Raising a Glass to Chronic Disease

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Bunched on the kitchen counter, the bananas glowered. “Eat me, drink me, suck my juices,” they taunted, like the tempting fruit in Christina Rossetti’s kinky poem “Goblin Market.” I was flummoxed since I loathe the mushy texture of bananas. (Sorry, Chiquita!) But how else could I ingest more of the magnesium I need in order to not get thrown out of my cancer clinical trial?

Quite a few years ago, I had to undergo a series of lengthy infusions because chemotherapy produced mineral deficiencies. Now, it appeared that the experimental drug I take in the trial was leaching magnesium from my body. Although I have been swallowing a 500-milligram magnesium pill nightly, at my last blood test the level was so low that my research nurse, Alesha, panicked. Insisting on another test in a month, she recommended spinach, almonds, black beans, avocado, brussels sprouts.

“Alesha,” I said, “you are my guardian angel, but remember the ileostomy!” With a compromised digestive system, it is impossible to eat a sufficient portion of the foods she listed without suffering some sort of ghastly bowel blockage.

“Ah, yes,” she nodded. “Maybe peanut butter … or bananas!”

Bananas, neatly packed in their lined coats, are a portable source of nourishment — for those who can stomach them. I’m wondering if they lose their virtue if they are baked into banana bread, when a late-night email pops up from my friend Nancy K. Miller. A cancer patient, she just learned that a nodule in her lung is growing. She must choose surgery, radiation or ablation, all far worse prospects than gagging down a banana.

“It’s not that I didn’t know it would spread,” Nancy writes and then asks, “Do you ever think that one day the drug you take will stop working?”

“Sure,” I type back, after gulping some red wine and then moving the glass away from my laptop, since last year I had spilled wine on the keys, destroying the motherboard. “My med will either stop working or it will give me a secondary cancer, probably leukemia.”

“And we live like this,” Nancy responds.

“The alternative is not good,” I shoot back.

The next day, as the bananas were mottling, a brainstorm hit. I Googled alcohol and magnesium. Wine, it turns out, flushes minerals out of the body. It may be the pinot noir rather than the trial drug that is responsible for my magnesium deficiency. The seductive “eat me, drink me, suck my juices” refrain of fermented grapes had produced accidents in the past and could produce worse accidents in the future. Why had I succumbed?

Maybe the stress of living “like this” — with a sword of Damocles dangling overhead — accounts for the steady escalation in my drinking. While relinquishing my teaching profession, an intact body, physical vitality, hair and a sense of a secure future, had I anesthetized myself with increasing doses of vino? Am I mitigating my sobering condition with the levity the first sips convey and, yes, the oblivion later mouthfuls deliver?

This side effect of prolonged treatment has not shown up in my reading probably because drinking problems often remain hidden, unspoken or unspeakable. For the same reason, doctors and nurses may not suspect what is going on. But an overreliance on alcohol surely poses a threat to older as well as younger people dealing with all sorts of chronic diseases, not just cancer.

Living with chronic disease daily can be a drag; living with chronic disease nightly can become unbearably depressing … without the buzz conferred by aptly named spirits. At that moment, the thought of renouncing the consolation of getting tipsy seemed unendurable. My drinking may have accelerated recently, but alcohol had played a rousing role in my life long before diagnosis.

Still, what if imbibing too much wine prevents my body from retaining magnesium, no matter how many bananas I put into the blender for smoothies? The bananas were blackening, as was my mood, by the time I determined to talk with my husband, Don, about an evolving resolve.

“Magnesium is a great reason to limit your intake,” he said. “Not moral, just physical.” Then he added, “but don’t try to go cold turkey.”

What a boon to be accepted, even with errant foibles, by a loving companion! Abstinence would set me up for a harder fall than any banana peel could produce. “How about a glass or two with dinner,” Don suggested and then he laughed, telling me about the two-bottles-a-day squires in the 18th century, though they probably guzzled port.

Two glasses of wine a night is double the recommended allowance of alcohol for women; however, that would be a reduction for me. Until the next blood test, I determined, I would forgo bananas but decrease wine consumption … to try to elevate the magnesium in my body.

When Nancy’s next email arrived, her attachment cracked me up. She had found a drawing she had made of an aging physician warning his patient, “Consider the alternative.” The figure reminded her of the misogynist Professor von X in Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Credit…Nancy K. Miller

Neither Nancy nor I would follow the dictates of a paternalistic authority hectoring us to do whatever it takes to win the so-called fight against cancer. A point will surely come when we consider the alternative of dying and refuse medical interventions. But that moment has not yet arrived. And anyway, no one was ordering me to limit my alcohol consumption. The idea came from me; Don’s input helped by making it a provisional and pragmatic resolution, not an eternal or ethical fiat.

Gazing at the sketch, I felt bathed in love for my husband and also for Nancy, who never surrenders her wry perspective and quirky values while grappling with disease. Thoughts of her returned me to the conclusion of Christina Rossetti’s insights into addiction and intoxication: “there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather; / To cheer one on the tedious way, / To fetch one if one goes astray, / To lift one if one totters down, / To strengthen whilst one stands.”

Not sanguine about my perseverance in the days to come, I only hope that I don’t go bananas.

Susan Gubar, who has been dealing with ovarian cancer since 2008, is distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University. Her latest book is “Late-Life Love.”