We’ve got a guest blogger today: Nancy Ingram Largent, someone I appreciated from afar back in the Daisy Age of the very early ’90s in NC, when her band Plutopia used to play Apple Chill and other venues about town.
In my quest to understand the food nightmare of modern America, I’ve adopted and open-heart policy of taking everyone’s experience seriously, and as you’ll see below, Nancy was hit with a diagnosis that demanded a life upheaval.
Even though the word “vegan” is mentioned often in these conversations, don’t let the concept fill you with images of humorless self-satisfied lefties cramming their mouths full of tree bark and farting up a storm. Like all things, it’s on a spectrum, and there’s more than one way not to skin a cat.
Secondly, I’ve found that this issue is not a slow, dawning realization – it’s more of a “come to Jesus” flash, usually in the form of a doctor showing you a death warrant that he or she dares you to erase. You may be healthy now, but time’s winged chariot is actually made of buffalo wings.
Nancy’s story is long by web standards, but she’s a wonderful writer… and besides, that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to keep doing this blog: there has to be somewhere on the internet for the whole story.
And so here she is!
My Convoluted Path to Becoming a Vegan
I have been both saddened and troubled this year from the all-too-frequent posts by my forty-something friends who have been diagnosed with life-threatening health issues that were once unheard of in people of my age group: heart attacks, congestive heart failure, type two diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancer.
Suddenly faced with their own mortality at such a young age, they reach out on Facebook, Twitter and on the blogosphere for support and help (see Ian’s previous posts.) A few days ago, one friend who is just 45 years old, with two beautiful children, and currently suffering from congestive heart failure and kidney failure wrote, “My cardiologist looked me dead in the eye and asked me, very bluntly, if I wanted to live or die. Of course I told him I wanted to live. Among it seems a million things I had to do, he told me the first thing was to lose 50 lbs.”
Yet like so many of us when facing a health crisis, he does not know where to begin to turn his health around. When doctors spout out a regimen of “diet and exercise” — a catch phrase that has been heard so often it has lost all meaning — they rarely offer any specific plan to help get you there. Furthermore, this prescription to good health sounds like a tortuous punishment rather than a second-chance opportunity to stay on this planet a little longer.
Wanting a quick fix – one that will not interfere with our established lifestyle of comfort foods and habitual lethargy, drugs with innumerable, potential serious side effects are often prescribed.
I understand. I’ve been there. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I had terrible eating habits. I would work out at the gym for an hour and then I would drive across the street for a double Whopper with cheese, large fries and Coke, feeling like I earned it after all that exercise. My favorite 2am meal was mac and cheese from a blue box with a whole stick of butter, whole milk, and two sliced and fried hot dogs mixed in. This was the full extent of my cooking skills, and yes, I would eat the entire pot of bright orange pasta in one sitting.
I have many vegetarian friends, but I never dreamed that I would ever limit my culinary delights to such an extreme. And those poor vegans living without cheese! That was completely unfathomable. I chose my meals strictly on taste and convenience – I was so proud of my gluttonous ways that it truly defined me.
Then in 2005, with just one little word, everything changed: cancer. At the age of 35, I was diagnosed with Gestational Trophoblastic Disease — a very rare uterine cancer that developed due to a miscarriage I had had the year before. I was completely terrified, and subjected myself to the traditional treatment for GTD, which involved three months of chemotherapy. It didn’t work. A second opinion at Sloan-Kettering, led to another three months of “therapy” with a much more powerful chemo cocktail made up of five different highly toxic fluids, including six overnight infusions.
During my treatment, I grew doggedly determined to never be ill like that again. Fear is a powerful motivator. It was a lofty goal, for sure. But just ask anyone who has lost his or her health, just how important good health is. I read every book and article I could find on preventative health practices: western, eastern, mainstream, and holistic. Respectable research studies showed time and time again that a vegan plant-based diet not only prevented, but also reversed, chronic health issues like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
This was certainly not the cure-all I was hoping for. After all, I was still very mac and cheese dependent. After much soul-searching, praying, and feeling unshakably resolved to live another day, I decided that after my last chemo treatment on June 15, 2006, I would take the vegan plunge.
Initially, I told myself this would be a temporary plan of detoxification from the chemotherapy, rather than a permanent lifestyle change. The thought of never eating cheese ever again was just too difficult for me to swallow.
With my recovery plan in place, I switched my reading material from preventative medicine to how-to vegan books. Since I was choosing this diet for health reasons, I wanted to be sure that I completely understood nutrition so that I would not be nutrient-deficient during this seemingly restrictive dietary experiment. If the word “vegan” is in the title, chances are I have read that book.
Before I knew it, I had been 100% vegan, and more importantly, cancer-free, for an entire year. I actually learned how to cook from scratch, without depending on Campbell’s soup for sauces. I started buying everything organic, and limited my purchases of processed foods in cans and packages.
My energy had returned, I felt great, and with only one blood test left, I was about to be proclaimed as “cured” by the medical powers that be. More importantly, I was cleared to try and start a family, which is how this entire nightmarish ordeal originally occurred. Life was good again.
Then the unthinkable happened. When the results of my final blood test came back in June of 2007, my cancer had returned. I was completely smacked-down leveled. How was this possible? I was vegan! I spent a whole year on this single-minded mission to regain my health, and it didn’t work. I was flooded with feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, and even more fear than before.
Everyone knows cancer relapses are often death-sentences. Even more troubling was that my doctor at Sloan-Kettering, the undeniable GTD expert of the world, had never seen GTD relapse before. We were back at square one, in uncharted territory, without any idea where the cancer was or how to treat it.
After three months of blood test tracking with very confusing results, my options were more chemo, which probably would not have worked because they had already treated me as strong as they could go and it did not work, a hysterectomy, or more chemo plus a hysterectomy. All of these options would make having a child impossible.
There was one more option — to just remove part of my uterus, where the initial cancer was and hope for the best. This would still severely impede my ability to have children, and according to my surgeon, would most likely not cure my cancer. Nevertheless, considering all the other options, this one seemed like the lesser of several evils.
In September of 2007, the myomectomy was performed and three days later, I painfully struggled onto the subway from Brooklyn, and rode it all the way to Sloan-Kettering on the Upper East Side for a blood test. It miraculously came back cancer-free. What had happened was that some of the cancer cells got trapped within the scar tissue that was formed as the tumor was being killed, and therefore were blocked from the chemotherapy. It took a year for them to grow big enough to be detected on the blood test. So once that area was removed completely, so was the cancer.
I breathed deeply for the first time in months, and reassessed where I had been and how far I had come. I initially chose to be vegan out of fear – fear of illness, fear of childlessness, fear of suffering, fear of an untimely death. Those were very valid fears at the time. And I was understandably terrified of relapsing, as all cancer survivors are.
When I actually did relapse, I was so angry at this imaginary entity that is vegan-ness. It had betrayed me. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Eating a plant-based diet was not the definitive cure-all it was guaranteed to be. I felt like impulsively diving down into a never-ending vat of mac and cheese, and never looking back. But I didn’t.
Reflecting on the year that I spent as a vegan before my relapse, I realized that eating well made me feel good. I had more energy. My skin glowed. I was not as sick with colds as I usually was during the winter, and my spring allergies cleared up. My weight was ideal, my blood pressure below normal, and my blood work results from the monthly doctor’s visits was outstanding.
I was still feeling upset that being a vegan did not prevent my cancer relapse. Nevertheless, it did not make any sense to me to punish my body by reverting to my unhealthy, fast-food diet ways, as some sort of misguided protest.
Additionally, after surviving through all of this, I was no longer scared of illness or death. I had stared cancer right in the face twice and had beaten it. Personally, I would love to live to be 100, but I don’t want to be sick and suffering for my last years on Earth, like I see so many elderly people doing. If eating well can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and cancer, I am all for it.
What I later realized is something that was even more life-changing than I ever expected it to be. It is not a new concept, but one I never really considered until I experienced it first-hand. I have found that when decisions are made out of fear, it rarely works out. When choices come from love, miracles happen. I am still a vegan, six years later, not from a fear of becoming ill, but rather out of love for my life, for my body, for animals, and for the environment. And choosing all this love over fear has indeed worked miracles.
After my surgery, I spent a year in remission, getting monthly blood tests. In August of 2008, I was finally labeled “cancer-free” and was cleared to try to start a family, again. But considering my age of 38, the intense chemotherapy treatment I endured, my uterine surgery, and my history of a miscarriage, our chances of having a baby were slim to none.
I was also at a much higher risk of being diagnosed with GTD again, even if I were to have a healthy pregnancy. Choosing love over fear once again, we ignored all the experts and naysayers.
I am a big fan of happy endings, and this one is the happiest. We got pregnant on our first try, and 36 weeks later, our beautiful, healthy daughter was born on April 5, 2009. I stayed vegan throughout my pregnancy and my vegan husband and I are raising her vegan, and she is the poster-child of health.
I am fortunately still cancer-free, considered cured, and my blood work is that of a teenager. I have completely embraced our vegan lifestyle, and jumping into a vat of mac and cheese is the last thing on my mind. If I can do it, anyone can.
The most positive outcome of being a cancer survivor, and a dedicated self-taught nutritionist, is being able to help others through health crises. I am not a preachy vegan, as we all have our own life paths to follow. After all, it took a life-threatening illness to turn my own bad eating habits around.
I have since counseled many friends facing health challenges about eating better, and have helped them over the hurdles, with varying success rates. Changing how you eat is one of the toughest habits to break, as comfort food is awfully comforting. Eliminating your favorite foods from your diet is like losing your best friends that have stuck by your side through thick, and well, thicker.
There is also a learning curve and discipline involved, which can be intimidating. But if I can help just one person feel better, and add days, months and years to their lives, then everything I went through to get where I am now would be well worth it.
[tomorrow: Nancy’s guide to a plant-based diet!]