It’s been a long time since I actually talked about my cancer treatment because it’s mostly been same-old and there’s not much to say. Which is good, of course, but that means there’s nothing to blog about. The only new development was that my iron levels were low (ferritin = 13), I had a stomach-bug-like reaction to iron pills, so I got an IV infusion. The only change to my life (besides the previous week’s vomiting and… other unpleasantness) was that I went to the hospital two hours before my treatment, got a goth-looking bag of iron pumped into my veins, and then transferred into my regularly scheduled chemo area. So, not all that exciting.
However, I made the decision to look into “natural” boosts to my cancer management, and it’s time to pull up a chair because this is going to be one big soapbox rant. Hold onto your butts.
First of all, I put “natural” in quotes because I hate the connotations of that word. It is the most accurate, at least for what I’m attempting to do for myself, but it conjures up marketing strategies using a hollow word and it also implies outliers–the crunchy-granola crowd of mumu-wearing weirdos. The truth is, I’m turning into one of those crunchy granola mumu-wearing weirdos, and currently some of my closest friends are crunchy granola mumu-wearing weirdos, but I also don’t like for us to be judged on our mumu-wearing-crunchy-granola-ness.
I like my oncologist, but today, she, for the second time, really disappointed me. There’s a lot to unpack, so I need to start at the beginning.
Once upon a time, Samantha was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She was terrified out of her mind, and she turned to modern medicine to beat it into submission. Modern medicine did its job, but the thing is, cancer is not made in a vacuum. Conditions exist in our bodies that cause the immune system to be unable to kill off the rogue cells and for those rogue cells to flourish and bring other cells to the dark side. It’s a complex set of factors, and we don’t know all of those factors. We do know a few things, though.
First of all, stress allows cancer to flourish. Right out of the gate here, we’ve got something that most doctors are uncomfortable dealing with. Well, perhaps I’m being unkind because I don’t know a lot of doctors. I don’t like generalizing. But based on what I’ve experienced, medical doctors deal with the nuts and bolts of the human physical condition, and stuff like “how does the mind influence the growth of cancer?” is not something they can see, touch, or visualize. They’re trained in concrete, cold facts. And ya know, when I have cancer rampaging throughout my body, I absolutely want someone who’s going to pick the treatment that’s got the greatest chance of working, hands down. But “stress” is nebulous. It can’t be measured in a blood test (as far as we’re aware at this point). So it’s not something that doctors are trained to deal with.
Secondly, the gut is a microbiome, made up of millions of “foreign” bacteria. It’s a whole galaxy in there, of non-human creatures hitching a ride in our bodies and making sure that we’re able to poop. OK, they do more than that, but that’s a very important aspect. (Pooping is important. Everyone poops. Please someone explain this to Phoenix because she’s decided she doesn’t like pooping. I digress…) However, again, this is one place that medical science hasn’t come very far on. I know there are people devoting themselves to understanding our mysterious GI tracts, but we’re still far from being experts at the microbiome.
But! We are not robots. If a butterfly flaps its wings in our lower GI tract… Er… If things get out of whack in one part of the body, every part of the body is affected. For a very long time, I suspected that my previous food intolerance somehow had something to do with the cancer, and the naturopath I met with on Friday confirmed it. And it doesn’t take much thought to figure out why. If my guts are a mess and my immune system is worried about that, it’s not over here, doing its job in my boob. And probably, my guts aren’t the only thing that’s a mess. We have (sorry to gross you out) bacteria living all over and inside our bodies. A stronghold of unhealthy bacteria in my small intestine is going to send forces out to my skin, mouth, etc., which again, my immune system is going to have to fight.
It’s very complex, though, and difficult to understand the full pictures, especially when you come up from a system where you’re trained to think inside one particular box. If I have a problem with my heart and liver, they call in a heart specialist and a liver specialist. Those two negotiate and come up with however they’re going to treat me. But what happens when the problem is MY WHOLE BODY? My microbiome (which doesn’t have very many experts), my boob, the bacteria living on my skin (of which there are no experts on that, as far as I know), my bones, my liver…
I’m frustrated and perhaps even a little angry at Oncologist right now, but I do appreciate that we have these experts. I understand why we do. I want to have a breast cancer specialist when I have breast cancer.
Here comes some more soapbox. Get ready, it’s coming at your face.
Science prides itself on a lot of things, and one of those things is its objectiveness. Except most scientists (of which I have actually known a few since I got an undergrad degree in Physics) aren’t objective themselves. In fact, being that they are human beings and not Vulcans, they can’t be objective, and trying to claim that they are is silliness beyond silliness. I mean, it’s a fine goal to have, but more along the lines of, “In this experiment, I will interpret the results without bias,” not, “I will live my life as though I am an AI.” The problem is that many people tell themselves that they are paragons of logic and unbiasedness, and those are the people that are least likely to be logical and unbiased. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge its existence. Acknowledging that you’re a human and therefore have subconscious biases is the first step in actually overcoming them.
So somehow along the lines, one of the biases that is baked into modern science is this notion that human beings are not and should not be part of nature. Being that our Western society is built on a Christian foundation, I suggest that this is due to Jehovah supposedly granting “dominion over” the earth.
Here’s the thing.
Here’s the thing.
I used to be a project manager. Twelve years, managing high-value projects (my last project was twelve million dollars), mostly for large banks. So I know some things about “having dominion over” people.
It does not mean that you are better than them. It does not mean that you know more than them. It does not mean that as soon as you’re given your project team, you fire them all and go shopping for a new and different project team that’s going to make you more money–which is exactly what science has done.
I mean. Look. Even science itself asserts that we’re animals. But then when it comes to medicine and pharmaceuticals, we somehow forget that.
(And don’t get me wrong, I knew project managers who had that very attitude. “I rub elbows with upper management; therefore, I’m better than you riffraff people who code!” Except those riffraff can fuck your project up royally if you treat them like shit. “Oh we’re delayed a month and hemorrhaging $100,000 a day? Sorry, my kid has the flu, can’t come in for the next week.” I’m digressing again.)
This metaphor is a bit tenuous because I pretty much just had a tree calling in sick to work, and that’s not what I’m getting at.
To get back on track: to have dominion over something does not mean that you are different, higher, or better than them. It means you have more responsibility than them, and if things are going south, it’s your job to fix it. Their job is to do the things they’re good at (code, plan, test, upload it to the live servers, etc.), and your job is to make sure that everyone’s talents are being used at their fullest capacity.
So what have we done to use nature’s talents to its fullest capacity?
Well, we’ve decided that because herbs can’t be patented, there’s no reason to spend money on clinical trials of them. We’ve decided that if it’s not something we can see with a microscope, it doesn’t exist. And we’ve decided that rather than treating our bodies like an ecology of many diverse parts that require careful balancing, we’re going to treat them like they’re separate parts of a malfunctioning computer.
So that’s pretty much fail.
And this is why I’m angry at Oncologist. Not necessarily because it’s her fault, but because the system she’s been trained in believes all this nonsense that “natural” (ugh, that word again) remedies are worthless.
I’ve been exhausted ever since chemo ended June 2018. I have tried to tell her that, and she’s not hearing me. However, it’s not necessarily her problem to fix, so although that was the first thing I got angry with her about, I can’t especially blame her. I should have gone to my family doctor to get it checked out earlier.
However, what happened is that at the end of August, I took Morrigan for her 5 year appointment and just mentioned that I basically lay on the couch all day and sleep 10-12 hours a night and still feel tired to the point of pain. Family Doctor was like, “Uh, that doesn’t sound right,” and sent me for blood tests. That’s when I discovered that I have low ferritin levels and the iron pill saga began. I tried four different types of iron, three of which royally screwed up my digestive system, and one of which is cost prohibitive to take in the amount that I need it. ($45 per week until my iron levels are normal, which is not covered by insurance because of couRSE “NATURAL” REMEDIES ARE NOT COVERED BY INSURANCE.)
I started thinking about how I really should be looking into other physical factors causing my tiredness and, admittedly, cancer. My last scans came back that my liver tumors and most of my bone tumors are gone, but there’s still some lesions on my neck and my breast tumor has shrunk slightly. One of the books I read when I was first diagnosed was Radical Remission, which is case studies of people whose terminal cancer reversed itself. The author outlines nine factors that exist in most of the cases. I went down the “finding reasons for living” and “getting my spiritual house in order” paths because I didn’t really want to deal with the physical factors (but that’s a whole other story). After my last scans, I started thinking that I don’t want to wait until something changes before I go get my shit together. Desperately running to mumu-wearers as a last resort is not exercising forethought.
Like I said, my first appointment with Naturopath was on Friday. Before I went, I was asked to fill out about ten pages of medical history. I was also asked to write a list of my entire work history and “ALL Medical Diagnosis, Infections, Stressors, and Traumas (Physical, Mental and Emotional). Please be specific and include year.”
That was rather emotionally draining, although I’d been preparing for what felt like a final exam since I started my shadow journey deep into my psyche and past about a year and a half ago. I used bullet points and it ended up being five pages long.
Naturopath spent almost the entire hour listening to me talk about my medical history, asking questions, and taking lots of notes. Contrast that starkly with what happened during my first Oncologist visit: She told me what treatment we’re doing, hooked me up with the oncology wing tour, and reassured me that Herceptin and Perjeta work well. There was a breast exam at one point, but it seemed sort of pointless because I’d already had a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy confirming it.
But here’s the thing. The thing that’s taken me like 2,000 words to get to.
That’s what you do in emergency situations, and modern medicine is extremely well-equipped to deal with emergency situations. However, after the emergency has passed, we need to have option to pass into people who are experts in wellness maintenance–and that, I propose, is what we need to start acknowledging is what “natural” medicine can do well.
But I need to explain a little bit further about why I’m proposing that modern medicine is for emergencies.
Chemicals. The backbone of our medical system.
Someone please explain to me why we are giving ourselves chemicals to mask symptoms instead of working with the “project team” that the earth has supplied us with, to solve the underlying problem. If you have a headache, it’s not because you have an aspirin deficiency. (Props to my writing BFF Wendy Nikel for that one.) Is it because you’re dehydrated? Tense from staring at the computer all day? Developing a brain tumor? Not getting enough sleep? All very different causes, with very different solutions.
I’ve started taking an herbalism class online. (I did mention about how I’m turning crunchy granola, right?) One of the instructors talked about how the majority of the time spent by sea otters is grooming their fur. Because they live in cold water, if something goes wrong with their fur, then they’ll quickly get sick and die. So they spend their time engaged in actual, real self-care to keep themselves alive.
Like, whoa, man.
That viral tweet that smacked me in the head a few days ago just gained a few more paradigm shift points: Is it actually self care, or is it consumerism you’ve been trained to believe is self care?
Self-care isn’t about throwing on Netflix at the end of the day and “allowing” yourself to pig out on a Ben and Jerry’s. Yes, maybe sometimes it is. But it’s also about brushing your teeth and getting enough sleep and sitting in the sunshine and eating your vegetables (and herbs!). All things that aren’t necessarily about mental health but about physical health, and maybe a whole bunch of things that aren’t actually enjoyable to do but keep us alive much longer.
We, as a society, are terrible at self-care in general, but physical self-care in specific. All roads lead back to modern medicine.
Naturopath is sending me for a blood workup, and he’s suggested two things: what he calls an “adrenal boosting shot,” which is a bunch of commonly low vitamins in cancer patients, and an IV of white-berried mistletoe, which combats cancer treatment side effects and in some cases, has been shown to help shrink cancer.
And here’s where shit started to go down.
I explained this to Oncologist today, and she had four things to say about it. First, maybe I should just take vitamins orally. (OK, but my insurance doesn’t pay for that. See above.) Second, there’s not a lot of evidence for any of those things. (Fantastic. Why is that? Because nobody wants to pay for it because it’s not going to line the pockets of Big Pharma? Well, that’s pretty shitty for me.) Third, two years ago, some naturopath in the states killed a woman with an IV medication because they’re not as stringently regulated. (This is the one that upset me the most because it feels like a scare tactic–and it did scare me.) And finally, why don’t I just start exercising more?
I literally cannot get off the couch all day. She is not hearing me. Kevin and I plan our lives around, for instance, the days that I go to my physiotherapist for my back issues. I’m gone for less than an hour and a half, and I end up napping when I get home, barely am able to sit at the dinner table for the whole meal, and sometimes am unable to tuck the girls into bed at night because I’m so tired. There is something else wrong than me not exercising. Maybe that something is the damage that chemo did. Maybe it’s something else. But when I explained this to Naturopath, he asked a bunch of questions about that. He didn’t just tell me that being the mother of twin toddlers is tiring work, like Oncologist did.
Now, absolutely, neither of these people are representatives for their professions. There are oncologists who listen and naturopaths who, well, kill their clients. But that’s the thing. I have to decide what’s best for me, and I can’t be handing my health over to someone else to resolve. Oncologist is not helping me, so I need to find someone who will. To be fair, I haven’t exactly given Family Doctor a chance, but that goes back to what I think the domains of “modern medicine” and “natural medicine” are.
You pump yourself full of chemicals in an emergency situation. You don’t get a paper cut and shove a steel pin into your finger. You keep it clean, maybe put a bandaid on it, maybe a little bit of salve. You let nature (of which we are, as I have previously mentioned, a part) do its work.
And nature has supplied us with a wondrous bounty of support. I’ve done twelve videos (out of eighty-nine!) in my herbalism class, and I’m up to my eyeballs in ways to support healthy living. The really freaking cool thing about herbs is that most of them don’t have the interactions that drugs do with each other. So for instance, you could start taking cinnamomum cassia (regular old kitchen cinnamon) capsules for your diabetes along with Metformin–as long as you keep an eye on your blood sugar and make sure you don’t end up going overboard. (P.S. It’s still a good idea to tell your doctor you’re trying it.) And if it works for you, which it might or it might not because WONDER OF WONDERS WE’RE ALL DIFFERENT AND OUR BODIES RESPOND DIFFERENTLY, you can go off the chemicals and get rid of the nasty side effects.
“But” I hear Past-Me saying. Yes, I used to be incredibly skeptical about this. There were a lot of things I was skeptical about. But the one thing that always bothered me was–why would these people throw away their money on something that doesn’t work? I certainly don’t want to. As you might recall, I tried CBD oil. That was a whole saga, but after a year, it just wasn’t working. It was supposed to work. The cannabis company would like me to continue trying different products and amounts. But my body didn’t respond to it, and I don’t like wasting money on shit that doesn’t work.
Now, does that mean it doesn’t work for anyone? No. It means that this vehicle my soul is hitching a ride in for this life is a unique snowflake, and I need to care for the body I have, not the body I wish I had.
And that’s the thing. Most people are smart enough to spend money on things that work. Experiment, try something new, see if it works–and if it doesn’t, move onto something else. I used to scratch my head and think, “Oh, this is all pseudoscience and obviously placebo effect or ignoring failure.” Except. That’s a pretty arrogant, asshole thing to think. The majority of people aren’t idiots, even if that’s what we’re trained by society to think about people who don’t share our viewpoints.
So trying it out what I’m going to do. Despite how negative Oncologist was about this and how conflicted I was when I came home, I’m going to give it a go. I mean, honestly, if it’s my time to die from a fluke infection from an IV, I guess it’s my time to die. I could walk outside and get hit by a meteor. But despite what she was implying, naturopaths are regulated. Sure, some of them are kooks. It’s much easier to be a kook and be a naturopath than to be a kook and be a doctor. Still, that’s a lot of the problem–people love love LOVE to focus on the negative. So of course scientists/medical professionals are going to pick out the snake oil salesmen from the lineup and write blog articles about them.
But I’m not living my life like that anymore. And I’m not living my life like a pill is going to solve my problems. My body is a complex ecology of factors, and I want to work to get it back into a healthy balance, not jam metal rods into my face and limbs until I contort myself into the shape I want. Since modern medicine is utterly unequipped to help me attain healthy balance, I have to look elsewhere.
It’s just a shame that I, a freaking cancer patient, have to be caught in this ridiculous turf war between medicine and “natural” health providers.