Julie Bolitho-Lee writes for Vegan Life about her journey from ‘wilful ignorance to vegan bliss’ following cancer treatment in her late teens
Within two months of marrying, my husband and I rescued a dog. This may not seem significant (although my husband was terrified of dogs), but it turned out that Janie, the Boston Terrier we rescued from a puppy farm in Ohio, would be a significant influence on our path toward veganism.
I was raised in Northern Michigan on a standard local diet of beef, wheat, dairy and sugar. My mother was a serial dieter who likely ate hundreds of animals during her adventures with the Atkins Diet, and my father had such a ruinous relationship with food that he received one of the earliest gastric bypass procedures. By the time I was a teenager, one of the only things we could agree on was steak. In fact, I remember ordering prime rib (medium rare) at my junior prom, and steak juice staining the prom dress my grandmother had made me. It wasn’t yet enough to convince me to give up eating flesh.
That incentive came three years later when at nineteen, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Following full removal of my thyroid, fifty-three lymph nodes and two of four parathyroid glands, I was left so nauseous from painkillers that I preferred the nausea of pain itself — and I stopped eating entirely. My family physician recommended my mom take me to the Dairy Queen and load me up on blizzards (a thick milkshake laden with crumbled candy bars). I gained over two stone during the recovery period, but meat made me sick in the months following the surgery. My body simply rejected it.
My friends regarded my new vegetarian foods with suspicion. I distinctly remember the first post-cancer trip to a friend’s cabin when my best friend refused to try my tofu. She actually said she was scared of it… and then ate a hot dog. Nonetheless, I persevered with this new diet (but fell into the trap of replacing meat with dairy products). In the face of any criticism I simply mentioned the ‘c word’ and conversations were immediately halted.
Fast-forward to my twenty-fifth year when I discovered that juice fasting and higher concentrations of raw food enabled me to feel even better than I had before the cancer (despite my GP’s persistent warnings that vegetarianism and veganism would make me weak). Not yet a vegan, but suddenly realizing the incredible importance of nutrition, I began reading book after book on diet… and somehow this affected my Chinese-Welsh husband, who grew up eating ‘anything that moved’. One day, after three years of marriage, he simply came home and said, ‘I think I’m going to be a vegetarian t00’. When asked why, he replied, ‘If Janie and Elu (our second dog) have thoughts and feelings, so too must farm animals’. I agreed… and then two months later, whilst I was standing in the kitchen sprinkling cheese over a salad, Kwok called from his desk: ‘Honey, I think we should be vegan.’ I paused, unsure if I had heard him correctly. Apparently, he had been reading about the lives of dairy cows… and he wanted me to read about them too.
At the time, veganism seemed unfathomable (and a final goodbye to my Midwestern heritage). Yet, in that moment, I made what I believe was one of my first truly adult decisions: a decision not to live in ignorance. We gave ourselves six weeks to fully remove dairy from our lives. Four years later, it is hard to imagine life before veganism.
Having loved animals my whole life, I marvel at how long I remained part of a culture of willful ignorance. Within weeks of becoming vegan, my life blossomed. I was no longer lethargic, and running was no longer a chore, but became a privilege in its newfound ease. Each stride, each bite, represented freedom — freedom of the body and freedom of the spirit (which never even knew just how burdened it was). Veganism brought me back to yoga (something I discovered during cancer treatments), and I actually credit this lifestyle with giving me the courage to leave behind an academic career and become a yoga teacher, a part-time writer and artist, and a full-time animal lover.
My husband and I now have eight rescued hens and are working toward purchasing land to continue rescuing animals in need. We have learned that quietly living an example — and offering guests amazingly tasty vegan fare — is more effective than proselytizing and producing fear and judgment. Veganism for me is living compassion—and that includes all creatures (human animals too) — and that, I have learned, is the only culture that I need.