…to be an Australian or an ex-cancer patient as it happens. A dear friend referred to the ending of my last post – The Definition of Insanity – as a ‘cliffhanger’ beseeching me to hurry up and write about the historic meeting between my Oncologist and my Naturopath. While we Australians are currently enduring the longest federal election campaign in history, I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing one of the only coinable phrases to come out of the mouth of our current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, and adapted it shamelessly to my current circumstances. (No sirree – ‘Jobs and Growth’ didn’t make the cut.)
As with election campaigns, the path to health or simply getting to a place where one can comfortably live with the notion that cancer will probably make an encore appearance, is not linear. Neither is it often logical. It really is an adventure with input from many quarters, a few red herrings thrown in for good measure and yes, even one or two cliffhangers along the way. But first, a little background….
I was at work when I got the call from my Oncologist’s office to make an appointment ‘as soon as possible’ after I’d had my second test for CDH1, the mutation we now know to be the main culprit in my lobular cancer. Much as I like my Oncologist no one wants to get a phone call like that. My husband was so spooked he took the day off work to accompany me to the appointment, both of us a little jangled by the summons. I knew the results of the test can’t have been good if my Oncologist wanted to see me so quickly after receiving them.
Paradoxically, in the lead up to this turn of events I’d been feeling better and better as each day passed, more like my old self – you know, before I shaved my hair off. There was no doubt in my mind that the absence of tamoxifen had a great deal to do with that, and it was with a moderately heavy heart that Tony and I traipsed into the Oncologist’s office that morning, certain he’d want to put me back on the deceptively innocuous-looking little white pill that I’d hitherto had to swallow every day. As so often happens my Oncologist surprised me with his advice, the upshot of which was it’s really too early to do anything from a medical intervention perspective – the re-emergence of CDH1 in my system and elevated cancer markers notwithstanding.
Prior to this appointment, as soon as I’d received the first round of bloods that indicated rising levels of CEA (Abbott), CA125 and CA15.3, I’d gotten onto my trusty Naturopath to ask what else I could be doing to address this. She told me there are two proven culprits in the development of cancer in the body – sugar and stress. By the time I saw my Oncologist I’d already started instituting my Naturopath’s advice to drop all additional sugars, including fruit, from my diet for the month until the next regular blood test. She also advised me to identify and address any stress triggers as much as I was/am able. That’s a little trickier as I’m a champ at picking the highest stress situations in the perp lineup of life and jumping right in. I mean, how many other cancer patients do you know who’ve decided to start a publishing company in a severely disrupted marketplace while undergoing treatment? Not many I’d wager which, I guess, makes me either courageous or a complete git – probably both.
Nevertheless, at my Naturopath’s gentle urging, I redoubled my efforts to resolve or at least minimise stress in my daily life in the interests of my general health, as well as determining if said efforts had any effect on the march of the cancer markers. As an aside, for those of you who are interested, I found the following activities to be very helpful in this quest:
- purposeful exercise like walking meditations and even repeating ‘health’ and ‘abundance’ mantras while doing laps in the pool;
- applying the ‘this too shall pass’ test to negative thoughts and reactions to events outside of my control and even those within them. On that latter point, I’m working hard to cease the personal blame games I play when I’ve made a duff decision about something. So too with the unkindness I meter out to myself more often than I would ever dream of metering it out to others.
- generally lightening up, surrendering to ‘what is’ and asking for help and guidance from my higher power.
Stress isn’t gone as a result of doing all this but its effects are severely disabled. More importantly, I’m getting quite proficient at engaging my ‘laugh-in-the-face-of-stress’ hyper-drive, to borrow a metaphor from Star Wars – winging my way out of unhelpful thought vortexes at light speed. Yeah baby!
When I told my Oncologist about my Naturopath’s advice and what I was subsequently doing on the sugar and stress fronts, he affirmed that ‘lifestyle’ changes like this were a very good, in fact, the only course of action while we continue to watch what these cancer indicators do over time. It was that receptive comment that gave me the idea to venture the suggestion of a meeting between my two A-team health practitioners. I was mildly surprised when my Oncologist agreed to it, even though he has a track record of surprising me. Clearly I’m a slow learner.
And so we come to the day when my Naturopath and I made the trek back to my Oncologist’s office to have this appointment. I confess, dear readers, that a lot of what passed between them at this meeting went in one of my ears and straight out the other it was so ‘clinical’ in nature. What I did manage to understand and retain on the clinical front can be described thus:
Hormones, Schmormones - The cancer I had was what they call ‘hormone receptive’, meaning the cells that go to the dark side and become cancer cells are feeding on oestrogen and progesterone in my system. While I appear to be in the normal range for a post-chemo menopausal woman my hormone levels could be hovering near the high-end of that spectrum. If that’s the case then an argument could be mounted for a return to tamoxifen, a drug whose prime purpose is to turn off the receptor sites of normal cells thereby disabling their appetite for hormones. Not so exciting – but wait there’s more….
Every lobular has its day - A lot more energy and focus is going into researching lobular cancers than there was previously. It’s a rarer form of breast cancer with only 10 percent of people contracting it, as is the case with me. Because fewer people get lobular cancers it stands to reason that not as much research has been done on their causes and the effects of various treatments – that is until now when presumably there’s a higher quota of patients suffering from this form of cancer. Some of the results coming forward are fascinating, for instance, the Oncologist told us at this meeting that there’s more and more evidence to suggest that lobular breast cancer patients like me don’t benefit as much from tamoxifen as previously thought. So the case for going back on the the little fecker in the belief that it’s protecting me from a relapse gets weaker all the time. Now that’s exciting.
Not just good for curries - Even more interesting is the rise and rise of curcumin, the active ingredient in tumeric which is a known, natural anti-inflammatory and essential element of Indian curries. Much clinical testing has been going on in the natural medicine realm around the effects of curcumin as a cancer treatment and preventative, inflammation being a huge deal in the development of the disease. My Naturopath has been doing a little deep-diving of her own into this research and was able to inform us that part of curcumin’s efficacy relates to you’ll never guess what – receptor sites on the cells and how to switch them off. So there appears to be a natural, clinically proven alternative, without side effects, to the drug tamoxifen that does the same thing. That’s both exciting and groovy!
All this excitement and grooviness aside, it won’t surprise you to learn, dear readers, that the biggest takeaways I got from this meeting verge on the woo-woo. The first of these is a ‘confluence of the the clinical’ if you will. When I first started seeing my Naturopath nigh on 30 years ago I was truly desperate. Apart from sending me off for another CAT scan or prescribing ever stronger analgesics for my daily headaches, the traditional medical fraternity seemed unable or unwilling to help me. At the time the idea of consulting a naturopath ranked right up there with visiting an aschram, conjuring images of some wild-haired or bald, purple robe and prayer bead-wearing being sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by crystals and burning incense. What I got on my first visit to my Naturopath was a worldly and highly educated former registered nurse who wore a white coat and had a proper blood pressure monitor and stethoscope sitting on her desk.
My Naturopath has always approached my care from a clinical as well as a natural and sometimes spiritual perspective – and I so dig that about her. What she prescribes is based in logic and fact but doesn’t eschew the most important things of all in my opinion – the individual, said individual’s make-up and belief system, and the metaphysical.
Then we have the other ‘medical’ end of the spectrum. I have no doubt that the oncologist who attended my mother during her short, unsuccessful bout with colorectal cancer was an extremely intelligent scientist. However, if he possessed any compassion at all for his patient he was surely incapable of displaying it. I won’t repeat here what some of my sisters said about him after accompanying Mum to her appointments. Suffice to say I cannot imagine that doctor even countenancing the possibility of natural, complementary treatments let alone agreeing to a joint meeting with a naturopath to discuss them. Thankfully that’s not the case with my Oncologist. His compassion for me and my family is only trumped by his extraordinary command of his field coupled with his humility about its limitations and openness to other ideas.
Both of my A-team health practitioners are atypical I grant you, but I was utterly delighted to see what would previously be regarded as two ends of a spectrum finding some middle ground to swap ideas on. To my mind the patient, me in this case, is and should always be that middle ground and I’m quite confident that the two health professionals mentioned in this blog wouldn’t dream of arguing with that.
I happened to be pondering this wacky rollercoaster ride of ex-cancer patient-hood while sitting in my nursing sister sister’s kitchen recently when I looked up and saw a comment scrawled on the chalkboard stuck to her fridge door – “Let go or be dragged”. No idea who put that there but clearly my higher power of choice needed me to see it at this juncture.
Breast wishes until the next instalment.