#Grandma Rose: How a Ketogenic Diet Rescued My Mom from the Edge of her Life
Welcome to my BLOG. This was the first post I uploaded many months ago. Then took it down. Now I am reposted this.
This is the first chapter to the book I wrote ANYWAY YOU CAN. As you read this post, I hope you feel the love I shared with my mother. Through this story, you will fall in love with Grandma Rose. And you might learn a few nuggets about why I recommend a ketogenic diet to all of my patients with chronic disease. Aging is not for the weak of spirit. But it can be so much easier with a few ketones defending against rapid decline. Read. Enjoy. And share with those you love. Scroll to the bottom to the link to the interview with Grandma Rose.
Patients line up day after day asking me to solve complicated medical problems. We look at their problem together and we, doctor and patient, come up with a plan. After I’ve laid out their options, patients often ask me “Doc, what would you do? How would you deal with this?”
On a good day, I step into the patient’s shoes and answer that question. It isn’t easy. My training and medical textbooks programmed me with plenty of sterile ‘safe’ answers. Revealing what I would personally do places me out on a limb. Risking a distant fall away from the trunk and roots of conventional medicine, sometimes I bravely answer what I would personally do in their situation.
These are the moments that bring patients back to my office again and again. They thank me for showing them the path I would take.
Grandma Rose’s story is a case in point.
Grandma Rose is my mom. I could fill countless pages sharing stories of how generous, forgiving, strong, and faithful she is. She shares the gift of always seeing the very best side of any human being. Come to think of it, thirty pages would not capture the depth and width of her goodness. Grandma Rose is a true-to-life Mary Poppins.
In 2007, Grandma Rose’s perfectly healthy 63-year-old body failed her. Her New Year’s Eve trip to the emergency room rattled our family when an infection of her lower intestine derailed her practically perfect life. Mary Poppins Grandma Rose left the hospital with veins pumped full of antibiotics and a thick medical chart stamped with the words: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia-CLL for short.
This type of lymph cell cancer lingers around the body taking refuge in places that you can’t see or feel. This cancer perfectly suits the manners of Mary Poppins.Cancer Journey
No need to make a fuss with lots of symptoms and noise. Like Mary Poppins, CLL grows silently and asks no one for permission.
CLL lives in bone marrow and lymph cells. If you try to eliminate CLL with chemotherapy or radiation, these cancer cells will outsmart you. Instead, you must watch and study CLL over time, waiting for just the right opportunity to hit it at its weakest point. CLL wages an intelligent, drawn-out war, collecting battle points over time.
These battle points are tallied by way of the number of cells on each side. Good versus Evil. Healthy versus Deformed. A black and white score. The good, healthy white blood cells use their slick, flexible, nimble skills to hunt down any invading organisms that sneak into our bodies. The deformed white cells of CLLs are wrinkled, stiff, and useless. Too many CLLs and Grandma Rose dies from an infection.
The score in 2007 was Grandma Rose (GR):
1 vs. CLL: 50.
Despite those odds, her healthy white cells were powerful enough to keep her from seeing doctors for nearly 2 years. In 2009, she met her match when a mosquito bit her. That mosquito infected her with West Nile Virus. Her CLL-to-normal ratio pitted 89 deformed cells for every 1 healthy white blood cell. With those odds, she couldn’t rally a defense against this invading virus.
The virus easily wove and dodged the healthy cells by hiding behind deformed ones. Within a day, the infection got to her brain: West Nile meningitis. With a swollen infected brain, she hung on to the edge of life. Two months passed before she fully recalled how to use the sewing machine that stitched all of my childhood clothes.
Over the last decade, the GR versus CLL battle points surged repeatedly to dangerous levels. Each time she got close to the edge of defeat, we beat back her CLL numbers. In those times, we reset the battlefield through chemotherapy.
Doubling rate. This term describes how long it takes for CLL to double. At first, Grandma Rose’s doubling rate was two years. Then her CLL grew smarter and started doubling every six months. We thought Grandma Rose had seen the worst. Nope. It was only the beginning. Shortly after, her CLL doubled every six weeks.
We pulverized her CLL with chemotherapy. It destroyed the deformed cells and brought the CLL score down to normal. The problem with nuking her cancer cells is that we also zapped Grandma Rose. The treatment left her close to defenseless against the viruses and bacteria that naturally lived in her system.
Previously, Grandma Rose’s robust immune system quickly and quietly handled any invasion. Five decades as a farmer’s wife stimulated her body’s defenses thanks to routine exposure to the grime of hogs, cattle and farm waste. After chemotherapy blasted her cells, she needed to stay on antibiotics for weeks to fight even the weakest of infections.
The therapy crippled her immune system. Grandma Rose teetered on the edge of collapse. Badly weakened, she slumped through the next six months just to feel half-normal again. Sapped and ashen, Grandma Rose swore she’d never do chemotherapy again.
I prayed for her to forget her traumatic chemo experience.
Three years later, we faced the same decision. Her will to fight had deteriorated. Sickly, at 67, I coaxed her into another round of chemical trauma. The army of deformed lymph cells crumbled under the power of those anti-cancer compounds. Sadly, so did Grandma Rose.
This time around, her infections broke out stronger and faster. Her lingering bacteria remembered those antibiotics and outsmarted them. We swapped antibiotics to keep the bugs guessing.
Still, after dozens of different types and kinds and combinations of antibiotics, Grandma Rose got sick. Very sick. She got so bad her CLL ratio collapsed to 1000:1. That’s right-1,000 deformed lymph cells for every healthy one!
She crawled through the next six months. This time she felt half of her half-normal.
I warned my brother and sister, “I don’t know how we’re gonna talk her into the third round of chemo should she need it.”
And there we were again in 2016. The numbers didn’t lie. Her CLL count doubled every two months. She needed her chemical cocktail again. This time she was 71. Ten years of cancer smoldering within her had aged her.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on her part or mine. She hung on to that resilient Mary Poppins attitude.
I reviewed every bit of information I could find about her type of cancer. I read about the new research regarding CLL. I read old literature about CLL. I sorted through both conventional and alternative therapies. I grabbed hold of every article, podcast, and editorial I could find. I wept. I prayed. I kept up with any new symptom she experienced or any change in her aging body.
Still, none of that took away the fact that Grandma Rose was now a wilted 71-year-old woman filled with cancer. She was carrying 50 extra pounds and had an immune system that matched that of a 130-year-old.
We were in trouble.
As her CLL numbers rose, the doctor ordered a repeat blood test in 8 weeks.
In April 2016, I listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast interview where he interviewed Dom D’Agostino, Ph.D. about his research on cancer and ketosis. In fact, I listened to it several times and followed my curiosity into the deep dark mysterious tunnel of this topic. The research drew me in and I couldn’t think about anything else for weeks.
Convinced of the powerful potential of ketones, I put myself on a ketogenic diet on Memorial Day 2016. Truth be told, I put myself on it a month before, but I failed to produce one stinking ketone that first month. It took me four weeks to get the rules straight.
I cut out every carb I could find. I threw out all the junky carbs that were in my house because I was rotten at resisting them. During that failed month, I checked urine ketones expecting a quick victory. After a week of randomly checking and failing every time, I started checking every morning and night. Nothing. Embarrassed by my failed attempts, I parked my stubborn ego at the door and asked for help. I included my husband in removing even more high carb foods from the pantry. Together we agreed not to buy any more.
I circled back to my favorite blogs and books and it appeared I was making a very common mistake: not eating enough fat. I committed to eating even more fat. I loaded up on heavy whipping cream and butter at every turn. Coconut oil lined all of my frying pans and I even added these fats to my coffee. Finally, I produced my first ketone on May 30th, 2016-thirty days before Grandma Rose’s follow up blood test.
Once I started making ketones, I worried about all that fat I ate. The rules I’d taught patients for two decades clashed with the amount of fat needed for ketosis. I resisted my habitual aversion to fat. I needed to see this chemistry experiment through. The first week of ketosis sold me.
Weathered and tired, Grandma Rose met me at the doctor’s office. Her decline contrasted sharply with the surge of energy I started to enjoy when I cut down on carbs. We showed up at the appointment and her numbers announced the ugly truth: CLL 5000: GR 1.
Dr. McHale’s words hit me like a slow-motion train wreck, “Rose, it’s time again.”
“You must undergo chemo soon or there won’t be any room in your bone marrow for healthy cells. The CLL already claimed 98% of your bone’s real estate. Before long, it will conquer all.”
Her gaze speared across the exam room and hit me in the throat. Her eyes told me she didn’t want to do this again. Tears filled my eyes as I silently pleaded with her not to give up. Selfishly, I wasn’t ready to stop fighting her cancer, but this fight was not mine. No matter how much I wanted her to keep pushing if she surrendered it meant I surrendered with her.
Twice before we had left the oncologist’s office with that slip of paper. It read: “Schedule for infusions of chemotherapy.”
I broke our silence with an unexpected plea. “Mom, put off chemotherapy for six weeks and let me show you what I would do. Give me six weeks.”
This book shares the story-mistakes and all-of our journey to a ketogenic lifestyle. It begins with the fear of cancer but leads to so much more. My cancer-filled, 71-year-old mother’s experiences fill these pages with what we learned.
When it came right down to this question, “Doc, what would you do if the person you loved the most was dying of cancer?”
My answer, “FIGHT IT ANYWAY YOU CAN.”