Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cancer Resources and Stories That Inspire

Cancer is a funny old thing. Most of us sort of assume it’s something people get, and the causes are likely to be a mix of environmental and genetic, and that doctors know best about how to treat it—surgery, drugs/chemotherapy, and radiation. Most folks find a cancer diagnosis pretty scary. But there are some inspirational people out there whose stories may challenge conventional thought. 

Following along from my last blog post about my own experience with radiation following breast cancer surgery, I’d like to share this handful of interesting and inspiring resources:

Dr Lissa Rankin
I’m currently reading Dr Lissa Rankin’s latest book The Fear Cure, in which she examines the role of stress and our response to it as a factor in chronic diseases including cancer and heart disease. While stressful events are a moderate predictor of ill health, our individual responses to those stressful events, and our overall view of the world—is it safe or dangerous?—is an even bigger predictor. She includes useful exercises and guidelines for folks who might want to change to a more health-promoting mindset. Lissa’s earlier book Mind Over Medicine is also excellent. And worth sharing is this Facebook post from Lissa on the key recovery factors identified by over 3500 individuals in the Spontaneous Remissions Project—these are all folks who defied prediction and recovered from apparently incurable, terminal conditions including cancer.

The number one most common factor from the Spontaneous Remissions Project is food. In general, a switch to organic foods—mostly fruits and vegetables—with a tight curb on sugar, meat, dairy, and processed foods was identified by many as an essential element for recovery.

Jaxon (from his website)
One Kiwi who has shared his story and enthusiasm for green juices, smoothees, and alternative treatments is Jaxon who, in 2008, at the age of 26 was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He’s still here, and looks amazing! His website A Creeps Guide to Cancer is an inspiration.

In a similar vein, Chris Work, now 36, had surgery for stage 3 bowel cancer twelve years ago. He’s still here today, does an awesome website called Chris Beat Cancer, and he also looks amazing. Like Jaxon, he pushes healthy food hard.

The cover says “Number 1 best-selling book on cancer in the world”—this is Dr David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer:A New Way of Life which documents his crusade to change our perception of cancer following his own diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Observing that we all have cancer cells in our bodies, he wondered why some people develop cancer and others do not. Again, he hits nutrition hard, recognizes the role of stress, and advocates mediation. This is a wonderful personal story of survival and quest with a ton of useful information packed in. Five-star stuff.

One woman’s miracle cancer story is Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani. This is not only a cancer survival story but also an account of a transformational near death experience. Her story is not about food but about self-forgiveness and spiritual awareness. An interesting and inspirational read.

Donna Eden’s wonderful book Energy Medicine is not about cancer or any other diseases, but about being healthy and joyous through understanding and nurturing the lines and patterns and sources of energy within and around your body. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to increase your understanding of how your body circulates fluid and energy, how to clear stagnant areas and strengthen meridians and chakras, and useful exercises for all sorts of problems, this book is a gold mine of wisdom.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, the discussion boards are a great place to meet up with others in the same boat and share stories, worries, tips, and learnings.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do when faced with a cancer diagnosis--yours or for someone you love--is become educated. Don't blindly assume the cut/burn/poison routine is not only best, but the only thing you can do. Before and while you are making health care decisions, the best single resource I can recommend is Ty Bollinger's new documentary series "The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest".  This trailer doesn't do it justice--there is just so much information here from so many health care professionals, scientists, and individual who have beat cancer about what they know, what they've learned, and what they've done. (At the moment, the documentary is being run live and for free, but I suspect after that, you'll only find snippits on YouTube and will have to buy it to see the whole series. It's not being run on television, but it should be!)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why I Walked Out on Breast Radiation

Some of my friends and family know I’ve recently had a bout with breast cancer. Others don’t. It’s not something I’ve shouted from the rooftops or felt like posting about on Facebook, like one often does with holidays, sunsets and magical meals.  I’ve considered the pros and cons of writing a blog post (or several) on the topic, which opens it up to a bigger and even less personal audience, and have been hesitant about that. But I feel like I want to share a bit of my experience.

Monday of this week, I called up the hospital where I’ve been undergoing radiation—7 treatments completed, 12 to go—and told them I wanted to cancel not only the day’s appointment, but that I wanted to pull out of the program entirely. “Radiation,” I told them, “is just not working for me.” Not surprisingly, I got a call back a few minutes later and a request for me to come in and talk to the oncologist on call, “Just to make sure you have all the information you need and that you understand the ramifications of withdrawing from the program.” I did go in and spoke with a very nice doctor, but he did not change my mind about withdrawing.

I’ve written several blog posts on cancer previously (and before my diagnosis): Do Antidepressants Cause Breast Cancer?, Are MammogramsGood for You?, and RIP David Servan-Schreiber—A Tribute to the Anti-Cancer Man among others. So this is not a topic that was unfamiliar to me prior to diagnosis. I can say, however, that actually HAVING a cancer diagnosis involves not only a pretty sharp learning curve, but it can also be an emotional roller coaster as you confront not only thoughts about your own mortality, but constant choices about what to do and what not to do, both medically and within your personal life.

I am pretty lucky. My single tumour was small and “stage 1” meaning it had not gone into the lymph nodes (see cancer stages), and when removed surgically the margins were deemed “clear” (meaning the cancer cells hadn’t spread into the tissue surrounding the tumour). Surgery was performed as a day procedure and involved a lumpectomy plus removal of four underarm lymph nodes for biopsy. Upon analysis, the tumour was found to have “medullary features”, which puts it into a fairly rare class as cancer tumours go (see medullary breast cancer), although going by appearance it was ranked “grade 3” which means aggressive (see cancer grades).

It was a no-brainer for me to turn down the offered chemotherapy. Anyone who had read a number of my blog posts, or who knows me personally, will know I’m seriously against blanket poisoning of environments to eradicate pests (anti-1080 folks will be LOL). Radiation, though, was on the cards from day one.

The day I got the news from the surgeon that my lump biopsy showed cancer, he followed in almost the same breath, with “I’ve scheduled your surgery for Friday. I can do either a mastectomy (breast removal) or breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy) which means removing the cancer and some surrounding tissue but preserving the bulk of the breast, but if I do that, you will have to follow that up with several weeks of radiation. If you don’t agree to do the radiation, I will need to do a mastectomy. What do you want to do?” Or words to that effect. Of course I opted for the less-invasive option and the matter of doing radiation seemed to be fait accompli.

It wasn’t until I met with my radiation oncologist six weeks after surgery, and she explained the plan and procedure and gave me a fact sheet that I began to have second thoughts. Breast radiation is used to kill any errant cancer cells that might have been left behind after surgery in the breast, and it reduces the risk of cancer recurring in the treated breast by 20-30%. That’s according to my oncologist, but statistics seem to vary. One recent study followed 1010 women who had had lumpectomies for 16 years. Half of the women had radiation following surgery, and half did not. Of those who had radiation, 18% had a tumour recurrence in the affected breast during that 16 years; of those who did not have a radiation follow-up, 31% had a local recurrence, yielding an impressive reduced recurrence rate of 48% with radiation. There was no difference in overall survival rate.

Radiation specifically targets fast-growing cells but it is not capable of knowing the difference between cancer cells and ordinary body cells, so any cells in the target area that are growing fast and dividing are killed or at least seriously compromised. That’s why the most common and obvious side effect of breast radiation is skin damage, because your skin cells are constantly renewing themselves and are fast-dividing cells, and because your skin is visible. Commonly, this results in a sunburn effect with reddened skin, sometimes peeling, and some skin discomfort which can be soothed (but not prevented) with allowed lotions. However, all of the cells within a breast are affected, and because they can’t actually tighten the beams of radiation enough, or go around curves, a bit of lung tissue, local ribs, and sometimes even a bit of the heart are also affected. Tiredness is a common early (and usually temporary) side effect, perhaps as a result of the impairing of the immune system (radiation kills lymphocytes), along with breast swelling, a sore chest wall, and sometimes the development of a cough due to lung damage.

Long term effects from radiation include a general “aging” and re-shaping of the breast, increased firmness of breast tissue, especially around the surgery scar(s), a slightly increased risk of rib fractures, and a slightly increased risk of developing cancer elsewhere. Radiation exposure does, after all, cause cancer.

Mayo Clinic illustration 
Having promised my surgeon that I’d do radiation, and encouraged to do so by everyone I met within the medical community and most friends and family members (the others tactfully giving no opinion other than, “Only you can make that decision”) I ploughed ahead and signed the paperwork authorizing the treatment. A few days later I found myself stretched out on the table as two cheerful technicians marked me up, aligned the equipment, and applied the tattoos (three mole-sized permanent marks). The following week, it was game on.

The odd thing was, every day I walked out of the hospital after my treatment—it is quick, and doesn’t hurt while it is happening—with the most horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and a lump in my throat, and more than once I was crying. Why did doing this upset me so much?

It seemed like a betrayal to my body. Having been doing its best to counteract a problem (medullary cancers are attacked by the immune system, so my body was fighting the cancer even before the surgery), I first let it be cut up with surgery (and I’d do that again) and then just when recovery was looking pretty good and the wounds were looking somewhat healed, here I was, further damaging my poor breast tissue, all under the assumption that there MIGHT be some errant cancer cells doing a walkabout in my breast, and that if so, they’d be fast-enough growing to be whacked by the radiation. (Medullary cancers, I’ve learned, are often not fast growing). Furthermore, I kept thinking “at least when this is over, I can begin to heal. In a month.” Um…wait a minute.  When this is over I can begin? Shouldn’t medicine be about healing and supporting health now? Why inflict further damage to already damaged tissue as a “preventative”?

I realized that I was doing these radiation treatments mostly because other people thought I should. I realized my gut feeling was to walk away. My heart and throat told me to walk away after each dose. And even my cognitive/head thinking was finding it increasingly difficult to justify the pro over the cons. My body wasn’t in alignment with my actions. And nothing about undergoing radiation was in alignment with my core belief that the body is a self-healing ecosystem that should be nurtured and helped to heal at all times.  It felt wrong. “What would you do if fear wasn’t stopping you?” I asked myself. And the answer was clear.

 It took courage to call the hospital and say I wasn’t going back. It meant accepting that I could be making a mistake, and the cancer could come back, and the authorities will scold me if it does. But it feels like a weight has lifted. Whatever comes in the future, I accept the results of my decision.  And although I find it hard to consider this cancer experience a blessing as some “more advanced souls” might do, I acknowledge the power of this episode to broaden my experiences and clarify my values.

See my next post for recommended resources and inspirational stories about cancer survival.