When I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, one of the first questions to cross my mind was, “What can I do?”  It wasn’t a rhetorical question: I trusted my doctors, but I really wanted to know if there were steps I could take to make sure I’d survive the disease and that it would never, ever return.

Of course, there are no guarantees, but after reading everything I could on cancer and diet, I decided to make some life changes. Gaining a measure of control was very important to me. I wasn’t satisfied with just “receiving” treatment; I wanted to make a difference in my own outcome if I possibly could.

Bombarding my body with healthful phytochemicals, I figured, would be a start, so one of the first steps I made, along with daily walks and yoga five mornings a week, was to change my diet from fairly healthy to organic and vegetarian. I was never especially fond of burgers and steaks to begin with, but after facing cancer I decided that – for me — making the switch to a plant-based diet made sense. I emphasize the for me for two reasons: first, because going vegetarian is a personal decision that isn’t right for everyone; and second, because I live in a home with a husband and three sons who are cantankerous carnivores.

Though my husband Mitch is content to eat just about any meal I cook (and is also happy to pitch in with the cooking), my three weight-lifting, protein drink-swilling sons, who were 22, 18, and 15 when I was diagnosed, were less than thrilled when I announced I’d joined an organic fruit and vegetable co-op, and planned to begin offering such entrees as black-eyed peas and collard greens (sans ham hock!), or roasted root vegetables.

“WHAT?” my three young men gasped. “You’re expecting us not to eat meat anymore?”

Since the mere mention of tofu turned their stomachs, they were relieved when I explained that meat would still be on the menu (though organic only), but I just wouldn’t partake.

In truth, I didn’t quit meat cold turkey. In fact, cold turkey, along with organic chicken, and an occasional slice of no-nitrite bacon were part of the transition. But soon, I gave these up too. Every two weeks, I’d come home with a big box of organic produce, often locally grown. The fridge was overflowing with green, leafy orbs, carrots, squash, and mysterious items that had never before been seen in our home, such as celeriac and callaloo ((I must admit I never grew fond of the latter, though I’ve heard it makes a tasty soup).

Every change was noticed.  “What’s this weird milk carton?” my youngest son sniffed one morning.

“Hormone-free. It tastes even better than regular,” I replied.

At first, they were suspicious of these shifts in our culinary routine. Was I really planning to serve an organic turkey at Thanksgiving? Was I truly getting enough protein without eating meat? “You’re bound to get sick,” my husband warned. But that winter I didn’t even get a cold.

Around our dinner table during my treatment and recovery, there were discussions about farm-raised vs. wild-caught fish, brown vs. white rice, whole wheat bread, flax, and the benefits of turmeric. And though at first the boys rolled their eyes when I piled my plate with kale or spinach, they eventually accepted my new vegetarian status. Once, when I ran out of organic romaine and served a salad made with iceberg lettuce from the local grocery store, my middle son complained, “Mom, please don’t buy this stuff. It’s really low on nutrients!”

My new, meatless, cancer-fighting diet seemed to have an impact on everyone in the family, even though they weren’t converts themselves. My eldest son decided he didn’t want to eat cheese any more. My middle son remained attached to his burgers, but switched with me to brown rice.  My youngest held on to his love of spare ribs, but insisted that strawberries be free of  pesticides. And my husband, who had a habit of saving leftovers to the point of petrifaction, began to accept the concept of “chi” energy and my insistence on making just enough food so that our meals could be fresh.

I think just being around a vegetarian day after day opened new horizons for my family. They might not take any interest in my turnip soup, but they eagerly devoured the pie I baked from scratch when my co-op included a hearty pumpkin in the box.

Paying attention to my diet was also a distraction for me. During the weeks of radiation, and the months that followed, planning a healthy meal sometimes kept me from worrying. The co-op deliveries were always a surprise and often a challenge, since we never knew what would be in them until a few days before I picked them up. I’d never before cooked beets, or stir-fried beet greens, and who knew what to do with sandy leeks or parsnips? I had a great time researching recipes, and learned to let go of lingering fears of the culinary unknown. And despite the cancer, I just felt better.

Today, I’m a breast-cancer survivor.  Quite possibly I’d be a survivor even if I’d continued eating meat. But my decision helped me take charge of my own health, and in an unexpected consequence it resulted in a healthier family. My focus on healthy eating sent my kids the message that even when faced with cancer one can still make positive, pro-active choices.

And we all learned that vegetarians and carnivores can co-exist if everyone keeps an open mind. No, I don’t enjoy the aroma of steak hot off the grill, but if the meat-eaters can put up with ginger, garlic and mung beans simmering on our stovetop, I’ll call it a truce.


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