I woke up today without my beautiful breasts. Swapped them out for no cancer -- a pretty good deal for me. I had cancer on only one side but opted for removing both breasts due to my genetic predisposition. Now my mind is clear, my spirits are happy, and I know my body will come back stronger than ever.
I have had annual mammograms for decades, done self-breast exams and had genetic testing previously. I will continue my conventional medical care including at very least chemotherapy and Tamoxifen. I will also rely heavily on my naturopathic doctor, who has specialty training in naturopathic oncology to help me during recuperation from surgery, to optimize the efficacy of conventional care, to mitigate some of the side effects of that care, to further strategize about preventing recurrence and to help me stay healthy in general. And along the way, I will pick up the thread of my life with passion and purpose.
After my last HuffPost piece on naturopathic oncology, I received numerous inquires about what I meant exactly by naturopathic treatment approaches for cancer patients. To read more about naturopathic medicine in general, see an earlier post.
I would like to share here categories of recommendations that might be made to a cancer patient by a naturopathic doctor. I will follow that with a description from each category, an approach I have personally taken as a point of illustration thus far in my treatment. I look forward to additional recommendations from my naturopathic doctor to guide me through chemotherapy and the help me strategize about prevention of recurrence.
And it's worth reiterating: Such prescriptions are made in addition to and not instead of conventional care; any suggestions, recommendations or prescriptions, like all good medicine, are individualized to the patient, reviewed at regular intervals and understood in their relationship to conventional care. Naturopathic doctors are poised to work collaboratively with medical teams to offer their expertise in natural medicine.
Here are the main areas where naturopathic doctors might weigh in:
1. Nutrition: Food remains at very least one of our best medicines. One could expect recommendations on which foods are best to promote general health based on the individual person and their diagnosis. Also made are suggestions for a particular food or foods that have specific biochemical effects sought. One might also expect to be instructed as to which foods and beverages to avoid.
2. Botanical medicine: Many of our current pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, which can offer powerful and effective medicinal impact. A naturopathic doctor may recommend herbs that can be taken in a number of various forms and/or in combination with other herbs.
3. Supplements: Will likely be recommended to augment an appropriate diet and to address dietary deficiencies. Supplements may be prescribed for general purpose or for specific action. They may contain vitamins, minerals or herbs and may be utilized as single items or in combination.
4. Psychological/emotional elements: Naturopathic doctors, like medical colleagues, appreciate the role that the emotions play in health and are well equipped to refer patients as needed for that care. The field of psychoneuroimmunolgy is established and growing; it is imperative to address how the mind and emotions impact health. Many naturopathic doctors will also suggest stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, qigong, biofeedback, art therapy, movement therapy... the list is long.
5. Exercise is an important part of the naturopathic prescription for those with cancer. The recommendations are tailored to the patient, previous exercise history and current physical condition.
6. Homeopathy is a system of medicine that uses very dilute substances to address symptoms a patient may have. It can be used in a general way to support overall health or prescribed specifically for a particular set of symptoms, such as for pain management.
7. Acupuncture: Some naturopathic doctors are also trained in acupuncture and will offer that as part of a cancer prescription.
8. Depending on state licensure scope of practice rules, naturopathic doctors may have some prescriptive authority.
Understanding drug-nutrient interactions, drug-herb interaction and both the possible interfering or potentiating effect of natural medicines recommended is important and is an area where naturopathic doctors are well trained and experienced. There is a plethora of information about natural medicine approaches available to cancer patients; some accurate, some misinformed and some downright dangerous. For instance, green tea as described below may well have positive impact for some, but for other cancer patients undergoing care it may interfere and may be detrimental. For me, having a naturopathic guide, who has extensive training and expertise to help navigate my course, especially when my focus at this time is on resting and healing, as opposed to doing my own research to investigate options, has been an invaluable gift and complement to the rest of my medical care.
From each of the categories above, let me share one thing (among numerous) that I have done or am currently doing to help support and promote my healing. These are not recommendations for others with breast cancer. These were recommended to be based on my own health history, the kind of tumor I had and other factors. Please consult a qualified practitioner before taking up specific recommendations.
From the time of my diagnosis until my surgery, I had about one month. My main focus was on keeping the cancer from spreading. Each day I ate a portion of mushrooms, known to imitate aromatase inhibitors. Aromatase is the enzyme that helps to synthesize estrogen. As breast cancer requires estrogen to grow, pharmaceutical aromatase inhibitors are taken to either block the production of estrogen or block the action of estrogen on receptor sites. Mushrooms have been shown to modulate aromatase as well and to reduce cancer cell activity and slow tumor growth. As a person who likes mushrooms well enough, I enjoyed including in my diet daily.
Green tea was suggested as something to drink each day in addition to taking green tea extract. Green tea has been shown to suppress cancer cell proliferation, induce apoptosis, and inhibit both tumor metastasis and angiogenesis, the growth of blood supply to feed the tumor.
I added several doses a day of modified citrus pectin, which has been shown to be helpful in animal models to inhibit carbohydrate, mediated tumor growth, angiogenesis and metastasis.
I have been blessed with an upbeat and optimistic nature so I brought that right front and center to my cancer diagnosis. But I shored it up with mindfulness meditation, prayer, listening to music, and time with close friends to share concerns and receive all kinds of love and support.
I kept up with my exercise routine while awaiting surgery. I enjoyed many long walks in the beautiful countryside near my home, ballroom dancing and daily yoga. Since my surgery, I have had to lay low and rest more than anything, but now at the two week mark, I am back walking, to my great pleasure and satisfaction. I look forward to returning to a yoga practice, once I am further along in healing from surgery; many knew it was helpful but a recent study adds additional proof!
This gentle medicine has been a tremendous support for me especially in the area of pain management. I took three (minimal) doses of .5 mg of morphine in the 24 hours after surgery while in the hospital. But I did not like how it impacted my mind and upset my stomach. By day two post-op, I did not require further pain medication, no Oxycodone, nothing. I do not think of myself as someone who has a particularly high tolerance for pain; instead I was prescribed homeopathic remedies based upon the particular symptoms I was having at the time, to excellent effect. And that has continued to be the case in the two weeks since my operation.
I had one lovely acupressure treatment to help with a sore back and chest, which was both relaxing and effective.
When asked what else I am doing, I can report: I am eating extremely well, with lots of good animal protein helpful for healing post mastectomy. I am enjoying ample fresh fruits and vegetables for their vitamin and fiber content and cultured foods to help promote proper digestion and immune function while I sidestep both processed foods and refined sugars. I am receiving some form of gentle massage most days to help with circulation and relaxation. I am resting, napping and sleeping just as much as I can, and as directed, letting my wide circle of loving and supportive family and friends take care of me during my weeks of recuperation. I aim to begin chemotherapy in the best possible shape.
I will keep stress to a minimum while relying on stress reduction techniques to mitigate the unavoidable stressors that are part of life. I look forward to getting back to my own work as a naturopathic doctor and teacher in the field. I sorely miss my patients and students!
That cancer rates are seemingly epidemic is of concern to all; that we have naturopathic approaches to help support conventional care is imperative. My own conventional medicine team has been powerful; I am in excellent hands. As a practicing naturopathic doctor for the past 28 years, having knowledgeable and caring colleagues to turn to in my time of need has helped me immeasurably, too. I hope that if you or someone you know and loves needs the same, you will find a well educated, experienced naturopathic doctor who is board certified in oncology. Please see here to locate a qualified practitioner. Here's to vibrant health!