When I look down at my right hand, I see the progression of my treatments visually etched into my nails. Stripes mark the 3-week intervals. The discolored areas that separated from the nail bed, due to the toxins in the yew-based chemo, are now nearly grown out, while the pale stripes marking the Herceptin continue. I will likely have stripes on my nails into mid 2015, growing out after my final Herceptin treatment in December 2014. It is a good reminder that I am still in active treatment, even though the focus has now shifted from killing tumor cells to a sort of cancer cell “ghost” hunting.
There are at least two means of addressing these “ghost” cells. On one hand, western medicine views cancer as a mechanical problem. “Good” cells go “Bad” and break. These broken cells proliferate and cause problems. They form tumors and throw out little rogue cells that form micro metastases, newly formed tumors which are too minuscule to be detected. Treatments are geared towards eliminating as many of these “Bad” cells as possible, because minuscule tumors can grow into big ugly monster tumors in other parts of your body and kill you. (Cancer as Noun.)
There are limitations to the mighty powers of western medicine. Like most human endeavors, many blind spots exist. Blind spots that can hinder the effectiveness of treatments, especially for chronic disease. You can’t see what you don’t look at, and there are many things that the western medicine perspective either chooses not to look at, or can’t look at even with their advanced instruments. Though it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to avoid western medicine because of its blind spots, being aware of them is in the best interest of any person seeking treatments. If possible it may be wise to address the resulting weaknesses by using other modalities that address those areas of blindness.
Which brings us to the other hand. Eastern medicine views cancer as the manifestation of energetic imbalance. (Cancer as Verb.) Imbalance leads to stuck or stagnant energy which can creates physical manifestations such as tumors. Removing the tumor without addressing the underlying imbalance will eventually manifest more illness. Treatment is focused on returning the body/mind/spirit to a dynamic equilibrium. Balance = health.
Many years ago, my friend Pamela was not feeling well and went to see an acupuncturist. After taking her pulses, he set both her hands back in her lap, looked her in the eye and told her that he was going to leave the room to call urgent care. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that week by western medicine doctors. Skilled acupuncturists can tell a lot from simply taking your pulse. Pamela’s acupuncturist suspected cancer, he recognized that the pendulum of her health was way out of whack and that she needed stronger medicine to try bringing it back into balance.
Western doctors used physical exams, mammogram, ultrasound imaging, biopsy, PET/CT scan and a MRI for my original diagnosis of locally advanced breast cancer. Evidence of lymph node involvement indicated that cancer-ing cells were already on the move. Our bodies contain trillions of cells; it is not possible to hunt down and remove every “bad” cell. Even with all of the technical wonders of western medicine. With the post surgery restaging from 3C to 0, the assumption is that there is still the potential for a reoccurrence, which can only be mitigated with more treatments. Though chemo and surgery have succeeded in eliminating the detectable “BAD” cells, I will continue treatment with targeted monoclonal antibody treatments, Herceptin, through the end of the year. I also begin Tamoxifen, a hormone inhibitor, next week – which I will take daily for five years. These treatments will grant me better odds of avoiding a return of cancer-ing in the western model. Even though I don’t doubt the probability of micro metastases within my body, the hunting down of invisible “ghost” cells, à la the western model, actually seems a bit more woo-woo to me than the efforts of an acupuncturist to observe my body and seek to balance my chi energy.
When I go to my acupuncturist, either at the Hai Shan Clinic in Corbett, or with Lynn Potter here on the coast, they take my pulses on both wrists. They look at my tongue, my fingernails, and ask about my bodily functions. All these observations together with the rhythm and strength of my pulses give them the information needed to select appropriate meridian points to place needles. The goal is to shift me towards greater balance. It is subtle and powerful. Returning to balance requires more than a few acupuncture visits – it requires shifting and changing my thoughts and actions. Addressing and clearing any emotional blocks, and nourishing, toning, and detoxifying my body. It is a big job, and it is work existing almost completely within the blindspots of the western model.
Overall I think it is possible for both modalities to be true. It is a bit like measuring something with inches and centimeters, two numbers – both right on. It is heartening to see some softening of the barriers between holistic and mechanistic medicine models. When I hear that the local hospital has hired an acupuncturist I feel very hopeful.
Back in December when this all got rolling, I decided to take a year off from work. It made a lot of sense for me, for a huge host of reasons. I knew that my treatments would be physically challenging for many months, and frankly incompatible with getting up at 3 a.m. to bake pastry. I also suspected that taking time to recover from my treatments would improve my statistics against reoccurrence. With chemo and surgery behind me I am motivated now to do the difficult work of rebalancing / transformation. This is what rings true to my belly brain as the right course of action: to Cure and Heal.
Before my pCR I expected to be spending six weeks this summer in Portland getting daily radiation treatments. After my pCR, the reading of many articles in the medical literature, meeting with my doctors, and doing much soul searching, I have decided that for me, radiation treatments are not the best tool to use at this time. I am sure that other people in my position might choose differently. In the same spirit that inspired me towards independent study projects starting in first grade and continuing through college, I am choosing to go my own way. I am turning away from using one tool of western medicine, so that I might pick up other tools that seem better suited to my particular situation.
Being vulnerable by being transparent about my process is a bit of a double edged sword. I hope by writing about my experience I might encourage or inspire others as they find their way forward on their own path towards wholeness. Writing about my process also helps me clarify my experience within myself. And at the same time, I fear that my words will create negative consequences: anger, fear, eye rolling etc. This is especially true as I veer off the path of the “Standard of Care.” I suspect that there are those who would greet any reoccurrence as something I deserve, a just consequence of my choice not to use radiation at this time. By being open, I feel more at risk for such judgements from the peanut gallery of life. When I follow the rules only because of fear “logic” – it is like letting my own internalized peanut gallery call the shots. To face those fears seems like an essential part of the needed rebalancing. I need to hold steady to my own truth by recognizing that I am the most important witness to my own life. To recognize that I have the context needed to make the best decisions for myself.
For the remainder of this year I will continue my active treatments, using the multiple modalities at my disposal. I have no double-blind studies to show that spending lots of time outside, making art, or baking with my children will be just as effective as radiation treatments at hunting down ghost cells. What I do have is the knowledge that when I feel really peaceful and happy, my parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, which maximizes the effectiveness of my immune system – and there are studies about that! I will continue with the Herceptin – augmenting it by using visualization to imagine the engineered antibodies acting as bridges between my immune cells and any wondering cancer-ing cells. I will walk 3-5 miles every day while observing and breathing in nature. I will drink TCM herbal formulas, take vitamins and drink lots of nettle infusions. I will get energetic healing sessions from a variety of practitioners. Mostly I will try to laugh a lot, eat well and be as fully alive as possible.
If I forget for a moment about the long journey I am on, I have only to look at the nail lines on either hand to keep track of my progress.