It wasn’t a big deal when I first noticed my ankles and feet swelling. I’m not sure if it started the middle of last week or over the weekend. It didn’t seem like a big enough deal to pay attention to at first.
But by Monday, the swelling was painful. My shoes felt as though they were about two sizes too small. It hurt to walk. I still didn’t think it was a big deal, but it was irritating enough by Wednesday to go visit a friend who’s a doctor. I just wanted him to tell me how to make the swelling go away.
My friend took a look at the swelling and pressed his thumb into part of the skin on each ankle and he timed how long it took the “pit” to go away. It was taking far longer than it should, he said, and that made it a “pitting edema.”
“Is it going to kill me?” I asked jokingly.
“Well, pitting edema is a classic sign of possible congestive heart failure,” he said. And he wasn’t joking.
For just a minute, I felt as though I was in another doctor’s office 18 months ago when a specialist told me that I had breast cancer and needed immediate surgery. For that minute, I relived what it felt like to experience the worry and loneliness I’d felt then. (I wrote about the experience of surgery this past January, on the one-year anniversary.) It felt as though someone was waving a red warning flag at me.
Over the next hour, I had various tests done. Heart trouble was quickly eliminated as a cause, but the feeling of serious warning stayed in my mind. Eventually, it was determined that I had an unusual infection of some kind, probably from bug bites. As I’d suspected from the beginning, it was no big deal. Still….
For several years now, I’ve been eating terribly. I wrote last year about my struggle with food, especially sugar. For me, eating the wrong things — and gaining weight — are purely psychological. I eat to fill emotional needs that I haven’t taken care of. It’s something that a lot of people understand, but if you’ve never experienced it, there’s no way it can seem like a big deal.
The oncologist told me last year that eating all of the sugar I was eating certainly didn’t cause the cancer, but he said there are indications that all that sugar provides an environment where cancers can grow more easily. Cancers seem to “like” sugar, he said.
As my doctor friend and I were talking Wednesday, we talked about the junk I’ve been eating. He didn’t lecture me, but he reminded me that what I was doing to my body were creating the right conditions for something bad to happen.
When I was diagnosed with cancer 18 months ago, I was scared. I hoped to be able to use the experience as a springboard to change some behaviors and find new ways to meet needs that weren’t getting met. It wasn’t long before I’d forgotten about that.
After the cancer was removed and I remained healthy, nothing in my life really changed. The same emotional needs remained unmet and I went right back to eating ice cream and cookies and so forth in disgusting quantities. The sugar leaves me feeling drugged, sluggish and drained of energy, but I keep doing it anyway — just like an alcoholic keeps going back to his bottle instead of dealing with his core problems.
When I thought briefly Wednesday that I might have a serious heart problem, I was scared. I’ve kept enough of that fear since then to be very sober in the way I look at my actions. I haven’t eaten any sugar since then. I feel better and have more energy, even though a part of me is still driven to eat the problematic sweet poison.
I find myself feeling that the cancer scare last year was a warning. This odd little incident that turned out not to be a big deal was another warning. Is life trying to warn me that I have to deal with the issues that lead me to overeat or else I’m going to face bigger problems?
It sounds silly to anthropomorphize “life” in this way, but something about it feels right. How many warnings does life give you to deal with issues that need to be dealt with? How long can you keep using a dangerous substitute instead of filling an emotional hole with what you really need?
The antibiotics I got for my infection are working. The swelling is going down and I can walk without pain. My shoes actually fit again. The only question I’m left with is whether I’m going to take this warning sign seriously or just ignore it and keep setting myself up for a serious problem in the future.
I’d like to say I’ll take it seriously, but I’m not sure what to actually do about it, so I really don’t know. And I don’t know how many warnings I get.