Marina Mednik-Vaksman, MPH, RDN, LD

Before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, I defined myself in many different ways.

I’d recently finished graduate studies in public health nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle, and was starting my career as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in Austin, TX. I was also a bride-to-be in the midst of wedding and honeymoon planning.

Less than a month away from my wedding date,  I got a new label to define myself by: metastatic breast cancer patient.

I’d been a health-food nut for many years and considered myself physically fit. With no family history of breast cancer, it wasn’t even on my radar when I started coughing in the fall of 2015. I was busy with work and planning my upcoming wedding, so I just accepted my doctor’s advice to try various allergy medications, and, when none of those worked, acid reflux medications.

Just before New Year’s 2016, I felt so sick that I went to the ER. I was sure that it was an infection and expected to be back home that evening with antibiotics. But after a few tests, I was admitted to the hospital’s oncology floor. I told myself that maybe they ran out of beds on all the other floors.

After further testing, the diagnosis became undeniable and I was told that I had metastasis (mets) to the lungs, liver, lymph nodes, spine and skull, plus other spots in the bones and other organs. Worst of all, they saw numerous lesions in my brain.

So far, 2016 has been a blur of various treatments. I’ve had radiation to my spine, skull and pelvis as well as whole-brain radiation (hippocampal-sparing). I’ve also gotten two chemotherapy cycles of Abraxane injections. That drug produced what my oncologist called a “mixed-response,” though. I switched over to Xeloda, an oral chemo drug, so now I don’t have as many needles poking me.

For several months, I was hooked up to oxygen and wheeled the canister behind me wherever I went. In March of 2016, the mets in my pelvis got so bad that I had to use crutches, then a wheelchair, and then a walker until radiation treatments shrunk those tumors.

Cancer has taken up (or rather taken down) so much of my life over the past moths. But I don’t want to let it define me.

I’ve decided, instead, to add Superhero Nutritionist to my repertoire of self-definitions.

I got this emoji

Superhero Nutritionist locked in an epic struggle with the formidable Cancer villain!

Sounds much better than metastatic breast cancer patient.

I realize that not everyone likes the “fight” analogy for dealing with cancer. True, it doesn’t fit my experiences much of the time — swallowing pills, getting stuck with needles, dozing off on the table during yet another radiation treatment or diagnostic scan — what epic tales of battle feature such passive warriors?

But I could use my Nutritionist superpowers to arm myself through pubmed.gov searches and trips to the supermarket. Selecting nourishing food and research-backed supplements lifts me out of the passive patient role, leaving me with a feeling of superhero-y                 empowerment.

That’s where my Superhero Nutritionist story begins.  Read on as I recount my adventures tangling with the likes of liver mets, bone mets, brain mets and more.