A Different Mindset

There have been a few recent developments in my cancer care. Charlie the oncologist broke the news, not particularly gently I felt, that the CT scan after the third chemo cycle showed that the tumour had not apparently shrunk very much. Certainly not enough for them to consider surgery at this stage. He asked if this news surprised me. I think I nodded, while actually it would be more accurate to say that it rather floored me. Because I had been feeling so much better, and stronger (and smaller, the swelling having reduced significantly), I was sure the chemo was working and that surgery would be scheduled soon. Instead Charlie has proposed a new weekly chemo regime, which means a bit less of the chemicals at one go, but more often. For the next few months our weekly plans will have to be organised around blood tests and hospital days. As Maria the doctor in the cancer unit put it, it’s changing from a bazooka-type approach to a machine gun.

The imagery is apposite. My body is regularly bombarded with toxins in the hope that some of them will reach their target of bad cells, and that the inevitable collateral damage to good cells will not be too extensive. Also that the bad cells will be killed, and not recover too quickly before the next round of toxins is released on them, but that the good cells will recover in time. I’ve come to realise that chemotherapy is a rather blunt instrument.

This realisation – with some enlightening persuasion from Dee – has led me to explore other ways of fighting this cancer besides the accepted Western (no pun intended) medical model. I’d set a lot of store by Charlie and the team doing that ‘really good job with the chemo’ they needed to do in preparation for surgery. I’d channelled a lot of my energy into believing that this was going to work, and to expressing my confidence in the Western oncology team as I projected an image of confidence and optimism to family, friends and myself too. This confidence has been a bit shaken, but sometimes a good shake is just what’s needed. The wind in the trees shakes out the old, broken branches and dead leaves and lets in the light to the vital, growing stuff at the centre.

Last week we went to see a herbalist at Napiers in Edinburgh. She was a lovely woman, very gentle, very kind, very practical and incredibly well informed. I came away with a not-very-nice tasting herbal preparation prescribed specifically for me (basically turmeric, Betula, Salix and some other friendly plant-based extractions), and a scientifically-based reassurance that vitamin and mineral supplements are not going to interfere adversely with the effectiveness of the chemo. She also gave us some sound dietary advice – even though, ironically, we’ve been on a more-or-less textbook anti-cancer diet for many years, there is still room for improvement (high energy no-fibre juices for example, and soya yoghurt, and whey protein with soya milk instead of the hideous Fortisip chemical soup). None of this is quackery or snake-oil remedies, but sensible, centuries-old, tried and tested approaches to helping the body to heal itself. The new diet and herbal remedies will support the effectiveness of the chemotherapy and help me to deal with it over the coming months.

I had a bit of an epiphany during the consultation with the herbalist (who is also, somewhat confusingly, called Dee). Actually it was a bit of a crack-up, or a breakdown. At any rate I started to cry, and once I’d started I had some difficulty stopping. I hadn’t really had a good cry about the cancer, and as everybody (my Dee, Dee the herbalist, Amanda the nurse in the chemo ward for example) keeps telling me, these emotions are better out than in. Putting my energy into projecting a confident, optimistic front while keeping a lid on my frustrations and fears does not help my body to deal with the cancer. Some people think it’s keeping a lid on things that causes cancer in the first place (oncologists think otherwise of course). At any rate I did feel the better of a good cry, and of being able (when I could speak again) to articulate my fears and frustrations. I was upset at myself for not responding as well as was hoped to the chemo. Like not doing as well as I think I should have at my chemo exam and somehow letting myself, and others, down. Old, engrained habits die hard.

But recognising that it’s not my fault is a big thing. Most cancer sufferers apparently think it is their fault, that the tumour is payback time for something they’ve done (smoked, eaten) in the past. Apparently too there is a strong correlation between introspective, self-critical personalities and cancer (again, this is not a correlation that oncologists would research or recognise).

The really big thing is realising that while it’s not my fault I have cancer, it is my responsibility to deal with it. My body has done this to itself – and only my body can undo it, or contain and control it. With whatever help I choose to give it – medical, chemical, herbal, dietary, and psychological. There are many ways up the mountain. Other people can help – describe the landscape, suggest routes, provide kit and provisions, accompany me for part of the way – but I take the path myself. Knowing this is tremendously empowering. I am not a passive victim, I am in control of my own recovery.

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