Why Cancer and Father’s Day Don’t Need to Go Together

Father’s Day just passed, and I feel like it is my responsibility to get real honest with you real quick here.

I still feel like I could have saved my father’s life, but it didn’t work. And that one of the reasons why I am so motivated to share my love for good food with you. That is why I have paired dance with plants. Because I think it’s powerful, and it saves lives.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer when he was 53. Fifty-three. Death sentence. We blamed a chemical that he used to spray on the apple trees when he was a teenager. They called it “spray dope”. Like so many families faced with this diagnosis, we thought there was nothing we could do. The damage was done, and everything was in the hands of hospital healers and father time.

I still went off to Thailand for my Peace Corps service as planned. When my parents dropped me off at the airport, my father said “This is your dream. You’re living your dream.” He was right. They called me every week and took care of each other as best they could.

When I returned to the US, I was waiting tables at a small Thai restaurant. This sweet older couple would come and order vegan food, and I would translate their request for the kitchen and they were always happy with the food. I knew he was a Cornell professor who wrote a famous book. It was “The China Study”.  When I read the book and saw Dr. T. Colin Campbell speak, it gave me so much hope. Maybe my father’s cancer wasn’t a death sentence after all. Maybe there was something I could do to stop it with food.

At that time I started learning so much about food. I grew up mostly on meat, dairy and other standard American junk food, and I had been fueling my belly dancing self with vegetarian junk food for eight years. Doritos, Not Dogs, Cheesy Rice-a-Roni, high fructose corn syrup bread, all that stuff. When I fell in love with the oldest son in the macrobiotic vegan Great Life Cookbook family, it was easy for me to choose to stop eating dairy and eggs.

I brought whole grains and beans and all kinds of delicious new plant-based food to my parents’ house, but I was the only human who would touch it. Grain moths laid eggs and hatched in the uncooked grains. Sauces expired. Spices grew old and tasteless. My parents didn’t feel inspired or empowered enough to try any of it. They didn’t know how to cook it, and the recipe books I gave them stayed shut on the shelves with the grain moths. Betty Crocker and Nabisco won. My dad just kept buying lifeless, processed food for their cupboards and covered up what I thought could actually save his life.

And it made me even more sad, and more ineffective at encouraging my parents to eat healthier. My mother said I was proselytizing. Not only was I misunderstood, I was also miserable and making things worse. I was becoming a better dancer at the time, but I wasn’t a lot of fun to be around.

My father died in 2009, seven years after his diagnosis and one year before I got married. I danced myself down the aisle at my wedding. I gave myself away. It still hurts when I think of how he wasn’t at my wedding, and in some ways I feel like it’s my fault. I wasn’t communicating in a way that made sense to my parents. I’ve finally stopped bawling whenever I see a bride walk down the aisle, arm linked with her father’s arm, but the pain is still there.

But I continue to hear about people who stop cancer by changing their diet and lifestyle. It’s not possible for everyone, it’s not a proven cure-all, but a whole food plant-based diet has led to magical transformations.

Now my dad is missing out on being a grandfather. My mother lives alone, and I respect that but to be honest with you I hate it. I hate thinking of her sleeping alone, figuring out what to do when the pipes freeze and the basement floods.

My mom is a Sicilian American saint who has taken on a lot. And now 7 years after losing her best friend to cancer, she’s more open to different food. She has no problem sitting down and having a vegan meal with us. She even started asking me if there’s any food she can get us when we come visit. It’s amazing, and it takes time for a lot of us.

She is still too embarrassed to ask our family if there will be anything vegan at family events, but I think she’s seeing that I’m not the only one eating the vegan food. People like it. It’s often the first thing that gets finished, so asking for it actually benefits everyone. Vegans and non-vegans.

So I didn’t save my father’s life, but being with him those years while he was living with cancer was an immense gift.

Sometimes I dance in memory of my father. And my Aunt Doree and Aunt Lynn who I lost to cancer. And the grandparents I never met because they died of cancer before I was born.


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