Choosing my treatment path (Part 2)

When I was growing up, cancer was almost unheard of, at least in my circle of family and friends. I can only remember two people who died of cancer in the first two decades of my life. However, during this last decade, it seems like the disease has become a lot more common. In fact, I even remember saying to my husband in the years leading up to my diagnosis - what is going on, cancer seems to be closing in on us.

In this post I’ll describe to you what I did on my own healing journey. Although it seems to have worked for me personally, it’s by no means the recipe for guaranteed success. If only it was that simple. I don’t even know if it will work for me long term, only time will tell.

Although I keep referring to it as my healing journey, that word ‘journey’ would suggest there’s an end destination. But as it turns out, there isn’t one really.

Last week I was given the all clear on my first follow up MRI. This is the main reason for the delay in writing this post, I was waiting for my scan results. I needed to get the all clear to give this post some credibility. Why would I want to share my experiences, if none of it actually worked?

Even though I was given the all clear, turns out that wasn’t my ticket to freedom. I was by no means free to relax and go back to my old life, where I didn’t have to worry about cancer. That’s when it hit me - this diagnosis is for life.

In the lead up to the scan I began feeling quite anxious, I wasn’t completely convinced I would be given the all clear. Thinking the results could still go either way meant that I didn’t believe I had done enough to beat cancer. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I had the mental strength for more bad news and a second round, as I had already given it my all. Emotionally, I was completely drained. Imagine having to parent in that state?

However at some point I realised that I’ll never be sure that it’s enough. I can keep raising the bar on myself to unrealistic heights and adding to my long list of therapies, but at some point I had to stop - just breathe and trust that I have done enough. I guess the same can be said for anything in life, particularly parenting.

After that long winded introduction, now onto the real topic of this post.

Confused doesn’t even begin to describe it. Those first six weeks after surgery and before the scheduled chemotherapy start date were the hardest of my life.

My first visit to the oncologist left me fearing for my life, and that’s no exaggeration. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on the chemotherapy chairs at the end of the corridor. That level of fear was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my entire life, it honestly sent my body into fight or flight. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, even before he delivered the less than favourable statistics for the proposed chemo drugs.

I knew that in that fearful state, I was in no position to make a rational decision on anything, let alone the proposed treatment. If it was being sold as life saving treatment, then why did I feel so threatened by it?

Perhaps it was the oncologist who delivered the news so bluntly? Or maybe seeing those chemotherapy chairs for the first time was too confronting? I didn’t want to dismiss chemo too quickly, after all this is what most cancer patients go through.

Just in case my issue was with the oncologist’s delivery or unexpectedly catching sight of the chemo chairs unprepared - I wanted to give the conventional path another chance in case I was too quick to dismiss it, mainly due to paralysing fear.

I asked for another referral to see a different oncologist and tried to be a little less fearful, mentally preparing myself in case I come face to face with those chairs again.

It was like deja vu, only worse. The second oncologist entered all my details into the same computer program, which spat out exactly the same statistics. Except this time the stab was a little harder, as she could see I was still sitting on the fence about the whole chemotherapy issue. She told me this was my one and only chance for a ‘cure’ (yes, she used that word), to get rid of the cancer completely. Because if it comes back, it’s usually a lot more aggressive and then I’ll be begging for the chemo drugs in order to buy more time - which at that stage will be weeks or months, definitely not years.

This is honestly what the second oncologist said to me, presumably in an attempt to get me to agree to a treatment which offered a mere 11% improved chance of survival over ten years. My whole body tensed up with fear and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there!

I thought to myself, if you have to use such horrible fear tactics to get me to agree to the proposed treatment, then I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I don’t think some oncologists realise how fragile cancer patients are in those early days and how much weight their words carry. That appointment helped steer me well clear of the chemo train.

The internal turmoil had been temporarily suspended. At least the chemo debate had been laid to rest. However, delivering the news to the rest of my family and friends was not so simple. Only my husband came with me to the oncologist appointments, so he understood my reasons for running away. But explaining this to worried family members and friends, who had very different views of the medical system, turned out to be harder than I imagined. The internal battle had been laid to rest (mostly), but my decision to reject chemotherapy sent out a wave of fear over most of my family and friends. Only a few dared to support my decision.

Then it hit me, if I’m not going to stay on the conveyor belt of conventional cancer treatment, where do I go to from here? In that moment I felt completely lost and all alone. No one should ever feel this way - like they must surrender to a potentially life-threatening treatment because the alternative path is so unclear. I remember in those days talking about starting a retreat in the hills for people in my situation, who knew they didn’t want to have chemo but needed a place to go.

When you sense that your life is on the line, you really start listening to your gut instincts. One of the first and most obvious signs for me, was my body refusing to eat meat. I had been a meat eater all my life, but for some reason I was suddenly put off by it and I decided to listen to my body and stop eating it. It had nothing to do with me reading about acidity in the body being linked to cancer and meat being highly acidic etc. I was purely running off instincts, the theory that came later was just confirmation that my instincts weren’t leading me astray. I believe that cleaning up my diet was a huge contributing factor to my overall wellbeing.

However I knew that simply changing my diet wouldn’t be enough to address such an aggressive cancer. Then I went into crazy research mode. You name it, and chances are I either tried it or at least read about it and dismissed it because it didn’t really resonate with me.

At first I focused my efforts on cleansing my body. In addition to cleaning up my diet, I began different detox methods, focusing mainly on my liver and intestines. It may not sound like much, but I take everything to the extreme, and this pretty much became my full time occupation.

After a few weeks of living like this, I became completely exhausted and emotionally drained. I just kept digging, running around visiting various practitioners, knocking on more doors, seeking advice, researching, anything and everything that sounded promising. After a few weeks I realised two things. Firstly I’m SO tired from completely filling my days with my extremely long list of therapies and secondly - I really missed my kids.

When I found myself being slapped around to regain consciousness inside an ozone machine, I knew I had taken things too far. I desperately needed a time-out, to regain my composure, gather my thoughts, sift through my unrealistically long list of therapies and start again. This was a marathon not a sprint, and at the rate that I had started, I was going to burn out before the first bend.

I realised that I had completely focused my efforts on my physical body. I learnt that cancer cells were anaerobic so I joined the local gym and began exercising like a crazy person. Heaven forbid I should miss a day or two when I was too exhausted or had a really rough night with my newly weaned toddler. At least I didn’t need to worry about weight training on those days, as the guilt I carried was heavy enough.

Once the physical fatigue kicked in from all the running around, I realised that emotionally I was beginning to drain as well. The link between the two was quite obvious.

Body, mind and spirit. The three are intimately intertwined yet I had mostly focused my healing on the physical body, and so the other two began crying out for help. Even on the mainstream path, the focus seems to be almost entirely on the physical body. But as I learnt the hard way, you can’t treat them in isolation.

Once I realised my insides needed some attention as well, I slowed down with my running around and began spending more time just playing with my children, laughter being the best kind of medicine. Also, I began seeing a counsellor who teaches guided meditation classes. Being introduced to meditation was a real game changer for me.

As much as I thrive on quality time with people, dancing, running around and filling my days to the brim, I equally enjoy the stillness, solitude and clarity that meditation brought into my life. It gave me much needed balance. I’m still a rookie who struggles to find time to meditate regularly, but now that I’ve had a taste of its benefits, I don’t think I could ever go back to a life without meditation. Exercise and meditation should be routinely prescribed alongside the chemotherapy. It does exist in some rehab hospitals, and private health insurance should cover most of it, but in my experience, you have to ask for it.

Once I sifted through my unrealistically long list of daily therapies, I ended keeping the ones I believed were most beneficial at the time. Yet for some reason it still didn’t feel like I was doing enough. No matter how much I crammed into my days, even with the more balanced version, it still felt like something was missing. That underlying fear of failure undermined everything. I knew I didn’t want to have chemotherapy, but surely there was something else that the medical system had to offer besides such harsh drugs?

Knowing the seriousness of my diagnosis, I knew it would take something of equal magnitude to cure it. All of the things that I was doing seemed like a great way to maintain optimum health, but unfortunately for me it was too late for just maintenance. So I kept on searching, until I finally found out about a virotherapy clinic in Latvia. It seemed like the perfect answer for someone in my situation. I knew I didn’t want chemotherapy, but at the same time wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going completely down the non medical path.

The theory behind virotherapy is to inject the body with a virus which infiltrates the cancerous cells and replicates inside, destroying the cancer cells in this way. More importantly for me, it was administered at a clinic, under the full guidance of a medical team, including an oncologist and immunologist. A doctor would be injecting something into my bloodstream but it wouldn’t be chemotherapy. I thought I had found my happy medium, and a week later I was on my way to Latvia.

My trip to Latvia deserves a blog post of its own because there were so many positive experiences and lifelong lessons in just one short week. In an attempt to support my decision to avoid chemotherapy, my dad accompanied me on this trip.

Although he tried his best to support my decision, I could sense that the underlying fear was eating away at him and it was just a matter of time before he crumbled, falling onto the safety net of conventional therapy i.e. chemo.

This is exactly what happened while we were in Latvia, when an ultrasound showed I still had cancer in my body. In the next blog post I’ll write about my journey to Latvia and how I unexpectedly backflipped on my decision to avoid chemotherapy.

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