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I never thought I'd be vegan! Then a cancer diagnosis changed everything

Written by Meg Donahue
 Caryn K. Dugan, known as "St. Louis Veg Girl.

As we at MamaSezz well know, changing to a plant-based diet can change your life in ways you never expected. In this series, we talk with some of the world’s most soulful, dedicated (and often funny) individuals. We get to hear their stories of suffering, transformation, and service — and we learn how food is an essential part of their journey.

This week, we talked with Caryn K. Dugan, known as "St. Louis Veg Girl." After her father passed away from cancer, Caryn knew she had to make a lifestyle change herself. She turned to the University of Google and found out pretty quickly that animal products increase your chances of cancer greatly. It was at that moment that she decided to fill her plate with only plant-based foods. She hasn't been sick a day since, and even opened her own health food center.

Follow her on Instagram: @stl_veg_girl. (While you're at it; don't forget to follow @MamaSezz for recipes, health tips, and kitchen hacks!).

What prompted your interest in a plant-based diet?

I was never a foodie, and definitely never connected food and health. I simply ate when I was hungry and what was around was never high on the nutrient density scale! Some of my greatest memories with my dad is eating fried bologna sandwiches with melted Velveeta cheese and mustard on Wonder White bread while watching Sunday football on a little TV in the kitchen. For a real treat, we'd fry up some SPAM. Grossed out yet?

My interest in transitioning to a plant-based diet arrived in 2008 when I lost my dad to cancer and exactly 10 weeks after that, I, too, was diagnosed.


What happened?

After losing my dad to cancer and then also bring diagnosed with cancer, I knew something had to change. I didn't immediately think about food because I never thought about how food could affect our health. I looked at other people who seemed healthy to me and I tried that — yoga, meditation, acupuncture, weird (and disgusting) green juices — nothing stuck.

I was in corporate America, working at a medical practice and I was taught how to read medial studies/journals. I applied that education to reading medical papers I found on the internet that talked about nutrition.

I came across studies on a vegan diet (no one said "plant-based" in 2008), and I read that a fully vegan diet was very health-promoting, reversed many chronic illnesses, and even helped in shrinking tumor size in some cancer patients. Truthfully this excited me, but I was not too jazzed about giving  up my chicken, cheese, or burgers.

How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?

In an effort to simply check off a box and say I gave it a try, I took all the animal products out of our kitchen and anything that had meat, dairy or eggs in it, and pitched it. Not proud of the waste, but I was desperate to find answers and I really wanted to be on the other side of this vegan business; I knew it wouldn't stick. I didn't grow up learning how to cook, I didn't want to let go of my comfort foods, I was focused my corporate career and OH! By the way, my husband and I were doing a gut rehab on the house we were living in, so I really didn't even have a kitchen to cook in! I took it all in stride. I was an AWFUL cook and my husband signed us up for a vegan cooking class where I (thankfully) found renewed interest. The instructor asked me to be her assistant twice a month in the evenings. Weeks turned into months to years on this plant-based diet and I slowly figured it out.

What is your life like now?

Cancer aside, one thing that has really impacted my life with a plant-based diet is my chronic cold/flu I would get every year. Every single January/February I would get this truly debilitating flu-like illness and I'd be down and out for a week plus. I always knew it was coming and it did. After adopting a vegan plant-based diet, I have not had that once. Not been sick at all. And, I hear this all the time!

People take these colds, allergies, diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, common chronic illnesses as just a part of life. Well, I'll tell you – they should not be common, and they don't need to be chronic. Many more times than not, food got us there and food can get us out of this.

We have so much more control over our heath than we were ever led to believe. I don't blame our fine healthcare providers for this at all; they didn't get this type of training in their many years of school. They were taught how to treat acute illnesses, not these food borne illnesses.

That's where we need to be our own advocates, add more plants to our plates, record our progress and inform our providers. We are all students now. 

What are you most proud of?

In 2011, I started a ST. Louis Veg Girl and we are celebrating 10 years this summer. In 2019 I opened The Center for Plant-based Living, where we hold plant-based cooking classes and events. Although I am proud of these milestones, I'm most proud of and incredibly thankful, to the people who have allowed me to be a part of their lives.

I have offered my services, but they have done the heavy lifting.

I have watched people safely lose anywhere from 5-100+ pounds and completely reverse their bad health outcomes.

We've helped people reverse their diabetes, lower cholesterol dramatically, get off their meds, etc. They now have more money in their pocket by not paying for expensive medications and have more energy to live life again.

Seeing someone who needs to pay for pills rather than give their daughter the wedding of her dreams is heartbreaking. Siphoning money from a savings account reserved for the vacation of a lifetime with your spouse so that you can manage (not cure) an illness that can be fully treated by a diet change is maddening to me. When people begin to understand there is another way, though a plant-based diet, the awakening is beautiful, they strap in and do the hard work.

They get their life back and that's what and who I am most proud of.


Check out Caryn's incredible story and learn more about her health center on Youtube

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