I had always thought of myself as self-reliant and, admittedly, controlling. As a disease, cancer is a vicious opponent that consistently strikes below the belt. It consumes your thoughts and strips you of your identity, rendering you unrecognizable physically, emotionally and mentally. Diagnosed with a very rare and advance stage cancer (pseudomyxoma peritonei), I didn’t have health insurance to cover the countless tests and ultimately 7 1/2 hour surgery which removed five cancer-filled organs.
A short time into an unpredictable, pain-filled and challenging recuperation period at home, I was forced to resign from my employment. Without income and falling further behind in my financial obligations, the reality of an economic fallout was swift and overwhelming. Creditors began telephoning on a daily basis and the mortgage lender (with no regard for my health challenges) proceeded to initiate foreclosure on my home. At times, this stress became greater than the pain and discomfort of enduring cancer surgery and treatment. During 12 weeks of recuperation, my cancer center took steps to provide financial assistance for the cost of my surgery, chemotherapy, outpatient visits and procedures. But it was impossible for them to diffuse or offset the increasing worry and anxiety which often is the byproduct of a life-threatening illness or event.
During visits to my cancer center, I spoke with many patients and caregivers. Fighting cancer is an individual experience. No two patients have the same response to the emotional, psychological and physical effects. Some patients actually thrive, progress through their treatment and demonstrate a positive attitude. They don’t blame themselves for their illness. Instead, they take responsibility that empowers them to learn about their disease and implement that knowledge into self care every day. It positively impacts their perspective and outlook.
Others express an illogical guilt for their illness — they choose to interpret responsibility as blame and become ambivalent about their overall health. There’s no interest in partnering with their oncologists or participating in the decisions regarding options for treatment.
At the onset of my diagnosis, I was told this stage 4 cancer was “incurable, but could be managed.” Weary from chronic fatigue, chemo side effects and the ongoing stress, I began thinking of ways to move beyond traditional treatment and cope with the increasing levels of anxiety. Something had to change cause I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Ready and willing, I wanted to improve the quality of my life and create a better sense of normalcy. I understood clearly that more than the disease itself, complications from cancer treatments (as well as stress) can be just as threatening to your health and well-being. I asked myself: How can we distinguish between what cancer does to us and what we are doing to ourselves? I couldn’t change the reality of having cancer but I could choose to live, not just exist by chance. Against improbable odds and uncertain outcomes, how do we move from suffering to action? Some draw motivation and the will to fight from loved ones, caregivers and friends. But in the seat of our soul, where faith and hope shape our convictions, one must believe not only are we worthy of a miracle but that we can indeed recover. A shift in consciousness created a shift in my perspective positively impacting my will to fight ... to survive.
Far too many in the cancer community know all cancer centers are not created equal! My surgeon, oncologist and staff were associated with one of the “top-ranked” cancer centers in a highly regarded hospital. Yet, as an outpatient or perhaps due to the timing of my diagnosis, my treatment didn’t incorporate integrative medicine as advertised.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
An advocate in the cancer community referred me to the Living Well with Cancer program at the Maryland University of Integrated Health (formerly known as Tai Sophia Institute). There, I received free acupuncture, guided meditation and emotional support in a group setting. Around the same time, I attended a wellness makeover workshop at the hospital and was introduced to the mind, body and spirit connection by an experienced and gifted wellness coach, Jennifer “Ayana” Harrison.
In very basic terms, integrative medicine refers to treating the whole person rather than the just illness or symptoms. Fully committed and engaged, I studied and embraced holistic treatments and modalities. With Ayana’s guidance, support and coaching, I made purposeful changes to my diet, added natural supplements and alkalize tablets, which supported my immune system and cellular metabolism during the two years of chemotherapy. Additionally, I put into practice effective coping techniques to release and offset the ongoing side effects, stress and emotions that were hindering my recovery from cancer.
In January 2015, I celebrated three years of being cancer free with no evidence of disease. Moving beyond traditional treatment, integrating a comprehensive holistic plan enhanced my cancer care. I coach, advocate and support other cancer patients and caregivers. It’s a privilege and blessings to pay it forward.
My message is simple: “You don’t have to feel victimized by this disease or its treatment. Empower yourself to become an active participant in your own cancer care, healing and recovery.”
Crisis can be a motivation for hope and determination. Against improbable odds, choose to fight by choice, not just exist by chance.