You do have control over your own destiny.
If you are just joining us on this journey, I’ll give you a brief back story. I was floored when I found out in February that I have follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a blood cancer, at age 35 — I tried to preemptively fight against something like this for what seems like my entire life. I’ve always eaten “healthy”, but really in the last six years revolutionized the way I consume food by joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), grow an extensive garden with vegetables and herbs, and shop exclusively in the organic section. I’ve also tried to limit my toxin exposure as much as possible. So none of this made any sense to me. I was, and a part of me still is, angry about the unfairness of it all.
When they told me at Sloan Kettering that there was nothing I did to cause this, I believed them. They went on to say that the only known cause of lymphoma is pesticide and herbicide exposure. My doctor here explained that I was likely exposed to something in the environment. Quite naturally, I thought a lot about that, and I racked my brain thinking back to all of the times I frolicked in lawns (not my parents) that were sprayed with Round Up — all for the sake of pretty grass. In my 20s, I lived in an apartment complex for seven years that sprayed every inch of the lawn — the yellow flags warning of the toxic chemicals were everywhere. I had two dogs, and there was no place for them to pee except the sprayed grass. They would step all over it, and then sleep in my bed at night. Gross. I didn’t know any better back then. The EPA recently claimed that Round Up doesn’t cause cancer. Does anyone really believe this? I call bullshit, and I’m nearly positive that this was the catalyst for my lymphoma. Environmental toxins are something I had little to no control over.
They told me at Sloan Kettering that there is nothing I can do to prevent the lymphoma from coming back; with my type at my age, it is very likely to rear its ugly head again someday. And while I respect the hell out of these doctors, who have the access to new research, and made me feel so comfortable and confident — that they had my back in all of this… I have to try. I have to believe that I have control over my own destiny. While toxins are the only known cause of lymphoma, I’ve heard and read on many occasions that the foods we eat can increase the risk factor. I finished the book, “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger, an MD who went to a specific prestigious medical school because it had classes in nutrition (something most doctors don’t have to take in their medical training). He claims through noted research that a plant based diet is the best way to prevent and reverse the risks of the top killers, and this makes total and complete sense to me. In the section on blood cancers, he claims that 50g of poultry (a chicken breast is about 350g) increases your risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma by 50–250%. Not that everyone who eats poultry is going to get a blood cancer, but that’s a horribly high risk increase— too high. A risk I’m just not willing to take anymore. A risk I wouldn’t have taken at all had I known.
In this quest for improved health, my family is slowly transitioning to a plant based, whole food, vegan diet. We’ve already spent the past three weeks eating mostly vegan. By the end of the summer, I want to be off meat and cheese completely. By the end of the year, I will have eliminated the rest. Slow and steady, so I don’t give up.
While other people are doing this new carnivore diet, where all you eat is meat, my family is eliminating it altogether. My husband jokingly said one day, while we were thinking about some of our favorite places to eat on vacation, “we need to have a carnivore bucket list”. And, so, here it is!
Our Carnivore Bucket List:
- A bagel with cream cheese, especially when the bagel shop over does it on the cream cheese and you have to re-slather it over every inch of your bagel.
- Whipped cream on anything, but especially on top of my morning coffee, pumpkin pie and strawberry shortcake (my all time favorite dessert)… or even just straight up from the can into my waiting and expectant mouth!
- Ice cream — we’ve been in the habit of making our own. It’s so creamy and delicious without all of the additives. Going out for ice cream on a hot day or a day at the beach will be greatly missed. There are vegan ice cream places, but not around these parts. Nada Moo is pretty close to the real thing and will hit the spot for me (when it’s on sale).
- Cheesecake, because who doesn’t love their entire caloric intake for the day in one sliver of deliciousness.
- Cheese — there isn’t much I need to say about cheese, because it’s freaking delicious and speaks for itself. Cheese plates. Wine and cheese pairings. Parm cheese on any kind of pasta dish. Cheddar or Mexi cheese on a taco or in a breakfast sandwich. Cheese… I will miss you dearly! I did gave up dairy when I was nursing my youngest. After my sister-in-law and sister also did it, because my nieces and nephews had a milk protein allergy, I tried with my son and found that he was less cranky and slept better when I cut it from my diet. I feel like dairy will be easier for me to eliminate, because I already did it once for a full year, and honestly, it wasn’t that bad.
- My mom’s chicken soup with rice. Anytime we are traveling, sick, or had a busy week, she makes this perfect, simple, but spiced right soup that brings me back home to my childhood. If you ask my oldest what his favorite thing to eat is, he says chicken soup. This will probably be the hardest one to cut, so maybe we won’t right away.
- Juicy cheeseburgers with really any kind of accompaniments — but I love bacon, avocado, pickles, lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard on mine.
- Club salads — there’s something about the ranch dressing, blue cheese, hard boiled egg and bacon combo on a bed of iceberg lettuce that really does the trick for me.
- Chicken in the crockpot with cream of mushroom soup and stuffing on the side. If you’ve never tried this easy peasy dinner that tastes like Thanksgiving, you’re welcome for the idea! My kids love it, and we love it! It was one of our go-to’s when organic stuffing mix was on the shelves at Whole Foods (only in the fall).
- Breakfast Sandwiches. Oh Lord, will I miss these terribly. Anytime we go out for breakfast I get some variant of a breakfast sandwich. Eggs with bacon and cheese is my all time favorite. I also love a good breakfast taco. Alta Coffee Warehouse and Roasting Co in Newport Beach, California has a great breakfast sandwich and iced cafe mocha… I will need this one last time before I go strict vegan for sure! I love that little spot. When I lived in Irvine for the summer, to visit my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, (he lived there for seven years) I frequented Alta. My favorite thing to do was get their coffee of the day, sprinkle it with cinnamon and walk the beach. I can’t wait to do this exact thing when I’m better!
- Deli meat sandwiches… or in Connecticut, where my husband is from, they call them grinders. My husband will tell you that he will miss these the most…. Having given these up myself for two pregnancies, I will likely not miss them that much. We rarely have deli meat. I will mostly miss this when I’m traveling to some of my favorite sandwich spots like: the 6310 in Newport Beach, California, or The Orchard from Ottos Sausage Kitchen (yep, it’s a called that!) in Portland, Oregon.
- The combo salad at Ho Sum Bistro in Newport Beach. The last time we were in California, Ho Sum was closed due to a kitchen fire. I was so disappointed and eagerly awaiting the next time I would be able to taste this flavor explosion of red ginger, vinegar, sesame oil and whatever other magic they add into their special dressing. We were supposed to go to California this past March, but with all the craziness surrounding my diagnosis that was obviously put on pause. Maybe next time, I can ask for it without the chicken.
- Salt Lick BBQ sausage from Austin, Texas. In case you weren’t aware, Texas has the best BBQ. I was introduced to it when my brother moved there for work and met my sister-in-law who is a Texas native. And although, I’m not normally a fan of BBQ, this sausage is literally mouthwatering… my favorite for sure, by far!
- The yearly hot dog on the 4th of July. They are freaking gross and amazing all at the same time; how do they manage to do that? Probably because they are made with random pig parts, but grilled to perfection with some mustard and ketchup… mmmmm!
- Anything my Italian aunts and uncles prepare that has dairy or meat. My aunt and her husband cook like gourmet chefs, better than any restaurant I’ve ever been to. My uncle, who is also an amazing chef, often has special cookouts where he makes sausage marinated in wine and other delicious treats.
- Aunt Peggy’s (my husband’s aunt) baked beans. I was lucky enough to receive this family recipe at our wedding shower. While I can probably make this a vegan dish, it won’t be the same. I’ll likely get to have some at the end of the summer family lake get together, one last time, before I go strict vegan.
- Dominga’s Pastelitos and bacalao. When my sister married my brother-in-law, my family was adopted into his wonderful Dominican family. My brother-in-law’s mother makes the most delicious pastelitos. They are one of my favorite things to taste — and maybe on the times she sends them home, I will break my plant based veganism for a bite… or two… or a whole one… or two…or three. My sister recently learned how to make her bacalao, and I’ll have to get her to make it with me a time or two before fish is on the no-fly list.
- Pumpkin pie that’s not massively weird trying to make it vegan since you have to find substitutes for both egg and condensed milk. I don’t know how this wouldn’t be ridiculously runny and moderately disgusting, but I’ll find out…probably this fall when our garden yields the insane number of sugar pumpkins it always does.
- Bear Flag Fish Burrito (Newport Beach, California), uh-mazing! They combine grilled white fish with pico de gallo, avocado, a mayo/hot sauce drizzle, and chopped purple cabbage. There must be cilantro in there too. I haven’t ever had a fish taco or fish burrito quite like it.
- My mother-in-law’s kamut soup, which both my kids love and devour as do I. This would be a super easy one to make vegan, except the bone broth really makes the soup perfect. She also makes really great yellow cake with chocolate frosting.
- Cake and cupcakes from J+S Watkins in Clifton Park, New York. She made the cupcakes for my wedding and my sister’s wedding. Her cakes are beautiful and delicious. How she manages that is unknown since cakes are usually beautiful OR delicious!
- Cider donuts. Is it even fall without cider donuts? In the Schoharie Valley there’s this place called the Carrot Barn that makes the best, and in the Hudson Valley, Fishkill Farms (who has the best CSA in the world) also fries up great ones. Is there such a thing as a vegan cider donut?
- My husband wanted me to add his laundry list, that didn’t particularly apply to me ha ha… sorry Nick: “mom’s Smoked shoulder at Christmas, BBQ chicken on the grill, Barry and Doreen’s pork roast with apricots, BLT’s, Aunt Christine’s chocolate cream pie, reuben, lamb masala from Mayur (Corona del Mar, California), braised short rib at anyone’s future wedding, carnitas plate at Carnitas La Villa (Newport Beach, California), chocolate milkshakes, those black and white cookies I had last weekend that Uncle Al bought at Zaro’s bakery in NYC, cheeseburgers (again!), My mom’s grinders, my perfected brownie recipe, and last, but not least…. not having to fucking check labels…. but after making this list, I may have to go flex, and then really I’ll just feel guilty whenever I eat any of these things again.”
A couple bonus points for plant based veganism… I get to save the animals and the planet. Eating animals is one of the worst things you can do for the environment. So, really I should get a pin or an award from PETA and the tree hugging hippies, which I guess I, myself, have become to a large extent.
I’ve had some people tell me that they’d rather live to be 85, but eat the foods they love than live to 90 and have every meal feel a bit like torture. First of all, you get used to eating the good food, even if it tastes a little boring at first. Once I started eating REAL food, food that was grown locally, food that was organic, food that wasn’t processed, I could never go back. Secondly, it might not be the difference of 85 and 90; it might be 90 and 35. Would it be worth it then? I can tell you from experience, there is absolutely nothing I’ve ever put in my mouth (and I can think of a lot of things I love — see list above) that is worth what I’m going through right now. Absolutely nothing.
They say life without risks isn’t worth living. Now that I’m nearing the end of my treatment, with the divine news that the lymph masses are gone, I feel exhilarated. My spirit wants to be reckless and risky and stupid — like I was in my 20s when the invincibility factor is still at play. Because, I feel A.L.I.V.E. But, mostly, I think I just want to go on vacation. Probably to Newport Beach so I can walk the beach with my Alta coffee looking for sea glass and check off a great majority of the restaurant portions of this bucket list …since, for me, food isn’t one of those risks worth taking.
Remember, YOU are in charge of your own destiny. What you eat matters. The toxins you expose yourself to matters. The toxins your neighbors expose you to matters. But, be at peace with however you choose to live your future. ✌🏻