Thursday, April 18, 2002

Cancer survivor says diet saved her life

Published in the Current

When asked how she has managed to remain alive, Meg Wolff just smiles. In 1990, she lost a leg to cancer, and in 1997 she underwent surgery for aggressive breast cancer that doctors told her would return within a year.

But the cancer has not returned, and Wolff, who lives on the ocean in Cape Elizabeth, thinks she may have come up with a cure for cancer: macrobiotic eating.

“I really believe you can cure cancer with diet,” Wolff said.

The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, is doing a study on alternative ways of dealing with cancer, and is exploring macrobiotic eating too.

“So much of modern food (production) is about promoting growth,” Wolff said. And, she said, cancer is really just a group of cells that grow too quickly.

Now 44, Wolff has studied at the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts, and teaches macrobiotic cooking at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland.

She also teaches classes at several locations in the Bethel area, where she lives during the school year to be able to cook for her children, who went to Cape schools until they decided to pursue skiing more seriously.

Her son is now a sophomore at Gould Academy and her daughter is in sixth grade at Hebron Academy.

“I’m committed to cooking for my kids as long as they are in high school,” she said.

“I try to offer them healthy choices at home,” she said. “I think hopefully they’ll make good choices when they go elsewhere.”

When she was sick a few years ago, she read a book by a doctor who had cured himself of an incurable form of cancer with macrobiotic eating, and began to look into it.

“I was just thinking diet for health,” Wolff said.

Her first challenge was to find out what macrobiotics really is. Rather than a specific set of dishes, macrobiotics prescribes diet as a ratio of ingredients.

According to macrobiotics rules, 50 to 60 percent of the food should be whole grains, including brown rice, barley, millet and quinoa; 25 to 35 percent should be vegetables. Five to 10 percent should be beans and bean products, including tofu and tempeh.

Five percent should be nuts and seeds and other “supplementals,” Wolff said, and 5 percent should be soups.

“They suggest that you eat foods that are grown in your climate,” Wolff said. “Organic is what’s really stressed.”

She suggests buying local at places like farm stands and the farmer’s markets in Portland.

It’s not quick and easy. Making meals can be time-consuming, she said, and can require work.

“It just takes motivation and patience,” she said. And a rearrangement of priorities. “Now different things are important to me,” she said.

Part of the success of the diet, she said, is that it’s “food like our ancestors ate,” grown naturally and unprocessed.

“If you’re eating all this stuff that’s filled with life, then they’re going to give you life,” Wolff said. It’s a big contrast to modern diet. “Nutrition-wise we’re pretty poverty-stricken,” she said.

“It’s lifestyle too,” Wolff said. “I really think that diet is a foundation for good health.”

So why don’t more people eat this way?

“I think people just don’t believe that food can make them feel that way,” Wolff said, adding that more people are starting to eat better food, but still want meals that are quick and easy to prepare. “I think people want a magic bullet or pill,” Wolff said.

Despite her diet and her dedication to eating well, she is easygoing on others.

“I try not to be the food police,” Wolff said. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing.” She encourages people to eat even one macrobiotic meal each week, to begin adapting their diets.

She says it can help, and talks about her own experience.

Her doctors didn’t know what to do with her breast cancer, fearing it could return at any moment.

“I felt like every doctor looked at me with a really sad face,” Wolff said. They recommended a bone-marrow transplant, but she had a gut feeling it would kill her.

“Kind of a light bulb went off in my head,” Wolff said. “I needed to play all my cards.”

So she learned about macrobiotics and made the change, initially cooking macrobiotic meals for herself and other meals for the rest of her family. But she phased them into it, giving them small side dishes of what she was eating.

Eventually the whole family started eating macrobiotics. It keeps her healthy, and her kids as well. “When everything’s going around, they never get sick,” Wolff said.

Her advice for introducing healthy cooking into family life sounds a lot like her approach to cancer. “Don’t be overwhelmed by it,” Wolff said.