Guest Blog: Wellness in the Context of Illness by Nicole VanQuaethem
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Understanding the Idea of Wellness: Whatishealthy?
Social media can be a dangerous place to our health, especially if you follow people in the fitness, nutrition or health industry. Our Instagram feeds can get filled with perfectly formed smoothie bowls, people with six-packs, and yogis traveling the world. This can lead to people having feelings of jealously and inadequacy. People often feel like they aren't healthy because they don't live in a Bali, drink fresh juice, and workout every day. Luckily for you - none of those things define health and wellness.
Wellness is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I even use it but more as a general term to describe things that promote health. It becomes a problem when people start defining wellness based on physical traits, having/not having certain health conditions, how often you go to the gym, etc. Wellness is not black and white - I cannot stress this enough. A person can weigh more then the person beside them and be healthier or someone can have a particular health condition, and still be healthy.
These are all things I have struggled with myself. Being a nutritionist, there is a lot of pressure to portray this ideal of "wellness" but it can be hard when you are dealing with your own health challenges despite eating very well, sleeping, and essentially doing things by the book.
So here is my story (AHHHH!) and I hope it will encourage you to think more critically about what wellness means, to stop judging others and yourself and to come up with your own idea of what wellness is!
My Story: Wellness in the Context of Illness
When I was in elementary school I started experiencing a lot of digestive issues and it was clear that I was sensitive to dairy products. Of course, like any teenager, I decided I was still going to stuff my face with cheesy pizza, chocolate, creamy pasta, etc. I knew it was causing harm but I didn’t understand that this constant inflammation would worsen my condition over time. After seeking medical advice it was thought that I may be experiencing symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and was prescribed meds.
Into my university career, my symptoms got a little worse so I visited a holistic nutritionist who changed my way of thinking. I thought I was eating relatively healthy at the time but she truly taught me about what healthy eating entailed and opened me up to the idea of a lifestyle change. It took a lot of trial and error but after a couple of years, my symptoms subsided quite a bit.
Truthfully though, even into the end of my undergrad I was still eating Timbits (aka donut holes for you non-Canadians) and grabbing a slice, or two, of pizza after the bar. Don't get me wrong - I didn't feel guilty for having these treats. I believe that moderation and balance are important in one's life unless its contributing or worsening certain conditions, like it probably was in my case.
Into grad school, I felt pretty darn good but, despite eating the best I ever had, I still wasn't feeling 100%. I went to a naturopathic doctor and took a food sensitivity test to find out I was highly sensitive to a lot of foods I was consuming regularly. This constant inflammation created a leaky gut and I was now worried that I would become sensitive to even MORE foods if I didn't make some changes.
Fast forward a couple of months...
So I worked on cutting out those foods and life was good again. Except there was something that I had been fighting in my body for likely quite some time and that wasn't creating any obvious symptoms.
During grad school, I noticed these weird lumps in my eyelids and was sent to a specialist who then sent me home two years in a row and said it was mascara debris (which is funny because I hardly wear it). I went to a different specialist and within weeks I went from being told these lumps are likely from mascara debris to being told I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
I have worked with a herbalist, a naturopathic doctor, and oncologists to really take my health into my own hands. I am not against western medicine by any means, which can be shocking to others in the holistic health world. This is because they have the diagnostic tools, equipment, and knowledge to help fight things like cancer even if your health philosophy is focused on preventative health and nutrition.
I feel good physically and I was told my cancer is slow-growing and treatable so I haven't felt the need to tell many people. Anyone who has had a similar experience will get that people, despite their best intentions, become experts and feel entitled to know everything. I was actually quite positive at first but people's negative reactions started to affect my mentality.
I started asking myself questions like: Am I actually a healthy person? Am I a fraud as a nutritionist? Is this more serious than what I thought? It was also interesting timing for me as I was trying to grow my nutrition business and was in the process of working on my nutrition program. I felt weird promoting myself while going through this experience, which I realize how silly that is now.
2 Year Wellness Update; Post-Diagnosis
Over the past two years, I have had to take medication multiple times (the lesser of two evils), had to deal with everyone's reactions (even though I knew they were coming from a good place), question if I should pursue my nutrition practice before I knew whether or not I would need more serious treatments, try to grasp the idea that I may have to deal with this for the rest of my life, and finally create my own definition of wellness in order to come to terms with everything (which is always a work in progress).
During this time my body was struggling. I finally went off the pill after wanting to for years which resulted in adult acne, intense PMS, and hair loss. The stress caused my IBS to flare up the worst it had since probably grade 9 and mental health was ok but not stellar. Over months of hard work, I started to feel better and my symptoms associated with going off the pill are finally improving.
I still have a lot of work to do and there are still times when I feel guilty for doing/eating certain things, I often feel pressured by others who don't understand my health issues, and I think about how I wish this never happened.
But then I remember how it made me more in tune with my body, help me more seriously address other health conditions like my digestion, and has honestly made me take more chances. I honestly wonder if I would have gone to Hawaii last year or quit a part-time job that I didn't feel was the best fit if this didn't happen and make me put things in perspective.
But perspective was the biggest. I am still the type to overanalyze and I still have days where I get frustrated with my health but I have, with huge help from Brendan, realize the little things aren't worth getting stressed over.
There are certain things I do in terms of nutrition and lifestyle which are supposed to be supportive and preventative but I often ask myself, "does this mean I have to do these forever"? For example, am I not supposed to eat sugar ever again? What happens if I do the odd time? The word "forever" is a bit daunting. I am teaching myself to not look too far into the future and again, focus on the now. The now is what I have control of, not the past, and not necessarily 30 years from now despite my best efforts. I have control issues...
I came to the realization that I had to get back to my normal healthy routine but before that happened, I experienced extreme guilt throughout the past few months, and as I had this realization. I felt guilty for every gluten-free cookie or beer I had consumed over the past few months and how it might not be supporting my immune system and so on.
Moving Forward with Wellness
The hardest part, for now at least, is that this cancer will weigh on me mentally more than anything but knowing this also helps me motivate myself to continue living a healthy lifestyle.
See what I mean about defining wellness? I was studying to be a nutritionist, eating extremely well, and then was given this diagnosis about a month after I had started nutrition school. I was/have to grapple with the idea of wellness in the context of illness and realize that there is no such thing as wellness versus illness or health versus disease.
This cancer doesn't make me feel ill so was I really unwell? Despite the short digestive changes from stress and meds, my life hasn't changed all that much. So who's to say that I am unhealthy because, last time I checked, I feel just fine!
What I want to stress is wellness and health are multifaceted. You can’t just have a green smoothie everyday and be healthy or have an illness and automatically be seen as unhealthy. You don't have to have a six pack, do headstands and eat acai bowls to be healthy either. What you need to do is to eat well, sleep, relax, socialize, do things you love, move your body, indulge in moderation and the list goes on. Doing all these things, and physically and mentally feeling well, are what matters in the end! Define what wellness means to you.
This guest post was written by Nicole VanQuaethem from Simply Nic. If you’d like to pitch an article, submit your idea via the contact form. I'd love to hear your story!