Good News or Bad News? My Cancer Diagnosis Changed Our Lives
The “Bad News”
Let me start with some “bad news.” On November 8, 2010, at the ripe old age of 36, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. After the initial shock subsided, and after exhausting my conventional treatment options, I set out to research the connection between cancer and lifestyle factors. This led me primarily down the path of nutrition, and what I learned would change my life, and the life of my entire family, forever.
“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven and ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”
—Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
My Family, Our Food, and My Beliefs
In my family, food had always been a very important part of our culture and identity. I was a foodie and a wine lover, and my life adventures almost invariably involved traveling to the best restaurants in the world and exploring new cuisines and gastronomic delights. And so it was with some trepidation (and admittedly some bias) that I started researching the connection between nutrition and cancer. I quickly learned that I had no basis for my most ardently held beliefs, which in my mind had become self-evident truths. But this was no easy process because you can find books, articles, websites, YouTube videos, or you name it out there telling you exactly what you want to hear. You want to hear that eating eggs and bacon for breakfast, a T-bone steak for lunch, and chicken stuffed with ham and cheese for dinner (which, by the way, is not that far from the way I used to eat) is healthy for you? No problem! You’ll find plenty of resources to confirm your baseless “self-evident truths.”
My Research and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation (Now known as the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies)
As I started the research, I realized I was gravitating toward what I wanted to hear, toward resources that confirmed my “self-evident truths.” I caught myself early enough in the process and promised my wife that I would conduct my research in the most objective manner possible, making changes to my life according to my objective conclusions and not my subjective ideas. But how was I to tell fact from fiction in an area in which I had no background? Who would be my guide? How would I know what research was credible and what research was tendentious, at best, and downright dishonest, at worst?
Designing, coordinating, and executing research projects are critical components of my profession. So, using the skills and knowledge that I did have at my disposal, I tried to design a research plan to maximize objectivity and minimize bias. I would cast a wide net, and then I would chisel away at the resources using three basic filters: (1) qualifications and experience of the authors/researchers, (2) connections between the authors/researchers and industries that may benefit from a particular message, and (3) random checks of source citations by the authors/researchers to scientific studies. Of course, I’m oversimplifying an otherwise complex process, which undoubtedly involves some subjectivity (e.g., ultimately, as the research narrowed, I also had to make judgment calls about which arguments made more sense in light of everything else I had read before), but I tried my very best to be unbiased. The resources that trickled out of that filtering process all contained a similar message: plant-based diets comprised of unprocessed, whole foods have the most potential for preventing and sometimes reversing many of our leading chronic illnesses. There are many variations on this theme, to be sure, but the basic message is the same. Out of hundreds of resources I reviewed, one book, along with its staggering amount of scientific support, stood out from the (often overwhelming) sea of research. That book was The China Study. I read it once, and then twice, and then three times, and decided I needed to also take the Foundation’s Plant-Based Nutrition courses, which I completed at the end of February 2011. These courses, and the changes they sparked, would be a major turning point in my life and the life of my family.
How The China Study and the Foundation’s Plant-Based Nutrition Courses Changed Our Lives
What I learned in the Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate is not limited to nutrition and health. The courses gave me a different perspective on my place in the infinitely complex and beautiful web of life that is all around us and within us. My change in diet became more than simply changing the items on my plate. It became a new way of life. As if that weren’t enough, the Foundation also served as an invaluable resource that opened new doors in many other ways for my family and me. My instructor, the amazing Anne Ledbetter (now deservedly director of education for the Foundation ), led me to additional resources that would have a profound impact on the development of our new lifestyle and diet. For example, knowing I lived in San Francisco, Anne recommended I attend one of Dr. John McDougall’s Advanced Study Weekends (“ASW”) in Santa Rosa, California. I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Campbell and Anne in person at that event, where Anne said something to me that I will never forget: “you were meant to be here.” I’ve never believed in destiny (still don’t), but something told me that I was, indeed, meant to be there.
Not only did my wife and I continue to refine our knowledge of nutrition at that ASW, but we also met Brenda Davis, RD, an impossibly caring professional and wonderful person who would become absolutely crucial in guiding our new path. After all this research, I felt I had a better handle on the connection between nutrition and health, but it wasn’t until the Foundation recommended Dr. Michael Klaper at the True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, California that the pieces really started coming together. We now had by our side a top-notch medical doctor, and an incredibly generous human being with over three decades of experience in plant-based nutritional intervention, to help us further discriminate between fact and fiction in the (seemingly) confusing world of nutrition and health. My newly found knowledge also prompted me to request additional information from my trusted primary care physician at U.C. San Francisco, Dr. Daniel Null, regarding lifestyle issues and cancer. Dr. Null led me to my brilliant and profoundly compassionate oncologist, Dr. Donald Abrams, who is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of integrative oncology, and who uses nutrition as the most significant intervention in his protocol.
In any event, with all of these resources, many of which were connected in some way to my participation in the Plant-Based Nutrition courses, we changed our diets and, consequently, the direction of our lives. Leading the charge was my spectacular wife, Lily, who cleared out our kitchen from one day to the next and decided, along with me, to go on a strict whole food, plant-based diet. Without her support and inexhaustible energy, none of us in our family could have done it. And the health benefits we’ve reaped from making the change are innumerable and profound. Among many amazing stories we’ve witnessed, I think my father’s is particularly compelling.
Was it Bad News or Good News?
“Given your health profile, you could die at any moment.” That was the answer that, following the results of an angiogram several years ago, one of my dad’s doctors gave him when asked how long he had to live. You see, my dad had advanced coronary artery disease and already had suffered a heart attack. He had been diagnosed with type II diabetes over 20 years ago. Until recently, he was injecting between 35-40 units of insulin per day. Over those 20+ years of having diabetes, he was also on other diabetic medications (e.g., DiaBeta and Metformin). He had high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, early signs of kidney failure and peripheral artery disease and retinopathy, among other ailments. In total, he was taking 17 pills a day (including statin drugs, blood pressure medication, etc.). He believed his conditions were irreversible and progressive. With respect to his coronary artery disease and diabetes in particular, based on what his doctors told us and based on the generally distributed literature on the subject, we all “knew” that they were both irreversible, progressive conditions.
After my cancer diagnosis, to support Lily and me, he and my mom, along with my brother, changed their diets as well. At the time, my dad was still confident that he needed the medication he was taking (all 17 daily pills of it and all 40 units of insulin) and that his conditions could be managed to some extent, though not reversed. But what the heck, he thought, the diet might help a little and I’m supporting my son. What happened after he changed his diet was (and still is) unbelievable to all of us. Within weeks he had cut his medication in half, lost weight, and started feeling a fundamental change in his body. Today, after about two years on a whole food, plant-based diet, he is taking zero insulin and zero pills. His fasting glucose is now 80-87 mg/dL on a daily basis, and his A1c is normal (5.3). Again without pills, his average blood pressure is now 115/70. Even with all the medication, his blood pressure was high and never reached an average normal range. His C-Reactive Protein (a measure of general inflammation) dropped significantly (to 0.8 mg/L). His arteries are opening up, and he needed no procedures or surgeries. As confirmed in a recent echocardiogram, the scar tissue resulting from his heart attack has shrunk, indicating potential tissue regeneration. His kidney function is back to normal. He averted (and possibly reversed) peripheral artery disease and retinopathy (he recently had to change to a lower eyeglass prescription!). In short, he reversed or is reserving all of the conditions that we “knew” were irreversible and progressive.
This all may sound incredible, but it’s true. My dad’s story is supported by medical exams and records that reflect his conditions, both before and after changing his diet. As for me, so far my cancer is at bay, but more importantly I feel better than ever and, ironically, I’m much healthier now than before my diagnosis (e.g., I lost 40 pounds and my total cholesterol dropped from 229 mg/dl to 135 mg/dl). As for our family dinners with filet mignon and red wine and cheese for dessert, those are a thing of the past. And we all say, enthusiastically and honestly, good riddance!
My cancer diagnosis, in addition to bringing us closer together as a family, leading us to new friendships and incredibly wise and caring people (Anne, Dr. Campbell, Brenda, Dr. Klaper, Dr. Abrams, among others), bringing a new sense of awareness and wonder into the way we live our lives, and generally expanding our consciousness and spirit, may well have saved my father from an early death. So was my cancer diagnosis good news or bad news? Maybe if we die—God forbid—we’ll have a chance to ask this question as it relates to all of the events in our lives. Until then, to paraphrase Kung Fu Panda and Shakespeare, my view is that there is no “good” news or “bad” news but just news, and only the label with which we choose to qualify them makes them so.
This is a self-reported testimonial regarding the author’s experience with a plant-based diet. It should not be interpreted as personal medical advice. Please consult with your physician for questions or concerns regarding personal health or illness.
Image Credit: Slawek Olzacki / Flickr
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