My entry into the club that no one wants to be a member of came 19 years ago when I had breast cancer—for the first time. The second time (but wait, wasn’t I supposed to be done with cancer??) came earlier this year. After almost a generation of being cancer-free, I had a second primary cancer. Once again, the seismic shock to my life has been profound.
Much has changed between my two cancer experiences. Obviously I’m older now, at a whole different point in life and I hope with more strength and wisdom that the added 19 years brings. The Internet barely existed in 1999; today there is a vast array of online information, useful products and personal sharing to draw on thanks to websites, blogs, apps and social media.
Conventional cancer care is only marginally different than it was 19 years ago.
In other important ways, change has been much slower. Conventional cancer care is only marginally different than it was 19 years ago, although tumor typing and other diagnostic tools to guide treatment decisions are now available. And it’s still true that if you, as a cancer patient, want to explore and use an integrative approach to treatment—combining the best of conventional and complementary therapies—you’re largely on your own.
BCCT literally places at your fingertips the resources that can empower you to build a care plan that uses the best that conventional and complementary treatments offer, customized to your needs, circumstances and personal choices.
That’s why I believe that Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies is such an important breakthrough toward patient-directed cancer care. As a new source of powerful information that may not be available to you through conventional oncology, BCCT literally places at your fingertips the resources that can empower you to build a care plan that uses the best that conventional and complementary treatments offer, customized to your needs, circumstances and personal choices. So I’m honored and excited to share my experiences as a cancer patient exploring integrative medicine by blogging for BCCT.
Cancer, the first time
Way back in 1999, I had found a lump in my right breast while taking a shower. It took three months to get a diagnosis because I was “only” 50 years old and except for a great-grandmother had no family history of breast cancer. So my primary care doctor and the surgeon that she referred me to dismissed the lump as “inconsequential.” Only because I insisted on getting a definitive diagnosis did the surgeon somewhat begrudgingly order a mammogram. When I told the mammography technician that I had a breast lump, she was surprised because the order had come as a “routine exam.”
As you can probably guess by now, the news from the mammogram, to an ultrasound and finally on to a biopsy only kept getting worse. My takeaway from those harrowing three months was that you need to have an advocate when interacting with the health care system, whether it’s yourself or someone you trust to help you, especially when you cross that threshold from routine care as a mostly healthy person to having the healthcare needs of someone with a serious illness.
What followed was the all too familiar Big Three of conventional cancer treatment—a lumpectomy with lymph node dissection, five weeks of radiation, and three months of chemotherapy on both sides of the radiation. However, in the breast cancer world, I was lucky. I had no lymph node invasion, and the tumor was ER/PR+ and HER2 -, meaning it could be well treated with chemo and later with hormonal therapies. But there were tumor cells already moving toward the lymph nodes because the cancer was an aggressive Grade 3. In other words, I needed chemotherapy.
This news was a huge blow, as it is for anyone facing chemo’s grueling reality. Chemotherapy takes away whatever remnants of health you are clinging to and replaces it with what can seem like a black hole in which you only feel sicker and more vulnerable. Chemo is what propelled me to try complementary therapies.
My oncologist gave me a choice between two regimens: shorter (3 months) and very tough with possible cardiac damage; or longer (6 months in two 3 month cycles with radiation in between) and less harsh with no cardiac risks. I wanted to keep working as long as I could and was very wary of damage to my heart, so I chose the lighter but longer regimen known as CMF.
But even with the easier regimen, getting through the first month was hard enough. Two drugs kept nausea mostly at bay, but exhaustion would overtake me every day about 4 PM. And there was the inevitable hair thinning.
Hugo, the acupuncturist, said he could help reduce the nausea, boost my energy level, and strengthen my weakened immune system. There was nothing he could do for thinning hair.
So after the first month, I started looking for help with chemo’s side effects. Reading Michael Lerner’s Choices in Healing led me to acupuncture. Hugo, the acupuncturist, said he could help reduce the nausea, boost my energy level, and strengthen my weakened immune system. There was nothing he could do for thinning hair. We established a routine: acupuncture the day after each chemo infusion and weekly during the non-infusion parts of the cycle. Hugo asked me to keep a record of when I took the anti-nausea drugs.
Acupuncture began to reduce my nausea almost immediately. After two treatments, I no longer needed Compazine, the stronger drug. Soon I was able to decrease Ativan, the other anti-nausea drug, by half.
Another hugely important benefit from acupuncture was my energy level. Everyone on my oncology team—the medical and radiation oncologists, the infusion nurses and the radiation technicians—warned that the chemo sessions following radiation would be much harder than the first. My immune system was more compromised and my energy would be more depleted than during the first three months.
Acupuncture had given me the enormous triple advantage of less nausea, an intact immune system and a reservoir of energy.
Their predictions proved to be wrong, to their amazement. Acupuncture had given me the enormous triple advantage of less nausea, an intact immune system and a reservoir of energy. Through six months of chemo I missed only one day of work, and I sailed through radiation.
Since then I’ve turned to acupuncture for many health complaints. The practice has always been helpful. Hugo once said that your body takes what it needs from acupuncture. I think that’s true. Your body takes what it needs. Perhaps it’s true for other complementary therapies as well.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how I’m using complementary therapies after my second cancer. I’ll start where I’m ending this post, with acupuncture. In later posts, I’ll be tracking BCCT’s 7 Healing Practices. I’ll go deeper on some of the practices where I have more experience than on others. So I invite you to accompany me on my integrative cancer care journey and hope that we may share some experiences along the way.
Ruth’s posts in this series
- Kelly A. Turner: Radical Hope: Ten Healing Factors from Exceptional Survivors of Cancer and Other Diseases
- Blake Gossard, editor: Disease Prevention and Treatment
Banner photo from Ruth Hennig
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