Lino Stancich instructs passengers on the art of self-massage for healing on the top deck of the MSC Poesia.
THIRTY THOUSAND FEET OVER THE GULF OF MEXICO – It’s hard to believe it was just a week ago that I made this journey in reverse, catching my pre-dawn flight in Guadalajara, deplaning in Miami to find my Dad relaxed and rosy from the sun at the wheel of a rental car. A week since we found our way to Cruise Terminal 4 in Fort Lauderdale, to the 16-story MSC Poesia, to the Holistic Holiday at Sea, a colorful new community of people joyfully embracing a lifestyle that until now, I’d never contemplated adopting for myself. I’d given up meat for my Dad, and even dairy for a few weeks – and giving up all animal products on a long-term basis seemed right and proper for my father, who is fighting a grim mesothelioma diagnosis with a self-healing approach. For me, however, it seemed unnecessary and extreme.
But that was before – and this is after.
Now those words bring a smile as I recall the words of former cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, one of the bright lights of the vegan, macrobiotic, or plant-based nutrition movement.
“Colleagues tell me, ‘You are extreme; you are radical.’ I say – Let’s talk,” says Esselstyn, Olympic Gold Medalist, longtime surgeon and researcher at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. “What you’re saying is that people have to be carved in half, and then you take the veins out of their legs and stuff them in the heart, and all for a food-borne illness … now I think that’s extreme.”
The lanky and charismatic Esselstyn was one of the presenters at the weeklong floating seminar, along with doctors T. Colin Campbell and Neal Barnard, co-stars in Forks Over Knives – last year’s surprise hit documentary that promises to do for veganism what Food Inc. did for the whole foods movement. The premise of the film is that most, if not all, chronic disease can be controlled – and in many cases, reversed – by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.
I was fortunate to interview both of them during my time on board and will post those interviews soon. But first a few last memories and reflections on the cruise that has changed the way I look at food.
Our first night, we sat down to dinner in the elegant La Fontaine, surrounded by diehard vegans, two of whom had gone gluten and oil free as well. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. And then I dug into the first course – an artichoke heart and sunflower seed pate with rice crackers – and just said mmmmm. The meal just got better from there.
Mom, the nutritional conscience and counselor of the family, was delighting in every bite, every new idea, every bit of proof that vegan living could be just as luscious as the alternative. Dad, on the other hand, would take a few resigned nibbles and dive for the salt. I vacilated between them; I loved the food but soon found myself going after every available vice, from the coffee with cream that waiters would deliver on request, to the vodka-spiked fruit juice served that night under a full moon at the welcome party on the pool deck, surrounded by vivacious vegans, merry macrobiotics and beyond them, miles and miles of deep blue sea. It was really something to see, regardless of what was on the menu.
The first couple of days were a challenge, however, especially for Dad. “Let’s go upstairs and check out that buffet,” he would suggest. “Let’s not,” Mom would parry. “How about going to this talk on overcoming your food cravings?”
But it was Dr. Campbell’s talk that really got our attention. Campbell, author of the best-selling book The China Study and a nutritional biochemist from Cornell University, conducted what Jane Brody of the New York Times termed “the Grand Prix of epidemiology studies.” The evidence he laid out showing the connection between high-protein diets and cancer was devastating. And the protein used in the study was casein – the protein that comes from milk. I would never look at cheese in the same way again.
He was followed immediately by Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a researcher who was demonstrating similar links between animal products and diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and a litany of other ailments. What really got me was the study that showed that cognitive function is diminished by consumption of animal protein.
“If you eat this,” he warned, showing a slide of a healthy chunk of Swiss cheese, “your brain will look like this.” He clicked to a brain-shaped chunk, filled with the characteristic holes.
He was joking, but he was also very serious. The same congestion of the arteries that occurs with animal fats affects the brain in the same way, as he demonstrated with MRI scans of brains filled with blockages – brains of meat- and dairy-eaters.
I didn’t want to believe it. But the evidence was just beginning to pile up.
On the third day we finally escaped to the upper deck for some fresh air – me, to post a blog entry, and Dad, for a much-deserved break. We asked to share a table with a couple who later became friends – Rocky and Lynn Roll from Fenton, Mich. (Yes, that’s his real name!). I asked what brought them here, as I asked many.
Rocky was overweight and had a history of coronary artery disease, and after a heart attack got an angioplasty. A friend shared with him The China Study. “I threw it down and didn’t think about it again,” he said.
Four years, 13 angioplasties and eight bypasses later, his friend said to him, “Rocky, please, read the book again.”
So he did. He remembers the date – It was April 4, two years ago. “We decided we’d give it a try – and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Rocky doesn’t go overboard praising the diet – he says he came on the cruise because he likes the weather – but Lynn credits his change in eating habits with saving his life. And the two of them climbed to the top of the tower in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest – ahead of us.
It was stories like these – face to face, around dinner, in the hallways, on the pool deck, on the excursions – that really drove the point home for my Dad. And the Recovery Panel, with more than a dozen stories of survivors (read about it here), made the reality impossible to deny.
The last day over grilled polenta and vegetables, California businessman Chris Lawrence shared the story of his fight with coronary artery disease – the same story we’d heard over and over of stints and statins and bypasses, all now a thing of the past.
“I was the typical docile patient; I did everything I was told – and it was killing me.” After several bypasses, his arteries were 98% occluded. He could barely walk 100 yards without getting a charley horse in his leg and needing to sit down. He cut out animal products, and his problems cleared up. Nowadays he manages his own health – and is feeling just fine.
“This food is looking better all the time,” Dad mused.
I thought I was seeing something new in his eyes these days. It looked like hope.
He had shared the story of his battle with mesothelioma – and his decision to fire his oncologist – with many, and was feeling the love. Chris was more direct. “It’s not easy to go against the medical establishment,” he said. “It took me a long time.
“What you’re doing takes a lot of courage. I’m a Vietnam veteran and I can tell you, it’s easier to charge up a hill with an M16 than to do what you’re doing.”
I had to agree.
At one point I introduced Dad to a fellow traveler and began to tell his story. “Dad has cancer…” I began.
“You mean I had cancer,” he corrected, smiling. I corrected my verb tenses after that.
The week passed in a blur of facts and figures, charts and diagrams, interspersed with lively cooking classes, yoga and fitness training, days that ended in vegan ice cream and pizza and cookie parties – and of course, the outings: a rugged hike on St. John in Virgin Islands National Park (“This is the longest 20 minutes I’ve ever seen,” grumbled Dad as he labored up a rocky hill – but he pronounced the quiet white-sand, aquamarine-water beach on the other end to be “worth it”); Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a hike through El Yunque rainforest; and a quick trip to the beach in the Bahamas – but very quick, so as not to miss a morning session on self-massage by the funny and informative Lino Stanchich and an afternoon showing of “Forks and Knives,” introduced by Campbell and Esselstyn.
Of course, it was easy to eat this way, surrounded by true believers and having our food prepared for us by top-flight macrobiotic and vegan chefs. But what would it be like when we were on our own?
I joined Dad at breakfast to find that he, along with a dining companion, had decided to take the 21-day Vegan Challenge. Three weeks are what it takes to make yourself heart attack-proof, Esselstyn had said, And in three weeks – or less – you can overcome your cravings, we’d been told by others.
“What have I got to lose?” he reasoned. “And it just might save my life.”
I agreed; it seemed the logical next step. “Count me in,” I said.
It seemed unbelievable when the last night rolled around that when we awoke, we’d be taking our last breakfast together and headed back home. We bid fond farewells to dozens of new friends and even made more while waiting our turn to disembark and while standing in the customs line.
Our first stop in the real world was a convenience store, where the placards advertising a salami sub sandwich and artificially colored ice cream cones looked worse than inedible to me. We were asking directions to Whole Foods.
Dad was bracing himself for a farewell to eggs, fish and the occasional serving of venison that his naturopath had allowed him. He was more resigned than joyful – but he was making his peace with it. “I know I’ve killed my taste buds over the years – I hope they’ll come back.”
“They will,” Mom reassured him. “I think you’ll be surprised.”
“I guess when you’re on this diet, it’s just that you don’t live to eat,” Dad reflected, borrowing a line from the movie. “You eat to live.”
-Tracy L. Barnett
Freelance writer Tracy Barnett reported last week from the Caribbean from the Holistic Holiday at Sea (here’s the back story). This week, she and her father will begin the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart. Stay tuned for interviews, recipes, and our adventure in the weeks ahead as we try to carry the lessons of Holistic Holiday at Sea into our daily lives – and think about joining us. We dare you.