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Seeking the Best of Both Worlds
Seeking the Best of Both Worlds:
Straddling Mainstream and Complementary Medicine through Breast Cancer and Beyond.
By Tamara Levine,
Breast Cancer Survivor,
Author of But Hope is Longer
It would be an understatement to say I was catapulted into another world when I went from being a healthy 58-year old adult educator, wife and mother to being a breast cancer patient in 2009. As the seismic shift took over my body, my sense of self, and my place in the world, I wondered: Will I die? How will I cope with treatment? Who am I now? What happens next?
My mother knew of a naturopathic doctor (ND) who worked with cancer patients, and as I did the rounds of medical appointments following my diagnosis, I carried a scrap of paper with her name and number on it. I was overwhelmed with despair, not knowing what my treatment would entail, unsettled after an encounter with a patronizing surgeon, and frantic about wait times as I imagined where my cancer might be traveling. When I had asked the surgeon about starting treatment with chemo since the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes, he dismissed the idea and discouraged me from seeing an oncologist until after surgery. In response to questions about naturopathy and acupuncture, he said “There are lots of quacks out there trying to make a buck off of desperate people.”
It felt like there was no solid ground anywhere as I fingered the paper with the naturopath’s name on it. I had no idea what she could do for me or what I might ask. All I knew when I made the call was: a) I had an aggressive cancer and, b) she might be able to help me. By the time we met a few days later, a flukey infection in my underarm had got me in to see a respected oncologist. I was on track to start eight rounds of chemo followed by surgery and radiation.
Complementary medicine alongside conventional treatment can strengthen the immune system, fight the cancer and lessen side effects
The ND welcomed me warmly into her office and explained that she had completed specialized training in naturopathic oncology. Based on my biopsy report, the infection, and the prescribed chemotherapy, she recommended a complementary approach which included supplements to strengthen my immune system, fight the cancer and lessen the side effects of chemo. Acupuncture before and after each round of chemo would also maximize its benefits and diminish side effects. I could see her regularly through treatment and we would make adjustments as we went along. Later, we could consider the possibility of intravenous Vitamin C when I started Taxotere, known to be a particularly brutal drug, for my last four rounds of chemo.
It made sense to me. I felt reassured: if I was going to do everything possible to fight my cancer and stay as healthy as I could during treatment, I wanted to take advantage of the best that both mainstream and complementary medicine had to offer. But what would my oncologist think?
My ND lamented the lack of knowledge of naturopathic medicine by many oncologists. She warned me that patients sometimes encounter problems when their doctors are not familiar with naturopathy. Some doctors scare patients into thinking naturopathic care can undermine the benefits of cancer treatment, cautioning or even forbidding it, often with the kind of disparaging attitude I had run into with the surgeon.
I took my list of supplements to my next appointment with the oncologist, and was grateful when he had no objection to me taking them. Later, when it was time to start Taxotere, my ND and oncologist worked out a protocol for me to receive intravenous Vitamin C during my non-chemo weeks.
While my chemo experience was tough, especially during Taxotere, I am convinced that the naturopathic support I received throughout helped significantly. For the most part, I was not plagued by some of the common side effects. I was queasy and weak, but I never vomited. The L-Glutamine powder I mixed with water, swished around my mouth, and swallowed several times a day coated my digestive tract so that I did not develop thrush or mouth sores. It also protected my extremities from neuropathy and kept my finger and toe nails from breaking during Taxotere. Co-enzyme Q10 helped protect my heart that had been battered by the drug AC (Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cyclophosphamide) I received during the first four rounds of chemo. Acupuncture, concentrated compounds of green tea and mushrooms, Vitamin D, melatonin and intravenous vitamin C variously bolstered my immune system and fought my cancer.
Before each round of chemo, my oncologist palpated my tumours to see whether they were shrinking. They continued to shrink each time, and when I got my MRI results at the end of chemo, there was no more evidence of cancer. This was confirmed in the pathology report after my lumpectomy and lymph node dissection by a new surgeon six weeks later. Radiation started the next month to reduce the chance of recurrence.
My “year from hell” ended when I finished treatment and got past complications from radiation and a case of shingles. As my cancer was “triple negative”, more aggressive and not fed by hormones, there is no Tamoxifen-like drug to help prevent a recurrence. With my odds of a recurrence at one in four, I continue to be closely monitored by my oncologists. I also work with my ND on prevention of recurrence with supplements and occasional infusions of Vitamin C.
The good news is that three years later, I am well and cancer-free. I went through recovery, decided to retire and wrote “But Hope is Longer: Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer”, published by Second Story Press in 2012. Along with eating well, getting exercise and fresh air and feeding my soul, I believe that straddling mainstream and complementary medicine continues to be my best strategy to stay cancer-free and well.
"Part testimonial and part resource, Tamara takes us
on her journey through a disease of unenviable odds,
multiple therapies, and ultimately physical and personal
transformation. It is a profound testament to the possibility
of a truly integrative model of care that includes the voices
of her dedicated team of healers. Her story demonstrates the
challenges and possibilities of bridging what are often seen
as conflicting medical cultures to create a powerful holistic
and individualized therapeutic experience."
- Dr. Dugald Seely, MSc., ND, FABNO,
Executive Director, Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (OICC)