Taking the Reins
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
After a horrific blur of tests and a week of waiting, I sat in a dark office with brown walls at St. John Westshore Hospital, a division of University Hospitals. Hardly uplifting. In a surreal state, I had been whisked into this same room two weeks prior after my mammogram and ultrasound showed multiple masses in my right breast and abnormalities in at least three of the lymph nodes under my right arm. They were certain then it was breast cancer. In my panic-stricken shock, I remember the surgeon's kindness as she hugged me. The meeting today was to discuss the biopsy results and plan of action.
Although I thought I was prepared, you are never really prepared for that kind of news: Her2 Positive Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer, Stage 3. The title is scary enough without being told that the cancer was aggressive in nature. My friend Bill held me while I cried. How could this be happening?
But there was some good news: this type of cancer responded very well to treatment-with a success rate of 60% with no recurrence. The standard protocol (a term I would someday question) was six rounds of combined chemotherapy & targeted therapy every three weeks, surgery (most likely the entire breast) radiation, and then six more months of targeted therapy alone. Even though it was a long haul, the targeted treatments (Herceptin & Perjeta) had none of the devastating side effects of chemotherapy and later I learned, were closely aligned to immunotherapy.
Neither Bill nor I were in favor of chemotherapy. Yes, it killed cancer cells but it also killed all rapidly dividing cells and left a wake of devastation in the body’s immunity and defenses. In my mind, how could this be healing?
Before the visit, I was already interested in taking an alternative route to my treatment. I had looked into clinics out West that treated cancer without harming the body. When I mentioned this to the surgeon, she shifted in her seat uncomfortably. She was okay with alternative medicine as long as it was not in place of traditional medicine.
Due to how rapidly my cancer had grown in a matter of months, she was probably right. Looking back now, my body’s defenses may not have been strong enough to battle this on their own. Having lived through years of stress, too much sugar and a disconnection from myself, I was burned out and depleted on every level. In order to fight this illness, I had to help my body regain its former state so it could heal itself.
My thinking was on par with Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of Mind Over Medicine.
“I want to make it clear that, when I talk about the body’s ability to repair itself, I am in no way suggesting that we should forgo the advances modern medicine now makes available to us. While I believe our bodies have a remarkable capacity for self-repair, I also believe we shouldn’t expect our bodies to do all the heavy lifting…”
My gut was not to forgo modern medicine. Yet, I didn’t want to destroy my body in the process. I needed to find a path that fit what I knew to be true about my journey. The best option seemed to be the targeted therapy. Would this be possible? With the absence of chemo drugs, in my gut, it felt like the right decision. Even though the surgeon said that the future of breast cancer treatment was in immunotherapy, it was not yet their standard protocol. In other words, they didn't have enough data yet. I would soon find over the next six months, that until “proven” otherwise, the medical profession grasps tightly to their data. The unknown morphs into a culture of fear for both the doctor and the patient. Even though I didn't want chemotherapy, I had settled into believing this was the way it was done.
Because the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under the arm, the standard protocol was to first shrink the tumor masses before taking off the breast. Immediate treatment also helped prevent the cancer from spreading further. From the way the surgeon spoke, many patients are fearful of not taking the breast off immediately. I already had hesitations about the dangers of any surgical procedure, so in my mind I had no such fear. That decision would come later.
In passing, the surgeon told us of medical trials being done for HER2+patients that did not involve surgery. Something sparked inside. The seed had been planted. As I stormed out of the office, I was determined. Cancer was not going to get the better of me.
To the best of my ability, I was going to take control.