A doctor whose thyroid cancer was removed swears that choosing a plant-based diet over traditional treatments will keep her free from the disease.
Laura Freeman was 12 weeks pregnant with Sadie, now five, in 2015 when her obstetrician discovered a lump on the right side of her neck during her routine checkup.
The Glasgow-based doctor who was then living in Toronto, Canada with her 40-year-old husband Roger and their seven-year-old son Louie said, “Not many obstetricians would have examined their patient’s neck. He was exceptional and extremely thorough. I am so grateful to him for that. “
The 37-year-old continued, “The first time I looked at myself in the mirror afterward, it was extremely obvious – but I was so distracted from work and pregnancy and having a small child to care for that I was hadn’t done it I didn’t notice. “
Concerned, while the obstetrician wasn’t suggesting what the lump might be, he told Laura he would monitor it during her pregnancy.
But she put her own health concerns on hold when Sadie was born with two holes in her heart and no thyroid gland – one in 100,000 according to Laura.
“I was worried about my health, but then my fears took over for my daughter, like any parent, and she became my priority,” she said.
Fortunately, Sadie’s condition stabilized at the age of four months and gave Laura air to investigate her own health problems.
Doctors were sent to scan her neck in February 2016 and then performed three biopsies. In March, she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer – a highly treatable form of the disease that is three times more common in women than men, according to the NHS.
Laura, who was born in Glasgow and backpacked her Canadian husband in New Zealand at age 19 before marrying him in 2010 and moving to his hometown, got the news on her second day as a Midtown Toronto GP from Toronto that year 2011 – said being a doctor meant the worst awaited her.
She said, “When I was shown the results of the first scan, I knew what I was looking for – microcalcifications in the lump – and discovered it immediately.
“It was so difficult because I knew it was a strong sign that I had cancer.”
She added, “Although the result was what I expected it was terrible because I was still breastfeeding Sadie, had a two-year-old at home, had a patient list of over 900 people and was not with my mom and dad who were i was very close. “
About two weeks after the diagnosis, the tumor and thyroid gland at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital were removed in a four and a half hour operation – which was far longer than planned.
Laura said, “My husband was upset because he had been told it would only be an hour, but the medical team believed it could have spread to my lymph nodes and they had to do more extensive surgery. Fortunately, they were just inflamed. “
She continued, “My experience as a patient has taught me more than any textbook or lecture in my 20 years of medical training.
“In the patient’s seat and in the waiting rooms, I learned more about the importance of having compassion and empathy for my patients than ever before.”
Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t spread and Laura was back on her feet quickly, despite an important decision to be made.
She said, “After someone has thyroid cancer, they are usually given radioactive iodine, a form of radiation therapy, to make sure it doesn’t come back.
“But that means that you have to isolate for seven days after the treatment and avoid personal contact because you are radioactive.
“With two young children, I felt that it was impossible to do that.”
Instead, after consulting with her doctors, she decided not to receive the treatment and was given thyroid hormones to replace those her body no longer made and will take for life.
Despite her healthy weight and active lifestyle, pre-operative blood tests showed that Laura’s cholesterol levels were double what they should be, which she now attributes to consuming animal products like chicken and dairy products.
Determined to lower her cholesterol and stay cancer free, she took advantage of a plant-based diet.
“I’ve done extensive research and found overwhelming evidence that it reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” she said.
“But what really impressed me was the reduced risk of cancer for people on a plant-based diet.
“It was backed by serious science, not just opinions – articles from leading doctors like Dean Ornish and books like How Not To Die by Michael Greger, which has over 300 scientific citations.”
In July 2016, Laura ditched red meat, dairy, and processed meats for more fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, unprocessed foods, and soy-based proteins like tofu and tempeh – and convinced Roger to join her after telling him some Documentaries had shown the topic.
“At first we said we would still eat meat and dairy when we went out for dinner, but when we saw the results almost immediately – we felt energized and in a better mood – we made a full commitment,” she said .
“There was an adjustment, but none of us crave the food we used to eat. I can never go back to my old diet now. “
In January, she also launched her own online health platform to help spread the vegan gospel.
She said, “A plant-based diet saved my life. It was a real change for me and my family.
“Personally, this means that I am doing everything under my control to reduce my risk of cancer, but professionally I feel like I am doing a much better job as a doctor.”
She added, “I used to feel like a typical burned-out general practitioner handing prescriptions left, right, and center to patients with high blood pressure and diabetes.
“But as a doctor, it is so powerful to get people off their medication and enable them to lead healthy lives.”
And the more she educated patients about the health benefits of a vegan diet, the more she saw some of them stop taking their diabetes and blood pressure medication – which she believes is “totally empowering” for everyone involved.
Laura also looked back on her mother Susan Freeman (64) from Glasgow, who survived two cancers, and her father Jeff (68), who had a stroke in 2017, to go vegan for health reasons as well.
Even Sadie, whose holes in her heart have almost completely closed, loves vegan food and can’t get enough of dishes like chickpeas and cauliflower curry.
It took Louie a little longer to adjust, and while the kids are on a plant-based diet at home, they may choose to eat differently when visiting friends or going to parties.
Meanwhile, Laura has stepped up her research by starting a degree in lifestyle medicine in 2019 and completing a four-day course at Harvard University in the United States, where one of the key speakers was Dean Ornish, the doctor who first inspired her.
“I was on the edge of my seat, I really felt I had found my calling,” she said.
Laura received her diploma in August 2019 while living in Scotland.
“In all of my medical education, this is the qualification that means the most to me,” she said.
“My message to people now is: don’t wait for a cancer diagnosis like the one I’ve had before you start thinking about your health.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic restricted their plans for two lifestyle medicine clinics in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
She said, “Before Covid-19, people took their health for granted, but now people are more aware of their own wellbeing than ever and as an unhealthy lifestyle has been shown to make Covid patients more susceptible to disease. Now seemed like the right time to get the message across about how diet and lifestyle can improve your health. “
Inspired by the success of virtual GP consultations, Laura launched her own online platform last month. Plant-based health online, with colleague Dr. Shireen Kassam – Connecting clients with health professionals to meet their health goals through a whole plant-based diet.
And last June, Laura was on her final check-up who decided not to go back to traditional GP surgery after moving to Scotland but is still in the practice, despite tests when the disease was cancer free, which was first discovered shows that she was genetically predisposed to develop thyroid, skin, breast, and colon cancers.
Laura said that since the tests she had are still new it’s hard to tell if Louie and Sadie are more prone to these cancers too, saying, “At this point it won’t make a difference to them, but it is So why a plant-based diet is so important to me and my children. “
Registered with the Care Quality Commission, Laura hopes that one day the NHS will use her platform as part of her care.
However, she believes that doctors need more training to be serious about diet as a form of treatment.
She said, “Unfortunately I am in the minority of doctors when it comes to my views.
“I find that most of my colleagues just don’t know the benefits of the plant-based diet.
“Keeping cancer at bay is my number one priority.”
She added, “The amazing thing about eating this way is that not only do I reduce my risk of cancer, but I also reduce my risk of all kinds of other diseases while keeping my mind going.
“And it’s also the best option for the planet, which is extremely important.”
While experts at cancer charities fully endorse the benefits of healthy eating in preventing the disease, they are cautious about dieting in lieu of treatment.
Michelle Mitchell, executive director of Cancer Research UK, said, “While eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and high-fiber foods like whole grains and legumes can lower the risk of cancer, there is no good evidence that diet changes could help treat the disease .
“It is important that patients eat enough to aid treatment and recovery. For further advice, speak to their doctor. For more information on these two topics, please visit the Cancer Research UK website.”