The one question that many cancer specialists get asked time and again is, “Why me? I do not indulge in any vices, I exercise regularly, I get all my checkups done, so why me?”
Dr Mythri Shankar, Lead Consultant, Nuclear Medicine, who works extensively with cancer diagnosis and treatment says that the answer to that may lie in the food we consume.
Alcohol and smoking are bad but there are other factors that we completely overlook, and that is what we need to address and look into says Dr Shankar.
In India, about 2.5 million people currently suffer from some form of cancer, and about 7 lakh new cases get added to these alarming statistics. The likelihood of developing cancer is defined by a set of risk factors, which are a combination of environmental and genetic components. While genetic factors like your family history and age are beyond your control, you can take charge of the environmental factors and significantly reduce your risks of developing cancer.
Various reports now suggest that 1 out of 10 cancer cases can be prevented with the right diet.
In this exclusive interview with The Better India (TBI), Dr Shankar speaks about why we need to consciously move towards growing our food and how making small changes at home may help us lead longer, healthier lives.
Dr Shankar starts with one of the most underrated and undervalued proverbs of all time– “Prevention is always better than cure!”
Trained in India and the United States, Dr Shankar is a nuclear physician. It has been a decade since the mother of two teenagers moved to India with her family. Dr Shankar’s interest in gardening bloomed about four years ago when she shifted to her own home.
She grew up watching her parents tending to their garden diligently. “I took that interest with me and even when we were in the US, I did have some plants growing in our patio.”
“In fact, I remember when we were travelling through Europe, my husband and I collected tulip bulbs which we took back to the US and planted,” she shares.
Dr Shankar says that though there had always been a small garden, it was mostly ornamental due to the many commitments that needed her attention early on in life.
From an ornamental to a vegetable garden
“When we finished with the construction of our home, there was a huge backyard left for us to use. We had many landscape designers come in and give us quotes for how to utilise the space. As we had a lot of construction material left over, I decided to start experimenting to build something on our own,” she recollects.
Initially, everything in Dr Shankar’s garden was ornamental like different types of palms and ornamental flowering plants.
“The concept was never to grow food, to be honest. I was looking to develop a water garden,” she adds.
While attending a workshop on water gardening, Dr Shankar happened to mention about her lawn. The moment she did, everyone in the workshop urged her to grow fruits and vegetables other than just ornamental plants. And thus, she started her journey.
“While gardening was always something that I did, growing my own food was something else,” she says.
“Most of my trees are now three years old, and they are all starting to yield. To see fruit-laden trees is just so beautiful. I enjoyed learning about the different kinds of fruits. Before this, I did not know that guava alone has so many different types,” she chuckles.
Some of the fruits that Dr Shankar grows in her garden are guavas, mangoes, chickoo (sapota), oranges, mosambi (sweet lime), different types of pomegranates and other citrus plants.
I also cultivate vegetables and herbs, keep a garden for flowers used in puja, a butterfly garden (bulbs and other rhizome flowers), and over 15 variety of fruit trees and ornamental flowers (orchids, succulents etc.)
“Butterflies and bees are very important for cross-pollination and hence the butterfly garden. I have nine different-coloured hibiscus and two kinds of jasmine plants,” she says.
Creating the garden and tending to it has been creatively challenging for Dr Shankar but she enjoys the process. What’s even better is that this garden is 100 per cent organic.
“I have reached a sustainable level where I do not need to buy vegetables from the vendor, as I grow most of them in my garden. The garden is 100 per cent organic with zero pesticides being used. We even ensure that the manure we use for the garden comes from the composting we do at home,” she says.
In doing this, Dr Shankar is ensuring that the one variable that is within our control of fighting cancer is addressed.
Involving the family in the garden work
Wanting to bring the entire family together to maintain the garden, Dr Shankar got her teenage boys to help her build a birdhouse. “We had some wooden pieces leftover, and with those, the boys built birdhouses. We had some mosaic as well that we used in various places to enhance the look of the garden,” she informs.
While the garden is predominantly looked after by Dr Shankar, her sons do help from time to time.
“The boys have been using the material lying around at home in a purposeful way in the garden. They also sometimes help in sowing seeds and caring for the plants,” says Dr Shankar.
“These days, everything we eat contains a huge amount of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, due to the huge loopholes in the system of food growing and processing. One of the easiest ways to reduce carcinogen burden in the body is to grow your own fruits & veggies,” says Dr Shankar.
Being a specialist in cancer diagnosis and treatment, she believes that one of the preventable causes of cancer lies in selecting the food that we eat.
Other ways to cleanse your body and your surroundings of toxins are:
• Say no to plastics in all forms
• Do not use the microwave indiscriminately
• Invest your time and energy in understanding what you are consuming
• Learn about what goes into the cosmetics and creams you use
• Stay away from white processed sugar, and if you can go one step further then eliminate Maida (white flour) from your diet as well
• Start by growing micro-greens; you can do that in your kitchen itself
• Start with waste segregation
• Aim to move towards a plastic-free household
• Use cloth bags to store vegetables in your fridge
• Learn to make your own chemical-free cleaners for home use
• Connect with your online/local gardening groups
Dr Shankar has ensured that she walks the talk by setting up her own garden. “It’s a great kick to see your first harvest. Gardening is for the soul. It’s good as an exercise, good for your bones; when you are out in the sun. So overall it does wonders for your physical being and also your emotional well being.”
One need not have a large backyard to start growing our own produce. Even a balcony in an apartment could be utilised for this purpose. With research suggesting that lifestyle changes and environmental factors can reduce your risk of developing cancer, it’s time you make those changes.
What are you waiting for? Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, to clean up your body and soul!
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)