Bonnie’s Story: Eat Well, Love Well, Be Well
I was the last person anyone expected to get cancer when I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in October of 2009. I had a normal mammogram in July, just 3 months before my diagnosis, but the cancer I have is not the kind you can see on a mammogram or feel as a lump. I didn’t discover what was lurking inside of me until I developed severe pain when it spread to my bones. I am alive and thriving 2 years after my diagnosis, when 90% of women with my situation have died. The following is some of my thoughts about why I am I here to tell my story.
After a lifetime of eating well, exercising, meditating, loving well, and having a very satisfying and successful professional life, I find myself trying to understand or at least make some meaning of this affliction. Perhaps I might have died 20 years earlier had I not been living so well prior to my diagnosis. Cancer is a sign of our times; I have learned to not take it personally. We all live in a polluted world full of toxins and carcinogens and some of us, for unknown reasons, are more vulnerable to the effects of the environment. The answer is, like so many things in life, unknown and unknowable. We have to follow our gut feelings and have trust or faith that we are doing the best that we can to care for ourselves. Gut feelings – that’s where Mark Mead enters the picture.
Working with Mark as my nutritional guide/researcher has been tremendously helpful in finding the diet and nutritional supplements that feel right and are individualized for me. But there’s much more to say about working with Mark than this simple testimonial.
Having my initial cancer diagnosis be metastatic/Stage IV (there is no Stage V!), it was considered too late for conventional chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation to be effective. It’s not that the doctors wrote me off as a lost cause, but the mainstream medical evidence actually supports not doing these things in my type and stage of cancer. They acknowledge that “once the toothpaste is out of tube” these common treatments cause more damage than benefit. In Stage IV cancer that has only spread to bones (I have no organs involved), the quality of life is better, and the body is much more prepared to deal with the cancer if the system isn’t overwhelmed by these harsh treatments. Traditional chemotherapy doesn’t target bone that well, so I chose not to do it. I am “lucky” enough to have a type of cancer that is highly sensitive to estrogen (Estrogen Receptor Positive or ER+) so the first line of treatment was to get rid of my estrogen. Bones respond very well to the presence or absence of estrogen. I chose to remove my not-yet-menopausal ovaries, and begin taking a daily pill of Arimidex, an inhibitor of the estrogen that might otherwise get produced in my fat cells and adrenal glands. Our plan was to do this simple approach and see if it would be effective before considering more extreme treatments.
Here’s the really interesting, nutritionally relevant and important part of my story: It took about 3 weeks to decide on this approach and arrange for the surgery. During that time I began my search for other treatments and to make lifestyle changes that felt complementary. I considered myself someone who had been eating well for decades: mostly organic, high fiber, tons of veggies, minimal sugar and processed foods, but I did eat some organic dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, with an occasional chocolate chip cookie fling. I woke up one day and felt from somewhere deep inside that I had to stop eating (mostly) all animal products. I became what I jokingly call a “coho-ovo-whey-vegan.” I eat my weekly dose of wild Pacific salmon, an occasional egg if I know it is of the highest quality, and I put whey protein in green drinks and smoothies. It was during this time I called Mark, the husband of a dear friend and fellow Continuum Movement Teacher, for some nutritional guidance. Mark didn’t need to convince me of the things that would be helpful to change in my diet, but he helped refine the details of how to do it and he guided me in the choice of supplements and vitamins to add to my regimen.
After 3 weeks of dietary changes and daily, prolonged periods of meditation, I began to see and feel a change in my bone tumors. The tumor that caused my sternum to bulge shrank by about 1/3. The pain I experienced began to decrease in intensity. During this time while I was waiting for surgery and had not yet begun the anti-estrogen treatment, I was still in the process of interviewing doctors and assembling my “team.” I told one of them about my tumor shrinkage, and she replied, “Well, that just doesn’t happen!” She refused to believe that what I was experiencing was in the realm of possibility. She was sure I was mistaken, but I wasn’t; I had it documented on CT scans where we could measure the change in size of the tumors before the “official treatment” had begun. In addition to my subjective experience, the difference could be objectively measured. I knew I couldn’t work with this doctor if she couldn’t believe in the out of the ordinary.
I have continued to consult with Mark and fine-tune my regimen of dietary changes and supplements. I love his combination of open-mindedness, curiosity, and common sense, along with a grounded respect for what can be addressed in the research literature.
I like to ponder the philosophical basis for how and why I have made changes in my life, especially in my diet and nutritional supplement program. It seems paradoxical, but I can’t wrap my head around doing anything as a way to fix or exterminate my cancer. I work with Mark to choose a program that is targeted for my condition, and yet I don’t want to live my life as if I’m “damaged goods.” This is quite a philosophical conundrum.
Changing my diet, along with all other lifestyle changes, is a process of inquiry and exploration. Although a disease might have motivated me to change my diet, I think I benefit most when I do things in the spirit of simply caring for myself. The potential benefits of any lifestyle change get distorted when I do it in order to accomplish something specific. In my past, if I went on a diet to lose weight, I always gained it back, but now that I am eating according to what feels right for me, I’ve lost weight and kept it off as a “side effect” of just doing what’s best to care for myself. Even though some foods and dietary supplements are known to address cancer, I’m not comfortable with being confined by a fear-based treatment protocol. I eat these “anti-cancer” foods because they feel good in my body.
When I’m working with the mystery of what goes into my digestive system and what happens with it when it is absorbed and assimilated, I have to surrender to the unknown. In spite of how technologically advanced we have become, many aspects of the inner workings of the body are not fully understood. Working with the infinite number of variables in the living human body it is impossible to be entirely scientific. Mark finds a way to respect what is known scientifically and combines it with common sense and intuition in tailoring each person’s approach. 12 women with breast cancer will need 12 different diets and treatment regimens. Working with Mark has been a great way for me as a unique individual to explore what works best for me. The answer to the questions of what to eat, and what supplements to take expresses itself differently in each person.
Becoming mindful about what I eat has been an open-ended exploration that has led to nearly miraculous improvements in the quality of my life. By carefully choosing what I eat I have cultivated an attentiveness to myself that draws on the expression of the healing forces from within. Changes in diet do not rely on healing forces from outside the body. You might say that food comes from outside the body, but once I eat it, I am in relationship to how it becomes part of me. This is incredibly empowering. It’s as if any change in the progression of cancer is a “side-effect” of nourishing the internal terrain with my relationship to food.
We all need to cultivate caring for ourselves because we long to be cared for, and not because it alleviates the fear of disease, or the disease itself. If you eat a certain way because you’re afraid of developing cancer or heart disease – your efforts are fear-based and they will eventually backfire. If you have a mammogram because you are afraid of breast cancer, don’t think you can eliminate that possibility by checking it off your to-do list. If you do some daily practice because you are afraid of a disease and you think you are somehow cleansing yourself by doing it, it won’t necessarily work. The fear is stronger and more paralyzing than the effort you make to avoid disease, especially if you are not conscious of your motivation. As long as you practice from a place of trying to change things, you might miss being informed by the necessity of how you are and what you need in the moment.
Ultimately, each of us has our own questions and answers unfold as we live our lives. Others can guide us, offer us a map, and point to a suggested path, but we are the territory. We have to choose the road and make the journey ourselves. Mark is a great guide, but he can’t make the journey for us, he can only suggest a path that has a record for helping others navigate the treacherous terrain of cancer and find their own way. This is what he does best. Mark is there to provide the container or the sacred space in which we get to live into the emerging answer.
Eat well, love well, be well.
For more reflections on life, health, cancer, and a variety of other topics, please visit Bonnie’s blog at www.bonniegintishealth.blogspot.com