Breast Cancer


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* Embracing Chemo – six week course commences February 2013*

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I did something really dumb this morning. Like every good working mum on school holidays I was multi-tasking big time. And by the time I had the kids in the car, I was of course running a little behind schedule. As is my custom, I turned the engine on to warm up three freezing kids. An overnight temperature of minus five or thereabouts. The windscreen was frosty. So heavily frosted that the windscreen wipers weren’t making any progress. And so I began to move the car into the sun to help it along. We live on a farm and the drive is huge so I have a lot of room to turn around. Only trouble was I’d parked in the opposite direction the night before. And so as I turned the car slowly, winding down the window so I could see, with the windscreen wipers working furiously, I was effectively driving blind. No big problem when I’m facing the other way. The bump and the breaking of glass alerted me to my grave misjudgement as I hit the low brick wall. No speed, but enough to smash the fog light and break the bumper. Bugger. A small expletive. I got back in the car after examining the damage and smiled at the kids. After all, what could I do except get over it. If only I’d been a bit more patient, I’ll remember this for next time.

And then it dawned on me. Another of those wonderful aha moments. With reconstruction imminent, I suddenly felt like the car was an extension of me. Easily repaired, no harm done. On the other side of cancer, I realised I now have a different perspective. And I laughed. It seems the fear and sadness is done.

I was lucky enough to spend the day with my friend Peter yesterday. And I was privileged to watch the magic unfold in his calmbirth® class as he helps pregnant couples to let go of their fear and anxiety around birth. It’s simply breathtaking. To birth without fear, and in complete confidence that our bodies know what to do. Working with our inner wisdom, not against it. And the hospitals have noticed what a difference it makes. So much so, that across the country they are now asking Peter to run their birth classes.  And I am so inspired by Peter’s work. Because the gift of entering the world in calmness and love is beyond measure, even when medical intervention is required.

And birth can be many things, can’t it. Peter talks about The Law of Possibilities. Because we all know birth can be excruciatingly painful. But I wonder how many people realise that for some women it can be orgasmic? And of course, it can be everything in between. And it’s the same with cancer, isn’t it. For some people the diagnosis of cancer is their worst nightmare, while for others it presents an opportunity. A life changing experience that opens new doors, new possibilities, and the potential for a completely new start in life. And the chemo itself? I know of people who have been violently ill, encouraged by their families to feel as sick as possible because this is what they believed was needed to ensure the chemo was working. While others have described having chemo as feeling just a bit like having a mild hangover or even being ‘pleasantly surprised’. Mindset plays such a huge role, doesn’t it. As I began to understand how my own mindset, my subconscious fears, beliefs and expectations, affected my experience, each cycle of chemo became a bit of an adventure. What would I create for myself this time? I found it just got better and better.

Yesterday when I got home, I was thrilled to see an email from J—. I hadn’t heard from her in some months . And I always wonder how people are getting on. Diagnosed young as I was, a double mastectomy, chemo and all the rest with two small children in tow. The last time we spoke she was just preparing for it all. And we talked about the things she could do to help herself. To build her buffer. And here today, she is in a different space now. It’s all done and I feel her joy. Because J— discovered there are many things she could do to help herself. And that within her she had the strength to get through. And it makes me smile to think of her strength and zest for life – she tells me she was riding her bike just 5 days after her last cycle of chemo, thinking of me in the snow as I was just one week after mine. 

The Law of Possibilities. Without fear and with an open mind the possibilities are endless, aren’t they…

Sometimes I find the sadness creeps up on me. And it seems this can happen when I’m tired from a particularly gruelling week. A sadness, a grief for the ‘me’ I used to know. A lamentation for my old self, the one I knew for 40 years before the cancer. And the tears just flow with the sense of loss. In fact it seems my eyes just seem to stream sometimes even when I’m not actually crying. Perhaps this is a reflection of the depth of the sadness that can come with the losses we suffer through cancer.

And there are many losses, aren’t there. And I’m not just talking body parts. There’s the loss of strength physically and psychologically. My right arm that has always been my dominant arm is simply not the same as it use to be and I feel this profoundly. There’s the loss of sensation, the itches that can’t be scratched because the skin is numb, perhaps never to recover because the nerves were cut as they worked to save my life. And though my hair has grown back beautifully, it is thin and every morning I grieve the loss of my thick grey coiffed mane I use to love. Then there’s the loss of freedom in being tied down to the relentless medical appointments which continue years after the treatment is over. Other losses too, like the freedom to fly without the need for compression bandages, although I am delighted when I forget to wear them and my arm is none the worse for wear. There’s the loss of stamina, particularly noticeable when my six year old beats me in a running race. And perhaps one of the hardest to bear is the loss of sexuality, both physically and emotionally. Because as one woman said, it can be hard to feel sexy with only one breast, can’t it. Especially when we live in a society that idolises women’s curves. And to add insult to injury there’s the loss of libido as the oestrogen blockers affect my brain. But I’m working on that one and determined to win. There are the losses as relationships change and loved ones disappoint us as they too try to cope. And I haven’t even mentioned the financial loss, though I feel this loss pales into insignificance compared to the personal losses and the loss of identity.

Grief is not something we seem to do very well in this society, is it. We’re more the stiff upper lip type. But amongst the pink ribbon days, daffodil days, mother’s day walks and morning teas, perhaps we should have a day where we don our black arm bands and have a good grieve. Allow ourselves to feel the sadness that comes with this loss of self. And it’s important to mourn these losses, isn’t it. Allowing ourselves to feel the sadness helps us to move through and move on. Because the losses are real. And although the new ‘me’ that has arisen from the ashes is strong and beautiful, sometimes I don’t quite know how to relate to this new person. It’s like I have to get to know myself again and learn to love myself anew.

I remember reading years ago of a couple whose little boy was brain damaged in an accident. And they held a funeral for their little boy. And though they were criticised by many because he was still living, it was important for them to mourn the loss of the little boy they once new before they could welcome the ‘new’ little boy who had taken his place…

It drives me crazy when people say something is not scientific as if it’s a reason not to try something. When the admiralty began handing out citrus to sailors to prevent scurvy, they didn’t know the science of why it worked, only that it did. And there are many things in life we are yet to understand, aren’t there?. I look at it this way – science is just the limit of our understanding about how things work, not whether or not they do. And our understanding is limited, isn’t it?. That’s what makes this world such an interesting place. How boring it would be if we knew it all.

That aside, I love research because it opens up the possibility for how things could be. I came across a mouse study recently that involved two groups of transgenic mice. That’s just a fancy name for mice that have been genetically altered so they carry genes for particular traits or that make us more susceptible to certain diseases. Because some of the mice go on to express the genes, they help scientists to study what happens in different disease processes when you change the environment they are raised in, as well as the effect of different treatments.

So back to these transgenic mice. Half of the group were socially isolated from weaning while the other group were kept together. And this is the important bit. The socially isolated mice went on to express more of the genes associated with breast cancer and developed more breast cancer tumours than the mice that were kept together! And no surprise, blood test results showed the isolated mice were more stressed.

So what does this tell us? The scientific answer is that ‘an adverse social environment is associated with altered mammary gland gene expression and tumor growth’. In plain English… it would seem that our emotional health is a HUGELY important factor in the development of breast cancer. It overturns the mindset that genes alone determine our health, doesn’t it?. So even if we have the genes that predispose us to the disease, our social environment, our connectedness if you like, plays an enormous role in whether we will actually develop the disease.

It’s a ray of hope isn’t it?. Especially when you realise we can choose to heal our emotions. Because many people don’t realise that genes are only a predisposition for a disease, and not a definite sentence…

Williams, J.B., Pang, D., Delgado, B., Kocherginsky, M., Tretiakova, M., Krausz, T., Pan, D., He, J., McClintock, M.K. & Conzen, S.D. (2009). A Model of Gene-Environment Interaction Reveals Altered Mammary Gland Gene Expression and Increased Tumor Growth following Social Isolation. Cancer Prevention Research, 2009; 2: 850

Stem cells. Little promises of something more. I must confess I’ve always sat on the fence when it comes to the controversy of stem cell research. With 3 potentially life threatening conditions in the family, it’s a door we’ve left open. But now I find they are touching my life directly and I’m filled with great excitement. Next week I get on a plane to see the only doctor in Australia who is doing stem cell breast reconstruction. And the best bit about it is they are my own stem cells. It’s cutting edge stuff. I always love what’s happening at the edge. It speaks to the scientist in me, the part of me that dreams of possibilities. It’s an exciting place.

In a nutshell, this type of reconstruction holds promise for anyone who has had breast surgery. Basically, they lypo-suction out your own fat tissue from a donor site and wash half of it to get the stem cells, before mixing it back together and augmenting a breast after lumpectomy or reconstructing it in its entirety. And the stem cells can be used to repair skin after radiation too. The best bit is it’s only an overnight stay in hospital. So much more appealing than the other forms of reconstruction I was offered that involved cutting me up even more, topped off with stints in intensive care – no thanks! And I was fascinated to find out that our fat tissue is absolutely laden with stem cells that can differentiate to provide all the blood supply that the fat needs to keep living once it has been ‘farmed’. Thank you tummy after children I say. I have a new respect for my womanly features and now look at my curves even more lovingly.

In trawling the net, I discovered this type of reconstruction has been ramping up in Europe, Japan and America, but wasn’t discussed as an option with me until I uncovered it for myself. Once again it has brought home to me the truth of the need to go looking for alternatives, when the ones we are presented with simply do not feel right. Because gut instinct is a powerful survival mechanism, isn’t it?. A gift from within that has saved me time and time again when I stop to listen to its wisdom. And even if the answers are not immediately there, with a little persistence and patience, I find they always come. Because there are a lot of things we discover when we take the time to look and listen, aren’t there?. When we won’t take ‘no’ for an answer…

*******

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins – not through strength, but through persistence.” — Buddha

 

It only takes one person doesn’t it, to help us see what’s possible…

Henry Ford once said ‘If you believe you can, or you can’t, you are right.’ Thomas Edison did not give up until he gave us the electric light bulb, Henry Ford persisted until he found a way to produce affordable cars and the Wright Brothers (okay, there were two of them) gave us flight when some people said it couldn’t be done. And what did they have in common? They were ordinary human beings who all believed something was possible and took action to make it happen. It pays to be optimistic, doesn’t it?! There’s always a first time for everything.

When I was initially diagnosed with cancer, I went through the feelings that most people do, facing my mortality as my life flashed before me. And then I remembered something I was taught 20 years ago, that if one person can do something, others can too. And so I began to look for women who had experienced a breast cancer similar to mine and were alive and well 20-30 years later. I read their stories, I listened to their wisdom and I took action. I built a collage in my mind of the possibility for healing, so I knew where to aim. I even popped a picture of myself up in the kitchen with a heart around it and 100% healed written in big red letters across it to remind myself at a subconscious level of where I was headed. I set my course, and every day as I looked at that photo I gave myself hope. I knew, because others had done it before me, that all things were possible. It was as if they were lighting the way.

And it’s the same with other types of cancer and illnesses too, isn’t it?. Where one person can do it, there must be a way that others can too. Recently I read a story about Carol in Connections, The Quest for Life newsletter (Summer 2012). Five years ago Carol was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. And despite a prognosis of 6-9 months, here she is today alive and in good health, despite the cancer, and most importantly, enjoying her life. And she too has used a complement of healing approaches. Not just the chemo, but her mindset, nutrition and emotional healing have all been involved.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?. I remembered Carol’s story when the Mesothelioma Centre contacted me to ask if I would include some information in my blog about the benefits of complementary approaches for people with mesothelioma.

May it shine a light for you…

Complementary Treatment for Mesothelioma Patients

Chemotherapy is a very powerful mesothelioma treatment. It can help kill cancerous cells and relieve symptoms caused by the pressure mesothelioma tumors place on the lungs.

However, chemotherapy is not always effective when used alone to treat mesothelioma. Many patients turn to complementary treatment methods to enhance their body’s response to chemotherapy.

Common Complementary Mesothelioma Therapies

A number of alternative therapies have been developed that treat mesothelioma outside of traditional medicine. These therapies may also be used in addition to conventional treatments, in which case they are referred to as complementary therapies.

This approach can also be termed “integrative medicine.”  

Some of the most popular complementary cancer treatment options include:

  • Supplements (i.e. vitamin C, cat’s claw and astragalus)
  • Acupuncture
  • Dietary changes (i.e. vegetarianism or veganism)
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Massage
  • Meditation and yoga

Some of these therapies are used as a gentler way to reduce symptoms associated with the cancer, thereby eliminating a patient’s need for pharmaceuticals. Massage may help relieve mesothelioma pain that would otherwise be treated with a painkiller, while yoga and meditation can help reduce the need for an anti-anxiety medication.

Other mind-body approaches to mesothelioma treatment can include Tai Chi, hypnotherapy, deep breathing and guided imagery.

Other complementary therapies are used more specifically to enhance the body’s ability to fight off the cancer. Nutritional changes, which focus primarily on a mineral- and vitamin-rich diet, can support the body’s own cancer-fighting abilities, and supplements can be used to boost the immune system or strengthen the body as a whole. Natural products and homeopathic remedies may also be recommended to mesothelioma patients looking for an alternative approach to cancer treatment.

Precautions for Complementary Therapy

Patients who are interested in adding complementary therapies to their treatment regimen should first discuss their options with their doctor.

While alternative therapies used alongside chemotherapy are generally safe, some activities may not be safe for all people. Additionally, certain supplements may interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs (such as vitamin C). To prevent any potentially negative interactions from occurring, be sure to discuss any dietary or lifestyle changes with your oncologist.

Author bio: Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.

For further information about mesothelioma visit www.asbestos.com

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