I’m excited to share my sister Bonnie’s story with you. She is a real success, not just because she has done a great job incorporating delicious plant based foods into her life and that of her family, but because she is a success as a loving and giving human being.
Bonnie and I were separated when I was five months old. Our mother, Ruth who was very ill when I was born, died of cancer and our father couldn’t work and take care of four children and an infant.
My father’s brother, Gilbert and his wife, Mary came to Michigan to bring me back to Pennsylvania to care for me. Over a year later, the family returned to Pennsylvania with the plan to reunite. I have been told that my Aunt who had been raising me as her own could not bear to give me up and my father let me stay with the understanding that I would not be adopted. I would also be told about my family and would visit my brothers and sisters. As we grew up, we visited occasionally, but Bonnie and I never had the opportunity to really know each other as sisters.
While in nursing school in 1984, I was caring for two patients with melanoma and studying about this deadly form of skin cancer. I thought I was being a hypochondriac when I noticed a mole on my upper back that looked darker than I remembered. I went to speak to my nursing instructor to calm my fears. Instead, she told me to march right over to the dermatology clinic after she showed me her scar from a melanoma excision. After I received word that my mole was melanoma, I called my birth mother’s oldest sister Jeanette to see what kind of cancer my mother had. She told me my mother had melanoma and that she had also had one. Soon after, I went to visit my sister Bonnie and her husband Craig and asked her if she had any moles that had changed. She lifted her shirt and showed me a large mole on her chest and I remember being very upset as it looked like one I had seen in a textbook. It was shaped like a butterfly, had irregular edges, and was not uniform in color. She told me she had been watching it and thought it was fine. I urged her to please get it checked and left hoping she would. I also found out she had our mother’s death certificate which showed that the melanoma on her leg had spread to her brain and liver.
Months later, Bonnie finally went to have her mole checked and unfortunately, it was also a melanoma. We were both fortunate that we caught these lesions before they spread to our lymph nodes or organs and since that time, we have each had a total of 6 melanomas. We also discovered that there have been 14 other family members with melanoma. We learned that in about 10% of melanomas, there is a genetic component and that in our case, we had a dominant gene which means our children have a 50/50 chance of having melanoma.
Bonnie and I kept in touch while I was away at nursing school and then when I married and moved away for 4 years, but when I moved back home when my son was 18 months old, we finally were able to get to know one another better and be sisters. Bonnie helped watch my kids when my husband and I had to work on weekends and her youngest daughter and my daughter spent a lot of time growing up together and loving one another like sisters and fighting like sisters too. We worked with the youth of our church and church conference together and went on church youth retreats together. Bonnie is a woman of tireless energy, from making her own wedding gown to working her way through junior college, then earning her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree while raising a family and working full time. She continues to work long hours at a major financial corporation managing things I don’t understand and compassionately managing many employees.
Bonnie has always been health conscious and I don’t ever remember her ever being overweight. She has been cooking without oil for quite some time to reduce fat in her family’s diet and she used to go to aerobics after work to stay active. We had a terrible scare a few years ago when she had to have a hysterectomy for a very large benign ovarian growth. I will never forget the phone call from my brother in law that she had to be taken back to the operating room after surgery for hemorrhaging. After a second surgery and 4 units of blood, she was very weak and took quite some time to gain her strength back from this “routine” surgery. She scared us again a couple of years ago when she developed neurologic symptoms and had to be hospitalized. She has been diagnosed with autoimmune illness, most likely lupus and possibly Lyme disease also as she has had multiple tick bites. It has been very hard to see the healthiest one in the family have all of these problems.
After I watched Forks over Knives and told Bonnie about my newfound excitement about plant based eating, I think she thought I had lost my mind. Her daughters Danielle and Erica were already vegetarian and she was not convinced this was a healthy way to eat. She had always been thin, but had gained some weight that we were attributing to the medication she was on for lupus. When she saw our family losing weight, she decided to try it out and her oldest daughter Amanda joined her in trying some recipes. I remember being surprised when she texted me to say she was going to the store to buy “rabbit food” and wanted to know what to do with this kale stuff.
Before I knew it, Bonnie was making up her own recipes, especially delicious veggie soups like creamy potato soup and hearty veggie stew. The weight quickly melted off and her pants were soon falling down! Her daughter Amanda also lost the last of her baby weight from her second pregnancy and her sons love all sorts of veggies and tell us their favorite meal is salad! She gives them wonderfully healthy meals and snacks and she proves that kids will eat what you teach them to eat and if you keep offering them healthy food, they will learn to love it. Bonnie is the best grandma ever and the boys call her “Bon Bon” since she looks and acts way too young to be called Grandma. She has a heart of gold and will help anyone in need if she can. She visits the patients at our local state hospital for those with mental illness with a group at our church, has taken in family members and friends to stay in her home when there was a need and helps with no judgment or expectation of anything in return. She is also a star volunteer at our yearly mission trip to Appalachia to repair homes to make them warmer, drier, and safer. She can work a drill and a hammer as well as she can run a sewing machine.
Plant based eating has not eliminated all of my sister’s health challenges, but we both feel that since we have outlived our mother and are still here in our 50s, maybe we need to do whatever we can to be as healthy and independent as we can for as long as we can. We also have hope because of the work of people like Dean Ornish MD and T. Colin Campbell that our genes are not our destiny. We once felt resigned to the fact that we would die an early death from the cancer that took our mother and now we have hope that we may be fortunate enough to live a normal lifespan and enjoy watching our children grow into wonderful adults and even enjoy grandchildren. I’m so glad she joined us in this journey!