of the time, people rush in and change their lifestyle, and they do the whole thing, all in one day. Do the whole pantry cleanout in a day, and then you get stuck with all these ingredients you don’t know how to use. So, yes, I research everything that I introduce into my pantry, and I just do it one ingredient at a time.
Lisa: I just love that. Yes, I totally agree with you. And then, it also sticks.
Renee: It does, yes.
Lisa: Because if you buy that one ingredient, and you go, ‘Oh, I could make this with it. Oh, I’ve just added it to this. Oh, now I’ve got this,’ then you know it’s not going to be wasted, and you’ve just created some easy, new, habits.
And it’s just been really out of curiosity, and experimenting, instead of bashing ourselves over the head going, ‘You need to change. This isn’t good enough. You’re so unhealthy, and overweight,’ and, you know, ‘You need to do the things. Your kids can’t eat this stuff.’ Anything that comes from that place is doomed to fail.
Renee: It is.
Lisa: That natural curiosity, that experimentation, that giving yourself permission to have this take time, I think, is so powerful.
Renee: And it works longer-term, too. It’s going to stick more than a radical change.
Lisa: Yes. I think you’re awesome, and I think it’s so refreshing to just hear stories of people who have been through something like this, come out the other side, have a new, refreshing, and positive perspective. But also not one that is so extreme, that it’s still achievable for all of us.
Renee: Oh yes, for sure.
Lisa: And I think that’s where most of us just want to get to. ‘I just want to do the best things I can. I just want to eat the foods, do the movement, whatever it is, so that I can live as healthy a life as possible.’
Knowing that a lot of it is not within our own hands, but as long as I feel like I’m doing my best, then we can, kind of, sleep at night, and give ourselves a little pat on the back. I think you give a really balanced, beautiful perspective on how to achieve that. So, thank you Renee.
Renee: Thank you.
Lisa: I love having you a part of the community, and I can’t wait to share this podcast episode. So, I’m going to go right ahead and start editing this.
Renee: Oh, yay!
Lisa: Let’s get it up soon, and get this message out to the world. And I look forward to hearing how you’re going to continue sharing this, as I think it’s something that people need to hear about.
Renee: Oh yes. I’m out there all the time, talking about it.
Lisa: Good on you, Renee. Thanks so much for your time.
Renee: Thank you.
Lisa: See ya!