As the ambulance sped to the emergency department at UNC-Chapel Hill, Debra Jackson was struggling to breathe. At 340 pounds, she was classified as morbidly obese and suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) due to emphysema caused by years of heavy smoking. Heart disease plagued her. Jackson was only 47 years old, but her poor health was slowly killing her.
“I was admitted to the hospital, and my doctor began running some tests,” Jackson explains. “During that hospital stay, I was diagnosed with early stage I adrenal cancer. I was devastated.”
Jen Jen Yeh, MD, a UNC Lineberger member, associate professor and vice chair of research in the UNC Department of Surgery, removed Jackson’s cancerous tumor on March 3, 2013. “I’m very honest with my patients,” says Yeh. “I told Debra that we were able to get all of the cancer, but I was very worried about her heart and her ability to recover from surgery. She needed to make some pretty drastic lifestyle changes if she wanted to get better.”
Change is hard
Jackson’s fight with obesity began when she was just 10 years old. Eventually, years of overeating and lack of exercise led to excess weight gain, until her body began to rebel. “I was always short of breath, and I could hardly walk without becoming dizzy,” says Jackson. “I was simply miserable, and depression set in. I didn’t want to leave my house. I tried to ignore the warning signs of obesity, but I was physically and emotionally broken. As scary as it was, my hospitalization was the wakeup call I needed.”
When Jackson returned home to Green Level, North Carolina, she was resolved to take control of her life and to get healthy; however, she knew very little about nutrition or physical fitness and had no idea how to start. “That’s when I began doing research on the internet,” she explains. “I saw all kinds of quick-fix diets, supplements and workout gear that promised me success, but I knew they were only short-term solutions. So after reading dozens of articles on reputable websites, I built a custom eating and exercise plan that I thought would work for me.”
You are what you eat
Jackson chose to take the ‘clean-eating’ approach when creating her meals, embracing whole foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, plus healthy fats. She eliminated all processed foods and sugar from her diet, instead using natural sweeteners like agave when necessary. By eating several well-balanced, small meals throughout the day and drinking lots of water, Jackson was able to stabilize her blood sugars and fight off hunger pains.
“Debra made another crucial change in her diet, which was to use herbs and spices in her cooking, rather than salt,” says Jennifer Spring, RD, CSO, LDN, an oncology dietitian with the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program who provides nutritional guidance to cancer patients at UNC. “She learned she didn’t need added sodium to enjoy flavorful food. Fresh ingredients simply prepared can be very satisfying.”
Jackson’s food portion sizes shrunk, and so did her waistline. Sometimes she lost up to three pounds a day, and the more she lost, the more she felt like moving. “My breathing became easier, and I finally felt confident enough to start exercising,” Jackson says. “My next challenge was the treadmill.”
Walking off the weight
Jackson’s first steps toward fitness were on her treadmill, walking just five minutes a day. “I started at a very slow pace, and the stronger I got, the more I walked. Eventually, I worked my way up to 30 minute sessions. My blood pressure improved, and so did my stamina,” she says. “And the weight kept coming off.”
According to Claudio Battaglini, PhD, FACSM, associate professor of exercise and sport science at UNC and director of the exercise oncology research laboratory, Jackson’s healthy respect of her own limitations, combined with her determination to make fitness a habit, have been key factors in her weight-loss success.
“While national guidelines suggest 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, most people can’t do that when they’re just starting out,” says Battaglini, who leads UNC’s ‘Get REEL & HEEL’ exercise program for cancer patients. “But exercise doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ proposition. A little exercise on a regular basis is much more effective than random marathon workouts. Consistency and regularity yield the most benefits.”
Aside from the physical benefits of exercise, Battaglini says movement has tremendous psychological effects on the body. “When a person carries less weight, they feel better, and that generates a cascade of excitement that leads to better lifestyle choices,” he explains. “A by-product is that they begin to look better, and they want to keep that feeling of pride.”
Now, three years later…
It’s been three years since Jackson had surgery to remove her cancerous tumor, and since that time, she’s gone through a transformation that is nothing short of amazing. By making smart food choices and becoming physically active, she’s lost a whopping 175 pounds. Her fiancé Dale Hamby also adopted Jackson’s positive lifestyle changes, and he has lost 81 pounds.
“I am a different person than I was three years ago,” says Jackson. “Life is good, I’m alive and I can move! But the difference is more than skin-deep. I’m healthy, and there’s no sign of my cancer. I’m even taking classes at Alamance Community College to become a personal health coach and weight loss consultant. I want to help people, the way Dr. Yeh and UNC helped me. I feel like I have a new lease on life, and I’m taking advantage of every opportunity.”