These last few days, during a gap between modules on my MSc, I’ve been enjoying updating my knowledge about the latest advances in cancer treatments. Our understanding of the way cancer behaves is changing and evolving, and with it our ability to influence its growth and behaviour. I’ve been closely following this field for a couple of decades and feel genuinely excited about the things I’m reading and learning.
There’s a noticeable closing of the chasm that has traditionally separated conventional and complementary therapies in this particular field. Many modern oncology centres, especially outside the UK, are offering an integrated approach to cancer treatment. And I’m thrilled to see that many fellow students on my MSc course are qualified doctors looking to increase their understanding of nutrition which is covered only briefly at medical school.
Then, yesterday, one of my favourite health writers, Jerome Burne, posted a hugely optimistic post heralding a revolution on cancer care. I think he’s right, I think it’s coming, and it’s going to radically change the way we choose cancer treatment – it’s going to put you in charge. We still don’t have all the answers, I’m sure you know that, but we are really beginning to join the dots. And the only person who can join your dots is you.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, getting information about complementary and alternative therapies for cancer was difficult, dangerous and derided. These days it’s more dangerous not to explore your choices; most people are happy to acknowledge that your survival will depend on a range of factors, not just cytotoxic drugs.
Gone are the days of placing your life in the hands of the oncologist and keeping your head down and fingers crossed. The latest immunological advances in cancer care are the beginning of the end for chemo and radiotherapy. Better treatments are on their way -tailored to individual biochemistry and targeted to individual cells, and doing less damage along the way.
But medical treatment is just one of your options. Our new and clear understanding of cancer as a metabolic disease opens up the field to a range of therapies, nutrition in particular. We know that your diet, exercise and lifestyle choices to date are a large part of the reason you got cancer, and it follows that they can be a vital part of your route back to health.
Back in 1997, Bernie Siegel was one of the few physicians talking and writing about the role of the patient, and in particular the mindset of the patient, in making a difference. He said he could predict a patient’s likely chance of survival within minutes of them entering the room, based on the degree to which they took responsibility vs. devolving it to him. The ones who took charge were more likely to do well. Today that view is shared by almost everyone I meet in this challenging field.
Personally, I have always been convinced that I (you, we) have a powerful role to play in our own healing, and that abdicating – i.e. handing that power over to anyone, even to a well trained and well intentioned doctor – is a bad choice. Believing there’s nothing you can do is a form of brainwashing that you need to resist at all costs. It’s a way of abandoning yourself, just when you need yourself the most.
When I begin work with clients one of the first things we talk about is where they see themselves in relation to their doctors and therapists. Most people see their oncologist as way above them, which isn’t helpful. It creates a helpless mindset, and a sense of being ‘done to’ rather than choosing. I encourage them to see it differently: to put themselves in the centre of the picture, to see themselves as the one in control, the one making the choices, gathering the knowledge, weighing up the pros and cons. You may not have expert knowledge medicine, or nutrition or psychology but you do have expert knowledge of YOU. No one knows you better. Or cares more about your survival.
The second picture in the image above is what I’m aiming for. Although I’ve put the patient in the supermarket, it’s not just about food choices, it’s about carefully choosing your options for all the available treatments and therapies; exploring the subject, finding out what’s available, weighing them up, looking at the ingredients, asking for the evidence, looking at long term as well as the short term effects. It’s about taking charge.
Don’t be embarrassed, or worried about being an awkward customer – this is your life we’re talking about. If you find it difficult to speak up for yourself, think of yourself as a pioneer, showing your medical team that you want to participate in the success of your treatment, proving there’s demand for a range of approaches, and paving the way for others to benefit from your courage.
To make good choices you need to take your time: you may need to stand back and take a deep breath, try to put aside your understandable fear, and your sense of urgency for long enough to look inside and see what you’re body is telling you. Somewhere in there, possibly deeply buried, is a survival instinct that will have an opinion about what to do next. Talk to it, encourage it, listen to it, discuss it with the people who are offering to support you, treat you, help you.
The key word in the sentence above is ‘people’: it’s a good idea to have more than one person on your survival team. As well as your oncologist, you may want a nutritionist, an exercise specialist, a psychotherapist, a reflexologist – you’ll know better than me what you’re drawn towards – and you won’t find the right people unless you talk to a few.
Try not to see this as a fight against cancer; try to view it as the springboard for the rest of your life. That’s what I did and, despite a poor prognosis, I’ve had 19 wonderful years: long enough to see my daughter grow up to become an amazing young woman, to celebrate my silver wedding, and to see the beginnings of a complete revolution in our understanding and approach to cancer.
Those were my dreams. What are yours? Now’s the time to make them happen. Grab hold of your life, take your time, choose your team, and plan for the long term.
HINT: Don’t spend too long in the pasta aisle!
For more options to explore, you may find the following websites useful: