This was published as my Holistic Outlook column in The Times Herald Record.
Getting a diagnosis, being sick: it’s scary. And getting a diagnosis of breast cancer? Just skip the thought processes and go directly to terror.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, or know someone who was, I invite you to take a few minutes to step off the scary roller coaster ride you were on, and consider some new possibilities. There are some, I promise you.
Having come through it myself, I want you to know that you have options:
- that we are designed to heal;
- that with the right information, guidance and support, it is possible to navigate this difficult journey with hope and resilience
- that you don’t have to choose either conventional or holistic treatment, but can combine both, to help ameliorate the negative effects of necessary conventional treatment, and support your energy, liver, immune system, and other functions that are compromised in the treatment process, so that you come out the other side with a strong head start towards complete recovery.
Since disclosing a year ago that I dealt with breast cancer, I’ve received many questions about the choices I made. Because so many people asked the same questions, I wanted to share some answers more broadly.
Q: “Did you have a less dangerous form of breast cancer?”
A: No, in fact, I had a kind generally considered more dangerous and aggressive. I was first diagnosed triple negative and then equivocally, herceptin positive. And I was positive for the BRCA1 gene.
Q: Do you think chemo is necessary?
A: I believe it was necessary for me, and I am completely at peace with my choices: to not do it initially, to begin when I did, and to stop it when I had had enough, even though my oncologists wanted me to have more. It was clear to me I was not tolerating the second combination of chemo drugs, and to continue would no longer be healing, for me. At that point the lump was undetectable, even by mammogram. So I stopped, and had a lumpectomy.
Q: “Why did you wait so long to do chemo?”
A: I hoped to demonstrate that cancer could be healed without the dreaded “slash, poison and burn” approach. As they say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. Instead I had to bridge the gap between holistic and medical. I needed both, selectively, and with discernment. There is no right or wrong, only what works best for each of us. This should be a judgment-free, support and education-oriented zone.
Q: “Why did you do chemo at all? Don’t you think it’s terrible/dangerous/barbaric/unnecessary? Isn’t it against what you believe if you’re holistic?”
A: Because I wanted to survive, and trusted my ability to address the negative consequences of chemo after it did its job. I believe in what works. I believe in our innate resilience. I believe that healing is possible, and the journey to that often isn’t what we plan or expect or wish for. It certainly isn’t linear. All that matters is that it is possible.
Q: Did you do radiation?
A: I considered it, interviewed 2 doctors, discussed it with my surgeon, read a lot about it, considered the research, and decided against it. One of my doctors argued for it, and one against. I am confident that it was the right decision for me and both doctors now concur. I also had seen way too many women come through my practice who had done radiation for breast cancer, and years later had cancers of the throat, lung, mouth, thyroid, etc: all areas that had been irradiated.
Q: “Weren’t you irresponsible or foolish not to just do what your doctor said? Don’t they know best?”
A: The first surgeon I consulted was a woman with a stellar reputation at a top research hospital in New York City. She glanced at my chart and without even speaking with me, prescribed a double mastectomy, ovarectomy, and hormone meds for the rest of my life. From her perspective, there was nothing to discuss. Readers, I fired her. The second doctor, Sheldon Feldman, head of breast surgery at Columbia Presbyterian, started with the same recommendations, based on statistics, but was willing to discuss it, based on me. We talked, we argued, we agreed on some things and disagreed on others. I respected his knowledge and experience, took his advice, mostly, but not always. He listened to me, observed my progress (often with surprise), respected my opinions and was willing to admit when I might be right and he wrong – about me.
I am not a statistic, and neither are you. I refuse to be run by fear. I already had a larger-than-usual degree of knowledge and understanding, because of both my family history and my profession. While taking impeccable care of myself for decades hadn’t spared me from breast cancer, I knew it could help me recover.
In addition, I hired an an advocate, an MD who consults with women with breast cancer. She covered much more research and clinical territory, with more expertise, than I possibly could.
Remember that giving your doctor the responsibility to decide doesn’t guarantee your safety or results. Nothing can do that. Nor does it change the fact that you, not him/her, live with the consequences.
Bottom line: I made informed choices and I took responsibility for them. Perhaps it made it more complicated or difficult, but you know what? Making informed choices put some of the power back in my hands, and it definitely helped manage the fear. It still does.
Q: How long did it take you to recover?
A: It depends on what you mean. I worked through chemo, although I saw fewer clients. I took off a week after the lumpectomy. I was tired a lot. I took naps. I practiced Ashtanga yoga all the way through chemo, but then didn’t have the endurance to continue once I was done. Some days I could barely walk my dog up the slight incline behind my house. My hair grew back, less curly. I felt okay in the months after. I would even say I felt good over the next couple of years. But I have pretty high standards, and it’s only recently that I feel like the sky is the limit again; that I feel amazing, in body, mind and spirit.
And I want you to know: wherever you’re starting from, whatever you’ve been through… so can you.