Extended interview with breast cancer survivor and Well Told Health founder Monica Ruffo
Last month, I sat down with Monica Ruffo, the creator of an all-natural supplements company and breast cancer survivor (read that article online at Metro News). We talked about the inspiration behind her company, Well Told Health, and about overcoming a disease that thousands of women face each year in Canada.
October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month so I thought I'd share more about Monica's experiences and insight after the launch of Well Told Health, to raise a bit more awareness before the month is over. Check out our entire interview below, but for more about breast cancer awareness, head to the Canadian Cancer Society.
What sparked the idea behind your supplements company?
Well Told Health is something that I started two and half years ago. I got this diagnosis of very aggressive breast cancer and I think anyone...in my case I was completely baffled by it because there was no breast cancer in my family. There was nothing that led me to think that this is a thing that was on the horizon for me.
So I started to question everything about my lifestyle—everything. What I ate. Although I was eating pretty healthy but I started to look at the creams I put on my skin and obviously the supplements I was taking. The first thing I did was I looked at the bottles and I couldn’t figure out what was inside the supplements. And I said to the pharmacist, “You know, can you help me? I want to take completely natural supplements.” She came out from behind her counter and she went down and looked at all the packaging with me and she came to the conclusion that she couldn’t tell me which ones were natural or not.
That was kind of the Genesis moment when I thought, “Wow, this is not okay.” This was about two and a half years ago, in 2015. I thought, “This is not ok and I can’t be the only one who wants natural supplements. A pharmacist can’t tell me what’s inside.”
So because my background is in marketing, we did focus groups and we did research. We spoke to over 650 consumers. We found out that in fact 74 per cent of people have absolutely no idea what their supplements are made from. Since we did that there’s been other research that’s been done by other media and it’s between 75 and 80 usually.
What was your concern when you realized you didn’t know what was in the supplements you were taking?
(I thought) how this is possible is that the word natural is not actually a regulated word? It’s not regulated by Health Canada and it’s not regulated by the FDA. I think, maybe in a year or two, it’ll be a safer word. But right now, if you see the word natural on a supplement, it could be a 100 per cent chemicals and there’s nothing illegal about that. The companies are not obliged to disclose where their ingredients come from. Most of them don’t. There’s really no transparency. You really have no way of knowing. Basically it’s that backdrop that really motivated me to want to create truly natural supplements.
How are your products different than what’s on the market now?
This is the criteria that we gave ourselves: crafted from organic food, nothing else, no synthetics, no fillers, no isolates, no dairy, no soy, gluten-free, vegan, organic-certified and non GMO certified. If this were food, it would probably be hard enough to do. There are food brands that comply with this, but for supplements, that’s why it took two and a half years. I had to find contract manufacturers and an RND lab that would be willing to work with us. I called exactly 37. Thirty five of them told me it can’t be done: “You can’t make a supplement without synthetics” or “You’re never going to make any money. Do you know how much those ingredients are going to cost?” or kind of like, “Why are you rocking the boat?”
But I did find two who were—and coincidentally we ended up going with the one in Toronto. Two and a half years later we have managed to do this.
The other part of it is the capsule shell itself. So the shell is made of tapioca, which is the only type of capsule shell approved for use with organic certified anything.
We test the identity of the ingredient as it’s coming in. then we test microbial counts. We also test for pathogens. All of this kind of sounds self-evident but it actually isn’t. When you order these ingredients they come with their own analysis. But because it’s organic ingredients it can shift over time. Throughout this journey we’ve realized how important all these things are … we test for pesticides. At the very end we test our final product to make sure nothing got introduced in the manufacturing process and we test for gluten at the end, too.
What is the message behind your products?
Every bottle comes with a little health tip card on how you can add antioxidants into your everyday life because we really do have the philosophy of empowering people with knowledge. We’re completely transparent. If you look at our website, every single one of our ingredients is there. Then we have a summary of why we chose it and then at the end of that there’s all the available research that’s linked. If you really want to read up on why we chose it and you want to get more knowledgeable it’s all there.
It’s really this idea of complete transparency and empowering people to take control of the supplements that they’re taking, why they’re taking them, where they come from.
Did your cancer diagnosis make you more conscious of what you were putting in your system?
I’ve always taken a lot of supplements. I don’t think there’s any cause and effect...I’m not saying that’s what caused my cancer.
The irony for me was that the things that I was taking to make myself healthier could have been having the opposite effect. There is research that shows for example that keratin—which is an amazing thing if you eat it in a carrot—if you have it in a synthetic form it actually increases your risk of cancer. That’s one of example.
What are your supplements for? Why would people use them?
They’re all different. We don’t believe in one size fits all. Most people don’t need a multivitamin. We have created things that are difficult or impossible to get through nutrition. That’s kind of our mantra. [You can read all about the different kinds online, but there are supplements for: energy, sleep, relaxation, vitamin D, and more.]
Any advice for someone facing a cancer diagnosis?
My biggest advice to anyone going through any kind of cancer is to really get there and educate yourself and advocate for yourself. Get a second and a third opinion before you accept treatment. Make sure you understand. I can tell you my experience is I actually got three different opinions on treatment I should get for what I had. And all three of them were completely different. I did the one that I was most comfortable with and they were really not sort of different. They were completely different. Know all your options. When I was doing this, I saw a medical oncologist. She often works with a naturopathic doctor. That was something that was really important for me.
What does it mean to you to launch your company during Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
For me, I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate. I came out of this way stronger than when I went in. It’s been a transformation in my life that’s been really positive so I think that anyone else that I can help, whether it’s with this company, or just giving them hope and inspiration. It’s part of what I want to do, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.