02 February 2011

How a life altering diagnosis created a vegan overnight

I’ve always been careful with what I ingest, but it wasn’t until last March when I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, that I truly became vegan...militant, over the top, I’ll-come-at-you-with-a-sharpened-ginger-grater vegan (if you ask my boyfriend.) The evolution wasn’t gradual and I pretty much hijacked my loved ones and threw out the contents of my kitchen overnight. Thankfully, they’re still speaking to me and a few of them are vegan now, too. Let me explain.

I'd spent the last few decades eating what I considered a "conscious diet" of very little dairy, lean meats, processed soy products and spinach. That last word in the previous sentence is not a typo and was, in fact, the grand sum total of my green vegetable intake. Still, I thought I was doing better than most Americans and I was able to stay thin, muscular and work out regularly so why change? My other decision had been to use bioidentical hormones (estrogen and progesterone) which made me feel great but according to my oncologist, opened my breasts, ovaries and other reproductive organs up to serious danger. I tend to think now that it was a perfect storm of saturated fat, processed sugars, lack of phytochemicals and hormones that did me in. The bottom line, however, is that I sat in a surgeon's office 10 months ago and was told that the tiny little lump I'd found under my right arm in the shower was cancer. My life changed in an instant.

Ironically, I had eaten macrobiotically back in the 80's in Miami with a boyfriend and a small active community when the diet was at its most popular. Cooking lessons, community dinners, and watching very sick people eat the food and then heal themselves months later all made a big impression on my young unfocused mind at the time. It was the first thing I could think of doing when I looked at my lab results last year and saw the words "invasive" and "carcinoma." I found a kind, competent macrobiotic teacher in Dallas, got a consultation and dietary recommendations and was suddenly on my own to take the biggest leap of faith I'd ever attempted. I read her list of recipes and ingredients needed and then looked around my kitchen and into the depths of my refrigerator. Nothing matched. My pots were teflon lined, my knives (steak) were dull, my water was unfiltered and the pantry was full of processed flour, sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Time for a blitzkrieg.

Six stuffed leaf and lawn bags later, the offending groceries were gone, the dogs had taken cover under the dining room table and my boyfriend had been given an ultimatum. I was eating macrobiotically for the next year on a healing diet and if that sounded too severe for him, he needed to hit the bricks without delay. Harsh? Yes, but unless you've ever faced your own mortality and realized you can die from something your own body manufactured, you can't imagine the laser beam focus that can result. He stuck around and hoping I might get tired of the challenge and change my mind, he woefully put his Mighty Mouse/ Extra Protein Muscle Building Casein powder in the trunk of his car and settled down to a bowl of brown rice and pinto beans. The bank account took a hit but within hours, gleaming stainless steel pots were hanging on hooks, ginsu Freddy Kruger knives were waiting in a chopping block and the water flowing out of my faucet was carbon filtered clean. I was ready.

The first three months were as close to boot camp as I can imagine getting without committing to the Marines. I learned to manage my time and make the requisite dishes and "treatments" and my body responded with energy, happiness and a "lightness" that reminded me it was okay to laugh again. Yes, I wanted to throttle the Whole Foods people who thrust chocolate cupcake samples in my face as I shopped and stalked through the store. I knew, though, that my basket full of tofu and tempeh was my medicine...the drugs that would change my fate and eventually, I smiled at them and said, "No thanks." The beans, veggies, fruits and grains were building my new bloodstream and I sailed through five weeks of radiation. When I saw my oncologist for a follow up bloodtest, she remarked at how clear and luminous my skin looked and how strong the lab results were. All of my scans were clear and I hadn't suffered one side effect of the radiation. No fatigue, burns, scarring or nausea. She listened to the details of my diet and the plethora of phytoestrogens it included and suddenly stopped asking me to take the potent anti-estrogen follow up drugs she'd previously tried to peddle. Instead, she started addressing her own diet and said she wanted to start incorporating more plant based ideas. We ended up having one of the best conversations I can remember having with a doctor.

I'm coming up on my year anniversary from the diagnosis that I now call a gift. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't ask me about my diet, my skin or my lifestyle and I'm more than happy to explain. In fact, I've started a small plant based catering company out of my house that currently serves the yoga studio I attend but will soon start branching out to more community events. One of my best friends (who was diagnosed with stage three melanoma last October) is eating the diet and working her way through interferon treatments but feeling better all the time. She and I will be partners in our new business venture and couldn't be more excited about bringing the healing power of plants to as many people as possible. Now, that I'm on the other side of fear, I've realized that change is always at the door. The key is to welcome it in and expect only goodness. I haven't been disappointed since.

Kathryn Lorusso
Kathryn is a former journalist and English teacher who now counsels and mediates teenage drama on a daily basis in the Dallas, Ft. Worth metroplex. Time away from school is spent cooking up new macrobiotic/vegan specialties, writing various blogs and newsletters and taking as many bikram yoga classes as possible.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/readerwalker