I chose the Western medicine approach to treat my cancer. It’s certainly not the only way and frankly, I’m not convinced it’s the best way. The data for my proposed treatment (surgery, chemo and radiation) for my diagnosis (Stage 1 Anal cancer) was extremely promising in terms of its “success rate.” The doctors wanted to go with the “surest thing” and after some soul-searching, I decided I wanted to as well. Of course, there is no such thing as a “sure thing” when it comes to cancer, but I found myself skeptically AND eagerly (yes, both) buying into the party line.
This didn’t preclude me from using other methods of treatment to ease my symptoms, and I would encourage anyone undergoing cancer treatment, to the extent they can afford it, to explore any and all ways of FEELING BETTER. So much of cancer and its treatments can be so ungodly awful. My motto was: go for what feels good. Unabashedly.
Acupuncture was one of the ways I eased the feeling of heat in my body which resulted from radiation. According to Eastern medicine, too much yang energy was accumulating throughout my meridians. My acupuncturist chose points on my body that would help that yang energy flow more freely through, and eventually out of, my body.
Acupuncture also eased some of my gastrointestinal distress. Sometimes I’d go in complaining of diarrhea; other times the exact opposite. After treatment, my system would move closer to a happy medium, if only for a few days. But even a few days of normalcy in this department was a blessing.
There were some disadvantages to acupuncture though: having to travel to yet another location for treatment, the needles (I personally don’t mind them, but for some people, especially when your body’s sensitivity might already be heightened, the needles can be too much), the additional cost (not covered by insurance, although some plans DO cover acupuncture), and the fact that the relief achieved can be subtle. I definitely felt better; however, it typically did not last as long as I would have liked. Having said that, the temporary reprieve was worth it…to me. You get to decide for yourself. For a few weeks, I visited an acupuncturist three times a week. When it became way too uncomfortable to get in the car and travel (even though someone else was doing the driving), I terminated acupuncture treatment. And I missed it.
EMOTIONAL FREEDOM TECHNIQUE
Emotional Freedom Technique (also known simply as “EFT” or “tapping”) also came in handy. EFT involves tapping gently with your own fingers on certain acupuncture points which tend to generate quick and sometimes profound relaxation. Merely tapping on these points while doing some deep, relaxing breathing can bring on a feeling of ease and peace.
Don’t underestimate the mind-body connection when undergoing cancer treatment!
Attitude counts for a LOT. Anxiety, fear, worry, even physical pain (which can be exacerbated by the first three things mentioned in this sentence) are worth addressing, and EFT is one user-friendly method that gets results. If you’re curious, I produced a 4-part series of videos back in 2011 about my intro to EFT as well as instructions about how to do it. Here’s the link to Part 1. If you watch all 4 parts, it will take you a little over half an hour. [NOTE: the contact information given at the end of my videos is no longer current. If you wish, you can reach me privately at: email@example.com.]
Another great source of information about EFT is The Tapping Solution.
MEDITATION & VISUALIZATION
I had lots of down time, spending days and nights in my bed, not even having a television to distract me. For a period of about three weeks, even holding a book to read in bed was more than my body could handle.
I searched for some guided meditations, audios that I could download onto my phone or laptop. I made myself as comfortable as possible lying down, closed my eyes, and allowed someone’s soothing voice to take me to a blissful place in my mind. I gave myself permission to fall asleep, which happened more often than not. My body-mind-soul clearly needed it. If you have no experience with meditation, beginning with guided meditation is a gentle way to start. [There are audios and apps on iTunes, videos on YouTube; just Google “guided meditation” and you’ll have lots of choices.]
Mostly though, I meditated without being guided by someone else’s voice. I’ve been meditating for years, so this was easy for me. When meditating on my own, I became aware of my breath, just allowing its natural rhythm, noticing my thoughts (if they happen to pop up, which they always do) and letting them go. Little by little, my breathing would dive deeper and happen at a more relaxed pace. The layers of worry/anxiety/fear would melt away, never completely gone, but certainly lighter.
I would use the opportunity of relaxed mind and body to visualize my cancer, surrounded by white light, getting smaller and smaller. I would visualize my areas of pain which would start out as red and hot, slowly cooling down. Sometimes I even visualized myself in an igloo, or walk-in refrigerator, or under a cool waterfall. I swear to you; it helped.
The beauty of meditation is that I could do it any time, any place. Not that I was getting around much! But I could close my eyes during radiation and meditate. I could close my eyes while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, or a CT scan machine, or before getting my blood drawn (every week), or hooked up to chemo, and meditate. This helped me to relax and feel more positive about my experience. Who doesn’t want that?
I live in California and have legal access to cannabis for medical for medical purposes. [Update: Cannabis for recreational purposes has since also been legalized, so a prescription is no longer necessary.]
For me, medical marijuana was very effective for my nausea, which in my case was intense but gratefully didn’t last very long. My chemotherapy treatment – relative to other cancers – was short and sweet: two 4-day rounds and that was it. Most breast cancer patients, by contrast, have a very different relationship with chemotherapy; it can go on for months, and so can the nausea. The cannabis also helped with my appetite, which can become an issue if you are throwing up everything you eat or can’t even get yourself to take in tiny bits of food. This can lead to dangerous loss of nutrients and weight when your body is already struggling to fight an aggressive disease.
Cannabis – in any form: smoking, vaping, eating or ingesting – can definitely keep that nausea at bay. In my case, this was helpful, because the nausea medications recommended by my docs were all constipating. The cannabis was not. I experimented with “edibles” (anything you can eat or ingest that is infused with cannabis) because I didn’t want to smoke or vape. I looked for the lowest THC content. THC is the psychoactive ingredient of the plant that gets you “high.” Unfortunately, when I get “high”, it’s more like a feeling of anxiety and even paranoia…not exactly what I was aiming for. I looked for a high CBD content, the part of the plant that offers the medicinal properties I wanted.
I personally did not have great results with cannabis as far as pain management was concerned. But there are oils, including Rick Simpson oil (Google it and make your own decision about it) which can be used topically as well as internally (for instance, in the form of suppositories), for pain. I know of one woman who had anal cancer like myself, and she swore by the stuff. The Rick Simpson oil had too much THC in it for my taste, but there are other oils available that have no THC content, only CBD. I did not get around to trying these.
If you have legal access, and you’re unhappy with the medications you are being offered by your doctors (for pain, nausea, anxiety, loss of appetite…), do yourself the favor of at least trying it out. Of course, discuss this with your medical professionals. My doctors all said “Go for it!” They could not legally prescribe it, but I had their blessing. [Update: Now that cannabis for recreational purposes has been legalized in California – and other states – this is not even an issue.]
There is the community of people who are directly responsible for your care: your medical team, family, friends, neighbors. But there is also the community of other cancer patients: those who have been through it, those who are going through it, and those who have just been diagnosed, who can also be a source of camaraderie and support.
I was blessed to have the Cancer Support Community (CSC) nearby in Walnut Creek, California. I imagine it’s not the only place like it in the country. If you have cancer, ask your doctors about sources of support, not only within the medical center where you are receiving treatment, but also out in the community. At the CSC, they offer classes about cancer itself, nutrition, cannabis, you name it! There are meditation, tai-chi, pilates, yoga and Feldenkrais classes. All of their classes involving physical movement are gentle and easy on the body, and tend to generate energy rather than wear you out. There are knitting, art, drumming, writing and other groups where the focus is not your cancer (although cancer often comes up as a topic of casual conversation), but rather a shared love for a craft or artistic expression. There are support groups for patients and separate groups for caregivers. There are even support groups for specific cancers (breast and prostate, for example).
And all of these services are offered to both patients and caretakers FOR FREE. Can you imagine?! (Apparently, someone did, and then made it happen!) The CSC receives no government funding. Most of the people working there are volunteers who have battled cancer themselves, or have cared for someone who has. They do a few fund-raising events throughout the year and I imagine they receive grants and gifts from private sources. I’ve added them to my will.
The value of what they offer cannot be measured in any tangible way. All I know is that the people I encounter there are now “my people.” When you have cancer, it’s good to know you are not standing alone, and it’s better than any medicine to look into the eyes of someone else who has fought, endured and won the battle. I look forward to the day when I have the energy to pay it forward in some way.
It’s so easy to slip into despair when undergoing treatment for cancer. There is no need to be apologetic about it. Because frankly, cancer sucks. Big time. It tested my patience, my emotional and physical endurance, and my faith (not in a religious sense because I am not affiliated with a particular religion, but in terms of being able to sustain hope).
People who haven’t been through this see us – cancer patients – as courageous and brave, but honestly, my experience felt more like barely trudging through and feeling utterly beleaguered and terrified. Perhaps that is what courage is: being scared and putting one foot in front of the other anyway. Some days very consciously; other days quite by accident.
During the peak of my pain (which lasted about two weeks), I just wanted it to end. “It” being the pain, but sometimes “it” being my life. Wanting to die is not unusual. The desire for permanent relief can last weeks, even months. If you have these thoughts and they seem to persist, find someone to talk to about it. A good listener. Someone who isn’t going to get all freaked out, someone who won’t judge you. Sometimes that person is your spouse or parent; sometimes they’re the absolute worst because they’re too invested in your continuing to breathe. Sometimes that person is the nurse you see most often during your treatments. Sometimes that person is a trained psychotherapist. You’ll know who’s best for you.
A nurse said to me, early in my treatment, “When you are feeling like shit, when it seems like you can’t possibly take it any more, know that, in that moment, your cancer is more miserable than you are.” This thought, at times, gave me a certain sadistic joy. And it was all I needed to hang in there one more day. Or one more hour. Or one more minute. And then another.
Information. Support. Attitude. These were key for me to get through my cancer experience, so I sought out whatever grew my treasury of information; I surrounded myself with support and unapologetically asked for help when I needed it; I tried every tool in my toolbox, and explored new ones, to manage my mood and attitude.
I identified what helped me pivot away from the panic and the pain and the pessimism.
I could have explored many, many other routes to healing. It is such a personal choice how one navigates through cancer, and it is my strong belief that every single cancer patient has an absolute right to choose his or her own way. Even to completely reject the medical establishment’s recommendations. Even to reject treatment of any kind altogether. Even to choose an earlier, dignified death.
I heard a story from an elderly couple (she is in her late 70s; he is 80-something) in one of my support groups. The husband has a late stage of an aggressive cancer and his loving wife is his primary caretaker. A number of their friends stopped talking to them because the husband had chosen to get chemotherapy and these “friends” were rabidly against chemotherapy. I felt so badly for the couple, (1) because this sweet old man had cancer, (2) because people they had once considered friends had abandoned them during their greatest time of need, and (3) because these “friends” didn’t just retreat silently; they gave this couple verbal hell for pursuing chemo! Excuse me? I understand that chemo is not the be-all and end-all of cancer treatment, and that it can make matters worse because of its undeniable toxicity, sometimes even leading to other cancers. But I am of the very strong opinion that people get to decide for themselves, and the choices are often between a rock and a hard place. What this couple needed more than anything was compassion and a little bit of kindness rather than judgment and criticism.
The alternatives I’ve mentioned in this post worked for ME. Consider them. Consider others. And then use them or reject them. The choice is always yours. But do surround yourself with loving, helpful people who are on board with your strategy. Do what feels good and feels right. Remember to laugh. Healing. Listen to music. Healing. Give a hug. Get a hug. So, so healing. Above all, be gentle with and compassionate towards yourself.
I, for one, know that no matter how you are feeling, you are doing your very best. That’s all anyone has the right to ask of you. Including you.
NEXT: PART IX: Recovery’s Gifts