Terminal Cancer Patient Says Vegan Diet Is Reason She’s Still Alive Five Years Later

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naturally nina vegan mealNina Gelbke

Today is World Vegan Day, an annual event celebrated by thousands of vegans all over the globe which aims to raise awareness of the benefits of veganism for humans, animals and the environment.

Over the past few years the rise of veganism has been unstoppable with research conducted by The Vegan Society suggesting the number of vegans in Britain has doubled twice over the past four years.


While in 2014 it was estimated there were 150,000 vegans across England, Scotland and Wales, by 2016 this had rose to 600,000 and it is incredibly likely this number is even greater today.

There are numerous reasons why veganism is becoming increasingly popular including the fact supermarkets are stocking more vegan options, concern about the environment and animal rights is growing and with social media being flooded with vegan influencers, including celebrities like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, it is hard not to ignore it when you open Instagram or Facebook.

And then of course there are the health benefits.


Not only does veganism help educate you about nutrition, diet and cooking, but some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure, rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

naturally nina vegan mealNina Gelbke

There are endless studies which document the various health benefits of eating a plant-based diet and more research of course will be done to attempt to conclude how strong the links are.

But there are plenty of people out there who firmly believe that being vegan has had a direct, positive impact on their health and wellbeing.


For example, 55-year-old Penny Lown from Cornwall claims veganism helped her recover from cancer stating that plant-based eating is the healthiest diet you can have to avoid the disease.

penny lown vegan cancerPenny Lown

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2013, Penny was given about six to nine months to live but at most a year by doctors.

While the diagnosis was devastating, Penny was shocked because she had lived a healthy lifestyle and there were very few symptoms pointing towards cancer.


Following a variety of treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and extensive surgery, after a year Penny’s cancer became operable and she credits the medical treatments for overcoming the disease.

penny lown vegan cancerPenny Lown

Penny found the recovery from cancer and surgery tough and with remission from pancreatic cancer being 10 years from diagnosis, she decided to give herself the best chance she could knowing it may return.

As she explained to UNILAD, Penny gravitated to being vegan more than anything else and so made the transition.


She said:

I had to learn to adapt to my post surgical body with a very sensitive digestion and only 20 per cent of my pancreas left which was pretty much dormant rendering me diabetic.

Also during the surgery my psyche changed and in many ways I felt like a helpless, wounded animal. I then couldn’t consume anything that involves the suffering of animals. I was that animal, suffering, pretty much in the hands of fate.

As my body healed and healed I could only put into it ‘pure’ fuel. The more I did the better I felt. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling anxious about the possibility of cancer revisiting.

The statistics are there. Plant based eating is the healthiest diet you can possibly have to avoid cancer and to stabilise diabetes.

penny lown vegan cancerPenny Lown

The statistics Penny is referring to includes research like The China Study which examined the link between the consumption of animal products and chronic illnesses.

While this study is one of a few which encouraged Penny to take up veganism to help avoid her cancer returning, she says she is still reading more and more every day which only strengthens her commitment.

After transforming her diet over three years, Penny has now been a dedicated vegan for two years and concludes it has had a huge impact on her health helping her recover from cancer, just like the research she read suggested it would.

Saying she is ‘proof in the pudding’, Penny explained veganism has had an impact on both her wellbeing and career.

She said:

I am absolutely sure I am alive because I am on a plant-based diet and I am absolutely sure that is why I recovered so well.

A plant-based diet keeps my blood sugars low helping me with my diabetes but it is the healthiest diet you can have full-stop.

I have plenty of vitality and energy even becoming a yoga teacher after recovering from surgery, I have a perfect weight which rarely changes, I apparently look remarkable considering my age and the cancer and I swam a mile across the Padstow Estuary against a strong current for charity in the summer.

Being vegan is completely empowering and I now feel like I am who I was meant to be. It has changed my rooting to the world. Because I had such a difficult experience, it is important to make a springboard out of it.

fresh vegetablesPA

26-year-old Jessica Spencer-Keyse had a similar experience to Penny as veganism also helped her recover from a disease.

At the age of 21 Jessica was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a chronic condition which sees the body’s immune system attacking its own cells.

As well as causing Jessica pain, the disease also left her feeling very fatigued meaning she had little energy so she couldn’t really do her job and other day-to-day activities.

jessica vegan autoimmune diseaseJessica Spencer-Keyse

Spending a lot of time in hospital, Jessica was given numerous different types of medication as doctors attempted to figure out how best to treat this rare disease.

With no medical based solution really having an effect, Jessica admits she became ‘very frustrated’ and so started to look at alternative treatments.

Reading stories about people who said eating a plant-based diet helped treat their autoimmune disease, although she was ‘really sceptical’ Jessica thought ‘why not give it a try’.

jessica vegan autoimmune diseaseJessica Spencer-Keyse

She explained why to UNILAD:

I had always eaten a very traditional British diet but I was kind of at the point where I was like it isn’t really going to do me any harm by trying.

And there were quite a lot of good reasons to try too. My motivation was also around the environment and animal rights too which helped make it easier to stay on track with why I was doing it so if you don’t see results straight away you know there are other reasons why you are doing it and made that choice.

However, Jessica saw results almost immediately, an improvement which has lasted the whole year since she became vegan meaning her autoimmune disease now barely affects her.

Having always included fruit and vegetables in her diet, Jessica deduced it was eliminating meat and dairy which had ‘a massive impact’ on her wellbeing.

Suddenly finding herself full of energy, Jessica explained how she couldn’t believe how quickly she felt better, both physically and mentally:

I used to get brain fog and all of that cleared up. I felt lighter and I could exercise again, something I previously didn’t have enough energy to do. I remember me and my boyfriend going out for a walk and I was excited as I had so much energy. It was really quick!

Since becoming vegan I have occasionally had a tiny bit of cheese and I have just felt like cr*p afterwards. I would never physically feel good afterwards and I know it has a detrimental impact.

Plant-based eating also had an impact on my mental health as I felt like I was more aware and had ownership. I know I am getting a healthy and balanced diet but also not doing anything which deliberately harms the planet.

Acknowledging there are so many things in the world that she couldn’t control, Jessica saw becoming vegan as a good step she could take to not only help herself, but also the world.

jessica vegan autoimmune diseaseJessica Spencer-Keyse

If you look at Instagram, you may notice a prevalence of vegan profiles where people are either recovering or have recovered from an eating disorder.

Many of these content actually turned to veganism for their recovery including 21-year-old Nina Gelbke from Dunsborough, Australia, a qualified nutritionist who runs her own business Naturally Nina.

Nina’s diagnosis with type 1 diabetes at the age of 9 helped lead to her suffering from anorexia nervosa as she began restricting her food and over exercising to obtain ‘the perfect blood sugar levels’.

naturally ninaNina Gelbke

In 2013 Nina was admitted to the emergency department with a severely low weight and heart rate which was less than 20 beat per minute. Doctors told her parents they weren’t sure she would make it through the night.

Over the next few years Nina was in and out of hospital and the turning point only came when she found veganism.

Having been vegetarian since fifth grade, Nina became vegan after watching the documentary Earthlings deciding she ‘didn’t want to be a part of a society which uses and abuses animals for pleasure if we could live perfectly healthy and happy lives without doing so’.

Naturally NinaNina Gelbke

While veganism did ‘lift a weight’ off Nina’s shoulders, knowing she was ‘finally living in line with [her] core values’, it also helped Nina manage her diabetes and recover from her eating disorder.

She told UNILAD it helped change the way she understood her relationship with food:

Veganism gave me a purpose that was greater than just myself. It allowed me to see things from another perspective and completely shift my mindset towards food from guilt, shame and numbers, to one of nourishment and abundance.

It allowed me to start appreciating and accepting my body, treating myself with compassion, and focus on building myself up and becoming stronger, instead of destroying myself.

It really made me rethink what I was doing to myself and others by how I was mistreating my body, and it allowed me to realise that a healthy, strong body and mind, through good nutrition and taking care of yourself is absolutely key if you want to live your life to the fullest and make a positive mark on this world.

It completely transformed my toxic relationship with food and my body, and for the first time in my life I saw food as so much more than just calories.

It gave me so much peace knowing that the food I was putting into my body was the best thing I could do for not only myself, but our planet and all those we share it with too.

Now Nina admits she is ‘the best [she] has ever been’ when it comes to her health and eating disorder, feeling strong, full of energy, and ‘truly like myself again’.

Although she does still have difficult days, Nina knows she has a choice now ‘whether to act on these thoughts or choose to replace them with more positive, compassionate and healthy actions instead’, something veganism helped teach her.

Naturally NinaNina Gelbke

Plenty of vegans have stories just like these ones and while there is some scientific evidence that backs their claims, Heather Russell, a dietitian who works with The Vegan Society, states more research does need to be done.

She told UNILAD:

Contrary to what some people believe, animal products like meat and dairy are not essential parts of a balanced diet. We work with the British Dietetic Association to share the message that well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages.

Going vegan can be an opportunity to eat better. Well-planned vegan diets are packed full of health-promoting plant foods like whole grains, nuts, fruit and vegetables. Research has linked this way of eating to lower rates of heart disease, types 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

There is evidence that vegan diets may help with type 2 diabetes and weight management, and individuals report that switching to a vegan diet can play a positive role in the management of a variety of health conditions. We need more clinical research into therapeutic uses of vegan diet.

vegan mealPexels

Penny, Jessica and Nina all emphasise that while they saw the vegan diet have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing, it is an individual choice to pursue plant-based eating and it is important to do your research to make sure you have a balanced diet getting all the nutrients you need.

While the vegan diet did help these three people and many others, it may not have an impact on you and should never be used as a crutch if you are struggling to fully recover from a disease or medical condition. Always seek medical advice first.

As Heather states, more research does need to be done but it is clear the word about veganism and the potentially positive health effects is getting around.

If you have been affected by the content in this article and want support with eating disorders, you can call the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 8pm).

To find out more about veganism, The Vegan Society’s website has plenty of helpful information and advice.

If you have a story you want to to tell, send it to [email protected]

Topics: Featured

Emily Murray
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