Lying there in the hospital, recovering from my colonoscopy, I didn't feel how I'd imagine I would after being told that I had cancer. I felt focused and peaceful. I had turned 36 exactly one week before, and until recently didn't even know where my colon was. Maybe I was so relaxed because of the anesthesia that was quickly wearing off. Perhaps I was in shock. My mother stood there, disquietingly calm, possibly in shock as well.
I had been having abdominal pains and other discomfort for about a year when I finally took a day off from work to see my doctor. I had visited her for a full check-up months prior. That day she looked me squarely in the eyes and asked if anything else was wrong. It flew through the back of my brain to tell her about the pain and other symptoms I'd been experiencing, but I shrugged it off and said, "No." Now I had stage three colon and rectal cancers (one tumor in each area of my digestive tract), and was playing "Beat the Clock."
My gastroenterologist, who had performed the colonoscopy, handed us a piece of paper with three surgeon's names on it. He told us that one of them, a doctor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, was who we needed to try to enlist above all others. It never occurred to me to try to proceed without surgery. When I did successfully get in to see the preferred doctor, and he recommended chemotherapy in addition to surgery, I never thought to say "no" in favor of nontraditional treatments. I knew that he had seen many cases of cancer, that he was one of the top surgeons in the world. I trusted him. However, I had an almost instinctive drive to balance the surgery and chemotherapy with nontraditional treatments. As much as I knew I had to fight the cancer, I knew that I had to nurture my mind, body and spirit at the same time.
Chemotherapy is an attack on the body that levels all in its path. I was constantly nauseous; it was excruciatingly painful to touch anything cold; I was exhausted; and I was weak. I couldn't leave my apartment for days at a time. There are different chemotherapies for different cancers. Each one is brutal in its own way. A woman I spoke with once had cardiac arrest as a result of the type of chemotherapy I was being treated with. She survived. Some don't.
As the chemo began to move through my body, murdering cells bad and good as it did, I visited a visualization specialist, Dr. Catherine Shainberg. Her training was deeply rooted in Kabbalah and she spoke in quiet tones, describing scenes for me to picture in my head. They brought a great sense of tranquility, positivity and spiritual health to me when I sat down and followed her instructions. I could sometimes feel a physical difference after being still and focusing on the dreamlike mental paths she'd send me down.
I wanted to do yoga while I was being treated, but wasn't sure what I would be able to handle while undergoing chemotherapy. I discovered restorative yoga, which allows the body to relax in a few restful positions for long periods of time. It seemed ideal for what I was going through, nurturing rather than exerting the body. I found an instructor named Amanda Zapanta of Lady Bird Center where I live in New York City. We met in a small sunlit room at a yoga studio for private sessions. I'd leave feeling energized and embracing the sun. The flow of energy would move around the toxic cells and chemicals, reinforcing my life, rather than fighting death. And I knew I needed both.
I had been vegan for a few months when I was diagnosed, and I was certain that it was the best thing for the animals, the planet and my spirit, but I hadn't done much reading on veganism in relation to my health. While going through chemotherapy, I learned of the book "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell, which is about the possible relationship between eating animal proteins and illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. I stood even more solid in my vegan stance.
At Sloan-Kettering, I picked up a pamphlet on their "Integrative Medicine" offerings. Integrative Medicine encompasses therapies that aren't considered traditional medicine. The hospital hosted holistic health counseling, acupuncture, massage, meditation and yoga classes. I signed up for the holistic health counseling and acupuncture. I hoped the acupuncture would help with the many side effects that chemo brought with it. Even when it was a struggle to physically go to the appointments, I looked forward to them. I'd lay there calmly, breathing into my belly the way I'd been taught in yoga classes. The needles usually didn't hurt and I only felt slight pressure while I lay with them in me. During the sessions, the tingling in my hands and feet (neuropathy brought on by the chemo) would go away.
I don't believe I would have survived these cancers without chemotherapy and surgery. At the same time, nontraditional therapies helped me stay strong physically, mentally and spiritually -- just as important to my survival and healing. Without a strong body and spirit, I may have succumbed to the disease, the chemotherapy or an infection. There is so much ancient cultural knowledge available to help heal and strengthen us. And there is so much modern medicine available to help us survive. Incorporating the best of both worlds removed the cancer away while keeping me positive and strong.
A great resource for nontraditional therapies in the face of cancer is my.crazysexylife.com.