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Doctor’s orders: How to make long term lifestyle changes

Being told you’ll have a health condition ‘for the rest of your life’ is grim.

Here’s how Georgia Lewis is tackling the challenge. And here’s how to make lifestyle changes when you’ve got no choice!

I’m not sure if I’m a naturally sensible person or if I just do a good impersonation of one. I did well at school and got involved in sensible pursuits, such as editing the school newspaper. But, like plenty of kids who grew up in rural Australia, I got up to my fair share of underage drinking, chasing boys with varying degrees of success, and car-related idiocy.

As an adult, I am the very model of sensible behaviour – on paper, at least. I’ve been consistently employed since I was 18 and happily married for 13 years, we have a manageable mortgage, I buy travel insurance, you can trust me to feed the cat if you go on holiday.

But I was rather silly with alarming frequency in my 20s. Working on a lads’ mag probably didn’t help. Moving to the Middle East for five years didn’t help either. Seldom sober in decadent Dubai. Tax-free money! Restaurants! Media parties! Cheap shawarma!

Which brings me nicely to my diagnosis of gastritis

Last November, I started to feel full really quickly whenever I ate. It was physically impossible to eat too much. More than a stone has dropped off my 5’1” frame. A blood test revealed my CA125 cancer markers were elevated. This is how I learned that my gastrointestinal symptoms were an indicator of ovarian cancer, an aggressive form of an already-evil disease that is seldom detected in time to do much about it.

After a stressful Christmas, featuring private and NHS scans, I was thankfully given the all-clear for ovarian and uterine cancer, albeit with a bonus diagnosis of adenomyosis. Attention turned back to my stomach. A horrific endoscopy without sedation confirmed I had gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining.

 

A horrific endoscopy without sedation confirmed I had gastritis

 

I was already on Lansoprazole to keep the acid at bay, but long-term, it was best to wean myself off them because of the osteoporosis risk. Along with Lansoprazole, I have been taking calcium tablets, the size of which would choke a horse. Cue the dreaded ‘lifestyle changes’ talk with my GP.

The endoscopy showed no signs of stomach cancer or infection causing the gastritis. I won’t lie, I was hoping it was an infection, easily remedied with antibiotics. But hope is cheap. The most likely cause of my gastritis is the simple fact that I really love wine, beer, champagne, prosecco, crémant, Scotch, mojitos, cheese, cheese-related media events, red meat, cooking with butter, entertaining friends and family with my ridiculous homemade ice cream

The boring yet brutal truth is that, by and large, the dietary changes I’ve made are here to stay. The best I can hope for is to try and gently reintroduce foods I’ve really missed, albeit not in the industrial quantities that I used to enjoy them.

So, what do these lifestyle changes look like?

Well, I went wild the other night and put tinned tomatoes in a mild, coconut milk-laden curry, rather than the industrial quantities I eat in salads when I go to Greece.

I might try red meat once or twice a month, but chicken and fish remain less aggressive on my beleaguered stomach. Low-fat cheese is better than brie, but I have found a vegan brie that tastes good and doesn’t cause flatulence. Fake cheese farts are real…

Image shows Georgia on a boat in the sun - it's a selfie taken on a cruise in the mediterranean
Georgia making the most of the Med weather

At restaurants, vegetarian and vegan options are often the kindest to me, unless it’s deep-fried. I miscalculated with deep-fried vegan courgette fritters at the pub and regretted it for three days. On the upside, I have discovered some genuinely delicious plant-based dishes.

Then there’s the issue of alcohol. A scroll through my Facebook profile reveals a proliferation of photos where I’ve got a glass of wine in hand. It’s not fun to admit that you would do well to cut back on booze. Ideally, I would join the growing number of friends who, for myriad reasons, have quit drinking altogether. If I really must have a tipple, low-acid red wine, or gin – albeit not mixed with anything fizzy – is my best bet. There will still be post-merlot belching. I can’t put it away like I used to. I keep Gaviscon in my handbag at all times, but I’m not quite prepared to go full teetotal.

Read more: Take care of your mental health, not just your physical

On the upside…

I am a healthier weight, I am sleeping well. And the other day I wore a dress that I bought during my misspent 20s. The horrific gastrointestinal symptoms have eased significantly and my general mojo is returning. The weight is staying off simply because I am drinking way less alcohol, I don’t eat deep-fried things, I’ve cut back on anything resembling cake, any dairy is low-fat, I’m eating more plant-based food, and red meat is a rare treat.

Focusing on these positives is my way of coping with lifestyle changes that I found overwhelming and almost depressing at first. If I do give in to temptation, I know I will pay the price. The deep-fried fritter debacle taught me about consequences.

I’m sure there will be days when I fall off this sometimes-frustrating wagon. I am going on a cruise in the Mediterranean, where the temptations will be immense. Between onboard buffets, an amusing drinks package and shore stops – especially in my beloved Greek islands – I cannot rule out busting out the emergency Nexium.

But I really don’t want to feel as appalling as I have often felt over the past six months. If that means committing to lifestyle changes and holding myself to account, that is what I must do. I can’t be sensible only on paper anymore.

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