On Food, Cancer, and the Illusion of Control

by Ellen Stuart

Even if I someday am totally free of money worries, I will never, ever, look at a $2.99 carton of regular strawberries and an $7.99 carton of organic strawberries and not mutter oh, fuck you to the $7.99 strawberries. Even then I might buy the accursed strawberries anyway.

I always sort of sniffed at organic produce, the same way I still roll my eyes a little at people who refuse to drink tap water. Then, my then-fiance, now-husband Cam was diagnosed with bladder cancer. At the time, he was a 25-year-old MBA student. He’s one of the few people I know who’ve never so much as touched a cigarette. Never been exposed to industrial chemicals, the other main risk factor. No family history. A lightening bolt, even as cancer goes.

To make a long story short: doctors removed a tumor the size of a golf ball from Cam’s bladder, and he underwent a single treatment of preventative chemo. Whenever someone brings it up it seems like a bad dream, like it couldn’t really have happened. That can’t have been us who sat at the kitchen table on the night he got the diagnosis and both cried like babies over our uneaten dinners because we were so scared. That can’t have been my handsome, healthy husband padding from bed to couch and back to bed toting a bag of his own urine.

Of course, it was real. For the first six months afterwards, I thought about it every day. Then a little less, and then a little less. Now, a year later, the shadow of Cam’s illness mainly shows itself to me when I’m at the grocery store, holding two bags of spinach. The organic spinach costs 70 cents more, and weighs four ounces less. The regular spinach, eaten every week, could make my husband’s cancer come back.


It’s easy to get obsessed with all the things that can give you cancer, because, well, a lot of things can potentially give you cancer. There’s a million things that might. Then again, maybe you’re genetically predisposed to almost certainly get it and not much you do environmentally will really help. Or maybe you eat garbage and chain smoke and huff paint fumes and die in your sleep at 95. Maybe.

I am a big believer in controlling whatever part of a situation you actually have the power to control. Once we were on the other side of Cam’s three procedures — a period during which Cam mostly ate Saltines and painkillers and I ate exclusively cheese-based foods — I decided to control our diet. Out went canned goods; I started soaking and cooking dry beans, and buying only the tomato paste that came in cartons, which probably also give you cancer but cost $2.99 versus $1.79 for the big can. Out went microwaving leftovers in their plastic container to keep from dirtying a dish. Out went the six-packs of aspartame-laden Light N’ Fit yogurt ($2 for four), in came Fage with honey ($1.69 per single-serving cup — oh, fuck you). And in came organic produce.

I’m a relatively frugal cook and a careful grocery shopper: if I have a hidden talent it’s eyeballing a cartful of groceries and guessing perfectly how much they whole order will cost. But recently I realized that my grocery budget was consistently coming up a little — ok, a lot — short. I made spreadsheets, carefully tracked every penny that I spent at the grocery store for a month. I found that I was spending a solid $150 more than the number I would have thrown out if you asked me to estimate how much we spend on groceries each month.

We are very, very fortunate in that the extra spending isn’t that big of a deal — we’ll make a few tweaks, eat a few more beans and slightly fewer sexy heirloom tomatoes — but overall, we’ll absorb the cost. It did make me pause, though, and realize for the first time that when you get down to it, I’m not spending that grocery money just on better health — or anyway, not just on physical health. When I’m standing there with the two bags of spinach, and I toss the smaller, more expensive one into my basket, I’m really just a mess of anxieties making a hedge. I swipe my debit card and it feels less like an informed purchase and more like a quick, superstitious sign of the cross.

Money goes a long way when you’re talking about protection — some people would say it’s the whole point of money. Money buys housing, car repairs, dental work. It buys flu shots and late-night cabs, birth control pills and smoke detectors. What money can rarely protect you from are the things you thought could never happen to you — random, awful, violent things that are utterly indifferent to every precaution you’ve taken and every statistic that’s on your side. All money can really buy you is the comfort of knowing that you’ve done what you can, and the rest is up to chance.

Cam is healthy but he will always be a cancer patient, always need screenings every few months — a whiff of menace each quarter, just to keep everyone on their toes. “Now we live with it,” I wrote in my notebook soon after Cam was declared cancer-free. “A black slimy thing with too many legs that sits in the corner and watches us while we eat and sleep.” And grocery shop, I would add now.

Throwing money at your problems is, for good reason, usually a pejorative expression. It connotes imprecision, avoidance, escapism; it means that you’re making purchases instead of dealing with your real problems. It also speaks to what an obscene privilege it is to have the stability and the freedom to use money as a balm for anxiety, like a cartoon character lighting a cigar with a hundred dollar bill. But when you find that your sphere of control has shrunk to the size of the produce section, throwing money at your problems can feel like the last logical thing to do.

Ellen Stuart works, writes and grocery shops in Boston. She blogs at ellenstuart.com.

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