Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Vegans Are Invincible and Other Dangerous Myths

I have a friend who is in the hospital with cancer. He’s a really nice guy, a friend to many, an honorary uncle to lots of children. It is not expected that he will live too much longer. It is an advanced, end-stage cancer, and it started somewhere else but it is now in the bone. It is a cancer that might well have had a different outcome had he gone to the doctor years ago, when he first started developing symptoms. There were multiple complicated and deeply challenging personal factors that kept him from seeking help from within a Western medicine protocol but now he has to, and the best we can really hope for is that the terrible pain and discomfort he kept (mostly) hidden for years is finally managed.

He is vegan.

Upon learning that he was sick, one of his relatives expressed a common sentiment, that he thought it was “ironic” that our friend was vegan and had cancer. I couldn’t help but wince upon hearing this. I know that one of the reasons my friend avoided medical help is that he didn’t want to be known as the sick vegan. He was supposed to be healthy: he was vegan, after all. Over the years, I have talked with other vegans who have also been sick, though not as dangerously so, and almost all kept it hidden for a potentially dangerous period of time, afraid of being exposed as a “failure” to their fellow vegans or having their illness exploited by others as proof that they were following a risky diet. They kept their illnesses and pain in secrecy, perhaps worsening something that was at one time minor, and they prolonged their physical and mental suffering. They became isolated, fearful and ashamed. In none of these cases, did veganism cause their illnesses, nor did it exacerbate it. In many cases, being vegan may improve the quality of their lives and their chances of recovery. The fact is, though, that they risked their mental, emotional and physical well-being because they didn’t want to expose themselves as ailing.

I’m here to state the obvious: vegans can and do get sick. We can and do develop painful, stubborn injuries. We are not always thriving and in perfect balance, and to claim otherwise is irresponsible and dishonest. What’s more, it can be life-threatening to those who would sooner suffer in secrecy -  certain that they have failed as vegans, scared that exposure will make people draw unfair conclusions about veganism - when the simple truth is that none of us is invincible. 

Every day, I see more and more far-fetched claims about veganism from a health perspective, presenting it as the ultimate magic bullet to unflagging wellness. Vegans do get cancer (less often, but still), we do get fibromyalgia, we do get aneurisms, and we can also break our legs, necks and so forth. These things happen. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, but, too often, we choose to live in isolation rather than risk exposing that we are mortal and vulnerable, just like everyone else.

This is very dangerous.

Veganism is a lifestyle that encourages compassionate living. Very often, there are real physical advantages to it, too, but perhaps this is overstated in our eagerness to win people over and to save more animals.

As R.D. Ginny Kisch Messina, co-author of Vegan for Her, wrote, “At any age, we vegans can expect that our compassionate diet has the added advantage of lowering our risk for certain diseases. But, vegan diets are not ‘miracle’ cures or guaranteed prevention and it’s a mistake to ever believe that they are. As always, the only true promise that comes with veganism is that it will remove your contribution to the use and abuse of animals.”

Health crises are frightening whether you are vegan or not, but adding to the immensity of it is the pressure to be a perfect physical representation of veganism. How many people suffer in silence and keep themselves awake at night, terrified not only about the lump that they found but that they will have to face additional and unfair scrutiny because they are vegan? How many people don’t seek medical help because they don’t want to have relatives tell them that “they told them so” about being vegan? How many people risk their well-being because they don’t dare “out” themselves as needing medical attention?

My friend is in the hospital now; he likely has anywhere from weeks to a few months to live. He will enter hospice soon. Veganism did not cause his cancer but his unwillingness to admit that he was unwell contributed to his avoidance of getting help when it could have most benefitted him. It also contributed to his isolation, anxiety and pain. If you are not well, please consider getting help. You are no benefit to the vegan cause if you are socially isolated and suffering, and, what’s more, you deserve to feel better for your own reasons. You did not fail veganism and veganism did not fail you. It happens. We are all imperfect, vulnerable beings and we are living in a world with many toxins. Please reach out to your support network and get the help that you need before it gets worse. Suffering in silence helps no one.


  1. The magical vegan cure-all myth is a dangerous one, and this is one that hits me close to home. Cancer runs in my family, and I see it as an inevitability in my future. I don't know what I'd do if I had to handle both the diagnosis and jokes at my expense by people that should be friends/supportive.

    Vegans are still humans, and as you said, vulnerable to all those environmental and genetic problems that everyone else can have.

    I'm so sorry about your friend :(
    I hope his remaining time is as pleasant as possible under the circumstances.

  2. My heart is breaking for this friend of ours. I also, yelled at our vet "That's Impossible..she's Vegan!" when he delivered the awful news in February that our sweet Vegan girl, Snowy, had lymphoma :( This friend of ours has touched so many lives. It sucks that Veganism doesn't make us physical superheroes, but we are superheroes for the voiceless!

  3. Thanks as always, Marla, for a great post. There is a lot of "disease-shaming" in the vegan community--based on the idea that if you get sick as a vegan, it's because you didn't eat the "right" vegan diet. Which is nonsense, of course. You can eat the best diet in the world and still get cancer or struggle with weight or develop dementia. I agree with Rhea--we are already super heroes and don't need perfect health to prove it!

  4. Giving you virtual hugs to get through this.
    My only only small consolation: all those cancer drugs are tested on animals.... Your friend will have lived vegan to the end.

  5. Hi Marla, thank you for writing this and speaking out against the 'super-vegan' myth. The idea of shaming anyone with an illness is appalling. There are small factions of the vegan movement that are built on shaming people about their circumstances, size, health etc and I am always glad when people speak out against this.

    I am very sorry about your friend, please offer him my sincere best wishes.

  6. Hi Marla,

    thank you for writing this. I am in tears as well.
    I am a macrobiotic chef and cooking teacher, and have developed chronic fatigue syndrom over the last few years. It has been a wild ride and a struggle, especially this part of it. I still see myself hiding that I am not feeling well.
    And I still find it hard that I cannot be that healthy example that I would want to be, as a teacher.

    warm greetings,

  7. A very close friend of mine, also vegan, died of ovarian cancer at 34, nearly 10 years ago now. Health is not the reason to be vegan. It's nice that the odds on getting some diseases is reduced for vegans but reduced is all they are. That other creatures are subjected to horrible torture and our environment seriously degraded by animal agriculture (with which most of us are complicit) is very, very good reason to be vegan. Slam dunk, i'd say.

  8. This may help debunk the myth of naturalism - that \ natural food prevents modern diseases. It doesn't.

    Living healthfully also helps create a wonderful medium in which diseases can thrice.

    Not that there's any alternative!

  9. Well-written and important post. "We have met the enemy, and it is us." We know vegans who have died of cancer, heart attacks / disease, stroke, etc. Vegans with Crohn's disease, diabetes, glaucoma, asthma, etc., etc., etc.

    Don't just get your "data" from vegan propagandists. Honesty helps animals most.

  10. A serious subject handled with grace, and wisdom - As always. Thank you.

  11. First off, I'm sorry for your friend, I send well wishes and hope things go easy from here on out.

    Next, Marla, sometimes I swear you take the thoughts right out of my head. I always appreciate your posts because I always sit and shake my head yes. Thanks for making me feel less alone.

  12. Thank you for sharing, MeShell, and I am sending lots of good thoughts your way. Your pragmatic and honest outlook is much needed.

  13. "...we are superheroes for the voiceless!" We are, friend. Keeping you and Snowy in my thoughts...

  14. Thank you, Ginny! I appreciate your clear-headed and compassionate thoughts always!

  15. Thank you, D.E.M. He lived by his own terms (he passed away yesterday) and he was vegan until the end.

  16. Thank you, Blueberries. I agree that it *is* appalling. The mentality of shaming is so very bizarre.

  17. Thank you, David, and right you are. My friend did pass away last night, peacefully and surrounded by dear friends. I am blessed to have been there.

  18. Thank you, Kevin. Wise words...

  19. Thank you, VeganPa! "Honesty helps animals most." I couldn't agree more.

  20. Thank you, Bea, and thanks for all you do!

  21. Thank you, Ashley. You are not alone!

  22. This was interesting. I get a bit upset with how people promote veganism as a health fad - I like Ginny's quote that you included here. I've known several vegans to get cancer and die from it. I've known a vegan die of stroke in early 70's and Jay Dinshah died at age 66 from heart issues. I've known a vegan who died at age 40. I know a long time vegan woman in New Zealand who is the picture of unhealthy (and she eats top of the line, 100% organic/veganic, gluten-free, wholefoods, fresh, plenty of raw and top-of-the-line wholefoods supplements.) She's been sick since she's a young girl (before she was vegan) - could even be psychosomatic. There are reasons beyond diet that people are sick. The man who lived with this ill woman - never became vegan because he thought vegans were unhealthy, because of her. She WAS a bad example for inspiring vegans...there is a level of truth to that. And therefore, I have advocated for vegans to try to keep themselves healthy, eat whole foods,etc. - so we can be good examples. But I am getting your message...and will stop promoting people to be healthy examples of vegan living, which I do from time to time.

    Veganism is an ethical stance of non-participation in animal exploitation. While I think that vegans are generally healthier, I would not educate others about veganism using "human health issues". It's not about us. But I think we vegans can try our best to ensure we get what nutrients we need, keep up to date, and try to generally take care of ourselves.

    I'm sad for your friend and hugs to you. And it is sad when vegans get cancer. There's so much sad.

  23. Great post.
    There are often comments from (mostly healthy) vegans towards people with a chronic disease: 'go vegan, go raw! and all your problems will be solved!!'
    It's not that simple. And that can come across as very culpabilising (it's your own fault that you are sick!).

    Diet is not the only determining factor whether you are sick or healthy.
    There are also other environmental factors, genetics, your lifestyle (sports, etc.) playing a part.

    And also, diet cannot reserve some of the damage done bc of a disease, e.g. if you have had a bowel removal (and maybe a pouch) bc of Crohn’s disease, a fused spine because of Ankylosing Spondylitis, nerve damage bc of MS, etc.

  24. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Food is clearly very important to our health, but it is not the cause of and cure for every ailment. You can do everything "right" (by your own standards) and still become seriously ill, and the last thing anyone who is ill needs is to be judged for their choices.

    My dad is a long-time vegetarian and so is his partner (they do eat small amounts of dairy.) When my dad was in his early 50's he had a heart attack and shortly after his partner (who was in her 40's) was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of breast cancer. When my dad was in the cardiac ward, he received many comments from his fellow patients along the lines of, "Well, veggies didn't save you so I'm going to eat what I want and enjoy whatever time I have left!" Incredibly frustrating. For one thing, there are reasons beyond health for being vegetarian/vegan. For another, so many people will grab any excuse to indulge all their desires without a thought for how it affects other people, the environment, animals, etc. ("But bacon tastes good!") And finally, my dad and his partner *have* greatly benefitted their health by a (largely) plant-based diet. Perhaps if they'd eaten a standard western diet all these years they would have become sick earlier, perhaps my dad wouldn't have survived his heart attack. And regardless, they enjoy their life much more and FEEL better eating this way.

  25. I'm really sorry to hear about your friend, how heart-breaking. Thanks for sharing this, it can't have been an easy subject to talk about but it's great that you did - it definitely needed to be said.

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  27. I feel for your loss and also am saddened by your friend's refusal to get help when he should have. I had gall bladder surgery a couple of months ago and a few of my "friends" commented on how that could be since I am vegan. I just stared at them. This was nothing to be embarrassed about nor defensive about. I am human and I still get sick. I went vegan for my health but I know I am not invincible and knowing that the others reasons I went vegan, my compassion for animals and the saving of our environment are just as important to me. I feel sad to think your friend had to hide his illness, even from himself. I hope we all realize that our vegan lifestyle is a much healthier option but life does happen and we all have to be aware of it.

  28. Hi,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post... we included it in the food rev/ vegan convo here:

    and picked your blog for one of our 'Braingarden' selections this episode.

    Keep up the thought-provoking/ good work! :)

    Tanya & Dawn

  29. I have a lot to say on this topic, eventually. Thank you for getting this on the docket.

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