She re-appeared in my life a few months before she passed away. I remember watching her sitting majestically on my living-room sofa in her elegant creme blazer, skinny jeans betraying her frail child-like frame. Thanks to modern medicine, her face was unchanged, as I knew it 4 decades ago from family gatherings, even though for the life of me I couldn’t remember it when she called to arrange our visit. I knew her life had not been easy [understatement of the decade], and yet she still carried herself with grace and confidence. Our shared veganism brought us together after all these years. We didn’t know she was terminally ill. And yet … we knew she was. My heart told me to watch carefully and savour the lessons I was about to be taught.
A few weeks later, she asked me to help her with her post-op recovery from cancer surgery. She knew she couldn’t rely on the hospital accommodating her raw vegan diet. I was happy to step up and be her sister. I tried my best to avoid letting her know what I thought of her strict raw diet. I was too occupied with feeling needed and only wanted to please. Her commanding personality did not help. She was older, surely wiser, and my gratitude for being included in her life ensured not only my silence but a little confusion too. She mentioned the harm of nightshade vegetables. I had no idea what she was talking about and could not wrap my head around the idea that eggplants were bad for our health. I didn’t want to remind her that her restrictive diet had a. starved her, b. given her —or encouraged— cancer, and c. at the very least, not stopped her cancer from metastasizing. I figured my silence and smoothies would be great options. I could inject those delicious concoctions with nourishing nutrients and enough calories to nurse her to health. After the first smoothie, she made sure to remind me not to add flaxseeds again, insisting she couldn’t eat anything with phytoestrogens, “obviously.” I kept my mouth shut, and went home to re-read my references and check my notes —and education.
On one of my sans-flax smoothie delivery visits to her hospital bed, a well-respected OB-GYN (a cancer survivor herself) was at her bedside visiting. With the well-earned air of the authority bestowed upon her by the white coat, the doctor agreed that flax and soy were a no-no, while she kindly carried the lunch tray freshly delivered by the [cancer] hospital catering service packed with dairy and animal protein. [I won’t even start here.]
I kept my mouth shut. I may also have nodded in timid agreement.
My cousin passed away a short few weeks later.
My journal since has included rants around the following:
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Duke university economist and political scientist Timur Kuran calls my behaviour “preference falsification.”
[I am at the receiving end of this every time we have guests over for a meal!]
“Preference falsification, according to the economist Timur Kuran, is the act of misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures. It happens frequently in everyday life, such as when we tell the host of a dinner party that we are enjoying the food when we actually find it bland.”https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674707580
Social pressure has evolved from my school playground days. It comes in creme blazers and white coats. It understands perfectly my infuriating desire to belong, especially to authority. I know deep down I yearn for the credibility of science and often find myself distancing from the other side, where spirituality, energy, intuition, and most importantly vegan cookies roam freely. I have often caught myself switching many conversations to quantum physics for fear of being labelled “woo woo.”
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A friend recently shared her disappointment with medicine and doctors. It took two specialists and 6 weeks to finally diagnose her mother with a fractured tibia after my wise and well-read friend insisted the last doctor take a look at her mother’s knee x-rays taken soon after her injury. (The doctor who ordered the x-rays never put them under the light to examine them properly —and they did not come with a report. He just made the assumption that the elderly woman was suffering from an “elderly” issue that needed the standard treatment.) After weeks of excruciating pain and crazy amounts of anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone, the problem was identified in seconds. My friend had to ask.
I don’t need an economist and a political scientist to tell me she is brave, confident, informed, and not interested in pleasing anyone but her mother. She has no education in medicine or nutrition. She is simply a responsible adult with enough functioning brain cells to trust her curiosity and digits to use Google.
What happens to other mothers with more serious conditions than knee fractures who surrender their bodies to “authorities” who don’t read x-rays and rely on popular myths? What becomes of mothers and fathers who do not have the means to shop for doctors and seek second and third opinions to treat a child with a life-threatening condition? Who reminds them to trust their instincts and encourages them to question? Who protects them when an arrogant doctor dismisses them?
Our response to authority and our obviously unconscious surrender to the preservation of archaic systems, myths, and at times destructive public discourse needs our attention. And now is the best time to give it. Someone recently pointed out the irony of this year. When humanity was forced to wear a mask, the master mask finally fell. We have been left exposed, vulnerable, and primed for a new wardrobe.
I cannot end without sharing some information about the health benefits of phytoestrogens. At this point, there is so much literature and an astounding number of peer-reviewed studies on the health benefits of those nutrients found in superfoods like flaxseeds and soy. In his book How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger shares reference upon reference citing the health benefits of plants in over 132 pages of references only. Hippocrates wrote about using flaxseeds to treat patients, making them some of the first items to ever be considered health foods. They are the richest plant sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids and contain one hundred times more lignans than other foods. (Lignans are precursors to phytoestrogens that work to dampen the effects of the body’s own estrogen.) This means they are actually great to both prevent and treat breast cancer.
“Scientists performed a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of flaxseeds for breast cancer patients —one of the few times a food has ever been so rigorously put to the test. … The researchers concluded, “Dietary flaxseed has the potential to reduce tumor growth in patients with breast cancer. … [F]laxseed, which is inexpensive and readily available, may be a potential dietary alternative or adjunct to currently used breast cancer drugs.”Michael Greger, MD, How Not to Die
Could my tablespoon of flaxseeds in my cousin’s smoothie have made a difference? I will never know. Had the absence of eggplants and cooked food contributed to the proliferation of cancer in her starved body? I imagine yes. Do I hope the OB-GYN at my cousin’s bedside could benefit from this information today? You bet. Medical schools are still programmed on a 100-year-old framework that minimizes the crucial role of nutrition in the cause and treatment of chronic disease. In the United States, for example. the average number of nutrition education for medical students is just under 20 hours. That makes my nutrition study hours worthy of a listen at least.
I don’t expect cancer hospitals to cater to raw vegans. My hope is that we educate ourselves on the possibility that maybe, just maybe, what we choose to put in our bodies has the most influence on the outcome of developing disease.
“The bottom line is that no matter which genes you inherit, changes in your diet may be able to affect DNA expression at a genetic level, potentially boosting your ability to fight disease.”Michael Greger, MD, How Not to Die
Rest in peace Nada.