Five Years Plus











{March 6, 2010}   Baby Steps

This week’s blog is inspired by a question from Jim (Between Two Worlds, February 21, 2010). “Where does one start on an alternative path when faced with a recently diagnosed cancer?” A life-threatening diagnosis can feel completely overwhelming and after receiving one it takes a tremendous amount of strength and support to follow an alternative path. Whether you want to follow an alternative course or not, there are some crucial first steps to take:

  1. Put together a team of health care professionals to support your health-care choices.
  2. Set your priorities – what weight do you put on getting the cancer out and seeing to it that it won’t return, the quality of the life you are living and the amount of time you have left to live? Strangely, these three things do not always go together with each of the treatment options you may be presented. It’s not easy to decide what to do in those cases, but doing some soul-searching ahead of time is paramount if you are to have any control of your destiny in cancer treatment.
  3. Begin working with a qualified nutritionist who is familiar with cancer therapy. Diet and supplements are fundamental to healing, whether you are following conventional cancer interventions (e.g. surgery, radiation, chemotherapy) and/or alternatives. For information about how to get started immediately I have found David Getoff’s website to be a good resource.

In the weeks following my breast cancer diagnosis, I gathered a diverse team – co-captained by my husband and me – of conventional and alternative health care practioners. My team consisted of my GP, breast surgeon, gynecologist, psychotherapist, nutritionist, homeopath, chiropractor, massage therapist, manual lymphatic therapist and colon hydrotherapist. Later on I added an oncologist, radiologist and plastic surgeon. I also rallied friends and family who showered me with love and support in many different forms, such as giving advice, accompanying me to appointments when my husband was not available and helping around the house and with meals. I also received many touching cards, sometimes from completely unexpected people. This healing team and support system got me through the worst and I am forever grateful.

As I grappled with the psychological distress of my initial diagnosis, my husband did research, starting with the question: “Is it harmful to take our time to make informed and considered treatment decisions, or do we need to do what the first surgeon urged and ‘get the cancer out as soon as possible’?” It was in the course of this research that we found out about conventional medicine’s concept of the Standard of Care, which means the course of treatment that experts agree is appropriate, accepted, and widely used. Medical health care providers are obligated to insist on the standard of care and generally will not be well-informed about or supportive of alternatives, including (unbelievably) proper nutrition.

The medical standard of care is a well-developed and researched course of treatment designed to remove cancerous tissues from the body and prevent its recurrence. This is the top priority of medical cancer treatment. Early on we discovered that quality of life is secondary in the medical treatment of cancer and that there is little regard for individual differences that may affect outcomes.

I would never tell anyone what their priorities should be as this is such a personal decision. It is also quite possible that they may shift under the harsh glare of a cancer diagnosis. My top priorities were and are quality of life, followed closely by the length of time I have left to live. Getting the cancer out and keeping it from recurring is important for me, but only to the extent that it serves my top priorities. Because this is fundamentally philosophically different from the medical standard of care, I had to be very careful to understand the effects of each recommended treatment option. This takes time. Time to research the evidence for and outcomes of conventional therapies, time to discover and research alternatives and time to weigh the trade-offs. So the answer to the first question, was that it was potentially more harmful to me, in terms of my priorities, to move really quickly to “get the cancer out”, without first understanding the consequences of the treatment.

Eventually we came up with a set of principles of our own which simplified this process. The first principle, we got from the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” For me this means that if a treatment itself is harmful, it must have a clear long-term benefit in terms of my quality and/or length of life that out-weighs the harm. The second principle is to use scientific evidence, wherever possible, to weigh these long-term benefits. The third principle I applied is to clean up my life in terms of a eating a healthy diet, exercising, limiting my intake of and exposure to toxins and ultimately re-examining every aspect of the way I live. The fourth principle is to conserve my energy for healing by putting some pursuits on hold. The final principle is that if a treatment causes no harm whatsoever and I want to try it, then it is fine, even if there isn’t conclusive scientific evidence for its effect on cancer.

Six year old pear tree

My husband’s favorite Chinese proverb is, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” By far the best time to improve our health is when we are already healthy. We have no pressure, can take our time and choose the place we want to begin. This seems obvious, but we don’t always have the motivation to make changes when what we are doing is what we know and seems to be working OK.

The beauty of taking steps to live healthier before a crisis comes is that it doesn’t really matter where we start. Any time we make a positive change it will affect other areas of life. For example, if I am chronically overeating, eating less gives me more energy and thereby makes it more likely I will walk in the woods rather than slump in front of the TV. Making changes can be a powerful gift to yourself and can actually be fun. Perhaps you have wanted to begin a yoga class, try a new sport or hobby, or express yourself in a food journal.  These baby steps can lead to a healthier life in which you never have to deal with cancer treatment decisions. But even if you do face them, the healthier you are when you start, the better you’ll be able to deal with the challenge.

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jim says:

this is my favorite post thus far, very inspiring in terms of your enthusiasm for the alternative path and the clarity of your writing about it.

alas, my experience with most folks i know who have faced a cancer diagnosis is that they are unable to find ANYONE who will be supportive of them taking an alternative path…even well-meaning family and friends resist this approach precisely because it often does contradict the ‘standard of care’ and they fear losing their loved one. No one seems wiling to rally around primum non nocere (first do no harm)let alone pursuing a different path from what convention dictates.

it is also difficult for most people to find the kind of ‘dream team’ that you and your husband have put together.

perhaps, just maybe, the internet can become, in those instances, the patients ‘best friend’. Perhaps we could collaborate on a related site that might be called STOP THE WAR AGAINST CANCER AND LISTEN TO THE ‘ENEMY’….A SELF-CARE GUIDE TO PREVENT AND/OR HEAL CANCER.



Chuck says:

Jim, As far as the “dream team” is concerned, I think that it is important for each person to assemble their own, one step at a time. I have found this website (http://www.dr-gonzalez.com/pursuing_alt_ther.htm) to be an excellent resource in learning how to get started and the right questions to ask.



Suzanne Atkinson says:

I enjoyed your thoughts that you wrote this week. Wish I had known your approach to breast cancer but my diagnoses was 5 years before you and many changes have happened since 2000 with treatments that are not necessary. Keep writing.



gyatazen says:

Thanks to you, Sue, for your title for this blog.



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