Author Gillian Deacon on (unsuccessfully) preventing cancer

Gillian Deacon, CBC host, eco-evangelist and author of There’s Lead in Your Lipstick, found a lump in her breast at age 42. She talks to Chatelaine about her new memoir, Naked Imperfection, and about rethinking her way of life.


Author Gillian Deacon; Photo, Oleg Jiliba.

Gillian Deacon was a hard-core eco-warrior. She raised her three boys in a home free of parabens and other chemicals she believed threatened her family’s health. Then came the shocking cancer diagnosis that called into question her crusade for clean living and ultimately taught her to embrace the “naked imperfection” of everyday life.

Her shocking diagnosis

“With the panic, fear and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis, I had the added element of shame, which I think applies to anyone who thinks they’re doing things ‘right.’ You think, ‘What a fool I’ve been. I don’t know anything that I thought I knew.’ But that didn’t last long. I healed so well from surgery — the first step in my treatment — so it was a reminder that there is value to the choices I make and the way I live.”

The making of a memoir

“I never intended to publish the book; it was too personal. It began as an exercise in essay writing at the Banff Centre [an arts incubator in Alberta], and I kept writing when I got home to Toronto. The daily communion with the keyboard was a way to make sense of this very confusing and overwhelming experience. It was so cathartic. Then my editor wanted to see it, and there you go.

Post-cancer perspective

“I’m not trying to proselytize for any kind of lifestyle anymore; I don’t need to be a poster girl, because I’m just happy to be here. Whether it’s a product being advertised or a new routine being recommended, I no longer buy into it in the same way. I believe in the saying, ‘Genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger.’ You can’t control anything beyond what you can control. Having said that, do I still try to avoid everyday toxins and eat healthily? Yes.”

Finding the silver lining

“I have moments when I’m huffing and puffing on a cycle at an early-morning spin class, thinking, ‘This is hell.’ But then I realize, ‘Wait, I get to be here, I’m healthy,’ and I am overwhelmed by this sweep of appreciation. I feel very fortunate to have the perspective that going through cancer gives you, having that sense of gratitude for the naked imperfection of right now. It’s been five years since my diagnosis, and I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Naked Imperfection, Gillian Deacon, $20.