The table is set and nicely filled with the meal of the day. Ann sits, straight back, eyes blazing, joining her family in an enthusiastic discussion about civil rights. Ann is 15. It is October 1963. New York City. These animated dinners would propel Annie throughout her life. Her father, siblings and friends had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the liquid, easy light of August to hear the true American Dream articulated in front of Abraham Lincoln. Ann had to stay home because she was sick and her mother remained to care for her. They witnessed history on TV. Little did Ann and her family know that we would soon be plunged into darkness that was punctuated with the killing of a generation's prince of hope -- President John F. Kennedy. A shadow was raised and Ann decided to uphold the family tradition. She became politically active. She would grow to reveal light while trying to stop an emerging black, diaphanous curtain descending upon our country. Her premiere act of disobedience was when she led a petition drive in 4th grade. Annie's first success.
Pummeling head first through high school, Ann organized a successful civil rights demonstration. In quick succession her country was lied to and bullied into an undeclared war in a small country in Southeast Asia. The slaughter of Vietnamese exploded alongside wasted limbs, lives and minds of American boys led like sheep into nightmares. The intense fires inflamed Annie's heart as she joined millions of bewildered, angry citizens using streets as their canvas of fury. Annie painted her soul with passion.
Now a college student, Anne did not go to class in order to make her voice heard. Soon, she dropped out and went to work with her mother. In the office Annie would meet the man who 20 years later would become her husband. Her wedding was the happiest and most confusing day of her life. Conflicted about her status as a "claimed" woman, Annie pushed on, got married.
Once on a cold January day, happy with life, Annie discovered a calloused area on her left breast. She went to a doctor who performed a mammogram and sonogram. Upon seeing the results, she immediately referred Annie to a surgeon just a few blocks away.
Ann saw the surgeon on a Thursday. The nurse was happy because insurance had approved the surgery. By next Monday her doctor performed a lumpectomy. No biopsy. No second opinion. Like so many others, serious illness happened fast for this 44-year-old woman. One day she was healthy, hardly seeing any doctors. The next she was told she has cancer, which almost always means an early release from this "mortal coil."
Annie's life ended. Annie's life began. "I always thought I would survive." She was certain.
When Ann visited her oncologist, she quickly learned he was not interested in her health, but rather just her disease. She was allergic to chemotherapy (who isn't?). She went so far as to get her breast tattooed for radiation treatment. Tattoo or not, she left that oncologist's office resolved to find health practitioners who were actually interested in her well-being. After Annie refused radiation, a doctor called her husband, Steve, and said his wife would die if she didn't do the prescribed treatment. Terrified, he went to his wife and told her that he was on her side and supported whatever decision she wished to make. Steve is an organic part of Annie's health.
Before there was an Internet, Annie informed herself as much as possible regarding alternative cancer treatments. The more she read the more she refused the conventional protocols.
From the beginning she shared her growing knowledge with other women who had breast cancer. The informal sharing became casual meetings. Annie was empowering herself and other women. It became clear that she embodied a healthy, optimistic relationship to her body. She immediately switched her diet to organic foods. She started acupuncture treatments with Frances H. Goodwin. She followed the Gerson program. Max Gerson had had much success in the early-mid 20th century treating seriously-ill patients through nutrition and detoxification techniques. Annie was living past expectations, although tumors kept reoccurring.
Annie had a full mastectomy. She refused reconstructive surgery. She also had some lymph nodes removed for examination. No cancer was found there, but she was left with permanent lymphedema, a probable result that she was not told about before the operation. In fact, her doctor told her that her symptoms were temporary. Later, she discovered that the lymph nodes procedure was unnecessary.
She not only thrived through CAM (Complementary & Alternative Cancer Therapies), but also gave birth to an organization/website called The Annie Appleseed Project. Her informal meetings had grown and she was asked to speak at various forums around the country. Then she was asked to speak at meetings around the world. She was a woman with "breast cancer and an attitude." Her tone is clear: Health travels many paths. But try recovering when conventional medicine believes you have an expiration date on your forehead. Annie understood the power of her idea when one day at a booth she was staffing for Annie Appleseed Project, a woman came up to her crying and said she was so grateful to Annie for the empowerment she felt after reading her website.
This woman is devoted to her mission. Anyone who has ever met her will tell you that in Annie's case, Marshall McLuhan was right -- the medium is the message. Annie's example, courage and refusal to give up control of her body are what inspire her audience. Yes, her alternative treatments were obviously very important. She says Gerson's program played a vital part in her recovery. Finally, she says it was a regimen of traditional Chinese herbs administered to her by Dr. George Y.C. Wong, a brilliant Ph.D. out of Harvard University, that helped the tumors permanently disappear.
Her journey had begun on Jan. 6, 1993. The day after Sept. 11, 2001, Annie was called by her oncologist and told that she was cancer free. She was walking downtown aware of the smell of death rising from American ruins and she started to cry. Passersby consoled her telling her she would be all right. In the center of a nightmare, Annie knew she would live.
If you wish to know more about Ann Fonfa's work, go to www.annieappleseedproject.org.