A year has gone by since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A whole year! Time is funny. In some ways the year passed quickly, but in other ways, especially this past winter as I dealt with the fatigue that comes with radiation treatment, time moved very slowly. Even now, my stamina is not what it was before breast cancer and radiation. When I have people over for a meal, I am really tired when they leave, and I just don’t have the energy for long-distance bike riding, the way I did last year. I can only go ten or eleven miles, but the good news is that I do this daily. And I’m glad to be on the road, biking through town and by the shimmering lake.
At the beginning of August, I had my first after-cancer mammogram, and I will admit that I was nervous out of my mind. What a relief to find out that the mammogram was “normal.” Right around that time, I spoke with a woman in town who has had breast cancer.
“Does it get any easier?” I asked, referring to the mammogram jitters I had.
“No,” she answered. “It really doesn’t.”
How could it?
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I vowed to buy as much organic food as possible, and to be truthful, it has taken a great deal of effort to do so on our modest budget. Organic food is always more expensive than food grown with harsh pesticides, and sometimes it is much more expensive. It helps that we are mostly vegetarian because organic meat is especially pricey. But, still! I have always been a frugal shopper, and during the 1990s, I was able to feed five people on less than $100 a week, usually $80 or so. Now, it is a rare trip to the grocery store when I don’t spend at least $50—I usually go more than once a week—and we don’t eat extravagantly—I cook from scratch and buy very little meat.
Nevertheless, my commitment to organic food remains strong. When I was a young teenager, hardly anyone I knew had breast cancer. It was very uncommon and not a cause for concern. (What teenager could say this now?) Then, in the mid-1970s, things began to change, and my own family experienced this firsthand when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was on the vanguard, the first wave of women that would really be hit by this disease, a wave that would only get bigger and bigger over time.
What changed? Certainly mammograms play a role in detecting cancer earlier, but I will again make the case that when I was young, few women I knew, regardless of whether they were 50, 60, or 70, had breast cancer. And I lived in a multigenerational home. I would have heard about it if my grandmother’s friends had had breast cancer. (Only one did.)
While there might be a variety of causes for the increase in breast cancer, one big change—starting in the 1950s—is how we grow our food. According to Sandra Steingraber in her book Living Downstream, after World War II, all “the technologies developed for wartime purposes…changed chemistry and physics forever….The multitude of new synthetic products made available after the war altered how food was grown and packaged…” Welcome to the world of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Steingraber calls herself “a member of the most poisoned generation to come of adult age…” and I am also of that generation.
Now, I know that food is only one piece of what might be called the “poison puzzle.” Our water and air are also contaminated, and pollutants don’t stay in one place, traveling even to the arctic circle, which is far away from factories and crops grown with pesticides. In short, I realize I can’t control everything that comes into my life. But when it comes to food, I can, and so I am.
I am developing strategies to keep the cost of organic food as low as possible. I’ve already described how I cook from scratch and don’t buy much meat. That’s a good start. I’ve also begun compiling a price book listing the cost of the food I buy at various stores. Just as it is with nonorganic food, the prices range from store to store. Once a month, my husband and I go to Trader Joe’s to stock up on food we can’t buy locally. (We also visit with our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, thereby efficiently combining shopping and visiting with family on our trip.) But even at Trader Joe’s a price book is essential. While there are real bargains for organic food at Trader Joe’s, occasionally I can get a better deal at our local Hannaford.
On the home front, joining a CSA has been a relatively thrifty way to get organic vegetables. Plus, I like supporting Farmer Kev. I also make a great effort to waste as little food as possible. Food thrown away is like money thrown away.
So eating mostly organic can be done on a modest budget, but it takes a fair amount of work. However, to me it is time well spent, a gift not only to myself but also to the planet and to future generations.