Monday, January 17, 2011

Meg Wolff, Cancer, Gratitude and Some Much Needed Clarity

Recently a friend recommended a new book to me.

Becoming Whole is the story of how one woman recovered from breast cancer by following her gut and ceasing the toxic medications she was taking and embraced Macrobiotic eating.

Meg Wolff's story is one of heroism, grace and sheer courage. She struggled with various strange health issues in her early life. But things turned wrong in her early thirties when Wolff was diagnosed with bone cancer. She subsequently lost most her leg to the disease, just a few months after giving birth to her second child. I firmly understand the stamina race that it is to have a toddler and a newborn, but the idea of doing it all with only one leg, unable to walk while carrying anything, is a tall order.

Then after all that she had gone through with bone cancer, Wolff was diagnosed with breast cancer not even 10 years later. After years of visiting doctor after doctor, complaining of symptoms and lumps and problems only to be waived away and told that nothing was serious, Wolff was finally diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She was in her early forties.

Everyone reading knows that this is a death sentence. And Wolff's doctor knew the same, which was painfully obvious to her when they prescribed no treatments that were designed to cure her, rather than extend her life. She was placed on several highly toxic medications that left her weak and nauseous and unable to care for her herself, let alone her family. Someone finally recommended some alternative therapies, Vitamin C treatments and macrobiotics.

Wolff had never experienced Macrobiotic eating before. Macrobiotics (as described by a novice and an outsider-namely me) is an eastern style of eating in which all foods are assigned an energy, either yin or yang. Foods that contract are considered to be yang, like meat, and foods that are expansive are considered to be yin like alcohol or sugar. I am not well versed in the back story on macrobiotics, so I cannot explain the details. But if you are interested, these folks can help explain it. So every food has an energy assigned to it. And the goal is to eat foods that balance, some yin foods and some yang foods. But certain foods are too yin, and should be avoided, like sugar and alcohol. And likewise, certain foods are too yang and should be avoided, like red meat. The foods that the macrobiotic diet recommends are whole grains, particularly brown rice (said to be in perfect balance of yin and yang), vegetables and whole fruits, beans, certain fermented foods, seas vegetables and small amounts of fish. Sound familiar? Foods recommended by the Macrobiotic Diet are whole foods, completely unprocessed. The diet recommends that you stay away from dairy, large amounts of fat, red meat, sugar and processed foods. Macrobiotics also stresses organic ingredients. Most of the recipes as given by Wolff are very very simple, boiled vegetables and whole grains and beans.

Now you guys all know how I feel about non-processed diets. And while I have spent alot of my time talking about the merits of this or that raw cheese or worrying about who is raising my eggs, here is an altogether different experience from another person eating an unprocessed diet. Wolff began eating a macrobiotic diet when she was at the depth's of her illness, taking tamoxifen, a very toxic cancer drug that has been the topic of some criticism. Wolff has stuck with the diet. She has not strayed from the core recommendations even a little. Her very life depends upon it. And in a relatively short period of time she completely recovered. I repeat, her stage three breast cancer is in remission and she has been cancer free now for several years. Her book is really raw and beautiful, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. Since my readers are all over the country, I will say, it is not one that will be stocked in your local store. I don't think the print run was deep enough. But there are online copies out there. I provided a link to Amazon, but Barnes and Noble has them as well (they are my favorite-thanks free shipping!)

The diet, when planned properly is not void of protein, but it is very high in fiber and all the pyhtonutrients and very low in fat. The fat part is important for someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Give me a couple days and I will try to eloquently explain why in a follow up post. Wolff mentions the importance of having an instructor, such as she had for regular group cooking classes. And I can see that as being vastly important. Because without proper training, one could gravitate toward the dishes that one liked rather than really working all aspects of the sea vegetables, beans and fermented foods, all which have a huge impact on the overall nourishment derived from the diet. It would be easy to cut things out of one's diet and without proper planning one might end up just eating so much brown rice. Knowing what I know about a complete diet (which is pretty little compared with some professionals, but enough to know what I need to be eating), incorporating all aspects of this diets are crucial.

Reading the book was eye opening for me. For several reasons...First of all, Wolff was diagnosed with breast cancer right around the same time that my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. My mother was slightly older than Wolff, by seven or eight years. I found myself reading the book and comparing the timeline with my mother's. I would think to myself 'if this happened in October of 1998, what were we doing then? What was Mom experiencing at that time'. I don't do it to compare the two women, but just because the experience is so similar. And mostly because Wolff describes her Western care as being so disconnected from her overall health. She also describes a medical community that at the time didn't know what certain drugs would do in their patients, or couldn't say with certainty that surgery was the best answer. My mother and I always felt love for our doctors, and felt that they were working hard to try and save her. We never felt that they had given up hope for my mother's case. Yet no one ever recommended a holistic approach, or any kind of diet modification. Or even that there could be a relationship between diet and my mother surviving! I am not sure that I even knew what organic food was in 1998. Of course I questioned 'what if my mother had known about the Macrobiotic diet'. Even since writing this blog I have wondered about her poor diet and why she got cancer. It doesn't do me any good to go back and try and decipher it. And I have no way of ever proving that her diet was or wasn't a contributing factor in her death. But I can change my eating habits, and those of my kids.

Also I found the book eye opening because Wolff's diet is so clean. It is clean on a completely different level than what I have been focusing on. It made me realize that I have spent alot of time focusing on my expensive milk and that it is some special pasteurization method, when milk is probably not all that healthy for me anyway. I also realized that while I have been reading alot about fat and grass fed meat and coconut oil, I forgot that one of the reasons why I lost weight in the first place all those years ago on my non-processed foods diets was because I ate vegetables. I still eat lots of vegetables. But in the last couple months since I have been exploring other foods, I have slacked off a bit. This book made me realize that I need to be eating lots and lots of veggies, not just enough. I am back to buying tons of veg, and trying to incorporate it into my diet. Hence the kale in the kids smoothies (which they have eaten 3 or 4 times now) and the collard green soup. We have to eat those veggies!

It is a daily struggle to keep up a good diet. All the healthful things and work I have done in the last few years to educate myself would not amount to a hill of beans if I woke up tomorrow and decided to eat french fries and industrial beef for the rest of my life. Every meal is like a battle against refined processed ingredients. My mouth wants them, my body does not. Sometimes I do well and choose the unprocessed foods, and sometimes I fail and eat tortilla chips. But I always get up and dust myself off and go back into battle armed with a fistful of kale and broccoli. I am ready to keep fighting this fight, even when it gets difficult and I have waking dreams of potato chips and white flour. I will not let one slip up get me down. Veggies come first, and before too long the kids will get there too.

If you know someone with cancer, buy them this book. They deserve to know about Macrobiotics. Even if the diet may not save every life that it enters, everyone will heal better eating a good healthy vegetable rich diet. And to the person that would rather die of cancer than eat kale everyday. I don't know. There are people like that out there. But if you read this book and you hear the pain in Wolff's voice about staring death in the face, maybe the introduction of this book at the right time in a sick person's life might be just enough to spur a change.

Wolff surely triumphed in saving her life through food. The experience left her with a deeper love for the world such as many people describe who have come close to the other side. She describes gratitude so beautifully. She even describes the gratitude that cancer came into her life and made her more open to different approaches and healing in new ways. And while I cannot say that I am grateful to cancer for anything in my life, my life and my belief in natural healing have changed as a result of my experience with cancer. I have been to that deep dark place in life where a loved one stares down death only to cross over into the next life. I have come back from there a changed woman. And I understand the gratitude that Wolff describes. I am grateful for every sunrise and gust of wind. I eat the way I do because I am changed. I understand that there is alot I can do to keep from getting cancer. Surely I have the genetic predisposition for cancer. But I will do whatever I need to do to limit my risk.

1 comment:

  1. Serious question: if Vegetable have been reinstated at the top of priorities: does that mean that "local" has slipped a bit? Are you buying hothouse veggies or trucked in veggies? Just curious, no judgement whatsoever.