My Mom died of breast cancer.  It’s still hard to say that, much less to believe it, even after two and a half years.  She was diagnosed when she was in her early 40’s, and I still remember how shocked we all were when we learned that the small lump she had found herself in the shower, the lump that the doctors were all but certain was benign, was in fact, cancer.  She initially had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, and all was well for a few years.  But the insidious disease came back, and she had a mastectomy and chemotherapy next.  I still remember taking her for her first wig fitting and how embarrassed she was about letting me see her bald head.  She was always so brave, taking every step her doctors recommended along the way, and much to everyone’s surprise, including her radiation oncologist, who referred to her as a “walking miracle,” she fought this battle off and on for a total of 26 years.  In the end, the cancer metastasized to her pelvic area, and she had to have a double nephrostomy so as not to suffer damage to her kidneys.  My Dad stood by her every step of the way, flushing and changing her nephrostomy bags dutifully, helping her in the restroom, getting her out whenever she was strong enough to go.  She always loved to go out to eat….food was her passion in life.  And it’s a little ironic to me that although she was overweight for most of her life, no medical professional ever talked to her about her diet, or even her weight, throughout all of the years that she struggled with this disease.  Meanwhile, I was so strongly affected by watching her and what was happening to her that I began to gradually modify my own health habits and relationship with food, believing somehow that it would protect me from suffering the same fate.  I began exercising daily, religiously, for at least an hour, and I also gradually began to move towards a vegetarian diet.  I often encouraged my parents, and particularly my Mom, to eat more vegetables, to stop eating so much fatty meat and sweets, but my words had little to no impact.  I wish now that I could turn back time and refuse to allow any animal-based or processed foods into my home, but at the time, I didn’t know about the strong connection between these foods and their ability to turn on cancer genes and/or feed cancer cells, so I allowed my parents to bring their own food and eat it here when we were together for holidays and other gatherings.

During her last days, when my Mom was in the cancer ward at Johns Hopkins and I was spending long hours there, I heard a small voice inside telling me to stop consuming all animal protein.  At that time, I was still eating egg whites and cheese.  But I decided I needed to listen, and so without telling anyone, I became a “vegan” for a couple of weeks, just to try it out and see if I could do it.  When that time passed and I knew there was no turning back, I made the announcement to my husband, and then to my parents.  And the reaction was not a good one:  Everyone was worried about how I would eat in a restaurant, how they would feed me when I was at their house, whether I would get enough protein.  Sadly, my Mom didn’t have to worry much about that, because she died shortly after that time.  I later went on to enroll in a long-distance nutrition program (Institute for Integrative Nutrition) and I read the book, “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell, in which he demonstrated that casein, the protein in dairy, did in fact turn on cancer genes.  This led me to tell my three children, twin daughters then 11, and son, 7, that we would no longer be eating any dairy products in our home.  Since they were raised as vegetarians, this impacted them heavily and there was quite a bit of protest.  But they adjusted beautifully, gradually, and today, 1-1/2 years later, they all thank me for feeding them healthy food and tell me how happy they are to be vegans and how great they feel.

My family used to walk the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure every year.  And the year my Mom died, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  We did do it the next year, but I cried the entire way.  This year, I’m not sad.  I’m angry.  I’m angry because I see pink ribbons on yogurt containers.  I’m angry because I received a flyer from BJ’s wholesale store, touting that each purchase of Uno and DiGiorno frozen pizzas and Jamaican Style Spicy Beef Patties helps fight breast cancer.  I’m angry because all of the cosmetics companies that use ingredients in their products that have been implicated in causing breast cancer have come out with pink ribbon collections to promote these products, leading the consumer to believe she is helping to fight breast cancer when she purchases and wears them.

Instead of feeding these companies profit for displaying the pink ribbon on products that have nothing whatsoever to do with fighting breast cancer, and in fact, in many cases, actually promote breast cancer, why are we not focusing on PREVENTION of breast cancer?  I do not want to go through what my mother went through, much less, have that as the most remote possibility for my daughters in their lifetime.

Now we know that obesity, being overweight, is the number one risk for cancer.  Why not focus on the best ways to control our weight?  There is little dispute in the literature that routine exercise is linked to decreased breast cancer risk.  Why are we not seeing pink ribbons on exercise DVDs or equipment?

Research also shows that excess levels of circulating estrogen lead to increased breast cancer risk.  This is why women who do not have children, or who have them later in life, as well as women who have menstrual onset at an early age and/or menopause at a later age, are also at higher risk.  The way that excess estrogen is carried out of the body is through the digestive tract.  Estrogen binds to fiber within the digestive tract and is eliminated with our bowel movements…the more fiber, the more estrogen leaves the body; the less fiber, the more estrogen remains circulating in the blood.  It follows then, that women who eat a diet higher in fiber would be at lower risk….and there is no fiber in animal-based products.  Plant-based products, however, are full of fiber, and also high in nutrients and much lower in calories, as well as saturated fats and cholesterol.  So it makes sense, then, that eating more whole, plant-based foods is the best way to control our weight and to prevent breast cancer, not eating more frozen pizzas, yogurt, and beef patties!  Why are we not seeing pink ribbons on broccoli and kale, members of the highly protective cruciferous family, in the grocery store?

I am “fighting breast cancer” this year by informing everyone I know, in as many ways as I can, about the benefits of eating a whole foods, plant-based diet.  I truly believe that if my Mom had been given this order by her doctor, she may have made some changes and lived a better quality of life.  She may have learned how delicious real food can be, how great you can feel after you eat it, how you don’t have to worry about counting calories and controlling portions, and how it doesn’t lead to excessive weight gain and digestive discomfort the way that animal-based and processed foods do.  I’m currently working with some clients who have changed their diets gradually to include these delicious, plant-based whole foods, and they are looking and feeling amazing.  And I know that this is the best way that I can personally “Race for the Cure.”  The cure lies in knowledge and in prevention, not in a new drug with all kinds of short and long-term side effects or a new, expensive treatment that takes a heavy toll on the body and may or may not be effective.  The cure lies in informing and educating women, men, children, that what is on the end of their forks truly is medicine, and will profoundly affect their bodies and minds both immediately, and in the long-term.  We are not victims of our genes; genes may load the gun, but it’s the choices we make that pull the trigger.  I lived for years in extreme fear that I would find a lump or get a bad report after a mammogram.  I was terrified to go through what my Mom endured.  And now I feel secure that by making the dietary and lifestyle choices that I have, I am doing the very best for my body, my mind, my spirit, and my family.  I want to find the cure and fight this disease every bit as desperately as I did when I participated in the walks and purchased every product I could get my hands on that displayed the pink ribbon.  But I know now that it’s not about making more money for these companies that are not really in it to win it.  It’s about taking responsibility for my health, educating myself and others about the reality of where the breast cancer risks really are, and making whatever changes are necessary to minimize exposure to these risks.  If we all work together and inspire each other to move towards a healthier lifestyle, then maybe we won’t need to race anymore, other than for the thrill of it.