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Veganism Saved My Life: Natalie Palmer

In this special series, we share inspiring stories of people who have witnessed extraordinary health overhauls thanks to a plant-based diet.

Name: Natalie Palmer
Diagnosis: Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer
Prognosis: Not good
Year Diagnosed: 2005

What was your life like before your diagnosis?
My life was very hectic, stressful, and at times overwhelming. I was the sole parent of three children ages 17, 15, and 12 and had been on my own with them since my eldest was seven. I also worked full time for a nonprofit helping adults with mental illness and had recently stopped working at a weekend part-time job working with a DUI program for multiple-time offenders. There was always lots to do. I was constantly giving, doing, and working.

How did you find out about your diagnosis?
I had a lump, which hurt: the pain would wake me up at night. It felt like a corkscrew in my breast. I went for a mammogram, then an ultrasound in January of 2005. The tech told me it looked fine to her. Because this is what I wanted to hear, I didn’t pursue it any further. The lump kept hurting, and got larger. During my annual physical, I told her about the lump. She felt it, seemed alarmed, and said, “I never like lumps. You need to have this checked out. Go for a biopsy.” Not relishing the thought of being stuck by a needle, I said no. We agreed I would go to a different diagnostic imaging center quickly. The only person that knew about the lump was my partner, Roy, who’s an RN and was strongly encouraging me to have it checked out further. I went on a Saturday. The woman doing the exam seemed flustered and told me I’d need to come back on Monday because she wasn’t able to read the results. Still apparently in denial, I went back by myself during my lunch break. The results were not good. I heard the words breast cancer and surgery, and nothing else. Everything happened so quickly it gets a bit blurred. Silly as it seems to say now, I was still thinking everything was fine. Roy and I went together for the results. I remember Roy and I were sitting next to each other and the surgeon pulled up one of those twirly stools and sat down directly in front of me, really close, at eye level and picked up my hand. I heard the word cancer and everything seemed far away, hazy, and slow. Still to this day I have absolutely no idea what the surgeon—my surgeon now—said to us for more than an hour. I do know he never let go of my hand, and his sad, sincere eyes never left my face. It felt like a dream, not even a bad dream because it felt like it was happening to someone else, not me. Appointments were made, arrangements at work were put into place, and people were told. At this point, my diagnosis was breast cancer—early stage. That all changed about a week later, after the oncologist ordered a routine MRI. These results were delivered much differently. I was driving home from work when I got a call. I answered it to find the oncologist on the other end. She told me the MRI results were back, the cancer had spread to my liver.

What was your treatment plan laid out by your doctor?
My treatment plan involved dose-dense chemo—three weeks on, one week off—herceptin infusions for the rest of my life, surgeries, and aromatase inhibitors for five years. I did parts of what they wanted me to do. I did some chemotherapy and had a few surgeries. I did not take aromatase inhibitors or herceptin. Since my final surgery in 2006, I have taken no medications. My oncologist was not happy with this idea at all, but quality of life was always more important to me than living longer without it. Why bother?

How did you find out about a vegan diet?
I had known of vegan diet for many years. I’d gone the vegetarian route a few times when I was younger, but never stuck to it.

When did you decide to give it a try?
Immediately upon my first diagnosis. Roy was working with someone who was a Seventh Day Adventist and a vegan. This man’s exact words to me were, “Do you want to live? Stop eating meat and dairy!” I went cold turkey, so to speak.

What was it like to transition to a vegan diet?
I was completely motivated to change—the threat of death will have that effect, so my transition was relatively easy. It was more difficult for my family. My partner Roy made the change with me, as did my daughter Chelsea, but my sons did not. The hardest food to give up was, and still remains, cheese. I’ve never missed meat, but cheese is another story. Maybe it’s the Italian part of me that longs for a good stringy mozzarella cheese.

What was a normal day of eating like before you started eating vegan?
Before changing to a vegan diet I ate a lot of cheese and dairy products. Breakfast might be a bagel with cream cheese, eggs and bacon, or an omelet with lots of cheese, sausage, and home fries. Lunch could be pizza or a cheeseburger and a salad. Dinners were steak, chicken cutlets, or pork chops with some sort of potato and a vegetable at least two to three nights per week. I ate a lot of pasta dishes: lasagna, stuffed shells, ravioli, and fettuccine Alfredo. The cheesier the better—this was my motto. Desserts were rarely missed, and I would have ice cream or cookies. I also ate a lot of chocolate. My diet was the typical Standard American Diet, and it almost killed me. Just writing down everything I used to eat makes me feel a little sick!

What is a day of eating like now?
I start every morning with a glass of warm water and freshly squeezed lemon juice, followed half an hour later by two small handfuls of organic almonds, soy or coconut yogurt with shredded coconut, and a banana. I snack on raw veggies, organic raisins, seeds, organic tortilla chips, and guacamole. Lunch is my big meal of the day. I may eat fresh organic broccoli with garlic, sweet potatoes, and fried tofu. Sometimes I make vegetarian chili or fake BLT sandwiches on gluten-free bread, eggplant casserole, or a bean and potato soup. Dinner is usually something small like an organic mixed greens salad with beets, carrots, tomatoes, olives, avocado, onions, cucumber, and seeds, or rice pasta with marinara sauce. I always drink decaf green tea with freshly grated organic ginger root. 

When did you start to see results? What did your doctor think?
My doctor did not support or encourage my vegan lifestyle. She never spoke about the power of food to heal and took no interest in what I was eating or doing to help myself outside of her prescribed “therapy.” For years, she referred to me as her “miracle child,” still never giving credit to positive changes I had embraced. I felt results within the first few weeks of changing my eating. I felt lighter, and even though I was still very ill, I began to have more energy. My immune system grew stronger and stronger—it’s why I am here today.

How are you doing today?
Today I am cancer-free. This has been my reality for six-and-a-half years now! I hardly ever get sick and I have more energy than ever. I get up at 4am and work at least 10-hour days (most days) without feeling fatigued. My weight has stayed around 115 pounds and I am 5’1” tall, so I am happy with my weight. This past August I saw a new oncologist after not having done so in a number of years. All my tests were excellent. She said, “I heard about your case. It’s amazing. All I can say is keep doing what you’re doing.”

Check back next week for more inspiring stories!

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