Dear Readers, I came down with a bit of breast cancer in October. I was shocked because I’m vegan and I eat mostly organic, homemade food with loads of beans and greens. I exercise and keep my weight down. These choices reduced my risk and may have delayed the cancer, but they didn’t offer 100% protection.
This post describes why I am sharing my story now, how I found out that I had breast cancer, the treatment path I took, and thoughts on why I got cancer. (I had a lot of those thoughts!) The good news is eating a whole foods plant-based diet may have slowed down the growth and certainly led to a quick recovery. Also see my related post How to Prevent Breast Cancer or Slow It Down.
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Why am I sharing the news that I had cancer?
Until now, I’ve only told a few close friends about my situation. I’m uncomfortable discussing personal medical issues and get woozy at the sight of blood. I also wanted to keep my mind clear while recovering and deciding on a course of treatment.
I’m sharing now because:
- We are in the same tribe. I heard last month from a reader who is waiting for test results about “the Big C.” If my experience can help her or you, I want to speak up.
- What you eat affects your risk of cancer and how fast it grows if you do get it. You may have noticed that the recipes and menus here at Cook for Good have been even healthier than before. (Fat-free hummus anyone?) There’s still room for some indulgence, but even desserts can contain superfoods like blueberries.
- I’m angry that we can do so much to reduce the risk of cancer but get so little information or support to do so, even if we are at-risk or already diagnosed.
- I’m angry that organizations serve dangerous food and tempt us to buy it, make it hard to exercise, and expose us to toxins.
- I’m worried about you and yours. I’ve thought I could avoid or delay tests because this wouldn’t happen to me. I’ve heard others imply at conferences and online that eating a plant-based diet is enough to ward off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and more. You may be skipping crucial screening tests or protective measures because you think the broccoli will protect you. Please get checked. Early detection saves lives, misery, and loads of money.
- I’m inspired by sister food blogger Susan Voisin (Fatfree Vegan Kitchen), who shared her breast-cancer story. I’ve felt a fair amount of shame and dread about how people would react. But she helped me, and I hope I can help some of you.
Getting bad news and good treatment
I got the dreaded call while checking in for an eye appointment in early October. I didn’t answer my cell phone because I was next in line. The radiologist who was trying to reach me could tell from my online record that I should be at the optometrist. She called there and asked them to hand me the office phone. Over the counter in the waiting area! She told me my mammogram had not been normal and asked if I could come in for another mammogram right away. Like on my way home from the eye doctor. Yikes! (Note to medical schedulers: this is not the ideal way to break bad news.)
I had a second mammogram the following day. When those results confirmed the problem, I updated my will and health-care directive (living will). Then I spent the winter holiday season having a biopsy, a lumpectomy, and fifteen radiation treatments. I avoided parties so I wouldn’t get sick and have to delay treatment. I also avoided parties because hugging hurt. The surgery was bad enough, but then the radiation gave me something like a bad sunburn.
During this time, my beloved Aunt Evelyn reached the end of her ninety-six years. She spent the last four months in the hospital or in rehab but finally died at home on February 3rd. I feel so lucky that she was in my life and miss her terribly. Aunt Evelyn cheered me on all the way through radiation. The wonderful Ace of Vase florist included the photo above of my radiation graduation with the last flowers I was able to send her.
I tried to keep helping you, dear readers, save money, eat well, and make a difference. I skipped a few newsletters and ran some encore recipes. My bigger Cook for Good projects went on the back burner. Thanks to all of you who stuck with me during this.
I think my healthy lifestyle let me breeze through this more easily than many. The radiologist told me the day of my last treatment that I would feel worse every day for seven to ten days before I started feeling better. In fact, my worst day turned out to be the day before. Within five days, I felt energetic enough to take long, hilly walks.
The physicians and nurses looked visibly surprised when they saw how well my skin did, both at the end of radiation and at a checkup five weeks later. In the beginning, I had to wrangle with them to be allowed to use plant-based moisturizers. They finally approved pure petroleum jelly and organic aloe-vera lotion. Between these moisturizers and my lifestyle, my skin suffered minimal damage. Now, except for two fading scars that I prefer to think of as racing stripes, I’m back to normal.
After the radiation, my oncologist offered me a prescription for Tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the effects of estrogen in the body. It would slightly reduce the chance of recurrence but comes with side effects. Some are serious (blood clots, stroke, and uterine cancer) and others draining (pain, nausea, and depression). No thanks. Instead, I’m discouraging the growth of any stray cancer cells through diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. Estrogen blockers or other treatments might be the right path for other people, though, especially when combined with eating well, staying active, and avoiding toxins to the extent possible.
Why did I get breast cancer? I was doing everything right!
Of course, I read up on what increases the risk of getting cancer and wondered why it happened to me. After attending three Plant-Based Prevention of Disease Conferences and getting a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition, I thought I was shielded from this and the other diseases of affluence. After all, going vegan made me feel fifteen years younger. It made my arthritis, knee problems, breathing problems, and migraines vanish.
The more I learned, the angrier I got. Why hadn’t any doctor ever mentioned that two glasses of wine a day was risky, especially with my family history? Why do all the official exercise recommendations say to aim for just 150 minutes of exercise a week when 60 minutes a day may reduce your risk of breast cancer by 12%? Yes, the studies show that any physical activity helps, even if you have never exercised before, but why understate the possibilities? Why does the food at so many restaurants, meetings, and events promote cancer?
Please note I don’t think getting cancer is “my fault.” If you or someone you know has it, I don’t think it is your fault or anyone’s fault either. Yet I find it helpful to look back to see what might have started it so I can think about how big a battle I’m fighting.
Here are my seven top reasons:
- As my geneticist said, “Cancer can just be something we get for being women on the planet.” All the good lifestyle choices in the world can’t shield you from gamma rays and X-rays from space and the Earth. On the other hand, we do know that radiation exposure is more dangerous the younger you are.
- My maternal grandmother died from cancer at fifty-three and my mother had breast cancer in her fifties. My father died in his late eighties from multiple types of cancer that he’d suffered from for years. Fortunately, my genetic test came back clean. I don’t have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation like Angelina Jolie or a host of other scary genetic mutations.
- Pilots used to spray my childhood neighborhood with pesticides (DDT?) to control mosquitoes. At least once my friends and I managed to run under a plane and get sprayed. Wheeee! Until recently, I had piles of BPA-laden grocery store receipts on my desk to help analyze the cost of recipes. Plastic, fire retardants, and other environmental toxins are everywhere.
- I lived with smokers for my first thirty years. My mother probably smoked and drank while she was pregnant. Why not? It was the 1950s, y’all. Fortunately, I’ve only smoked a handful of cigarillos myself.
- I drank younger and more heavily than what the Centers for Disease Control now recommends: not at all until you are 21 years old and only up to one drink a day for women. Fortunately, I quit drinking all together about eight years ago.
- My Taster and I used to love barbecue, bacon, and grilled meat. I’ve eaten a lot of cheese, especially during the fifteen years that I was vegetarian. Fortunately, I went vegan seven years before I was diagnosed. Organic, home-cooked food took the majority role on our plates, starting in 2007.
- I rarely exercised an hour a day, the amount recommended to reduce the risk of breast cancer. My “thirty-minute walk” turned out to take just twenty-three minutes when I timed it. I’ve had long stretches where I could barely exercise at all due to work overload, back problems, shingles, or injuries from a truck accident. I walked nearly every day during my cancer treatments, though, and take a long and hilly route now, trying for a daily hour. I don’t always make it, particularly in the hot summer, but that’s my goal. Walking before breakfast helps.
On the Bright Side
The wonderful radiologist spotted my lump while it was still very small. The test results were mostly good news given the situation. My Taster supported me 1000% through the ordeal. My friends who knew brought food and cheered me on. I bonded with the other patients in the radiation waiting room. The medical team was competent and kind, even if the radiation treatment area was so frelling cold. You can see in picture above that I wore a hat and gloves to stay warm. I pinned the Chinese New Year tassel to my hat for my “graduation” on the last day, so I could move it from one side of my hat to the other as I left the radiation room, I hope for the last time. A nurse rang a bell and gave me a certificate. They did their best to make us all feel upbeat and comfortable.
I felt great within a few weeks after the end of radiation therapy. This scare increased my sense of purpose to help people, animals, and the planet.
I’ve signed up to be part of the Nutritarian Women’s Health Study that tracks the health of women eating super-healthy diets based on Dr. Joel Furhman’s plan. Maybe this will encourage physicians to counsel patients about food and exercise.
Every day is pure gravy. I’m so fortunate to be alive on our beautiful planet with you!
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