On food, life, and staying out of the cancer mall
Pizza? Doughnuts? Kielbasa? No, thank you. We are kale people. Blackberry people
The Spec’s list of 10 finalists in its search for Hamilton’s #citydish read like a gastronomic death wish. Here is how many things from the list that I would eat, or allow my kids to eat: none. None things. Never. People like me are often seen as Debbie Downers who don’t understand that we’re here for a good time, not a long time, etc. Personally, I just want to stay the hell out of the cancer mall.
Let me explain: my friend Nicole’s mother has stage four lung cancer. Shortly after she returned from her first trip to chemotherapy, Nicole looked at me, kind of shell-shocked, and said, “Latham, it’s like a MALL. But instead of stores, there’s chemo. It’s like a cancer mall.” I was reminded of the scene from The Matrix where all the humans are marinating in pods of goop while they’re plugged into … something. I was never clear on that particular plot point.
Frankly, it’s not hard to scare me with dystopic visions of cancer treatment. When it comes to cancer, I’m all set in the fear department. Perhaps it’s because my husband and I committed the wildly optimistic act of having five children with no extended family to help with their care. I guess I feel like I should hang around for as long as possible, preferably with all of them alive, too. But I know five women my age who’ve gotten cancer recently (and I hardly know anybody).
You can’t guarantee yourself a cancerfree life, but you can certainly play the odds: somewhere along the line I realized that almost everything my family was eating had, in my mind, a primarily anti-carcinogenic property. We’ve gone way beyond the abolishment of junk food and the switch to organic.
I once read, for example, that eating extra-dark chocolate with blueberries helps the body absorb the anti-carcinogens in the blueberries. So I’ve been eating them together almost daily for more than a decade. My kids do the same, to the extent that if one spies another sneaking some chocolate, they’ll yell, “Hey! You haven’t had any blueberries!” I also read that eating avocado with spinach helps the body absorb 13 times the amount of nutrients from the spinach, so for years we had spinach salad with avocado almost every day (then I found out that Monarch butterfly habitat in Mexico was being threatened by avocado farming). We only drink water because alcohol is a carcinogen and most other drinks are sugary.
We follow a vegetarian diet for many reasons, but one of them is the fact that vegetarians have a lower risk of cancer. My family’s daily intake includes carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and blueberries. Depending on what’s in stock at the store, we’ll also eat cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, red peppers … these are the high-impact, cancerfighting fruit and veg. White potatoes? Corn? Don’t make me laugh. No indeed, we are kale people. Blackberry people.
We don’t eat fried foods because heating most oils to a certain degree makes them carcinogenic. Anything fermented is good because better gut bacteria just might help ward off cancer. I once made my own fermented tea but I don’t want to talk about that.
Sugar is proving to be the final frontier. Safe alternatives like stevia are painfully expensive. My poor 12-year-old son has recently discovered baking, so we frequently find ourselves negotiating fragile compromises; he wanted to bake me a birthday cake with “REAL ICING SUGAR, MUM.” I said that if it was my cake, maybe we could try the chocolate icing that uses puréed cashews and dates, instead? He rolled his eyes at me and fumed. So no, it’s not always easy.
Many will read this and think I’m crazy (or even cruel) for leading my family into this diet. But here’s the thing: I think you’re crazy for not following it. For a long time, I was slightly embarrassed or apologetic for the way my family eats, as if it were the product of unseemly paranoia or severity. However, this food life — happily scarfing down steamed asparagus with my kids, licking lemon juice and olive oil from our fingers — is some of the purest joy I’ve ever known. Do I ever, for one second, wish that I was eating sausage or doughnuts? Never. They hold zero appeal. Food is meant to sustain and enrich life, not take it away, and we are at a tragic point in our culture when the bulk of what people eat increases their chances of morbid disease, percentage point by percentage point. If blueberries and dark chocolate offer a chance, no matter how small, at a life raft, who am I not to take it?
Blueberries — one of the cancer-fighting foods Latham Hunter and her family swear by.