Our Cancer Moment, A Path To Healing
How We Fought And Continue To Fight
It’s no secret that more and more Canadians are researching, exploring, and reaping the benefits of a plant-based diet and lifestyle. In fact, veganism was a top search trend in Canada in 2017, according to Google Trends data. The driving factors for making the switch vary depending on life experiences, interests, and influences, and include ethics, environmental advocacy, religion, economics, and health.
While no two people take precisely the same path to a plant-based life, everyone has a deciding moment that defines their journey. Ours came at 1 a.m. on October 3, 2017. My husband Gabe and I had sat for hours in the ER at Toronto Western Hospital, waiting for the results of a CT scan ordered after he’d experienced violent abdominal pains at a business lunch. I thought it would be something we’d laugh about later – “remember that time we sat in Emerg all night and it turned out you only had gas?”
One look at the doctor’s face, and I knew it was much more than gas.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, except to just say it...”
Nothing positive has ever followed that statement. No matter where you receive it – a doctor’s office, hospital exam room, or specialist’s clinic – you’re never quite prepared for what follows.
“We discovered a mass on your pancreas that is highly suspicious for malignancy.”
Some doctors speak briskly, efficiently, and solely in clinical terms. I suspect they believe terms like malignancy carry less emotional weight than cancer – it puts a self-protective barrier between them and the family to whom they’re delivering world-altering news. Barrier aside, they’re wrong.
No matter what you call it or the approach a doctor takes to delivering a potential diagnosis, hearing any variation of the word cancer plunges a patient and their support circle into the eye of an emotional tsunami.
The world stops spinning on its axis. All sound is replaced with the rushing water whoosh of a mega-storm. You can see the doctor’s lips moving. Some part of your subconscious mind dimly registers what they’re saying, but the audio is distorted. To your dumbstruck ears, it sounds a bit like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons – mwa-mwa-mwa.
It’s an out-of-body experience, similar to a bad acid trip. You’re off-kilter, can’t find your footing, and observe the scene unfolding in front of you as though you are strangely removed from it. That’s because every semblance of the control you thought you had over your life has drained away with the colour in your face.
Though we didn’t know it yet when we walked out of the ER that night, my husband and I took our first steps in a health journey that would take us to the US, back to Canada and abroad to Europe as we chased down a diagnosis, treatment protocol, and surgery by the world’s best hands.
Gabe and I attack challenges in our professional and personal lives with cool-headed logic, exhaustive research, and a single-minded focus that those around us sometimes find exhausting. We knew we needed something to fuel the fight; something that would give us back some of the control we felt we’d lost over our lives and Gabe’s health. We found it in a plant-based diet.
All of the proven data we unearthed pointed to vegetarian and vegan diets as protective against cancer. Diet and nutrition are estimated to account for approximately 30% of all cancers in developed countries and 20% in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. Meat has been linked to cancer in several studies around the world, with the World Health Organization classifying processed meats like bacon and ham as carcinogenic. A 15-year Oxford University study examining how diet affects cancer risk concluded that overall cancer incidence was 11% lower in vegetarians and 19% lower in vegans compared to their meat-eating counterparts. A US study (Adventist Health Study-2, 2013) revealed that vegetarians as a combined group have a lower risk of all cancers than meat-eaters.
"All of the proven data we unearthed pointed to vegetarian and vegan diets as protective against cancer."
There is a growing body of medical evidence that suggests a plant-based diet can positively affect cancer survival rates, but none that focuses specifically on pancreatic cancer, the deadliest and least understood of all cancers. In 2015, the American Cancer Society published recommendations that cancer survivors follow a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and low in red/processed meats, refined grains, and sugars. We figured what’s good for cancer survivors should apply to an otherwise healthy 41-year-old man whose cancer was detected so early that two biopsies in two countries didn’t yield malignant cells. Wading through reams of literature, we homed in on a few proven benefits of going plant-based that became relevant to our journey:
- Supports healthy weight loss: It’s been proven that obesity not only increases cancer risk, but overweight people tend to die sooner from their cancers. At the time of his diagnosis, Gabe was 40 pounds overweight. We wanted to ensure that he went into this fight as fit as possible.
- Boosts immune-system enhancing phytonutrients: Traditional treatments such as chemotherapy knock down the body’s immune system. We wanted to give Gabe as much of an advantage as we could, preparing his body to withstand and rebound from chemotherapy.
- Grows healthy intestinal bacteria: This not only enhances the body’s defenses against cancer, but aids digestion, which can become compromised with cancers of the gastrointestinal system.
"There is a growing body of medical evidence that suggests a plant-based diet can positively affect cancer survival rates."
To avoid kitchen disasters that would unduly turn our taste buds against vegan fare, we started our plant-based journey by exploring Toronto’s burgeoning vegan dining scene. Our palettes expanded. We got more and more adventurous with the dishes we ordered. We didn’t miss meat. We fell in love with nut cheeses. We’d already been using nut milks in protein shakes, so the transition away from cow’s milk wasn’t a shock to the system. I got confident enough to seek out vegan recipes to replicate some of our favourite dishes at home – and discovered that much of my previous aversion to cooking stemmed from my distaste for cooking meat.
By the time we headed to Paris and were connected with a French biopsy practitioner affectionately referred to as the Pope of the Pancreas, Gabe and I were card-carrying vegans. He’d lost 40 pounds through diet alone, none due to sickness. After adding B12 to our daily supplement regimen, the mental fog and fatigue lifted, and we both had more energy and mental acuity than ever before. We started to wonder if Gabe truly did have cancer.
Of course, it turned out Gabe did have pancreatic cancer, well-differentiated and contained to his pancreas. Upon diagnosis, we left France for Heidelberg, Germany, where the world’s top pancreatic cancer surgeon practices, and started what would become three long months of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is poison – you’ll never convince me otherwise after three months of living its effects.
It does strange things to a person’s sense of taste. It affects their appetite, food cravings, and aversions. All of our favoured vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Heidelberg and the recipes I’d successfully mastered were suddenly odious to Gabe. He was losing weight he could no longer afford to. He had sudden, intense cravings for meat-based childhood comfort foods like chicken soup and spaghetti bolognese. While I fought to find or create vegan facsimiles, none would do.
"I’m not sure I’d have successfully navigated this journey – and its mental, physical, and spiritual challenges – without the healing power of a plant-based diet, and the therapeutic practices of daily exercise and meditation."
So, I did what felt was right: I fed Gabe exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it. And I continued on the plant-based path that gave me the fuel I needed to be his advocate and caregiver. I’m not sure I’d have successfully navigated this journey – and its mental, physical, and spiritual challenges – without the healing power of a plant-based diet, and the therapeutic practices of daily exercise and meditation.
As I write this, we are two days away from the surgery that could be a curative strike against Gabe’s cancer. And I am convinced that we would not have come to this point if we hadn’t made the decision to adopt a vegan lifestyle. It gave Gabe’s immune system a boost – he never experienced any sickness or infection, never had to delay a single chemo session. It gave him vigor and energy. It infused him with health and vitality. It gave him a sense of control while dealing with a disease that diminishes control. The positive power of plants.