And other very dangerous bits of advice floating around you.
"If I ever get cancer, I'll never have chemo!"
-- Lisa Febre, 2017
I was just as guilty as everyone else who has never been faced with a life or death decision in thinking that I would find alternative ways to fight cancer rather than taking the traditional medical treatments. The thought of having chemotherapy chilled me to the bone. Why would anyone invite actual poison into their bodies when, so I believed, there were other holistic options available? I was convinced that I would want to look into alternative methods of healing like those promised at the Gerson Institute, or dietary cures like the ones on the "Chris Beat Cancer" website. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence out there to prove that you can cure your cancer with lifestyle changes. I bought into all of this.
Until I had cancer.
I've become much more sensitive since my diagnosis to the amount of self-righteous and misinformed advice floating around on Facebook (because this is the social media I use with any regularity). I can hardly bite my tongue, or freeze my fingers, when I read comments saying, "Don't do chemo! You can cure your cancer by changing your diet!"
I'm sorry, but what? Not only is this statement absolutely tone deaf, but it is deadly dangerous. 99.99999% of the time, the person making this comment online is not the cancer patient's doctor, they are not privy to any medical records, and they are hardly ever a medical professional. It is a knee jerk reaction to their own mortality that causes them to write this. They are just typing away with their thumbs, comfortable in their favorite chair, completely healthy, and with no life threatening condition hanging over their head. It's easy to say, "I wouldn't do chemo!" when you are sitting by the pool, drinking a piña colada, and making plans for dinner with equally healthy friends. But when you are told, "You have aggressive, late-stage cancer," and if you do nothing you'll be dead in 6 months, you start to see things a bit differently.
If you do not know by this point, I am a life-long veg*n -- I went vegetarian at 16 and vegan at 30; I am now 49. I am also a life-long fitness buff -- I was on the varsity swim team in high school and every day since I have done some sort of exercise whether those be the years I spent riding English saddle and cycling, or my current routine of running, hiking, and yoga. I don't drink alcohol, I limit my caffeine intake; I don't use teflon coated pots and pans, or household chemicals. And to quote a line from my book, "I make my own homemade deodorant for fuck's sake!" I'm the exact kind of person who is not supposed to get any sort of cancer, much less Stage-4C Colon Cancer and a prognosis of 6 months.
Recently I learned of a woman who was diagnosed with Stage-3 colon cancer and has decided to put off traditional medical treatments to instead pursue a holistic approach. My stomach tightened into knots and I wanted to scream, "WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!" In my eyes, she was willing to bet her life on nonsense because she was afraid of chemo. Chemo is frightening. It's the worst medicine out there. But it kills cancer. Ask anyone who has survived cancer and they will list off all the conventional treatments they had. Of all the people I spoke to about their past cancers (many in remission 10+ years), not a single one attributed their survival to coffee enemas. I also personally know a few people who refused to have chemo, and let's just say they're not available to answer questions at this time.
I get very upset when I read comments on Facebook like, "Whatever you do, don't have chemo!" or "You can cure your cancer by changing to a plant-based diet." Having the healthy lifestyle that I have did not prevent me from getting cancer, so it sure as hell wasn't going to cure the cancer after I was diagnosed. The people giving this advice are frightened, yes, but they are also giving insight into just how resistant most people are to accepting that cancer is real, it is serious, and it will kill you if you don't act. Cancer is not theoretical, it is as real as real can get, and it will kill you if you don't do something to stop it.
It would be very easy for me to be disillusioned about all the benefits of being vegan, exercising, and taking good care of my body, knowing that it didn't prevent the cancer. But, the truth is, without all of these benefits going into my diagnosis, I don't know that I would have had as good of an outcome.
So if you're someone who feels the need to harass someone about their medical treatment choices, bite your tongue. Instead, read my suggestions and observations based on my experience.
1) Create healthy habits long before you get sick. Having a healthy and strong body going into an illness will help you recover quicker. All my doctors were amazed at how quickly I bounced back from each surgery, how much I recovered between chemo treatments, and how long I was able to tolerate the radiation treatments before I had trouble. Because I was already in the habit of exercising and eating right, it was easy for me to continue to do these things during my treatments when I was feeling at my worst.
Although eating well can be of immeasurable benefit to your body during treatments, food will not cure you. It will make you stronger, it will nourish your cells, and it will create the sort of environment within you that will help your body fight the disease along side the drugs.
2) Listen to your doctors. Don't listen to internet voices planting fears and doubts in your head about what your doctors are telling you. If you trust your doctor (and your medical team), then you should have no difficulty in following their guidance. If your oncologist tells you you have to have chemo if you want to survive, believe them. If they tell you the only way to live is to have a certain surgery, or to do a particular treatment, then do it. But, if you don't trust them, find new ones, get second opinions, but never ever stop advocating for your health. Once you decide that you are going to follow your doctor's instructions, don't let any outside voices dissuade you from that position.
Even while I was in treatment, there were people on Facebook saying, "Chemo is the worst thing you can do to your body." These people are not my doctors, they are not a part of my treatment team, they do not get a say. And you know what's worse than chemo? Being dead. Since their lives are not on the line, their opinions made no difference to me.
3) Survival requires a balanced approach. Finding the balance between natural and conventional methods of healing is very important. Cancer is not a cold or an injury or a thing that will go away because you stayed in bed for three days and drank some orange juice. It is deadly serious -- no matter which stage you are diagnosed. Stage 1 cancer has all the potential to turn into Stage 4 metastatic cancer if ignored and untreated. Once your oncology team is in place, everyone should agree on the best measures to take to ensure that you survive this onslaught.
My doctors were all aware of my fitness level and from the moment of diagnosis told me to continue to exercise as normal and as often as I could. They knew I am vegan and had also decided to cut sugar from my diet. They were not only supportive of both of these things, but often reminded me that these were lifelong habits that would serve to help my body cope with the treatments. Between the diet and exercise, they agreed that I was giving them the best instrument through which to do their work. Surgeries were performed to remove cancerous material from my body, chemotherapy and radiation were administered to kill what was left inside of me. More broccoli was not going to be a substitute for those treatments. It was a balance between diet, exercise, and medicine that saved my life.
“In food excellent medicine can be found, in food bad medicine can be found; good and bad are relative.”
This quote has been interpreted many ways, but I'll add my voice to the chorus.
"In food, excellent medicine can be found." Absolutely true. Put the right foods/fuel into your body and you will reap huge benefits that will help you withstand the perils of normal daily life. Make eating right a lifelong commitment, and your body will have the strength and building blocks to help in the fight against whatever injury or disease comes along.
"In food bad medicine can be found." Some interpret this to mean that some foods are poisons, but I don't see it that way. I read this as "don't rely on food as medicine" to save your life. Food is only one component of the arsenal from which you'll draw your weapons in the battle. In some cases, trying to use food as medicine would be as fruitless as using a stick of celery against an enemy wielding a sword.
"Good and bad are relative." Food is essential for strengthening your body to withstand future illnesses. Food is essential for supporting your body through present illness. Thinking all foods are equally helpful is folly. A strawberry is an amazing superfood, it is part of a healthy diet, but during cancer, the excess sugar introduced into your diet with strawberries can also encourage the cancer to grow. A strawberry is both good and bad.
Keep opinions about whether or not to accept a treatment to yourself. Until you have gone through the horror of a devastating diagnosis, endured the treatments, and felt the very real fear of dying grip your soul, never counsel someone to "skip chemo." Please don't scare them regarding the treatments they're already committed to. And certainly don't criticize their choices. No one who has cancer needs to be judged as having done "the wrong thing" when their life is on the line.