Sunday dawned somewhere over the high seas, and we emerged poolside to find the yoga instructor cheerily calling out over a stiff ocean breeze: “Remember, surrender all resistance; we’re in battlefield conditions. This will strengthen your practice!”
A hundred pairs of arms reached for the sky as the last shades of pink faded away, and another brisk troupe circled the track overhead. “Just go to the edge of your comfort zone – remember, it’s vacation yoga!”
It’s morning workout time on the MSC Poesia, the chartered cruise line for the Holistic Holiday at Sea, and poolside chats are at a minimum – 1,200 cruise passengers are here with a mission, and I’m no exception. I’m here with my parents – Dad, who has recently made the switch from meat-and-potatoes guy to hardcore macrobiotic in an attempt to beat back a terminal cancer diagnosis, and it didn’t take long to find we’re surrounded by kindred spirits. For them, it’s not just a cruise; it’s a matter of life or death.
After breakfast we made a quick break for the packed Pigalle Lounge, where there’s barely room to squeeze in for a cooking demo by Christina Pirello, charismatic macrobiotic chef, television personality and author of bestsellers such as I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Eat it Anymore. Pirello was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 26 and instead of going for medical treatment, went macrobiotic; she’s one of dozens here with similar stories.
The irrepressible redhead peppers her presentation with one-liners aimed at bad eaters, non-cooks and the food industry (“Twizzlers, Diet Coke and big butt cookies are all vegan,” she warns) as she whips up a red lentil soup with corn and a pan-fried tofu with vegetables. Her cooking class is a challenge to all of us to step up our game. “There are many levels of illness, and most of us don’t pay attention until we get pretty deep,” she says, enumerating them along with the signs of health: Clarity of thought, appetite for life, good sleep, good memory, and stamina.
Her ultimate invocation will stay with me for a long time.
“We live in serious times and we need leaders with stamina,” she said. “If you don’t have stamina, step aside and let someone who does. Without stamina, nothing will change; we have to stand up and fight.”
What she’s talking about is clear to this fired-up crowd, mad at the food industry, mad at Big Pharma, mad at a medical industry they see as rigged toward profit over health, treatment over prevention, palliative care over definitive cure. Heavy stuff for a float on the Caribbean, but nobody seems to be moving toward the pool.
It’s easy to forget we’re aboard a cruise ship with this packed schedule, four to six workshops to choose from at any given time. But it wasn’t until after lunch – a truly delightful five-course gourmet macrobiotic extravaganza featuring delights like tempeh with soy-simmered shitake and wasabe sauce, orange arame watercress salad and lentil walnut paté – that I realized how serious this crowd really was.
We were more than a thousand strong in the bright purple Carlo Fellini theater, listening to “Understanding the Scientific Evidence for Plant-Based Nutrition” by Dr. Colin T. Campbell, author of The China Study, relating the story of his discovery that high levels of animal-based protein – specifically milk products – cause cancer. High, but yet not as high as the USDA’s Recommended Daily Allowance – 20% protein, compared to the RDA’s maximum of 35%.
The story he lays out is at once compelling and infuriating when it begins to become clear that study after peer-reviewed study demonstrating the link over more than two decades of research has produced barely a ripple in the wider world, particularly after the years he’s spent meeting with top-level policymakers on Capitol Hill and sharing the need for a different, less pharmaceutical-dominated model. But it’s a story this audience knows well.
“Why are we sticking our heads in the sand?” he asked rhetorically. “Why is the professional and policy-making world failing to take action on this data?”
His answer boils down to one word: Money. Lobbyists from the medical industry have so thoroughly infiltrated the government and medical profession that there is no longer an objective approach to judgment, either at the individual or collective level.
Campbell’s research showed not only a persuasive causal link between animal proteins and cancer, but it went further. Amazingly, in one study with mice, he was able to actually turn the cancer on and off by varying the dose of animal protein.
His work was corresponded by that of Dr. Neil Barnard, who showed a similar causal link between animal proteins and diabetes, and a remarkable recovery rate among Type II diabetes patients who went on a macrobiotic diet. And on another front is Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., who has similarly shown major turnarounds in heart disease among patients who turn to a plant-based diet.
Caldwell’s talk was followed by a similarly riveting one by Barnard, and then another by Gabriel Cousins, another medical doctor who is also a rabbi and a yogi and a Native American fire dancer as well as a vegan practitioner and teacher, speaking on the spiritual underpinnings of veganism – and then it was time for the vegan ice-cream social, thankfully, as my head was about to explode. My parents, however, were smiling and nodding through all of it – this is material that reinforces their own self-study.
Tomorrow’s program looks equally motivating. Meanwhile, Dad shared his story with a tiny grey-haired woman waiting in line for lunch, as we were. Betty Hoehn shared hers, as well, and it was a stunner. A little over a decade ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia and told she had about nine years to live – not happy news, but not enough to send her into a tailspin, as she was 62 already. It wasn’t until four years later, when the disease had progressed to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, that she realized she had much less time than she’d thought. At the oncologist’s office, she learned she’d have to have a kidney removed, but that even so, it probably wouldn’t help much, as her spleen was growing rapidly and her prognosis was grim.
For some reason she’ll never quite fathom – “I call it a God incident – not a co-incidence,” she says – she picked up a magazine at the oncologist’s office and it happened to have an ad on the back page for the Holistic Holiday at Sea health cruise. She shared it with her husband Al. “He said, let’s do it,” she recalls. “After breakfast lunch and dinner with all these people telling us their healing stories, I went back to my cabin and I said, ‘I’m feeling better already.’”
She went on to adopt a macrobiotic diet, along with Al, who teamed up with her on the cooking. A few months later she went in and had her T-cells counted; the technician called her aside and said she couldn’t find enough to indicate that there was cancer. And then she received a call on her cell phone while she was in the grocery store. It was her doctor; her cancer was gone. She recalls with a laugh pushing her cart down the aisles, tears rolling down her face.
I looked at my father who had been hanging on every word. He was pretty weepy-eyed, himself, at the moment. It turned out that Betty was about to turn 73 tomorrow – just like Dad.
Five years later, Al has recovered from his Type II diabetes – and she is cancer free.
Hoehn is one of a lineup who will share their stories tomorrow in a Recovery Panel of survivors of all kinds of diseases. That’s the type of inspiration that keeps people like Holm coming back year after year. Tomorrow’s another day with another lineup of inspirations.
-Tracy L. Barnett
Freelance writer Tracy Barnett is reporting from the Caribbean from the Holistic Holiday at Sea, She will be documenting the holistic cruise over the next two weeks through a series of blog entries. Stay tuned!