You’re Gonna Eat That?

You’re Gonna Eat That?

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

You’re Gonna Eat That?

Ifeel like I’m fighting a battle when I didn’t start a war.

Dolly Parton

In case you’re wondering where to hook up with a bunch of breast cancer survivors, you may find them in the natural-foods section of the supermarket, scouring labels for traces of soy.

Like beauty queens who are expected to uphold the standards of the pageant as they travel the world on their goodwill tours, breast-cancer survivors are often expected to be paragons of healthy eating. I flinched before bacon and smoked meats for a long time after my diagnosis, muttering such things as “unclean!” and pulling my shawl tighter around my face like a vampire at the first streaks of dawn.

In fact, one of the first things I did while under the influence of the steroids I got along with chemo was to throw out everything in my kitchen. “I don’t know what poisoned me, but I’m getting rid of it!” I said in my steroid-induced, three A.M. frenzy. Never mind that breast cancer can strike even if you’re mainlining phytoestrogens; I had to blame something, and closest at hand were frying pans encrusted with what I believed to be carcinogenic evidence. I admit now it is much more likely that I simply wanted to justify a spending spree at Williams-Sonoma.

Breast-cancer survivors are attracted to the idea of impeccable eating habits mainly because we feel betrayed by our bodies. But there’s pressure on us from other sources as well, thanks to that famous study of Japanese women who, when they moved to Hawaii and changed their diet to a fast-food American one, developed a higher incidence of breast cancer. We still don’t know precisely what in an American diet produced this effect (although I’d put my money on “supersizing”), and we don’t know for sure precisely what about their former diets may have protected the women. Although everyone assumes it’s soy, I’m hopeful it’s the tempura.

The initial rush to culinary perfection can be very heady. For six months, I was a vegan, which is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat . . . well, who doesn’t eat anything. No meat, fish, eggs, dairy—just a lot of tofu pies disguised as chicken and visits to a particular restaurant where everything on the menu was in quotes, like “cheeseburger” or “BLT.”

Being a vegan was not onerous for the time I was devoted to it. What was more annoying than a life without cheese was when I went back to normal eating and other people looked at me like, “You had breast cancer, and you’re gonna eat THAT?” Just as politicians are expected to be monogamous and movie stars are expected to roll out of bed perfectly beautiful, breast-cancer survivors are expected to set a culinary example. And the people criticizing us are often the ones with steak juice running down their chins.

I think it’s because they’ve displaced their own fears on us about getting cancer. Everyone wants a talisman to ward off disease, and just as it was easier to blame my cancer on my kitchen equipment or eating habits, people are comforted to think we can control our fates through healthy eating.

Unfortunately, vegetarians get breast cancer, too, so this theory is not without its holes. But human nature persists. The next time you order something doused in butter and someone gives you the evil eye, tell them to go sit on a rice cake and mind their own business. Even beauty queens only have to serve for a year. Then they get to live the way they want, with or without a tiara always on their heads like a halo.

Jami Bernard
As previously appeared in
Mamm Magazine

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