Years ago my scientist husband read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell to me during those hazy postpartum days after our second daughter was born. I would sit there nursing constantly while he read aloud. It was fun, kind of romantic, and the science behind the book made a lot of sense to us. My husband, who used to thank me for no longer being a vegetarian (although I still didn’t eat a lot of meat and haven’t had red meat in 20 years), was blown away by what we read, and we quickly changed our diet. We wanted to be healthier and avoid all those major diseases: heart disease, diabetes, and the big one, cancer.
It’s now been almost six-years that we have been following a whole-foods, plant-based diet, and for the most part it has worked out well for us. In the early days the biggest challenge was figuring out how to navigate this meat-based world with children who don’t eat meat or dairy. The first time my husband went grocery shopping after we changed our diet our two-year old came home and cried, “Daddy didn’t buy any sausages!” I will admit that the change meant spending a lot of time in the kitchen where I was constantly preparing meals and snacks. Of course that is also a by-product of having small children, they want to snack all the time.
The change wasn’t tough for me, I was already mostly vegetarian and I loved to cook. I tried not to be one of those annoying vegans who wouldn’t touch food that was around meat. The most important thing I learned about myself was that I really didn’t want to make my daughters crazy. I now have three of them, each one as beautiful as the next, and I think it is hard enough growing up as a girl without thinking of food as good vs bad. I’ve had to let go of some control because the whole goal of changing our diet was to be healthy and to raise healthy children. Creating a family of food-obsessed girls with eating disorders is something I am trying to avoid. As my mother said to me, “they are going to consume all kinds of things you don’t want to know about eventually,” and when I think back about how I behaved, and the things I ingested, in my early twenties I know that she is right.
So we changed our diet, and raised our girls, and everyone was amazed at how healthy we were without animal protein (yes, we were asked constantly where our protein came from) and I even started a food blog because people were always asking for recipes. Plus, you aren’t a real foodie unless you have a food blog, right? “You’re all so healthy,” people would say and I would, smugly, agree. I didn’t eat meat or dairy, and I didn’t drink alcohol or coffee. My biggest vices were too much tea (with soy creamer, definitely not a whole-food) and baked goods – usually vegan baked goods with whole grain flour.
Then the seemingly impossible happened. I was diagnosed with cancer. And not just a little cancer, if there is such a thing, but Stage IV metastatic breast cancer that was making my ribs break with the slightest sneeze. The kind where they basically tell you to go home and put your things in order because the best they can do is prolong your life for a little while. I had seven broken ribs and was no longer allowed in the kitchen, in fact, I could barely make it out of bed to have meals with the family. Not having control over everything we ate was hard, but I was too sick to do anything about it.
So the big question we kept asking ourselves was: did my diet help me or hinder me? We suspect being so healthy probably masked the cancer until it was too late. What a piss-off, eh? I still feel that this is the best way for me to eat but I’ve relaxed a lot when it comes to my daughters. Treats are treats no matter whether they are vegan or not, they aren’t supposed to be good for you. Sugar is sugar. These days I oscillate between wanting to control everything they eat because I am terrified that they too will get breast cancer (there is no history of cancer in my family prior to me), and letting them eat whatever they want because I want them to be happy, and not crazy. They know their mom has cancer that isn’t going to go away and they have enough to deal with without worrying about whether what they are eating was once an animal. My daughters know that they can eat whatever they want when they aren’t home. I’ve taught them that the first rule is: if they are hungry, they need to eat. This means my middle daughter will raid your fridge for cheese if you invite her over. This means their father and I will silently gag as we watch them eat hot dogs at Girl Guide functions. I once read that what we say to our children now becomes their internal voice later on. I don’t want their internal voice to be of me nagging them not to eat something, especially when there is a good chance I won’t be around to talk to them about it when they become teenagers.
I’ve really locked down on what I eat though. I consume almost no sugar, eat roughly a head of broccoli a day, and probably have kale running through my veins. But if I crave fish or an egg on the odd occasion I will eat it. I don’t know what the rules are. Somedays I’m terrified to eat anything. Somedays I would kill for a chocolate bar but being here for my daughters is more important. My food blog died but I didn’t and these days I’m just grateful to have the strength to be in the kitchen again.