Karen Roy, a woman who adopted a whole food plant-based diet to treat symptoms of primary biliary cholangitis, an autoimmune disease that damages the liver

From Rock Bottom to New Heights: My Plant-Based Recovery from Liver Disease

By Karen Roy,

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For much of my life, my diet mainly consisted of sweets, sodas, fast food, and other ultra-processed foods. But after I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, I was motivated to reconsider how I ate. My husband began researching the links between nutrition and cancer, and he shared fascinating studies and documentaries with me. I was amazed to learn how harmful that meat, dairy, and processed foods are to our health. I dove into the research myself and found Forks Over Knives, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Esselstyns, and various podcasts featuring testimonials from people who reversed cancer and chronic diseases with a plant-based diet.

I decided to go vegan. A few weeks later, before I began chemotherapy, scans showed that the tumor had already shrunk. It felt like things were looking up.

Struggling to Maintain a Healthy Diet

I continued to try to minimize meat and dairy during and after treatment, but with four kids at home and a husband who likes to travel and eat out a lot, I found it nearly impossible to stick to it. I struggled to truly embrace vegetables, since I'd never really eaten many vegetables before. Finally, after a year or so of being mostly vegan, I reverted back to a standard American diet, beginning my downward spiral.

Fast-forward to December 2017. I was at the gym, attempting to regain some energy and get back in shape after treatment. But I couldn’t shake what I thought must have been late chemo symptoms, including fatigue, severe joint pain, and brain fog. I found myself tongue-tied all the time, and even the names of people I’d known my whole life were eluding me.

The more time passed, the worse it got. I developed a stammer. Discouraged, I found myself crying on my husband’s shoulder many nights. My oncologist tried to reassure me that this would all pass, that my body was recovering from chemo. But I knew something was really wrong. It was not normal to feel faint and short of breath just from doing simple household tasks.

A New Diagnosis: Primary Biliary Cholangitis

After almost a year of different doctors, lab work, and imaging, I finally received a new diagnosis: primary biliary cholangitis (PBC). PBC is an autoimmune disease affecting the bile ducts, and it eventually leads to scarring or cirrhosis of the liver.

Over the next two years I suffered from debilitating pain, fatigue, ocular migraines, severe dry mouth and eyes, bleeding, and cracking lips. I made multiple trips to the ER. Eventually, it became so unbearable that I knew what I had to do. I had asked myself a hundred times why I ever quit the plant-based diet, but it took hitting rock bottom before I finally came to my senses and jumped headfirst into a whole-food, plant-based diet.

Embracing a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Lifestyle

I got back on track in the fall of 2020, turning to resources such as the Physicians Committee, Forks Over Knives, and plant-based YouTube channels. Within a day of adopting a WFPB diet, I found I had more energy. By Day 2, the joint pain was gone. Within a week, my mouth was making enough saliva again. Within a month, all of the many symptoms I’d been experiencing disappeared. Finally, I could live my life and do all the little things that we tend to take for granted when we’re healthy.

It’s been four years of eating WFPB, and I remain symptom-free. It’s an amazing feeling. Today I love snacking on different fruits, especially dates. I drink lots of smoothies and typically eat salads for dinner. It’s fun finding new dressing recipes!

Family and friends have been super supportive of my lifestyle. They are fascinated that I don't count macros or care how much protein I'm getting. Many people I know decided to convert to a WFPB diet after seeing my results. This inspired me to become a certified health coach and nutritionist. Now it brings me so much joy to help other women go plant-based. My story has taken a turn for the better: What once seemed to be my defeat turned out to be my purpose.

Ready to get started? Check out Forks Meal Planner, FOK’s easy weekly meal-planning tool to keep you on a healthy plant-based path. To learn more about a whole-food, plant-based diet, visit our Plant-Based Primer.

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