Updated: May 8, 2020
One morning, one of the Cleveland Clinic infusion nurses told me that I had won the jackpot by having Dr. Megan Kruse as my oncologist. I agreed. Although I can’t take all the credit. I had prayed to be guided to the right doctor for me. Instinctively, I knew my healing path would be different. I needed someone who truly listened and respected my intuition. God chose the "who."
Dr. Kruse’s warmth and kindness shone throughout my first appointment and all those that followed. She leaned in when speaking and kept her eyes focused on me. Dr. Kruse, or her nurse, responded quickly to my calls, and I was never left in the dark, wondering. I felt supported and that I sincerely mattered. Comforting, and without a doubt, healing.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case.
Curious, I asked Dr. Kruse what brought her to such a difficult profession, and she told me how family practice had been her original path. However, in that field, she would not be able to spend as much quality time with her patients to really get to know them. It was beyond evident that Dr. Kruse really cared.
Rx: Nurturing Care
In Dr. Lissa Rankin's book, Mind Over Medicine, she discusses the impact nurturing care can make on a patient’s well-being and the body's ability to self-repair:
“Just imagine you are diagnosed with cancer. The minute you hear the word, your fight or flight responses go crazy. The word cancer is interpreted by the mind as a deadly threat. In such a state of physiological stress, the body is poorly equipped to fight cancer. It’s too busy preparing to fight and flee.
Then in walks the oncologist, who is kind, nurturing and reassuring…With calm words and gentle presence, the oncologist explains that no matter what happens, you will never be alone, that he will be right there at your side, doing everything in his power to help…He offers you a big hug or a gentle pat on the back. Even though you are facing a big surgery or months of chemotherapy, you feel better already.
Because the mind is soothed. The fear is alleviated. The stress response is turned off. The doctor convinced your brain that all will be well, or at least everything will be done to try and ensure that it will be. In such a relaxed state, the body can get busy doing what it does best-making efforts to heal itself.”
Once again, I lean to my childhood friend, Jodie Skillicorn. According to Dr. Skillicorn, author of Healing Depression Without Medication-A Psychiatrist's Guide to Balancing Mind, Body, and Soul, there are numerous studies showing a direct correlation between a doctor's level of empathy and compassion and treatment outcomes, whether allergies, blood pressure, depression or cancer. Levels of empathy perceived by patients, influences even the duration of the common cold. Compassion within the patient and physician relationship is a most powerful healing force. When doctors are overworked and functioning from a position of depletion, compassion is often lost, which harms both the physicians and patients.
My Treatment Plan
It was an emotionally hard visit as I was truly faced the severity of my illness. I spoke of my fears of chemotherapy and wanted to take a gentler approach. Although I did not say this aloud, I knew high dose chemotherapy damaged the immune system. This seemed counterintuitive to me. The breakdown of the immune system, among other things, led to my cancer. Didn’t I need to do everything in my power to strengthen immunity? My body was already sensitive to medications and this was going to be a bombardment of chemicals. But what were my options? With Stage 3 breast cancer, I was scared.
To clarify the differences:
Traditional Chemotherapy: An aggressive form of chemical drugs designed to kill all cells (including healthy) that grow rapidly and divide. This results in harsh side effects and decreased immunity. Chemotherapy damages the bone marrow, leading to decreased production of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. White blood cells are the most impacted. When you don’t have enough white blood cells, your body is more vulnerable to infection.
Targeted Therapy:Targets specific characteristics of cancer cells not just in the tumor, but anywhere in the body. In my case, cells with too many HER2 receptors. The treatment can affect normal cells, but not in the way above. Later I would learn from Dr. Kruse that this method was immunotherapy. In simple terms: the targeted treatment identified the cancer cells and then brought in the immune system to kill them off.
I asked about just doing the targeted cancer therapy, and Dr. Kruse explained that it had a higher rate of reoccurrence based on the data (which I would later learn was an overseas study). Aside from the elderly, who sometimes had a harder time with chemotherapy, it seemed very few were taking that route.
I wondered how change could ever happen if no one was willing to embark on a different path. It seemed to me that the lack of data was because not enough people were willing to take that risk. A cycle that perpetuated itself.
Little did I know, my body's decision to alleviate chemotherapy was just around the corner.
Based on my strong concerns about drugs and allergic reactions, Dr. Kruse agreed to take out the chemotherapy drug with the harshest side effects-Carboplatin. My plan: Taxotere (chemotherapy) Perjeta and Herceptin (targeted), once every three weeks for six cycles. The plan would then follow with a mastectomy, radiation, and the targeted treatment alone.
Or so it seemed…