Note from Jane: I also published a much shorter version of the following story. I’ve always wanted to share the original, long version, so I’m happy to do so here. The entire story is well worth reading, but if your time is limited, you may want to read the abbreviated version instead. Either way, this is a remarkable story!
By: Kevin Tunstall
My journey to a plant-based diet began soon after my diagnosis of prostate cancer. However, to begin fully, I should probably start earlier than the diagnosis as a series of events that some could call miracles led me to review my understanding of the Word of Wisdom and renew my understanding of the gospel, a journey that is still evolving.
My grandmother passed away from cancer after being terrified of dying of the big ‘C’ from a young age—she was in her eighties when it caught up with her. My mother passed away from lung cancer on my birthday in 2002, then a few years later my wife’s only sister developed breast cancer, which was aggressive and had started to move through the lymph nodes. She ended up having a mastectomy and her ovaries removed due to her age. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
I had been called as bishop of a very busy ward here in New Zealand just four months earlier and ironically one of my first challenges was dealing with a single sister in the ward with two teenage children who had breast cancer but refused to get treatment or let me tell anyone.
The week my sister-in-law finished her radiation treatment, our 15-year-old daughter developed what was thought to be a form of leukemia. We were devastated. At one point we were told that without a bone marrow transplant she would have 12–18 months to live. Specialists couldn’t diagnose her properly but due to receiving constant blood transfusions (which affected her organs due to excess iron build up) she was starting to get sicker.
Our son was on his mission and their older sister was studying in the UK, but she returned home as soon as she could and at that point all of the children were tested—including our then 7-year old daughter—to see if they could be a potential match for a blood marrow transplant. No one was a match so we had to start thinking about a “match unrelated donor,” which we were told could be difficult.
In a separate miracle of miracles, we were called one day by her specialist who decided to use a treatment he had talked about with a colleague overseas that would stop her immune system. This was after a ward fast! Needless to say, it was a success, and she is still here today and has been called a miracle by her specialist who still doesn’t know what the problem was.
So here we were in 2009, and what a year it had been as I had decided, after a re-structure, to leave a very secure job after a prompting and take a massive pay cut. I wasn’t sure why, and it seemed crazy due to the global financial crisis and this was constantly reinforced by friends and work colleagues. I had been guaranteed a new role plus a sizeable bonus if I agreed to stay.
My wife, after initially thinking I was crazy, later became the one who made me stick to my guns when I did waiver. She reminded me it was in fact a prompting that led me to resign, so there must be a reason.
Around this time, in fact in December 2008, a very close friend and neighbour who was more like an older brother was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. His PSA reading was 300, which was pretty scary. Not really understanding much about the prostate I thought it was an older man’s disease. Our friend was in his late 50’s—at the time I was 43. We were pretty devastated for him and for his family who we are very close to, but we had faith he would be okay.
One day the following April (2009), as I was driving past our local chapel, the Spirit whispered to me, “Get a PSA test.” It was such a strong prompting that I didn’t delay. Years before I would have delayed, but after being a bishop I had learned the hard way about ignoring promptings—especially with the youth! So with this in mind I made an appointment with our GP (general practitioner) who was also a neighbour, friend, and LDS.
On arriving at his office, I suddenly felt very silly asking to see him for a PSA test, but I plucked up the courage to tell him why I was there. He asked me why I wanted a test. “Do you have symptoms?” No. I didn’t have symptoms at all. He asked me, “How old are you now?” I told him my age, and his response was “You don’t even start getting tested until you are 50.”
I felt embarrassed for visiting. He said, “If this has anything to do with Rob Cammock then I wouldn’t worry. You are too young, and you don’t have symptoms.” At this point I realised that in my own mind it could be seen as being silly, but I hadn’t gone due to Rob being sick as at this time he was feeling quite well. However I wasn’t prepared to say I came due to a prompting. This was silly given he was LDS.
(A point I would like to make here is that the only reason I had gone to the GP is due to the fat that I now had time in my new job. My previous job, although well paid, was incredibly demanding, and I had very little free time. I would never have had time to go to the GP otherwise.)
I felt a very strong prompting to push for the test and almost demanded one. I will never forget the phrase my GP friend said as he passed me the test request, “If it makes you sleep better tonight have a test, but I can guarantee you will be fine.”
A week later and the day after my 44th birthday I called the surgery to be told the series of test all looked okay (he check a few other things at the same time), but when it got to my PSA reading the receptionist stopped and said, “Your PSA is elevated, only slightly at 5.1 but it’s over the 4 that we like to see. I’m sure you are fine, but the GP is overseas right now so just wait until he comes back and get tested again.”
At that moment I felt a sudden internal sense of dread. I went home that night and after telling my wife about the test I immediately got on my knees to pray. The Spirit whispered to me again, profoundly saying, “You will live by faith.”
So began a long and winding road to a diagnosis of prostate cancer. My next test was 4.3, but a digital exam highlighted some “hardness.” I was referred to a specialist and went on a month’s worth of antibiotics because they said that due to my age it was unlikely I had prostate cancer. My next test after the antibiotics and a scan was 5.3, so a biopsy was recommended.
In June I finally had a biopsy which in fact was pretty traumatic as I hadn’t expected the pain and discomfort it caused for several hours. However by the evening I was well enough to go to the movies with our son.
A few weeks later and no result. The tests were inconclusive. A week later I was called back as the results had been sent away for further testing. The call came in July while I was at work.
“Your results are back, and it’s positive.”
I was so relieved, “Oh that’s good then. It’s positive news.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry Kevin. I mean the tests are back, and they are showing a positive result for prostate cancer.”
Everything ground to slow motion as I was advised I needed a MRI scan and further tests. There was mention of lung x-rays and physiotherapy. I wasn’t taking it all in.
So it was that within a few weeks, after an MRI scan, it was discovered that I’d had cancer potentially for 4–5 years, and there was a big tumour that left me with no other choice but radical prostate surgery.
To stop and go back again to the night of the diagnosis in July, I can now explain why I went plant based.
It was a Monday when I was diagnosed, so the first person I called was my wife, who was upset. We discussed that things would be okay, but I needed to tell the children that night. And so it was that at Family Home Evening I had to sit down with the four children (a mix of adult children and an eleven year old) to explain I did have cancer.
They children were all upset. I think in fact they were exhausted with the news. We had faced this before and knew there were no promises, no guarantees, no escapes other than just going through it. The most painful part for me was having my oldest daughter, who recently returned from her mission to Hong Kong, ask me with tears streaming down her face, “Dad when is this going to stop? Where are the blessings?”
Despite a few weeks later feeling quite bleak, I did that night feel a great sense of calm. I determined to go to the temple the following night. I spent the next day trying to think my way through the situation, but the more I thought the more confused I became.
The next night I ended up at the New Zealand Temple, which is literally just a 15-minute walk away. I was sitting ready to do an endowment session when all of a sudden during a prayer I remembered two gifts I had been given in my patriarchal blessing. Ironically, many years earlier I was quite dismayed by these promises, as I wanted to have the same ones as a friend who was told she would be “changed in the twinkling of an eye.” All I got was: (1) the ability to solve my own problems and (2) the gift of discernment to choose wisely!
There in the temple that night I sat and pleaded with the Lord, “I have a family who has been through so much Father. Why now and why this? I have a ward that needs me, and a job that I’m finding a challenge (that was another story—I had walked into a very dysfunctional environment!).
Then I remembered my two gifts, and I said to the Lord. “I have these gifts. I need to use them. PLEASE help me.”
I stared down, and the scriptures I was holding opened at Doctrine and Covenants Section 89. My heart started racing, like it does when you feel the prompting to bear your testimony, and I felt compelled to read the passage. I immediately had two thoughts (1) this could be a coincidence . . . after all I knew everything there was about the Word of Wisdom (years before I had even run a fireside on it!) or (2) it was the Lord trying to tell me something. I chose there and then that it was not a coincidence and that the Lord wanted me to read through this. I felt he was telling me, “This is an answer to the problem. Read it and you can solve it.”
I read the passage in front of me and I came to the following lines:
10 And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
12 Yea, flesh also of beast and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine
I got to the part that I’ve bolded, and my heart really started racing. “It is pleasing unto me that they should not be used”!
I might add that at this stage I was a meat eater, loved ice cream, yoghurt, and ate a typical Western diet. I weighed around 95 kg, which at 179 cm seemed to be okay.
However I instantly felt that it was something to do with the food. What was it to do with the food? Could food cause cancer?
I went home that night and jumped onto the Internet and very soon started to find page after page (hidden treasures) that referred to increased animal protein intake being linked to cancer. I was pretty gobsmacked! Could this be true? I was VERY skeptical and kept trying to find evidence to the contrary. Yes there was conflicting evidence, but it was also accompanied by further evidence of animal protein causing not just cancer but heart disease too.
I absolutely didn’t want to believe it, but the next day I did in fact cut down a little on the meat I was eating.
The next time I went to the specialist, I asked him outright, “Could my cancer be related to food?” The specialist was a very good man who I liked, but he said, “No, not at all, eat what you like.”
I went away feeling very confused but decided that the prompting I had received was just too strong so basically that same day I cut most animal protein completely out of my diet. My wife was very upset, as were our children. I immediately started losing weight. My stress levels went up as I wasn’t comfortable eating, and I was stressed. People in the ward who heard I had cancer were getting worried as I was losing more weight. They thought it was the cancer when in fact it was the diet.
I was ready to change my diet and go back to my old diet when one morning I woke up and something was different. At this stage I was waiting for surgery. On this morning, I just felt high. I felt clear. Then it hit me: I’d had a really good night’s sleep as my nose was not blocked at all. My nose was always blocked from around age 17, which is around the same time I started my first job and had full access to dairy which I previously had never really been interested in but due to it being free I developed a taste for.
I felt great despite the stress! A few weeks later, a painful shoulder condition, which had plagued me for years and was thought to be arthritis (which my mother had too), suddenly disappeared. I had been to see the GP before all the prostate drama and was going to have a scan on it. I had resigned myself to it being part of growing older.
Then on the day of my surgery in September I was amazed to find I was now 73 kg—I had lost around 22 kg in a few months. I was at first worried and after telling my new specialist (another story!) abut my change of diet, he said I would need a blood test as I was probably going to be anemic. The test came back and my blood count was extremely high—he was pretty amazed, as was I.
Then even more amazing after a 4–5 hour major surgery I woke up and guess what? I had a chicken sandwich! It was amazing that I wanted a chicken sandwich but also amazing that I forgot about the previous few months! I just wanted to feel “normal” again. I wanted to be like I was before.
Another thing that happened whilst in the hospital was that my specialist was amazed by how quickly I was on my feet and how well I recovered. He said that if I had been operated on in the town were I lived he would have let me go home after a day, given my recovery. He said, “I don’t know what you have been doing Kevin, but whatever it is just keep on doing it.”
The all out meat eating phase didn’t last. I will admit I wanted to eat meat again and was still having the occasional hot chocolate with cow’s milk. A little fish here and there. Despite this I still couldn’t deny the promptings I had received.
Then the histology came back, and it wasn’t terrific. The cancer had been more aggressive than we thought, and there were positive margins, plus I still had a slight PSA reading which should have been zero.
For the next few months I struggled on a mostly plant-based diet, ignoring the Internet as I was just so confused and conflicted with all the information. I did however feel really well mostly, and my energy level increased dramatically. My family was not at all happy with me and was encouraging me to eat meat.
Then one weekend I went on a hike with my friend with cancer. By this stage he had deteriorated and was trying to do as much as he could while he could. Another friend of his joined the hike, and in the car he mentioned that he’d heard I was a wannabe vegan. I explained a bit about how I was feeling in terms of the information being so confusing. As this person was fully inactive, and I thought was not really keen to hear “spiritual stuff,” I didn’t mention the experiences I’d had.
He said I should read two books. One of them was called The China Study. I parked the information away in the back of my mind.
That week in an attempt to find more support for a vegetarian diet, I decided to go to a Seventh-day Adventist-sponsored recipe class a friend had told me about. At the time I didn’t realise it was Seventh-day Adventist. That first night the presenter said we should all read a very important book. It was called The China Study. Once again I thought it was strange but just parked it away in my mind.
A couple of months later (April 2010) I ended up in Omaha, Nebraska for work for 10 days. Whilst there my diet well and truly slipped. The first night I’d had a gift basket left on my bed with chocolate, chippies (potato chips), etc. In the company cafe there was meat galore. I started eating chicken. On my last couple of days I had what would be my last piece of meat. I went to an employee’s home for dinner and had a piece of rare steak!
I once again just wanted to be normal. Why couldn’t I eat meat? Underneath it all I still felt that the promptings I’d had were right, but I was struggling.
On the day I flew back home to New Zealand, I was at the airport on a warm sunny Los Angeles day. I was told the clear sky was not something that was too common and that I should go for a walk. I decided to do this before boarding the plane in a few hours. I ended up walking into a small bookshop and instantly remembered the book that had been mentioned that I had been procrastinating buying.
There was a small Hispanic lady putting books away in the shop. I asked her if she had heard of a book called The China Study. She literally squealed and explained she had just had a copy in her hand. Without moving, she turned and pulled a copy off the shelf behind her. I decided there and then . . . okay maybe this was another sign to buy it! It was placed in a brown paper bag.
A further experience, which I find very amusing, made me all the more committed to reading the book. I realised I was going on a long plane journey but hadn’t said my prayers so before going back into the terminal, I found a quiet place away from people and bowed my head in prayer. In the middle of the prayer I remember saying to Heavenly Father that I had bought a book, and I asked if I could have wisdom and discernment to take the truth out of the book. I finished my prayer and standing next to me all of a sudden was a Chinese woman who hadn’t been there before. I actually burst out laughing at the sight and said, “Don’t tell me . . . you come from China?”
In her broken English she said she had just arrived from China and was waiting for her relative. She looked at me like I was crazy so I pointed to the book. She didn’t understand and hurried to a car that pulled up in front of us!
Anyway I started reading the book The China Study on the plane journey from Los Angles to Auckland and at that point it was like my brain/mind (whatever you want to use to describe it) was like a Rubik’s Cube that had just all come together! I was engrossed. I felt and still feel it was a truth. It was one of the many hidden treasures I would subsequently find. At that point my whole attitude changed, and I went totally plant based.
From that day, the energy increased dramatically, the clarity increased dramatically, and my reasons for going plant based changed too. All of a sudden I was also focusing not only on health but also (after reading other articles and books) I was doing it for other sentient beings who live on this planet, plus to help the environment.
Within two months of my reading The China Study, my wife, who had been very skeptical at first, also read it. She became plant-based and experienced even greater health benefits than I.
I have changed so much over the past 3+ years. My perspective has changed. I love life. I meditate, do Bikram yoga, run barefoot (I couldn’t run due to knee pain previously), I have even started a blog. My wife has joined me on this journey, which has been awesome—we’ve even held classes together at church meetings about this topic. Gaylynn even makes vegan cupcakes for the local dairy (grocery store) in our mostly LDS town. We are in fact becoming more and more whole food and raw plant-based.
However it hasn’t always been easy and most days we face questions from people—some of whom are genuinely curious and some who just want to rubbish a plant-based diet. We just keep on going. With the health benefits we’ve experienced, we don’t need to listen to any other perspective—we just trust the Spirit. We also feel a great sense of peace knowing that we are not contributing to the suffering of other sentient beings.
Having another plant-based family in our small LDS community has been fantastic and almost every week, over the past few months especially, more and more people who had initially been a bit skeptical are asking more and more questions with several starting the transition to a plant-based diet. It makes me happy to think they will reap the benefits we have had.
Our 14-year-old daughter has also been vegan the whole time we have, and we were very worried recently as she has been raw vegan for much of this time too. We decided a few months ago that given B12 could be an issue that we needed to have her blood tested. We did. Her tests came back completely normal—as did my wife’s whose blood count was the best it’s ever been. Our other kids are dabbling too at times.
So there is our story which is still unfolding, but I believe in the blessings of the Word of Wisdom as we are still uncovering treasures of hidden knowledge, and I’m certainly running without being weary . . . in fact I’m training for my first half marathon!
We are under no illusion that we are invincible as a plant-based family and yes of course illness could strike again, but now it’s all about quality not quantity, I want to feel how I feel now. I feel so alive. I feel great. This is how I think everyone should feel. How Heavenly Father wants us each to feel!
Kevin Tunstall, 48, lives in Hamilton, New Zealand. He is married to Gaylynn, and they have four children, three daughters and one son. Kevin works in the finance industry. Apart from taking a keen interest in nutrition, Kevin also enjoys Bikram yoga and barefoot running.