Chocolate Cassis Scone. Not so much chocolate you can’t taste the dark berry, but enough melty richness to feel plenty decadent. The outside has a perfect golden crispness, the inside airy, flaky, rich with the texture that only plenty of butter can bestow. I am savoring every morsel with my pot of Earl Grey tea in my favorite patisserie in San Francisco.
By common wisdom, I am doing everything wrong. I am eating everything I shouldn’t be: white flour, animal fat, and—capital sin—sugar. How many times have I heard the reductionist mantra “sugar feeds cancer” in the past two years? Can it really be that simple? And what about pleasure? Not simply gratification, but the intensely savored pleasure of something as wonderful as a perfectly baked good? While we’re throwing clichés around, don’t the partisans of the “Life’s Short—Eat Dessert First” school have something there?
There are perhaps no more treacherous waters to wade into in terms of cancer survivorship than the debates about what one should and shouldn’t eat. The shrill or evangelistic tone these discussions about diet take remind me of the same tenor and fervor that any question of not breastfeeding would take in parenting forums back when I had children of an age to nurse—or wean.
I myself have been—admittedly—on every side of this debate, from my post-diagnosis juicing regimen (beets, carrots, fresh turmeric root!) to my full-throated refusal to give up yet another aspect of my life that matters to me. Sick of quinoa and green tea, I’ve thrown up my hands and said “I can’t live the rest of my life like I’m on a cleanse.”
I’ve yet to meet a single person diagnosed with cancer or another serious disease that hasn’t attempted to radically change their food regimen. Anodyne recommendations about a “plant-based” diet become, through the lens of existential panic, an embrace of vegan aceticism; “moderation” a palliative for our missteps when we can’t adhere to the austere doctrine we’ve convinced ourselves will ward off another recurrence.
But what’s behind all this emphasis on food, I believe, is an illusion of control. The causes of cancer are obscure and complex, encompassing inherited genetics and myriad potential environmental factors; the biology of metastasis remains very poorly understood even today. We have little control over the course of our disease, and so we overemphasize—radically—the part that what we eat has to play.