Sometimes insignificant or random experiences become indelible memories. A few of mine surfaced repeatedly when I went vegan eight years ago. A whispered exchange with a teacher in class. The teacher talking to herself as she passed me on campus, oblivious. Vegans often lament not having adopted our diet and lifestyle sooner. This story represents one of the reasons I share that regret.
A few years into practice as a trial attorney, I phoned the office of my favorite college professor, Karen Shabetai. No answer. Six years prior, unbeknownst to me, she had submitted a final paper I wrote for another English professor to a department-wide annual essay competition. Days before I graduated in June 1995, Professor Shabetai emailed me, “Can you meet me during office hours? I have news.” I went in immediately. She explained how she had happened upon my paper, her advocacy for its consideration, and that I had won. That weekend we attended the English Department’s pre-commencement breakfast reception for award recipients. She introduced me there more in the manner of a proud parent than an educator. No one before had ever championed me; the gratitude and validation I felt were overwhelming. She smiled warmly and, holding eye contact, said, “First names only from now on.” We later hugged goodbye and promised to stay in touch.
Fast forward to a blustery day in October 2001. I was on campus for the first time since graduation, eager to finally get caught up with Karen. Doubtless she would light up as always while talking about her young daughter. I, in turn, would squawk about my sleepless life as an associate at a large law firm–but only after explaining how the award she facilitated not only helped me get into law school, but also land two clerkships and my current job. A lone memorandum was taped to the door of her darkened office. Karen had succumbed to cancer the previous year, on Mother’s Day. She was 44.
One conversation could have made a difference. If only I had gone vegan in time to discuss the toxicity of non-vegan food with Karen. To share that most chronic diseases derive from the standard American diet. To own that even if we have chemical carcinogens and cancer cells in our bodies, what we feed them can determine whether they grow. If she attributed cancer to genetics generally, I could have observed that in 1979, the Atlas of Cancer Mortality in the People’s Republic of China demonstrated that cancer develops largely due to environmental and lifestyle factors, principally diet. That survey encompassed 96% of all Chinese citizens, then a nearly homogenous group. Additionally, in 1981, a prolific review on diet and cancer prepared for the United States Congress held that genetics determines only about 2-3% of total cancer risk. Had Karen stated that cancer runs in her family, I would have suggested that diet runs in families. I am confident she would have researched and verified these contentions.
What we eat affects our health status more than any other daily decision. The most rigorous analysis to date of risk factors for disease is the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBDS). In 2013, the GBDS declared diet the number-one cause of death and disability in the U.S. A few months ago, the latest GBDS confirmed diet is responsible for more deaths globally than any other health risk. Note that every animal product contains noxious properties that promote chronic disease. Thus, diet, not genetics or non-dietary chemical carcinogens, constitutes the greatest risk factor for cancer and our other lethal chronic diseases. Even where a genetic predisposition exists and those genes mutate, environment and diet dominantly influence whether mutated genes are expressed, enabling disease formation. Accordingly, the GBDS recommends plant-based eating. It takes roughly three weeks for palate to adjust from old preferences to new, but anyone who switches to plant-based enjoys reduced inflammation, improved energy and other benefits after only a few days. Long-term benefits can include successfully preventing, suspending, and sometimes even reversing chronic diseases.
Myths are stubborn things–but they are just stories. Chronic diseases are not inevitable. We all know people battling chronic disease, and we all have unpaid debts of gratitude. Perhaps connect those realities. Reach out. Empower others by sharing your veganism but do so with respect and humility, for you will be challenging their histories. Pay forward, and help others tell a new story, one grounded in truth, wellness, and, just maybe, more time.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Shauny Jaine has lived in Seattle for 30 years and is a VLCE, JD and BA cum laude in writing. She holds multiple certifications relevant to veganism and is a graduate of the T. Colin Campbell Nutrition Foundation program in plant-based nutrition through eCornell. More than anything else, she and her spouse, Tana, enjoy raising their longtime vegan family of year-round soccer and karate kids: McKenna (15), Tyler (15), and Leo (11); pups Kasbah (think “Rock the Casbah”) and Nikita; and green-eyed cat, Annie. Shauny serves on the Board for Heartwood Haven, a vegan animal sanctuary in Gig Harbor, Washington, and is on several social media platforms but enjoys Instagram most. Find her @_ten10.