Integrative Medicine


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I spent some time talking to a young woman yesterday about her choices. Locked into a particular paradigm yet still struggling with depression, she realised that perhaps she needed to open her mind to other possibilities for healing. She was scared. Reasonably so. Because when we try anything new, it’s natural to be nervous, or cautious or uncertain, isn’t it. It’s just the nature of doing something we haven’t done before.

And it can be the same when we begin to reinvent ourselves. And that’s a necessary part of healing, isn’t it. Because when we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve always got. And there are some things we don’t want to repeat, aren’t there! Once in a lifetime is enough to experience some of the things we’ve experienced.

Most people don’t realise we actually become addicted to being ourselves. Every time we think a thought, or feel an emotion, we release chemicals in our body that form receptors on our nerve cells. And the more we repeat the thought, or the emotion, the more receptors that form and the more our body feels the need to keep repeating the thoughts, or the emotions, to get its fix. Being addicted to bitterness, or judgement, or anger, or anxiety, or stress, or sadness is no different at a cellular level than being addicted to smoking, or drinking or drugs. In fact, there’s a great smoking ad on tv that actually shows how it happens. We get into the habit of being ourselves. And because our bodies get used to being a certain way, they can kick up a real stink when we try to change. Like breaking any addiction, it has to be a multi-level approach. And that’s why we need to go below the surface, to focus our healing where the true problem lies. 

Shortly after chatting to this young woman, I happened to notice the date yesterday and it took be back two years to my own journey. My 14th wedding anniversary. And I remember being beside myself on that day. Breaking down. Because two years ago, I didn’t know if I was going to live or if I was going to die. I didn’t know if I was going to be around ‘next year’ to celebrate with my husband and my children. And the fear in these thoughts can be a terrifying thing, can’t it. But thankfully, now it is only a memory. And I no longer live in it’s grip. And it seems such a long time ago. Such a different life to the one I have now. Because the choices I have made have helped to reinvent myself. To break the old addictions. To help me get here to where I am today, a safe passage through the storm, and now more alive than ever…

I found myself thinking about pain yesterday. Not the mental and emotional pain that comes with our journey, but the physical stuff. The pressure of tumours on areas they shouldn’t be, the pain of recovery after surgery, the pain that can sometimes be ongoing. I remember once imploring my tumour to stop hurting so that I could get some sleep. It use to burn and throb in my breast. And to my surprise it did just that. It’s an incredible thing how much control we actually have over the way experience our pain, isn’t it.

In hospital recently, the morning nurse greeted me with ‘oh you’re the one who doesn’t take anything’. Well, not quite true. A bit of mild paracetamol works wonders in taking the edge off. But if I can, I’d rather find another way than the codeine that binds you up making life a little unpleasant, let alone the harder morphine derivatives. And so I get through most of what I need to get through using everything I know about managing pain in other ways. Having a great doctor certainly helps reduce the need for pain relief. And sometimes the deeper breathing helps. Because it’s hard to feel pain when you’re relaxed, isn’t it. Sometimes it’s in distracting myself with things that make me feel good. A hobby, a funny movie, a relaxation CD, anything really. I’ve read that Norman Cousins found that just ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Again, it’s about the choices we make isn’t it. Do we want to watch a funny movie that will help our healing, or do we want to watch the latest NCIS with it’s gruesome storyline? I deliberately chose to watch ‘Are You Being Served’ a few hours post surgery, and I’m sure this helped reduce my pain. I was too busy laughing to notice.

Sometimes it can just be in the reframing of the pain that I find it easier to manage. If I resist it, I just seem to tense up and it gets worse, but if I step back and observe it, notice it, where it is in my body, how it feels, what it looks like, what colour it is, it somehow seems to diffuse it. I remember hearing someone say that at least if they are in pain they know they’re alive. And I guess I’ve learnt to look at the positives of post surgery discomfort – at least I’ve still got some sensation in the areas I want to be sensitive!

But of course there are days I can’t do it all myself and I am happy to have a little bit of help. A good massage last week, took the burning out of the muscles of my shoulder that are learning to work differently. It’s also brilliant for breaking up adhesions. Physio exercises when I am disciplined to do them also help to rehabilitate. And I remember once, a few years ago, my body just couldn’t take the stress anymore. I bent over and locked up and the pain just kept ramping up until I was vomiting. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And this is when I am most grateful for my husband’s knowledge and training. After watching me for 20 minutes or so, he simply gave me just one adjustment and the whole thing shut down. I went straight to sleep and when I woke up, the pain was gone. I’ve never experienced anything so powerful. An open mind opens up a whole world of options, doesn’t it.

And probably for me the most healing has been the healing of painful emotions which has brought me such physical relief. In healing my feelings, I am no longer pouring these inflammatory chemicals through my system, minute to minute, day to day. And so my body copes with things so much better. Because, what I’ve learnt most about the management of pain, is that if I can take the physical, mental and emotional stress out of my body, no matter which path I take to do this, everything just relaxes and the pain just seems to melt away…

I wonder, have you ever had that feeling of being so happy, you could cry? As I sit here on the tarmac tonight, I am filled with a rainbow of emotions. And it is overwhelming in a good way. The most intense peace, happiness, joy and gratitude. Gratitude that I live in a time and place where I have choices. Gratitude for the wonders of flight that have enabled me to travel almost 2,500 kilometres here and back in one day to see a doctor doing some very special work. Gratitude for the people who go out on a limb pushing the frontiers of possibility. Gratitude for my family who have helped make this trip possible. And gratitude for that part of myself that never gives up.

Today I found another beautiful doctor. The second I entered his office, I knew I was in the right place. Warm, friendly staff who were pleased to see me and welcomed me by name, as a person, not a patient. And as I turned, I saw it, a Tree of Life painting on his wall. This symbol means so much to me. Steve and I once ran a practice where we actually painted the Tree of Life on our office wall. To me, it is a symbol of wholeness, of life, hope and beauty. And so I knew it was a sign just for me that everything would be okay. He introduced himself simply by his first name and explained the wonders of this new stem cell technology. And what wonder it is. My own tissue, to recreate what is missing without damaging me further. It is difficult to explain the feeling of parts missing, isn’t it?. And now the chance to feel whole again. I felt the tears as the emotions came. I can’t wait to get started.

First I’ll need an expander to create the space for a new breast. It’s quite brilliant really. No different to how your skin expands during pregnancy. But when I first enquired about reconstruction along traditional routes, I was told this was not a good path for me because of the radiation. But with this technology the stem cells actually heal the tissue as a part of the deal! It certainly pays to get a second opinion, doesn’t it. To look outside the sqaure. And then six weeks later there will be the fat transfer. Goodbye tummy, hips and thighs. I believe the benefits of liposuction are an added bonus with no scars! And to top it off, this surgeon recommends herbs and vitamins for healing. Again, he speaks my language!

Every woman who’s had breast cancer should know they have this choice, shouldn’t they.

Tonight as I travel home to my family and the comfort of my own bed, I want to leave you with the surprise I discovered in the hospital bathroom, just down the corridor. One more sign that I am in good hands. I was quite blown away. If you can, picture this. A suite of doctor’s offices, on the top floor of a hospital building. A regular office style bathroom, 6 cubicles and there in between the paper towel dispensers I saw this plaque:

Daily Affirmation – The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts, it is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day . We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.

If only more hospitals were designed to feed our minds as a part of our healing…

Have you ever wondered how we can become so disempowered as patients?

I guess it all depends on how we view our role in the healing relationship, doesn’t it?. Are we doing the healing and engaging others to help us? Or do we want someone else to fix us, abdicating our responsibility in the whole process?

When I was in the throws of cancer I went looking for an oncologist that was open to an integrative approach. Traditional, alternate, complementary, trial or cutting edge, I needed a doctor who was willing to explore them all, without bias. And I kept looking until I found one. Persistence has its rewards doesn’t it?! When I questioned him about using vitamins during chemo he responded by saying he felt they were a necessity. When I asked about radical approaches, he listened with an open mind. ‘We can only learn when we explore new ideas’ he said. And yet I’ve heard other horror stories of doctors who refuse to let their patients combine therapies despite research showing better outcomes. But surely it’s our decision. After all, whose body is this anyway?

Isn’t it interesting how we learn to label things right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. And yet we could always find someone to sit on either side of the fence. When something is right for one person, it may be wrong for someone else. It’s really all a matter of perspective isn’t it?! I remember the advice Petrea King (Quest for Life) gave me. In her wisdom she suggested I put every healing option on the table, make nothing wrong, and choose the ones that gave me the greatest peace. Her words carried me well and stopped the war and uncertainty within me. And I sense this could only have aided my healing.

And so I used copious quantities of vitamins, herbs, biofeedback, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, subconscious-mind therapy and kinesiology in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I can’t deny it was full on, but, all in all, I had a great year. I studied, I worked, I mothered, I travelled and I smiled. Sure there were darker days, but I built a buffer around me and it seemed to make my path that much easier to travel.

And I delighted in listening to psychiatrist, Professor Graham Martin’s interview on ABC radio national: Taking charge: mind, body and recovery. After sudden paralysis in 2009, the doctor became the patient and discovered how we must all take charge of our own recovery, doing whatever we need to do to heal. It’s empowering stuff!

United we stand, divided we fall – surely the experience of cancer is not the time for a war between healing modalities…

 http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/taking-charge-mind-body-and-recovery/2928194