My Mother’s Cancer Made Me a Food Nut

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Photo: WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

When Moon Juice proprietor Amanda Chantal Bacon’s food diary went viral last year, I admit that I read piece after piece on it — mostly people decrying her diet (and her) for its rigidity and expense. In that fray, one stray comment caught my eye: “Doesn’t she know that she’s going to die?”

It was a mean thing to say, but it struck me personally because I knew too well that it was true.

Bacon instantly became a poster-child for a specific kind of new Californian excess — and for detailing her daily diet with neurotic precision. She spoke about the joys (“delicious”) of adding maca powder, bee pollen, and shilajit resin to your meals. Without ever saying it, she implied she was casting immortality spells, that bad health was an act of volition, and death merely a choice that fat and lazy people make.

Her diet isn’t long, but it’s an emotionally exhausting read — the exact opposite of chill. It is, in its weird, obsessive way, against every ethos that makes California the American promised land of endless sun, delicious vegetables, and not fearing the reaper; and yet, it is quintessentially Californian in its cultish belief in a paradise on Earth.

It was fun, at first, to decry Bacon’s excess for a moment of amusement, but deep in my heart, I sort of got why she ate what she ate, why she turned to remedies with no scientific basis, no matter what their cost. I had been there not that long ago myself, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.

I spent most of my young life fluent in sugar and thrilled to the idea that “bars” existed because they could be a full meal. I had not discovered the sensual promises of food — that came later, after a move to New York and the ability to afford lavish meals of rare and strange meats. Clean eating was a trend that I cheerfully ignored — after all, why starve yourself on juices when something like a porterhouse exists?

The switch to health-driven (veganish, vegetarianish) eating snuck up on me. Following my mother’s diagnosis I, too, decided to get a checkup, which turned into a series of doctor’s appointments. A colonoscopy, a mammogram, and three doctors later turned into a “possible” rare genetic disorder. This was less of a be-here-now diagnosis and more of a future warning: I was at a higher risk for a variety-pack of four cancers, and I would have to get a fusillade of tests for the rest of my life. My husband, meanwhile, was told that he probably had celiac disease, as there’s a comorbidity between type-one diabetes and celiac disease.

The world kept punching me in the face; telling me, in other words, that I was going to die. My priorities shifted. I still didn’t really know how to eat very healthily, beyond halfhearted diets that relied on salmon and carrots and lasted a week. My mother, meanwhile, had taken to juicing, and Ayurvedic eating. She studied alternative healing options while chemo and operations loomed. I pitched in as much as I could: After I read a book, No More Dirty Looks, that went deep into the lack of FDA regulations regarding the American beauty industry, I went a little crazy. I got rid of any makeup that I had that may have qualified as dirty. I told my mother about it, and together, we ended up in the Whole Foods beauty department, spending too much money on Weleda and Mineral Fusion.

Foodwise, it still took a while to really understand what it meant to choose “nourishing” food. I developed a low-grade obsession with the clean, mostly vegan/vegetarian celiac-friendly food on Sarah Britton’s My New Roots website. I made my husband participate in one of those “clean eating for a month” programs of lentils, broccoli soup, and quite a bit of coconut oil. Once we got through the hellish three days of giving up coffee and alcohol and only eating legumes, it was almost pleasant.

Meanwhile, I was going to doctor after doctor. My mother’s health had its ups and downs. There were points when she was in remission, there were points when she was back on chemo. We enjoyed every sandwich.* We had long conversations about salads. I could massage kale with lemon, I could cook it at 100 degrees so that it became chips but was still loaded with nutrients. We had no control over our lives, but we could at least choose what we put in our mouths.

I wasn’t sure if I was happy, per se, but by this point I was certainly on the road to decent health and I was deeply in the thrall of the capitalist wellness clique. I had bought the promise of being a chill, naturally beautiful woman who just loves (and lives) to eat nourishing food as an effortless extension of her perfect life. It’s nature, it’s natural, it’s cool, right? I bought every single snake-oil promise of, “eat this and live forever.”

Our quality of life improved — I woke up with energy, my skin, already pretty okay, had a glow — but it was only a temporary respite. My mother’s cancer returned, stronger and more resistant to chemotherapy. The diagnosis was severe at the outset, stage-four ovarian cancer (to quote the Ewan McGregor movie Beginners about a father dying of cancer and his son who’s great at wearing sweaters, in response to the father’s stage-four cancer diagnosis: “there is no stage five”) and even though she was warding it off as much as she could, it had made its claim on her body. I tried to be chill and cool about my health, frolicking through the farmer’s market and shirking sugars, but my body would still suffer when I was stressed, when I was nervous, when something disagreed with me; and I still spent too much time in the bathroom. As much as I wanted wellness to be a cure-all, it wasn’t a solution to the problem that was bothering me: Life, at some point, would end. As much as I tried to pretend it wasn’t true, that I could ward it off with kale and chard and an obsession with juicing, death was an inevitability.

There’s a brilliant online comedy show called The Katering Show which has two Australian women named Kate — one a “foodie,” one with “food issues” — hosting a cooking show. In a season-one episode, “We Quit Sugar,” they say good-bye to that poison because a (real) Australian guru with rich girl hair quit sugar and lives a beautiful life, and to the Kates, that’s something to aspire to: “Food isn’t just about not shitting your pants. It’s about happiness. It’s about health. It’s about controlling your life expectancy through what you put in your body so you never die unexpectedly on a toilet. We all want to live forever. And the best way to live forever is to quit sugar.”

The Kates of The Katering Show embody this divided self: The foodie is a control freak, the food issues one is lazy and apathetic. It’s sort of like the self that you imagine below the surface of every wellness guru, or even my own self when I was very good at “clean eating.” The give and take of that balance — selling the cool-girl mystique while trying not to die — can be exhausting, and most of all, it’s not sustainable as a way to live.

But I get it. The abyss is deep and dark and if maca powder can keep it at bay, cut me a line and let me snort it off an adaptogenic mushroom.

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