While a cure for metastatic breast cancer may be elusive, the healing of
body, mind and spirit can be a worthwhile and achievable goal.
Take a close look at yourself in your current circumstances. What are
you doing to take care of yourself?
[I]s there something more, from among the many possibilities open to you,
that might enhance and enrich the time you have?...
The political health war between alternative and conventional medicine
left me feeling like a pawn as I continually felt the bias in each camp.
Curing, Healing, and Being Whole
The following article is excerpted from Chapter 7 of Advanced
Breast Cancer: A Guide to Living with Metastatic Disease, 2nd Edition, by Musa Mayer, copyright 1998, published by O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. For
book orders/information, call (800) 998-9938. Permission is granted
to print and distribute this excerpt for noncommercial use as long as
the above source is included. The information in this article is
meant to educate and should not be used as an alternative for
professional medical care.
While a cure for metastatic breast cancer may be elusive, the healing of body, mind and spirit can be a worthwhile and achievable goal. It is toward this goal of healing--through information, commonality of experience and inspiration--that this article is directed. In this very broad definition of healing falls much that gives our lives meaning.
Michael Lerner puts it in context:
Understanding choices in healing begins with understanding the difference between healing and curing. A curative medical treatment is something your doctor ardently hopes to provide. Healing, by contrast, starts within your own mind and body. The capacity to heal is what you bring to an encounter with illness.1
What are you bringing to this encounter? Take a close look at yourself in your current circumstances. What are you doing to take care of yourself? Are you getting the best medical care? Are you seeking and finding support, encouragement and love from those around you? Whatever pain and discomfort you are feeling, do you have a sense that there is still meaning and purpose in your life? And is there something more, from among the many possibilities open to you, that might enhance and enrich the time you have, however long it may be?
Simple questions, yes--but the answers are always complex. And the story continues to unfold.
Discovery is a journey
Following are stories of patients and some of the choices they made along their journey. Many chose conventional Western medicine as central to their treatment, yet that was not all they did to get the help they needed.
A way to teach yourself to say
"So. And where does this new thing
that I have learned take me?"
Pam Hiebert, in remission for her bone metastases, spoke of her choices when she was first diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer:
I bought books dealing with alternative care and made myself reach outward to find ways to ease my suffering. The political health war between alternative and conventional medicine left me feeling like a pawn as I continually felt the bias in each camp.
Bob and Ginger Crisp sought help where it seemed most natural to each of them. Ginger chose various complementary healing methods, as her husband Bob describes:
I created my own republic, putting myself at the helm and the doctors as my strong advisors. All that time I continued to eat whole natural foods and to furnish my body with the supplements I knew it would need to recover from the ghastly poisons that lurked throughout my body. I drank quarts of water daily to flush my system and refused to wear any products that prevented me from sweating to release the toxins. I reeked of chemicals by the time all the chemo ended.
Among the memories that stand out in my mind as I look back at that time, making that phone call to the osteopathic physician who had been treating me for lower back problems prior to the cancer diagnosis was significant. I wanted to let him know what was going on. He said to me, "Now is the time to name what is happening to you. You must take this and name it. If you do not, then your doctors will name this alone and you still will have to survive in their model." I am eternally grateful to Dr. John. This past Christmas I wrote to him and told him I am still living and how much positive effect his words had with me.
Later, after the chemo and surgery, I continued to experience agonizing and severe body pain. I have found a form of toning and stretching called Pilates, that turned the process around and dramatically decreased the extent of pain I lived with on a daily basis. (It also raised my hemoglobin, which surprised and delighted my oncologist.) I've also read a book by Andrew Weil, M.D., called Spontaneous Healing. The book is written with clear methods I can use for heightening my immune system. I have made changes in my dietary patterns after reading this book. I am doing more herbal medicinal teas (green tea and ginger) and have added flax oil (Omega 3) to my diet. Dr. Weil has a whole chapter devoted to tonics that boost the immune system.
I have been taking Chinese herbal medicines since my chemotherapy and mastectomy ended and continue to believe in their added effectiveness. Acupuncture has helped me with muscle cramps.
I've also incorporated imagery in my quest to heal, working with a physician who taught me about symbolic imagery. I still use this imagery to induce healing within. Now I think of this effort as inner being transformation. Sylvan calls it my work, and I deeply appreciate her affirming words.
Early on Ginger would get in the hot tub every a.m. and use this as a place for visualization. She worked hard at doing the work to mobilize the immune system. She was against cancer support groups from the start and has stayed that way. She felt this would be too negative for her. She had one discussion with a naturopath who gave her a few ideas. I think it fell into the category of "can't hurt, might help." She followed a very careful diet: low-fat, lots of veggies, etc. She simply became more strict about her diet so it was not a big change. She read some on cancer and nutrition and may have picked some ideas from that. Her oncologist is aware--indifference is probably a better description--and I think he supports some complementary treatments, not because he believes in them, but because he knows it gives the patient a degree of control, which is good. If it were some off-the-wall or possibly harmful treatment, then I'm sure he would say something.
Like Pam Hiebert, Bob was quick to acknowledge the role that feeling in control played, not just for Ginger, but for himself as well,
This is a part of our personalities but it plays out in different ways. I come from the knowledge is everything school and she comes from the listen to your body school. So I read everything, follow every lead, etc. She pays a lot of attention to diet, etc. She has near complete control over blood now as she will get tests, read the numbers, check how she feels and decide to get a transfusion or not. The oncologist just leaves standing orders, so we can get a test, go to hospital, get the transfusion and he won't even be informed until later. Ginger is taking CoQ-10 and bovine cartilage now. She does some regular Reiki work with a group of women trained in such stuff. She has had about all that surgery, standard chemo and radiation can provide. There are not many options left. Next is a parallel course of living life one day at a time and checking on possible alternative treatments.
Nancy Gilpatrick, diagnosed at Stage IV, spoke of the treatments she had sought out as she prepared for her high-dose chemotherapy, and also of her need for moderation in pursuing them:
I do alternative medicine as well as conventional. I believe both have things to offer us and neither has all the answers. I am seeing a Chinese herbalist. She prescribes an herbal tea that I drink twice a day. I see an acupuncturist who is working with my pain as well as side effects. In January I worked with a native American shaman who journeyed with my body and talked specifically to the cancer cells. On the second visit he worked with the mouth sores I had. The next day they were gone. He told me that the bone mets would work the same way only it would take longer as there is more damage to the bones. I have since gotten more mets so I don't know about what he said. However, I got great peace in my work with him. His style works with mine, which is a more gentle "get the cancer out of my body" than aggressive fight visualization.
Lucie Bergmann-Shuster had sought training as an acupressure massage therapist before her recurrence, and had already made healing body work a part of her life.
I have decided to not tackle every alternative presented to me, and there have been a lot. I will do one or two things at a time. I don't want to be a "patient"--alternative or conventional medicine. I want to live my life, and spending it in appointments day after day isn't my idea of a way to live and enjoy my life. Moderation is my way.
Since the time of my mother's death, I have been getting treatments every other week and now weekly. About a month ago I arranged to have my husband get massages from the same therapist although there is nothing wrong with him. To me it is like a deep mini vacation in the space of one hour or less that revitalizes and recharges.
For Barb Pender, it was a chance encounter with a particularly helpful psychological technique--as well as her ongoing participation in her support group and her faith in God--that has helped to sustain her:
Now would I say that this is pertinent to my cancer and how I manage my coping? Yes and no, but I would have done it anyway, as I think everybody should, to improve quality of life. Mind you, my initial reason for going was my back, not my cancer. Getting Qi or Chi type therapy is one of those things I do--kind of like eating and pooping and sleeping and loving and exercising and being. Did I do anything I would not have considered before my cancer? I don't think so, except maybe eliminating any and all processed food, especially junk food, from my diet.
After my divorce in '86 I put myself through college. I particularly enjoyed my Psych classes. In one class in particular my instructor also used hypnosis in her counseling. She told us about "taking ourselves to another place." In class she took us to her green pasture. I have never forgotten that class nor that experience. In fact, throughout every procedure, scan, surgery, etc., I have been able to master the art of "going to another place." Last year I had a bone scan, and a friend went with me. She watched as I was scanned--they made a calculation error and had to repeat the process. I never moved a muscle and, in fact, did not even know that the scan was repeated. The tech doing the scan was trying to apologize to me during the procedure and apparently I was ignoring him. Maureen just said, "You'll have to apologize later--she's in another place." This ability to leave my body had helped me tremendously during the many MRI's and scans that I have had and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone!
- Lerner, Michael, "Hedging The Bet Against Cancer," The New York
Times, Sunday, October 2, 1994, Section 6, p. 65.