The Accidental Vegan

April 30, 2009

Seems I am always hungry these days.

After being a happy-go-lucky vegetarian for twenty years, on the heels of my breast cancer diagnosis and with the encouragement of several trusted sources, I’ve sworn off dairy, wheat, and sugar. And, given that my cancer is estrogen sensitive, soy may be next. (Even though soy lattés are the only thing saving my sanity at the moment, so you may have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.)

What do I eat? Mostly veggies, nuts, beans, rice, steel cut oats, and a few quixotic grains, such as quinoa.

Of course, I’m hoping to expand that list (soon). Any given day will find me wandering the aisles of my local health food store with a wild look in my eye. I skip sections I used to drool over, like the cheeses and baked goods. Instead, I hover dutifully in the produce aisle and fill my cart with purple kale, lush broccoli, and stumpy carrots. Then I take my greenery for a spin. We ride up and down every aisle hunting for something that will satisfy my gnawing hunger. Last week I discovered a bulk bin full of date bars sprinkled with coconut, and I felt like I’d won the lottery. Sure, they look like cat turds coated in litter, but I devoured them anyway. That’s how desperate I am. Besides, I’m cranky. I’ve got a caffeine headache. And I’m never in the mood to cook anymore. 

My predicament is made doubly painful by the fact that I love food. (And, by food, I mean anything that contain sugar, wheat, and dairy.) And, when I say love, I mean LOVE. Food is my hobby. I love to think about it, shop for it, and–once upon a time–cook it. For years I meticulously planned my afternoon outings according to what errand might take me within arm’s distance of a brownie or overpriced coffee drink. Mary laughs because I won’t even go on a dog walk without at least $2 in my pocket  in case I stumble across a bakery. If you’d told me six months ago that I’d soon give up every food I held dear, I would have laughed–hard. But then I got breast cancer and things changed. I changed. Funny how once you hear the doctor say, “it’s cancer,” you can’t help but stare at the food perched on the end of your fork and think “did you do this to me?”

Yes, trying to regain control of one’s life with a knife and fork is a cancer cliche. Whatever. Shortly after my diagnosis, I spoke with several breast cancer survivors. Our conversations meandered down the usual paths of diagnostics, surgeries, and treatment protocols. And, near the end of each chat, I’d ask about lifestyle changes. As in, “so, did you change your diet?” Without fail, every woman admitted that, yes, in the throes of the initial scare, she’d raced out to buy “The Juicer.” Then she’d guiltily confess that, after securing a clean bill of health from her oncologist, she ran straight back to her old ways of eating. Sayonara juicer (aka sucker). Once a symbol of health and salvation, the treasured juicer became just another discarded souvenir of her visit to Cancerland…a trip she’d rather forget. Besides, what better way to forget your troubles than with a triple fudge sundae?

Call me a control freak. Call me self-punishing. But I don’t want to forget my trip to Cancerland. How can I forget when I’m tossing back 20 milligrams of Tamoxifen every morning and wondering if the drug will make my uterus implode. Plus, HELLO, if something is going to have an impact on your body wouldn’t it be food…the stuff you’re gobbling by the pound instead of by the milligram? And so I trudge on…steering my cart through a world of temptation, listening to my stomach growl, and, eventually, heading for the cat turds.