Pandemic or Not, Our Flawed World Means that Our Choices Are Also Imperfect
I’ll just get this out of the way right from the get-go: On the last day of February in 2019, my husband was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. There is no way to spruce up how this news landed. Sitting in that examination room, it is no exaggeration to say that I felt like the floor could have swallowed me up whole. This man — the father of my son, the guy who makes my fanciful ideas a reality and takes my turbulent moods in stride, this doggedly youthful and easy-going man — had a very stark and serious diagnosis. I went to bed on February 27 thinking one thing about my life and by the afternoon of the next day, everything suddenly and dramatically changed.
I met John when I was 26 in 1993 and we have been carving out this life together ever since. One of those things we did together was go vegan in 1995, full of heartfelt conviction, youthful naïveté and stubborn determination. We navigated those early days pretty easily, as people often do when they don’t know any better, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can feel just a little proud of how resourceful and sanguine we were during a time when being vegan was a lot less easy and convenient. We have remained happily vegan ever since, raising our son in the same way and helping to create organizations, festivals and websites to spread the message and share the tools of joyful compassionate living over the past 25 years.
Despite having entertained some pretty questionable notions at different points, I have never been one of those true believers who push the narrative that vegans can’t get diseases. My own life was touched by cancer at a young age, when my best friend and next door neighbor’s father died of cancer at the age of 37. While he wasn’t vegan — this was the 1970s — he was young, vibrant and so very kind, a true salt-of-the-earth type who also had a seat as a percussionist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Lane had a wife and two young daughters. He was the father I daydreamed about having, a gentle, kind, funny and warm man. I saw this disease ravage this wonderful person in the prime of his life.
Perhaps it is because Judaism, the faith I was raised in, is stitched through with the understanding that bad things can happen to good people and trying to find a rhyme or reason is an exercise in futility and, frankly, often arrogance. By the time John had his diagnosis, I personally knew four longtime vegans who died at relatively young ages of cancer, including a dear friend and early adopter who was instrumental in clearing a path for the vegan choices so many of us enjoy today. Lisa was vivacious. She was slim and active. She was none of those conclusions people jump to when they think of someone who died of cancer at fifty.
I know some vegans who seek facile answers in disease and death—asking “What was her diet like?,” which was the “What were his co-morbidities?” before there was COVID—but I also know that cancer has been in the human family since long before chemical pesticides and so-called processed foods, Red Dye 40 and car pollution; in fact, breast cancer was first described in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, considered the earliest medical text, dating back to 1600 BCE. (Check out the On the Media podcast for their excellent series on cancer to learn more.) I know that our anxious brains are behind this inability to accept that we live in an unruly, uncontrollable world, trying desperately to prove cause-and-effect — or should I just say, assign blame? — to rest easier. Some of us recognize that it is usually simplistic and just blindly pointing fingers after a windstorm, trying to figure out where the detritus flew in from so we can blame the south or the west winds. It is often just that futile.
Given all that, I didn’t have a rude awakening with my husband’s diagnosis because while I know veganism has some health advantages, it does not make us bulletproof; I did have a bracing immersion in just how terrifying and disorienting life can suddenly become, though, dropping down on my personal life and spinning there like a tornado.
It was no longer hypothetical. It was now reality.
John and I have been vegan for 25 years. On February 1, 2021, we will celebrate another year. According to some, we are no longer vegan due to the medical interventions John undertook to get to the other side of a very serious and deadly disease, one that is not caused or cured by diet. (God, it saddens me how I feel I must say that last part.) From the medications to the surgical procedures, the vaccines to the research that these interventions were based on, all came about through animal experimentation and with components extracted from animals’ bodies.
Could my husband have just juiced or fasted or beamed himself up through the power of CBD instead? Could he have cured his cancer by having “better thoughts” as some insist, as if he had diseased thoughts before? Possibly. We don’t know. This was the route John chose after weighing out his likelihood of survival based on current available information. I have a friend who spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars every week on fresh produce to create juices for her husband in a bid to save his life and within a year, he was gone. Another friend of mine went the Western medicine route after her diagnosis and died. I have known others who went the so-called natural route or the conventional route and thrived. There are no ironclad answers to successfully getting to the other side of a disease like cancer or, as we see now, COVID-19. Anyone claiming otherwise is quite likely selling something.
Just as my husband got in remission and then was recovering from the bone marrow transplant that will greatly reduce the likelihood of a recurrence, the coronavirus pandemic rolled out into the world and swirled around us like a fast-moving, dense fog. Mixed in with the fog was the smog of disinformation and scare tactics I saw coming from everywhere, including the very community I considered my own.
According to the founders of The Vegan Society, the definition of veganism is, “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” In this thoroughly imperfect world that is predicated on deeply rooted, cruel hierarchies, it is the word practicable that acknowledges that an impeccable vegan practice is impossible unless one is living a completely self-sustaining life of isolation. These medical interventions were developed using animals, which is not something I take lightly or easily, and that is indicative of the values and limitations of our society.
I have hope, though, that we can leave animal experimentation and oppression in the past as more modern and precise medical and scientific innovations are developed, leaving the cruel and archaic methods behind. At this time, though, saying someone isn’t vegan if they take a life-saving (or even life-improving) medication isn’t terribly helpful: If we want to be helpful, rather than just taking potshots, we absolutely must support the efforts to make animal-free medical research attainable with our attention and our dollars.
In lieu of alternatives that were supported by research or recommended by John’s team of medical professionals, should my husband — again, with a very aggressive form of cancer — have taken his chances on vitamin D and green smoothies alone? Should he have just resigned himself to leaving a pristine obituary and mortal remains that were as vegan as possible, a pyrrhic victory if ever there were one? Yet this is what some vegans think John should have done rather than go the impure allopathic route.
If a life-or-death scenario touches your life, you get to make the decisions that make sense to you. In the middle of a pandemic, though, one that has devastated economies, sickened millions, leaving a large percentage with long-term health effects, and killed hundreds of thousands so far in the US alone, it is utterly irresponsible to promote misinformation — such as that the vaccine contains aborted fetuses or implants microchips — about this virus. It is not only irresponsible, though: For people who pride themselves on their values, it is deeply unethical because adding another layer of grime to the thick miasma of disinformation and confusion is demonstrably deadly.
I am sure the take-away of those vegans who disapprove of this message is going to be that I am a cheerleader for Big Pharma, eager to inject whatever substances into my veins and indifferent to the suffering of other species. (If this is the case, I suppose The Vegan Society is as well.) If people are inclined to misconstrue my words here as being indiscriminately supportive of the medical industry, I am guessing that nothing I could have said that would have convinced them otherwise. This is a messy, deeply imperfect world and vegans did not create the model of animal use in the medical industry or this hierarchy of oppression. It is, however, the reality at present. Change and advancements take time but, thank goodness, people are working on taking animals out of the medical model. This will benefit not only the animals but it will be of vast benefit to modernizing and improving medicine.
As with my husband’s diagnosis, this is not a fire drill. Far worse in scale, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has hurt and destroyed so many lives. Doing the best we can in a flawed world when we have few feasible alternatives and trying to create a better future in the long-term is what vegans have always endeavored to do and what we should do now.
Pointing fingers about who is and who is not the better vegan as the pandemic rages around us? That is utter foolishness.