EnCognitive: Tell me a bit about yourself.
LJ: I am a writer and an animal artist/advocate. My background is not in medicine, but I have had an active interest in health matters and in botanical and natural medicine since my teens. Despite my general good habits I became a 'health nut with cancer' five years ago. Different types of cancer have hit many family members, but I was the first with ovarian.
EnCognitive: What made you want to write a book on cancer? Did you have cancer yourself, know anyone else who did?
LJ: The idea of chemo was contrary to everything that I understood scientifically about healing, or sensed intuitively about my own body, but at the time of my diagnosis I was too scared and too debilitated from surgery to find a better solution. The mixed blessing of insurance coverage had placed me in a conventional cancer hospital where I was strongly advised to do the customary drug cocktail for my type and stage - and to start immediately. I wanted to handle my cancer differently, less brutally, but I was just unable to figure out how. Lack of information, combined with great fear of a cancer death, led me to take the conventional treatment route, by default.
Once on this protocol I quickly realized that the restorative powers I needed to heal from major cancer surgery were now being seriously depleted by the two chemo drugs, and I suspected (and I was right) that it would take years to undo the deep, compounding damages. My focus shifted from surviving cancer, to surviving treatment. I saw that, despite how nice many of the workers are, our cancer care system is not about healing - certainly not the kind of healing that transforms a body into an organism that effectively self-polices cancer and its recurrence. I promised myself that if I survived, I would write a pamphlet that provided other newly-diagnosed cancer patients with concise info about accessing alternative healing resources.
But my cancer education deepened and widened over time, and I realized that an understanding of the history and workings of the cancer industry forms a persuasive, logical argument for seeking solutions superior to those offered by conventional oncology. Having been one myself, I feel that patients at the diagnosis crossroads are in the best position to intelligently choose a fight strategy when we view natural cancer medicine in its larger scientific and philosophical context, so that we're not just driven to alternatives by our fears of chemo and radiation. Knowledge is a better rudder than fear. If what we really want is to heal, and not just survive, then we have to look at a much bigger picture of cancer and cancer care than the limited one conventional oncology will show us. Even in the so-called information age, this is still not happening in most cases today. And so my pamphlet grew into a large, comprehensive book in 3 parts: Cancer For The Rest Of Us - A Necessarily Flawed Guide For Epidemic Times.
EnCognitive: What made you decide to look into alternative cancer treatments?
LJ: I have always approached my health in a holistic way, and I view conventional medicine as a component of a more comprehensive integrative medicine. But even though I incorporated chiropractic, acupuncture and certain supplements into my initial cancer plan, surgery and chemo left me with many health problems to repair and that was when I began investigating alternative cancer treatments in depth. I understood that oncology wasn't capable of cleaning up the toxic waste site it had made of my technically cancer-free body.
I see surviving cancer as the beginning of a life-long challenge to both prevent its recurrence, and to heal the damages routinely caused by surgery, chemo and radiation. In researching the book I learned that my risk of developing cancer again had been significantly increased by the chemo drugs themselves. Even the American Cancer Society acknowledges this tragic and too-common consequence of treatment. I think very few patients really understand this risk going into the toxic treatments their doctors so enthusiastically recommend, but once realized, it is a very bitter pill to swallow.
I am a treatment survivor as much as a cancer survivor, and five years after diagnosis, my orientation to cancer nowadays is basically as a big chronic prevention project. Conventional oncology has little to offer patients like me who manage their health according to a more expansive prevention/treatment/healing concept; it is myopically limited to only a few narrow bands of the wide legitimate cancer science spectrum. Because of the legal and corporate strengths of the sprawling cancer industry, everything 'unconventional' gets lumped together as 'alternative' cancer treatments, and it's within that surprisingly broad field of options that I find most of my healing and maintenance strategies.
EnCognitive: Did you speak with other cancer patients in a similar predicament as yourself?
LJ: During the course of writing and researching my book I have talked with a great many cancer patients. Everyone's story is different, with certain frequent common themes. But I would say, unfortunately, that the vast majority of cancer survivors I've spoken with are not aggressively acting to prevent recurrence or to understand and heal the damage their conventional treatments caused. I don't feel that situation will improve as long as we unquestioningly embrace the cancer industry's powerful PR messages. We are constantly told about great treatment breakthroughs, and shown images of victorious survivors whose lives seem good as new after treatment at a certain cancer facility, as though these things typify the cancer experience - but they don't. Most patients lucky enough to survive treatment are encouraged to just move on with their fingers crossed, hoping it never comes back. Beyond the obvious general advice about smoking, diet and exercise, oncologists aren't trained to educate their patients about how to proactively prevent recurrence or minimize risk. And our society has developed a disproportionate emphasis on controlling thoughts and attitudes when dealing with cancer, while under-utilizing the actual personal power we each have to educate ourselves and take multiple strategic anti-cancer actions every single day. I believe that is the wisest way to survive cancer long-term, in a physiologically hands-on way, rather than just hoping it doesn't come back and trying to replace any fears that pop up with some positive thought. Cancer is a great experimental lab in which the real power of natural medicine, such as the many cancer-fighting compounds in common foods, could be demonstrated in any patient's life. That's the very cornerstone of 'alternative' cancer medicine, and sadly it's largely ignored. This is partly because we are distracted by the dazzle of cancer industry PR and media messaging, and also because it requires the un-sexy grunt work of old-fashioned self-discipline, which for many people is a very hard sell.
EnCognitive: What would you say are the major differences between orthodox cancer treatments and alternative cancer treatments?
LJ: I would break the main differences down into four areas: philosophy of medicine, access, toxicity, and utilization of the power of anti-cancer foods and other natural substances.
There is a qualitative difference between attacking cancer with a toxic, aggressive kill strategy like chemo or radiation, accepting significant collateral health damage as part of the deal, and healing cancer by addressing the whole-body conditions which enabled it to thrive in the first place and re-building health so that it no longer can. The philosophy behind the attack strategy is fragmentary; it squanders the body's innate self-repair capabilities while over-burdening them with even more treatment-caused problems. The cancer industry rates its success in terms of short-term goals like 2- or 5-year survival, and the shortcomings of its guiding philosophy are largely responsible for its terrible record with recurrence. The philosophy behind the healing strategy takes a whole-body view of cancer and uses naturally occurring substances to affect physiologic responses that build health long-term, supported by lifestyle choices, for a lifetime. Neither path is guaranteed for a particular patient, but the different philosophical approaches to the cancer problem are distinct.
Regarding access, very few oncologists employ natural medicine in their practice, so patients who want to take this kind of approach have to find other kinds of health care providers and/or do it independently. This is a lot of work and expense, and for many people it's just too daunting. By default, and because of insurance, nearly all of us are herded into mainstream treatment. Because corporate, government-subsidized oncology has excluded natural medicine in the course of its historical development, insurance doesn't cover it. Also, many people are not aware there are any alternatives to conventional oncology: you can't access what you don't know exists.
Regarding toxicity, chemo and radiation are notoriously toxic and this remains true despite the fact that the industry constantly seeks to make improvements. Surgery and biopsies sometimes cause cancers to spread. No conventional treatment comes without some degree of risk, sometimes an alarmingly high degree of risk. The vast majority of alternative cancer treatments are non-toxic or minimally toxic.
And the failure of oncology to address diet as both cancer culprit and cancer game-changer is one of the saddest, most under-reported stories from cancerland. Conventional patients are told to 'eat sensibly' or else told to just eat whatever foods they can manage to keep down. They're not guided in the selection of important, proven cancer-fighting foods, and they're not told to stop eating the sugar-fat-faux food diet that prevails in America. Many patients using alternative healing strategies wisely make the 'food-as-medicine' concept the foundation of their cancer fight plan. It matters hugely what you put in your tank when you take on cancer, and so-called 'alternative' cancer medicine is the only place to get solid help with maximizing that very real, immediately accessible personal healing strategy.
EnCognitive: You mentioned that "everyone's story is different, with certain frequent common themes." What are some of those frequent common themes?
LJ: First of all, a cancer diagnosis forces an individual to confront the fact of their mortality. For many of us, this is a first. Of course we all know we are mortal, that we will someday die. But until our survival is really a concrete problem requiring our urgent and most intelligent attention, this whole notion remains an abstract concept that we can ignore almost all of the time, even as a mental exercise. With cancer, suddenly you can't ignore it, you feel an urgency to make critically correct choices, you feel under-informed and ill-equipped for this task - and you feel the fear of dying running through your veins. No one handles this well. We stumble through the territory of facing our death fears and we either survive or we don't, and while we have individual responses to the problem, we each do have to work out that equation that says "cancer equals death" to some sort of solution. It's just about the last kind of heavy-lifting work anybody wants to be doing, and on cancer it's unavoidable.
Another very common theme running through the millions of individual cancer experiences has to do with money. Even with insurance, or 'good insurance' - whatever that is - most of us cannot afford cancer. At best, cancer care costs might force a family to overhaul their finances and their plans, and spend many years paying off what insurance won't cover. Things like mortgages and college funds can quickly become expired luxuries of your pre-cancer reality. Most bankruptcies are rooted in out-of-control health care costs, and cancer is a big piece of that sad picture. There is no way to measure the actual impact of this financial pressure on the progress of cancer cases, but it is logical to factor in the very real, daily stressor of cancer care bills on most patients' survival chances. We know a lot about the direct health impacts of stress on many physiological processes relevant to cancer, and they are serious.
And one frustrating universal truth about cancer is that it is highly disruptive of the business of living. So many of us are already stressed out with the succession of fast-paced, jam-packed days that constitute our normal life - but try juggling all this on a cancer schedule. Once diagnosed, and you cross over into that hostile territory I call cancerland, your life as you knew it is derailed. You still have your ordinary obligations, but in addition you now also live the cancer life - in waiting rooms, consulting rooms, treatment rooms, blood draw labs, on the phone with medical and insurance people, going online to get more information, talking with family and friends and co-workers about cancer and how you're holding up, talking to yourself on uncharted levels of psychological territory where you're scared, exhausted, feeling sick from treatment and very often trying to fake it around others - which is exhausting, too.
There is a certain amount of support out there for patients trying to get through cancer, and that's great, but there can never be enough because it's a rather bottomless need occurring in epidemic proportions in our society. We are geared to see cancer as an insatiable force taking over our body and threatening to destroy our very vitality: it must be stopped, or else. In a similar way, as a phenomenon within a person's life, the ongoing cancer experience also functions as an insatiable force, eating up time and energy, resources, sometimes whole relationships, self-images, etc. It is a monumental life changer, separate from whether or not it kills you.
EnCognitive: Are you currently in remission or have you been cured of cancer?
LJ: According to my oncologist, I am in remission. Defining 'remission' is fairly straightforward: different tests and measurements for different cancers can help a doctor determine whether or not cancer is still detectable in your body, and if it no longer seems to be present, you're considered to be in that preferred zone of remission. There are different evaluations of remission - partial or complete - but it is the first place we patients are all aiming to land after treatment.
The use of the word "cure" in oncology is a very different matter, and it's riddled with problems. Some of these are semantic, some have to do with PR, and some involve the many problems with treatments and diagnostics. Naturally patients want to believe they can be cured, but what they may think that word means is probably quite different from what medical professionals may mean when they use it.
We tend to think that if we're cured of a particular disease or condition, then it's gone from our body and it's not coming back. That 'not coming back' part is deeply rooted in cancer patients as an anchor of hopefulness: we may go into treatment strongly believing that when we say we're going to kick cancer's butt, that's for now and forever. Inside our heads, we need victory over cancer to look like this: one and done.
But how does oncology use the word "cure"? If we consult the official source, the National Cancer Institute's fact sheet on understanding cancer prognosis, we find some vagaries and downright double-speak regarding "cure". We are told that a cure means that "treatment has successfully eradicated all traces of a person's cancer, and the cancer will never recur (return)." Next we are told that that doesn't mean we can't develop another cancer, and here the NCI leaves out the undisputed fact that a significant percentage of second cancers are directly caused by conventional treatments for first cancers. Then we are told that, because of lurking resistant cancer cells and micrometastases which are routinely not screened for in treatment survivors, cancer can always come back. So therefore "doctors cannot say with any certainty that an individual cancer patient is cured". For what it's worth, you can find this all at www.cancer.gov.
I think the lesson here for cancer patients is two-fold. First, don't put stock in statements involving the word "cure" because it's not a precise or practically useful term. And, be aware of the rather twisted ways in which oncologists might use this word to bolster the apparent worthiness of treatments they are recommending. "Cure" could be useful in a chemo or radiation sales pitch, but unless those doctors are also frank with us about the known risks of serious treatment-caused effects which include cancer recurrence, and unless they are committed to monitoring us for resistant cancer cells and micrometastases associated with those treatments, then talking "cure" is just a distraction from the issues that really affect our survival, and about which we can actually do something.