Coping with Chemo

One of the things we found most disconcerting about my cancer diagnosis was the official advice effectively banning vitamin supplements. We had what we then considered a pretty healthy and well-balanced diet, supplemented with a carefully researched and tailored regime of vitamins and minerals. It seemed counter-intuitive for me to stop all supplements immediately, at a time when my body was particularly vulnerable, on the basis that the medical profession had no evidence of the extent to which vitamins might interfere with the effects of the chemotherapy on the tumour. Spot the double negative? ‘We don’t know if it might not work’. For every study that indicates that a particular product helps fight cancer there’s another that says the same product may impede treatment. And when you’re that scared rabbit in the headlights of the doctors and nurses and they are saying that vitamin C might encourage cancer cells to grow, and live yoghurt might introduce infection to your immuno-compromised gut, you do what they tell you. More or less. At least to start with.

Weekly chemo is pretty punishing on the body, particularly on the blood and the digestive system. Chemo kills quick-developing cells, which include gut flora and blood cells as well as cancer cells (and hair follicles, obviously). Weekly doses gives the body less time to recover between ‘kills’.

I started to feel quite strongly – and conversations with many other people backed this up – that my body was telling me it would cope much better with the side-effects of the treatment if I gave it a bit more support. In the US, the use of complementary medicine alongside chemotherapy (not as an alternative) is increasingly supported. There’s growing evidence that many vitamins and supplements not only help to counteract the side-effects, but can potentiate the primary effect ie killing the cancer.

So since the middle of September I’ve been taking lots of carefully researched and selected vitamins and minerals. That’s when I started on weekly chemo. It’s also when tests indicate the tumour really started to shrink. My blood counts have remained pretty stable and more or less above the red lines where the medical protocols dictate treatment needs to be withheld for a bit (I did require a transfusion when my red cells went too low, and missed a week when my platelets plummeted, but that’s well within what’s expected on the weekly regime, and I have managed to avoid the prophylactic antibiotics with which they threaten me on account of low white cells). So far so good.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a definitive list of unequivocally helpful supplements. I do feel quite strongly that it is working for me. For the sake of the record, here are the main components of my chemo-busting supplements:

  • Dee the herbalist at Napiers has prescribed a mixture of plant extracts including willowbark, birch and turmeric, known for their cancer-fighting properties, and horse chestnut to strengthen my veins (which take quite a pummelling as they transport heavy toxins around the body, and quite a puncturing with all these needles). I find it rather comforting to be dosing myself with extracts derived from strong, stable, friendly trees. I also take turmeric capsules.
  • I boost my immune system with echinacea (which we’ve taken for years to ward off various lurgies), and a more esoteric mushroom complex (which I think owes its commercial existence to work done on treating HIV). The mushroom complex is also supposed to promote hair-growth – which may be part of the reason why I currently have a bit of grey fuzz covering my scalp. I also take Lycopene, an alpha-carotene derived from tomatoes which is quite a powerful anti-oxidant.
  • When my platelet count went a bit low I started taking 2g of vitamin C each day (Dee found some research suggesting this was a good strategy) and since then it’s been on the way up.
  • Vitamin E helps with the absorption of iron and hence with keeping the red cells above the danger zone.
  • Apparently vitamin D deficiency is a known factor in cancer development, and ninety percent of women in Scotland are vitamin D deficient, which accounts for some higher cancer rates than women in the south of England where other factors are the same. So said the lovely oncologist I saw last week. I take large quantities of vitamin D, and get as much sunshine as is possible in Edinburgh in November.

Fresh air and exercise continue to be vital strategies. Our diet hasn’t changed much, just a few tweaks around the edges (eg prunes and linseed help the digestive processes along, dried apricots are good for stimulating red cells) and Dee’s meticulously planned and prepared, healthy and delicious vitamin-packed repasts. I’m a walking biology lesson, fascinated by my weekly haematology and blood chemistry print-outs. I often wish I could discuss this with my Dad, I think he would have enjoyed that!

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