That left me in a weird state of mind when I was far enough along in my recovery to start thinking about what things I ought to change in my life to try to prevent the cancer from recurring. There were some obvious things with respect to getting more exercise - we probably can all do better there can't we guv'na? - and staying diligent about medical checkups and so on. That left diet.
As I began to examine the risk factors for colon cancer, I started seeing meat, and especially red meat, being mentioned everywhere. Alcohol is also considered a risk factor. I might drink slightly more than the average person - I love a glass of wine with dinner every day, and maybe another in the evening - but nothing too out of control. And besides, you also see plenty of data suggesting a daily drink or two, especially red wine, actually has health benefits. Conclusion: giving up booze was not on the table. Screw the facts.
Years earlier, Dale and I had gone on the Atkins Diet and got some pretty good results with weight loss, but after a while I didn't want to stay on the diet and felt that drastically reducing the carb intake didn't seem right. And I really missed bread and fruit. (It's a common misconception that the Atkins Diet eliminates carbs completely - that would kill you.) So I slowly moved back to a more balanced diet, but Dale has stuck to Atkins pretty rigorously.
With some reservation I examined the idea of giving up meat altogether, and the evidence started becoming difficult to ignore. The rest of this will sound preachy, but I only mean it to explain why I made the decisions I did.
There really are three main categories of reasons that you would go vegetarian or vegan. (Vegan is someone who avoids all animal products including dairy. A vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian might not eat animal flesh but still consume eggs, cheese or milk). Those reasons are moral, environmental, and for personal health. It's impossible to cover this topic properly in a blog post, but here are the highlights in my opinion.
The moral part of the argument is pretty obvious I guess, but forget about all those PETA antics. Just think of those big brown cow eyes as you tuck into your steak. But seriously, some of the conditions in which we are putting these animals - our food - are really horrific, cruel and unhealthy, for us and them. I watched the documentary Food Inc and afterwards didn't like the look of those great big chicken breasts they sell at CostCo. A great deal of our food comes from what are really huge food factories, and the animals are often deformed, genetically manipulated, pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, and sometimes insane or mentally retarded due to these conditions. There's a particularly disturbing story of a Fox TV station in Florida suppressing a story, and firing reporters, about some nasty business regarding milk additives.
We are told everything is OK though. Remember those cigarette ads from the '50's where "doctors" would recommend cigarettes? Do you think the anchors are going to come on CNN and tell you the products their sponsors are selling are killing you? I really believe that someday many of the major food companies will be vilified the way tobacco companies are today, and we'll ask ourselves how we could have been so stupid.
The environmental argument is compelling also, but as with the whole global warming debate, solid evidence that isn't vigorously attacked and discredited by entrenched interests is hard to come by. In the end though, no matter how you slice it, raising animals for food doesn't make sense when you look at the numbers.
- Animals consume more food energy than they produce. A cow or pig raised for meat will consume far more calories in its life than it will provide those of us who eat it later. Not to mention the extra resources required to house and transport the livestock versus crops.
- Per calorie of food energy, way more water is consumed raising livestock than crops. It takes less water to produce the food a vegan needs for a year than a meat eater needs for a month. Many experts believe the next major war will be fought over water.
- Remember the E. Coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario that killed those people? The watershed was contaminated by runoff from huge pig farms. Yes, there was incompetence in the management of the watershed and someone went to jail for it, but it's a mistake to ignore the source. Shouldn't we focus on eliminating the source of toxins rather than figuring out how to deal with them afterwards?
- Raising livestock is dirty. There's a pig farm in Utah that produces more waste in a year than the entire city of Los Angeles, and it's just one of many of its size.
As far as health goes, my eyes were really opened by a book called The China Study. I had read lots of things in the past championing vegetarianism, but here was something with solid scientific evidence, and lots of it. Here were studies conducted in proper scientific methods over many years, providing convincing evidence of just how harmful meat is to us. In one element of the study, researchers were literally able to turn cancer on and off by raising and lowering protein consumption in mice. Other data suggest vegetarians have less heart disease (the number one killer), hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.
Cancer is described as a 'disease of affluence', prevalent in developed countries where meat consumption is higher. Vegetarianism isn't just for Californians or thumb sucking lefties anymore. It's a sensible and logical path.
So in the end, if I gain a 1% advantage to avoid a recurrence, I'll take it, especially when combined with all these other facts.
If any of this makes sense to you, I recommend The China Study and Becoming Vegetarian as further reading.