October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I was 46 years old when I received a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer.
The primary doctor I was assigned in my HMO told me exactly what I wanted to hear. She confirmed that the almond-sized lump I felt in my right breast was nothing to be concerned about – it was a fibroid and fibroids were very common in women my age. She dismissed the lump with doctor-like confidence and the meeting was over after five minutes.
Time passed. The lump in my breast grew. Sometimes I would touch the lump with concern and then quickly remember the doctor’s confidence that it was a fibroid and I had nothing to worry about. After a year passed, something about the lump didn’t feel right and I could no longer ignore my concern. I went to Planned Parenthood for a second opinion. The doctor took one look at my breast and said, “Get dressed, you need a mammogram and an ultrasound today.”
24 hours later it was confirmed that the lump in my breast was cancerous. Within days I held the results of a biopsy and a breast MRI which measured the lump in my right breast at 10 centimeters and located two smaller lumps in the left breast. The lymph nodes under my right arm were enlarged. The doctor I spoke with when I first felt the lump – the same doctor who dismissed the lump as a fibroid, had in actuality slammed the window shut on early detection for me. I now faced an advanced triple negative breast cancer diagnosis.
My mind has returned to the first doctor’s office many times. How I wish she would have said, “I believe it is a fibroid and you have nothing to worry about but seeing that you are 45 years old and have never had a mammogram, let’s book one.” Or, I wish I would have said, “I would like a mammogram to be sure, I hear that early detection is key in fighting cancer.”
But, the doctor did not say any of that and I didn’t ask the questions I now wish I had.
Now it is October 2020, ten months since I received a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis. Since my diagnosis I have been to the doctor 41 times. I have had six rounds of neoadjuvant chemotherapy. I have had a double mastectomy surgery with several lymph nodes removed in my right arm. I have taken three rounds (there will be six total) of oral chemotherapy and I am about to begin six weeks of radiation. Due to the advanced nature of the cancer and the fact that it is triple negative the doctors are, in their words: Throwing the kitchen sink at me.
I am here to tell you to do your breast exams monthly. I am here to remind you about the importance of advocating for yourself in a doctor’s office. Get your mammograms. Avoid what is avoidable. I am also here to share with you what I believe was keystone in my experience of receiving a successful treatment for cancer. Take what resonates and please feel free to reach out to me with questions anytime.
Fasting before during and after chemotherapy
A few days before my first chemotherapy treatment a friend sent an article by Professor Valter Longo. Ultimately the article asserted that short term fasting can possibly increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and lessen the side effects. The fasting protocol called for fasting 36 hours prior to chemotherapy, fasting during chemotherapy and for 24 hours after chemotherapy. The fast allowed for herbal teas, black coffee and vegetable broth – a total of 350 calories a day.
The article by Professor Dr. Valter Longo cited a paper authored by a team of researchers from the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at the Immanuel Krankenhaus Center, in collaboration with the Institute of Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics of the Freie University, both in Berlin. The paper described a clinical trial that outlined the effectiveness of Differential Stress Resistance. Differential Stress Resistance is the mechanism caused by fasting and fasting mimicking diets to promote the protection of normal cells and induce the death of cancer cells.
Studies exploring the benefits of fasting and chemotherapy have been going on since 2008. In truth, many more studies are needed – this theory and the findings are in beginning stages of research.
Despite the lack of research, Differential Stress Resistance made sense to me and I thought it was worth a try. My chemotherapy treatments always fell on a Wednesday morning so my fast started after my dinner on Monday evening. I would not break my fast until Thursday afternoon.
I continued to fast for each of my chemotherapy treatments. There is no way of knowing for certain but I believe the fasting protocol was indeed lessening my chemotherapy side effects. Then I received a call from my friend who had a friend getting treated for breast cancer in Austin, Texas. The friend with breast cancer had weathered two chemotherapy treatments and was having a very difficult time with the side effects. Could she connect us so that we could share experiences?
I shared with the woman in Texas my experience with fasting and I couldn’t say for sure either way but maybe it was worth a try for her. I heard from her a few months later. She was wrapping up her sixth round of chemotherapy and her side effects since she started fasting were reduced so much so that she was able to start long distance running again and the exercise helped her get through the treatments as well. She felt good, all things considered.
I am sharing this information, albeit anecdotal, in case it can help anyone out there navigate the (brutal) side effects of chemotherapy.
The emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis are beastly. I asked for help. As a result, I felt held and surrounded by friends and family. When I felt fearful, in the dark and hopeless, it was the strength of my community that I borrowed to see me through the harder moments. My friendships and relationships feel stronger as a result. No question, we are here to connect.
My oncologist said to me that if there is one battle I choose to fight while receiving treatment for cancer it is exercise. He said no matter what, get up and walk for 5 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour. He said, whatever you can do – do it and daily. So I did. In fact, I took up running for the first time in my life. I certainly did not feel like running most days, but on the days when I could, I did. Other days I would walk. Sometimes I walked very slowly and not for more than a couple blocks. Some days I would walk briskly for an hour. I checked in with myself and tuned into my body and simultaneously pushed myself while listening to what I needed. From where I stand now, I do believe the effects of exercise while receiving treatment were key to my symptom management, recovery and overall well-being physically and mentally.
All the Things
October is breast cancer awareness month. Awareness and the sharing of information are important and not only to connect us but urge us forward and deepen our experiences. While I have mentioned three keystone elements to my successful experience in treating cancer, there are so many things one can do to be successful when facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Desi and I have always advised ourselves and everyone that will listen to do all the things: Eat well, drink plenty of water, get sleep, be of service, and be kind. When faced with a breast cancer diagnosis or any health challenge, do between one or all things to all the things as best as you can everyday. Please know that we are standing beside you, don’t hesitate to reach out, we will reach right back.