How are you today?
“I am well in all the ways that really matter.”
– Akua (aka Mary Alice) Saunders MEd, MSN, CNS
My body knows why I have ovarian cancer. I’m finally listening, so now I do too. I didn’t get the answers from Western medicine, functional medicine, or even the scores of holistic healers who have shared wisdom through the years. I got the answers from empathizing with my body, which should be the most normal thing in the world. It’s not. Our culture and medical practices too often dissociate us from our embodied experience. In so doing, they sometimes hinder us from healing. Reconnecting with my body has been an unexpected blessing of this cancer journey.
A heartbreaking and heartwarming thing about being open with a cancer diagnosis is the countless people who write/call/text to share their stories. It’s always inspiring but also sad to know I’m not alone. Not by a long shot. Cancer remains an epidemic, despite so much time and money spent on research. In the reproductive cancers especially, people I’ve known for years have only recently revealed their heroic journeys. I understand why. We don’t want to be written off, which is a strong temptation in a culture that struggles so mightily with mortality. We don’t want you to see us as less of a woman or a man. We’re not. We’re still here, with as much to say as ever. More, even. I don’t know anyone who has walked the cancer journey or empathetically accompanied a loved one with the diagnosis who isn’t forever changed. As my fierce two-time cancer-beating cousin Rhonda has said, “It’s a cool club.” The coolest club you NEVER want to join.
When I was first diagnosed, I wondered, “Why me?” I’m only human. People who know me were shocked too because I diligently work at practicing a healthy lifestyle. I woke up to environmental toxicity years ago and cleaned up our family act. I cook and eat clean and thoughtfully. I teach yoga for goodness sake! In people’s responses, I also detected a combination of faint worry (if you, then me?) and unspoken hope that what happened to me was the result of a difference that would be reassuringly unique. Do I have one of the typical ~650 cancer-causing genetic mutations? No. But, it’s okay.
“Why me?” turned into “Why not me?!”
I have an unusual and powerful arsenal of tools and experiences. Although nobody handed over the Holy Grail, there were a lot of puzzle pieces to pick up and put together. I’ve been practicing that kind of work for decades, and this is the project of a lifetime for two strategists like my husband and me. It’s amazing what you can sort out these days with a headful of science, a ton of experience in healing, great support, and the wisdom of online crowds, accessible as never before. Still, none of this could happen without the unusual blessing of feeling well most of the time even in chemotherapy. Another blessing these days is unfettered access to intuition and discernment, fueled by love, encouragement, virtual healing treatments…and so many prayers. There is no way to repay it all, but maybe this is something. Maybe what I’m learning could help someone, somewhere … so here goes.
I got cancer because my immune system failed.
My immune system was distracted off and on for approximately 6 years and then acutely challenged prior to my cancer diagnosis. Random cancer cells grew unchecked. Here’s the logic:
- My body struggled with environmental toxins like heavy metals, other chemicals, and molds that don’t belong in a body. It’s a common modern challenge, and I was making good progress.
- Combining environmental triggers with unusual stress puts the immune system on high alert. That’s a double whammy. In hindsight, I can see that combo initiated Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS – see links below).
- “Are Mast Cells MASTers in Cancer?” My body says yes! Maybe not all the time, but sometimes. Although there isn’t much published yet in the medical literature, this article in Frontiers in Immunology from 2017 was prophetic. Medicine too often operates in silos, but the oncologists and immunologists should get together.
I have data on my own body through the years to support all of this logic. I reviewed countless scientific articles, putting my chemistry Ph.D. to good use once again. If anyone, including me, at any time in the months prior to my diagnosis had understood all of this, I would not have cancer. I know it. My body has told me so. How?
I feel better now than I did before I was diagnosed. Oh, not always. Chemo is brutal on a human body. However, in the low moments … when my husband holds me physically and emotionally without words … answers slip through the haze. It’s helpful that my personal adaptation to stress is to solve problems. Now that the side effects are under control, I am thankful for the life-saving growth factor drugs (Neupogen and Neulasta) that are typically required to jack up white blood cell counts to protect chemo patients from infections. And yes, it’s an especially good idea to use them in the middle of a pandemic that has ended socially before it’s physically over. But the side effects? In my case, a constant headache. Hives and itching all over. Bone pain. Waking up every 2 hours at night. The scariest one? Brain fog. Better hurry with that Googling!!!!!…..
Then, it happened. The pieces fell into place because the most revealing thing about this new discomfort was that it was familiar. For years, rather than empathize with my body, I carried on. Sometimes, I numbed, but mostly, I just carried on. Environmental toxins? Not such a big deal; we don’t have cancer in our family (yet). Couldn’t sleep? Get up early and use that time to get work done. Increasing food sensitivities? Use all that creativity to cook around them. Dealing with emotional toxicity that made my stomach tight? Do what it takes to finish the job because “this too shall pass.” Meanwhile, my immune system went on high alert. You can only live there for so long before your body really screams to get your attention.
Immune dysfunction manifests differently for different people, but the hives were particularly familiar to me. Naturopath Beth O’Hara lays out MCAS basics clearly, generously, and virtually, because there are more people suffering than she can personally help. If any of this applies to you, please don’t worry. MCAS does not ever have to tilt into cancer. There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that this may be one more way cancer won’t seem as if it comes out of nowhere, not to mention how well a healthy immune system defends us naturally during pandemics. There is so much you can do now that doesn’t cost a thing. Best of all, if any of these mysterious symptoms applies to you, you can feel better.
TO LOOK INTO MCAS AND HEALING, START HERE:
- Mast Cell Activation Syndrome 101: The Beginner’s Guide to Healing. Get the free report. Check out the common stress triggers listed (#1 is important).
When I shared these ideas with rock star integrative oncological nutritionist Michelle Gerencser from Nutritional Solutions, she said the MCAS-cancer connection makes sense for many, perhaps all, of her ovarian cancer clients. She has decades of clinical experience. So, this was empowering! We adjusted my supplements to help metabolize excess histamine and treat MCAS naturally, even now. With natural support, the symptoms dissipated almost immediately and ultimately, completely. The clouds parted. The angels sang. For the first time in months, years really, I felt an intimate knowledge about what my body needed.
Not only do I continue to feel surprisingly well, but we are also supporting/rebuilding my immune system even in the midst of the chemo assault. This way my body will continue to kill cancer cells, naturally. I know I’m on the right track because I feel good most of the time even after extensive abdominal surgery and while going through chemotherapy. Whaaa?! True story.
What does “feeling good” mean?
- Running 30 min around the track or elliptical with interval training every day
- Sleeping 6-8 hours without interruption per night
- Clear head
- Comfortable skin – some have used the kind word “radiant”…no doubt, I am benefitting from low expectations during chemo!
- Hopeful and peaceful, much of the time
- Fully enjoying cooking and eating a plethora of healthy food
- Able to focus and meditate
- (TMI WARNING: if you haven’t been touched by cancer and/or are squeamish, look away…) Textbook poop every day, sometimes twice! If you have experience with cancer, you know this is a big deal. Let’s be honest, textbook poop is a big deal for anyone over 50, really.
- Able to do ALL yoga poses, even headstand! Yay!
It’s not all in my control. I know that. Still, I’m filled with hope and powerful empathy for my body. No matter what happens, I’m healing deeply. I understand what my friend Akua means in the quote above. She’s as wise as they come. She’s equally as youthful as many decades of open-hearted curiosity and continuous learning make a person. She’s also African-American, which means she’s endured a lot in her lifetime. Even in the midst of physical discomfort, she knows what it is to be well. To be surrounded. To find joy in the midst.
I too am already well in all the ways that really matter.
I will keep fighting, living, and sharing. Perhaps some of this is helpful to you, someone you love, or the work you do. If these ideas ever resonate, and you want to reach out…I’ll be right here.
Meanwhile, more and more, I will continue to empathize with my body, listen to my soul, and take good care of my whole self. I hope you can too. It feels good.
“I tell this cancer these things:
thank you for teaching me to stop and listen;
thank you for reminding me of what is truly important.
You can go now.”
– Belleruth Naparstek, Health Journeys Meditation
Many thanks to John LeMay for thoughtful developmental edits to this post and partnership in every way. “Husband” is not a big enough word for him. Continued thanks to Rhonda Laurencelle for inspiration, encouragement, and HUMOR! Much gratitude to Akua Saunders for her awe-inspiring intuition as well as virtual healing treatments, supported by a wonderful prayer team. Thanks to Michelle Gerenscer, Dr. Mark Dabagia, Dr. Steven Waggoner, and the Block Center for ongoing and empathic healing partnership. Thanks also to Andrea C.Turner of ACT One Communications for final edits to this post.
Photo credit (and favorite headstand company): Sophie LeMay
Video credit: Rey Kirby Zullu
For more on how empathy can help us build a better, safer, and less toxic world, check out Jackie’s book: Currency of Empathy – The Secret to Thriving in Business and Life