Having had cancer once, the most important thing is making sure it does not come back.
Many people who haven’t had cancer believe that once someone has finished formal treatment that it’s over. It’s never over. I am under no illusions that it could not come back.
I read a lot of breast cancer blogs and I’m familiar with the statistics. About 20-30 percent of diagnosed cases of breast cancer recur – regardless of the stage of first diagnosis. Early detection is no guarantee it won’t come back. If it comes back as a cancer that is metastasizing to other organs, one is doomed. Maybe not next week or next year but eventually. Forty thousand people die of breast cancer in the U.S. each year. They’re not all old. Many are very young. Many did all the right things, and it still came back.
I don’t know of statistical nuances about who is mostly likely to suffer a recurrence or when. I do whatever I can to stay in the cohort that won’t have a recurrence.
Toward that end, I undergo a ritual with my oncologist every few months. She has her check list and I have mine.
She tests my blood before each meeting. She’s looking for some markers of a possible recurrence, and she checks my Vitamin D level. Having too little Vitamin D is a risk factor for various types of cancer. People over 40 have a hard time absorbing D from sunlight, and we need to supplement. I take a large prescribed dosage, and my oncologist tells me my levels are excellent.
At each meeting, she asks me about alcohol. I’ve told her I don’t drink at all, ever, but she has to ask each time, as do all my doctors, at each appointment. That’s how important it is to not use alcohol. I’m curious about this, so I ask, and the doctors tell me it is not safe to have more than two drinks per week. Drinking more than that, they say, can increase your breast cancer risk by 20%, independent of any other variable. Allcohol use is a factor in other cancers and diseases as well.
It’s a hard sell, the doctors tell me, because many of their patients use alcohol every day. If you want to do something good for your health, just say no to alcohol.
Then we talk about the pharmaceutical drug I take and how I deal with its side effects. Some types of breast cancer cells have hormone receptors meaning that hormones feed cell growth. With these types of cancer, recurrence rates can be reduced with the use of hormone suppressing drugs: tamoxifen for younger women and aromatase inhibitors for older women. These are difficult drugs to take as they can have so many different side effects.
The worst, for me, is bone loss, though we’re counteracting that with a twice yearly infusion of a bone-building drug which is working. I also do weight-bearing exercise and eat mineral boosting broth every day.
Other major side effects can include hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia. I have acupuncture biweekly and take a daily dose of Chinese herbal medicine. I have tested what happens if I go off these herbs: I get hot flashes and insomnia. Taking the herbs, I can stay on the pharmaceutical drug.
The first year I took the AI drug, I had constant, severe pain in my hands and wrists. I could not close my fingers to make a fist. I tried all sorts of things and the only thing that helped somewhat was soaking in a bath of apple cider vinegar, which is an old folk remedy for arthritis, i.e. inflammation of the joints.
My check list includes updating my oncologist about what my cannabis MD recommends. I smoked non-intoxicating cannabadiol (CBD) cannabis daily throughout treatment. This meant I had no nausea and was able to work full time. Cannabadiol is a different active element of cannabis than the THC which causes psychoactive effects. The medicinal cannabis I use, whether it’s smokable bud or an oil extract that can be smoked or taken orally, combines CBD with a small, synergistic amount of THC.
After formal treatment, I wanted to start taking CBD oil daily as there’s some indication that it deters cancer cells. I lucked out and found a good cannabis MD who specializes in therapeutic CBD.
While I’m taking the oil to prevent cancer, within a month of starting on it, my hand and wrist pain went away.
My oncologist tells me that I am in a small minority of her patients who are thriving while taking the pharmaceutical drug. Most of her patients report feeling old, stiff, and miserable. She’s now telling them about my and another patient’s successful use of cannabadiol to reduce joint and bone pain caused by the very pharmaceutical drugs she administers. Guess what? Most of her patients won’t consider it. Perhaps they’re squeamish and think this is about “smoking pot,” so they just suffer, which is sad.
We talk about how the pharmaceutical drug is very effective at preventing tumors that are estrogen/progesterone receptor positive. I ask her each time: what about the second tumor I had that was not ER/PR positive? She reminds me that the chemo hopefully ended it.
“Hopefully” is a word I’m not happy with. That’s when she reminds me that it’s my whole lifestyle that makes it very unlikely that cancer will come back.
We do a run down: it’s my non-inflammatory, low-carb diet, keeping my immune system strong with a lot of bone broth and fermented foods, daily exercise (walking, pilates, yoga). She looks at the list of supplements I take, including maitake mushroom extract which boosts deep immunity and turmeric which is anti-inflammatory, CoEnzyme Q which is anti-oxidant. She emphasizes again that it’s great that I use no alcohol.
Where I have room for improvement is in stress reduction.
I do not believe that cancer causes cancer – if it did, most of us would be dead already. I believe that stress harms one’s immune system, and we need a strong immune system to prevent the proliferation of cancer cells, to withstand environmental pollution and pharmaceutical drug treatment.
It’s not the occasional scary event that is most harmful to health. Our bodies have fight-or-flight mechanisms to deal with an occasional run-in with lions and bears. What really wears us down is chronic, low-grade stress.
I’m learning to have better psychological boundaries and to steer clear of disturbing interactions. I take in little mainstream news and entertainment media.
My mission this year is to become more attentive to stressful thoughts and emotions as they arise, to feel how I clench up, and to inquire as to how I can let go of anything that is not medicinal.