My name is Teresa and I have cancer. It reminds me of the words said at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, when the participants admit to themselves and everyone else that they have a problem. It’s a crucial step toward recovery, and survival. I went through this same kind of process in coming to terms with my health over the last few years. I have cancer. The words hang in the air and echo through my head. Having cancer is certainly different than having a drinking problem, yet there are parallels. I think that the road to surviving cancer started for me with a significant personal reckoning — admitting that I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself for some time, physically and emotionally, and deeply committing to change. I decided to treat my body better and did intensive spiritual housecleaning. I took responsibility for this disease and my recovery.

I live with a Stage IV breast cancer. For the uninitiated, that means that cancer started in my breast and has now spread to other parts of my body. It’s about as bad as it can get – there is no Stage V in the world of cancer. In my case, I have metastasis in my lungs, bones, and brain. The characteristics of the tumors (things like size, grade, HER2 and hormone status) indicate that my cancer is aggressive. Metastasis to the brain is typically a final stage of the disease. According to standard statistical predictions, I should be gone now. And yet, I live. With minimal side effects, and joy. I live with it. 

I don’t mean to sound blasé about living with cancer, and I’d hate for anyone to think it’s easy. Some days it seems like a death sentence. Other days it is just a challenge, a reality check, a parameter. I don’t think that living with cancer makes me special (although I’m not adverse to playing the Cancer Card to get my way from time to time). Nor do I think that I have any particular insider knowledge or answers. I am not on a mission to convince people that if they do what I do, they can survive cancer. And yet, the longer I live, the more inclined I am to share my story – and the longer I live the more interesting and relevant my story becomes.

My approach

I’m not going to tell you there is no place for conventional medicine. It seems pretty likely that surgeries and drug therapies saved my life when I was really ill, turning the tide when cancer had me in its grip. But I think that some of the comments I heard from oncologists then were short-sighted and ill-informed, and I am glad I had the backbone to stand up to them. One doctor told me that it didn’t matter what I ate because it would not make a difference. Another rolled his eyes when I asked about detoxification and told me that alternative therapies are based on “voodoo science”. And there is the doctor who told me — almost three years ago now — that I was at the beginning of the end, and I would never feel better than I did that day because that’s “not how cancer works”. But I was not so easily discouraged, and I now know enough to see these kinds of comments for what they are. And, for the record, I feel a lot better today than I did back then.

I firmly believe that the so-called “alternative” treatments I do are what allows me to heal and thrive, and the ways I take care of myself each day keep me healthy. Yet most of the alternative doctors I’ve worked with have also had their imperfections. In my experience, each doctor thinks that their tool is the thing that will save you, and they tend to have blinders on for anything outside of their realm. Many practitioners lack deep experience with alternative treatments — many of which are new, or old therapies that are new again — but doctors still have to speak with authority. In reality, we are all learning together. I think we need to be smart about the alternative treatments we do, and understand what they are meant to achieve and how they work.

I don’t believe there is a single silver bullet solution to cancer, whether conventional or alternative. But there are many doctors out there who are on the right track, bringing a holistic approach to treating patients and encouraging people to be comprehensive in fighting cancer while healing their bodies (and their hearts). It’s a complicated disease that manifests differently for different people, and it seems to me that a many-faceted approach is the best bet. There’s a lot of very interesting research coming out now that is thinking out of the box about cancer treatment, and I don’t think that drugs are the only legitimate answer.

That said, I do have some opinions about what has been most important to my survival:

  1. Owning my decisions about treatment. This is my body and my life, and I’m driving the decision-making. I’ve learned the basics, and I don’t do something just because some doctor told me to; I do it because it makes sense to me and my situation. I listen to the wisdom of my body and do what I think is best for me.
  2. Making choices I believe in, and believing in the choices I make. At each step of the way I did what I felt was the right thing to do at the time, and I have confidence in my choices.
  3. Making lifestyle changes, and living my choices each day. For me living with cancer is a process, and I try to make the best choices I can every day, from how I spend my time and handle stress, to what I eat and drink, and how I limit my exposure to toxins.

My advice

“OK”, you say, “that’s all well and good. But what have you done? What are the most important things to do?” I know, people want direction. Something to get them focused. And I do have a few thoughts on what has worked best for me and what people should consider (hopefully alongside their open-minded doctor). Here are a few pieces of advice:

  • The human body has an amazing capacity to heal, but it needs an optimal environment. Focus on creating the right environment, and don’t give up on your body.
  • What you eat matters — it either helps you (think nutrient-dense, cleansing, antioxidant-rich fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, pasture-fed animal products), or hurts you (think insulin-spiking sugar, nutrient-depleting processed foods, empty calorie junk food). Eat more good stuff and little or no bad stuff.
  • We live in a toxic soup, from chemicals in common household cleaners and body care, to environmental toxins in public places. Control what you can, and get serious about limiting your exposure to toxins to give your body a break.
  • We’ve all probably been accumulating toxins since we were in the womb, and who knows what well-intentioned things our mothers got into. One way or another, help your body clear out the bad stuff you have accumulated over a lifetime.
  • Don’t underestimate the emotional and spiritual underpinnings of the situation. Make things right in your head and your heart. Work on your emotional baggage, whatever it is. Cultivate positive relationships and get rid of people who drain your energy.

I can’t think about cancer without worrying about what’s happening to our planet and what it means for the next generation. I would like to see an honest conversation in this country about how our industrial food supply and the widespread use of unregulated chemicals are driving the surge in cancer and other chronic diseases. And I think we all should be suspicious about the role of profits in decision-making about the “standard of care” and the influence of pharmaceutical and insurance companies in our healthcare system. I think it’s worth pushing the dialogue about cancer beyond a discussion of cures, to really look at what’s perpetuating this crisis.

Is cancer curable? I don’t know. Ask me that question again in 10 years and I may have a different answer. Can we live with it? Yes, I believe we can.