ROCK Hill, S.C. — It was neither beer nor binge-eating that caused Craig Faris to grow morbidly obese. The 6″4′ author, photographer and former marketing executive was simply starved for sleep. He slimmed back down for the unlikeliest of reasons.
Faris, 65, was only getting two minutes of sleep from every hour trying. Exhausted, and in a struggle to stay awake on his high-pressure marketing job, he started eating snacks all day. For a chaser, he guzzled Mountain Dew.
By the time he was finally diagnosed with severe sleep apnea in 2001, he had gained almost 150 lbs., peaking at 342 lbs.
Eventually, with the help of a CPAP machine — a device that puts positive pressure on the airways to keep them open — Faris began to sleep again, and he quickly lost about 40 lbs. He still could not shake the last 110 lbs.
Then suddenly, he got another diagnosis in 2017: Cancer had hit him in the mouth — literally.
Doctors said it was likely that Faris’ history of engaging in oral sex with young women during college exposed him to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus can linger without symptoms for decades until it emerges as cancer. It strikes more than 45,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fortunately, as Faris’ oncologist informed him, the cancer was among one of the easiest to eradicate.
“The doctors said that if cancer could be a lottery, I’d hit the jackpot,” Faris said from his home in South Carolina.
“That’s because it’s caused by a virus, and not anything like smoking or chewing tobacco,” he said, explaining there’s less than a 5% chance it will ever return. “[If] you kill the virus, which is the root cause of the cancer, you kill the cancer.”
While few would consider an oral-cancer diagnosis a fortunate event, for Faris, it prompted a search for other causes of his ill-health. Unfortunately, there was in fact one more. After his doctor determined that a lump under his chin was squamous cell carcinoma that had spread to his lymph glands, he faced 12 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy.
As he could no longer eat, his gastroenterologist inserted a feeding tube through his belly: “Radiation killed my taste buds, anyway,” Faris said. “But I had no choice but to use the feeding tube or I would have starved to death.”
The onetime Dew junkie said he injected four 2-oz doses of protein shakes each day, which supplied 1,400 calories.
“I’d shoot one of those shakes through the port, and I’d be good to go,” he said. “Of course, I’d have to tape down the port on my belly and wear a t-shirt at the beach, otherwise I’d freak everybody out.”
The rest of his extra weight soon slipped off too — at a weekly rate of about 10 lbs., he says. By the time his radiation and chemotherapy ended, Faris had dropped roughly another 120 lbs., going from 309 to 189.
“My oncologist didn’t want me to be losing all that weight,” Faris said. “He said he wanted me to retain weight to fight the cancer while I underwent radiation. But I wanted to lose weight.”
Faris subsisted solely on tube-fed shakes for nearly a year, even though doctors said he should stop once he could. He also dispensed with the CPAP machine, with the dramatic loss of weight opening up his airways naturally.
“I sleep like a baby,” he said. “I have more energy than I think I’ve ever had.”
His first real meal, in early fall 2018, was celebrated at a steakhouse.
It was almost a year since he had had the feeding tube inserted. He said he regained much of the taste buds impaired or destroyed by radiation — as well as the desire to eat and ability to swallow again. But this time, instead of chowing down a 16-oz steak as he would’ve in the past, Faris split a 6-oz steak with his wife.
The couple now almost always shares meals, he said, creating smaller portions.
Since then, he has remained at a steady 200 lbs.
In early 2019, Faris finally had the tube removed. But he says he has maintained a diet focussed on nutritional shake supplements, and usually starts his day with a poached or boiled egg. It is worth it, he says for the newfound lease on life. Many of his old friends and acquaintances don’t recognize him at first.
Faris has become an evangelist for the protein shake diet. A golfing buddy adopted the nutritional shakes and lost 15 lbs. in less than a month, he said, adding: “You really don’t need a feeding tube to do that.”
(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Carlin Becker)
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