In 1993 despite several operations, 35 radiotherapy treatments, irradiation to induce the menopause and chemotherapy treatments, I was told I had only months to live after my breast cancer returned for the 5th time. At this point I had a large solid lump the size of half a boiled egg sticking out of my neck just above my collar bone. I felt awful and looked very pale, thin and ill. Despite the awfulness of my situation, my scientific knowledge and experience clicked in to save my life.
My husband Peter (who is a Professor of Geology) and I had both worked in China on environmental problems in the past. I suddenly remembered that a wonderful epidemiological atlas presented to me by my Chinese colleagues showed a background rate of breast cancer of 1 in 100,000 women, compared to a rate of one in ten in much of the West at that time. I had checked that the information was correct with senior academics that I knew well in China and also with some Chinese doctors who told me that they had hardly seen a case of breast cancer in their careers.
This was surprising because I knew that Chinese women living on western diets for example in Singapore or in Chinatown in Britain did have breast cancer. I asked Peter the question that I believe saved my life. "Why don't Chinese women in China get breast cancer?" We brainstormed the subject for just a few minutes and decided that it must be diet related. We then remembered two incidents. Peter remembered when his Chinese colleagues had produced powdered cow's milk on a field expedition for him because they did not drink it themselves, in fact at that time in the early 80's they did not even have a dairy industry.
I decided I had nothing to lose by giving up the two low fat organic yoghurts I was eating a day each day. To my and everyone else's amazement the cancer disappeared in six weeks. The rest of my diet at the time was vegan and I maintained a vegan diet for many years.
After a year on my strict, vegan Plant Programme 1 diet, following being declared cancer free, I changed to my less rigorous Plant Programme 2 and remained free of cancer for nineteen years despite taking no medication.
About three years ago I started to write another academic book. Unfortunately, the book was far more demanding of my time than I had expected. I started to cut corners on my diet and lifestyle. For example, I decided that the odd sandwich from the College canteen would do no harm even it contained butter or spread. And what about my check-ups? Unfortunately I had stopped attending these about ten years ago. At the time I told myself it made me too anxious and after all I had found all my cancers myself. Unfortunately I had also stopped checking myself.
Even when my husband pointed out that I had a large lump beneath my collar bone I persuaded myself it was just scar tissue. It was not until I was admitted to hospital as an emergency - unable to breathe - that I took any action to help myself. Scans carried out at the time showed that the lump beneath my collar bone, which by now covered an area of 80 cm2, was cancer. It had also spread to the lining of my right lung, which also had several small metastases in it.
Later I checked back on what I had been eating. I found that even the falafel from the canteen contained milk powder and I had been eating calves' liver cooked in butter about three times a month at a local restaurant where I entertained visitors. Now I once again check labels carefully and make sure I ask about ingredients whenever I eat out.
I understand that a good diet and lifestyle are essential, along with complementary therapies that help me relax and deal with anxiety. But on their own, they are not a substitute for the best and most up-to-date medical treatment. I went straight back to my oncologist - who prescribed a small daily dose of the oestrogen-suppressor drug letrozole, which I continue to take. Importantly I went back on my Plant Programme 1 diet, began regular meditation again and ensured that I started walking regularly as I used to do before my workload became too intense. Fortunately my cancer was fully in remission again in less than six months, but it was a frightening time.