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How to Heal

The first year after I was diagnosed felt like one big fight. I fought the cancer, I fought the nausea, I fought the treatments, but most of all I fought my own mind, all day, every day: the fear, the anger, the quickly diminishing sense of self-worth…I was constantly embroiled. I’ve now been dealing with my second bout of cancer for roughly one year and although the stakes feel much higher this second time around it feels, all-in-all, like a much gentler year. I am not engaged in battle. I am on a journey of healing. Like any healing journey I think mine has become deeper and richer the longer I am on it. As I venture down different paths I find worlds of wisdom I didn’t know existed. I finally feel, after a year, that I can wrap my arms around what a comprehensive, holistic healing journey looks like for me so I thought I’d share, in no particular order, what that journey consists of:

Healing My Cells

All of us have cancer cells in our bodies. Every day our cells divide about 2 trillion times so cancer cells are bound to sneak in. But generally our body recognizes these foreign invaders and goes to town shutting them down and eating them up. The cancer cells that become Cancer often have ways of hiding from the immune system.

So the work I’ve been doing has been to turn my immune system back up (quite the opposite of many of my initial treatments which suppressed my immune system). I take four treatments which are meant to increase the number of cytotoxic T cells, the immune system’s warriors. I take another treatment which kills cancer cells on contact and then also “paints them” which gives my immune system something to look out for. And finally, there is the treatment I just got in Germany.

The idea of this novel therapy is that you start with a virus. There are some viruses out there that our healthy cells are able to block (i.e. they don’t make us sick) but our cancer cells cannot. They are called “oncolytic.” They preferentially infect and kill cancer cells. The cancer cells that get infected but don’t die our body can now recognize as an invader. So I spent the week in Germany being “infected” with an oncolytic virus. Then, at the end of the week, I was given a “vaccine” of my own dendritic cells. Most people know dendrites as part of the nervous system but those just have the same Greek root as dendritic cells meaning “tree.” These immune cells have branches that snap up any foreign invaders and alerts the cytotoxic T cells what to attack. By unveiling my cancer to my own immune system and then alerting the generals to their presence it should help my body fight them off. I’ll get an additional injection of my own dendritic cells every month for the next few months and around May we’ll re-evaluate if it’s working. If it is I’ll get the injections with less frequency just like a vaccine booster.

In short, that’s what we are spending nearly $200,000 on this year with a lot of hard work, a ton of ingenuity and lots and lots and lots of incredible support. Hopefully, if this works, this should be the most expensive year of treatment ever because there are a lot of upfront costs, which is great, because we can’t afford to spend the equivalent of a new house every year to say the least! I am also hopeful that if I can get this cancer in control that I can slowly wean off some of the other treatments. Basically, only time and PET scans will tell.

Healing My Body

So none of these little cells that I discussed are swimming alone out there in isolation. They are all reliant on the incomprehensibly complex inner workings of our bodies. I can’t expect to just concentrate on the cells and ignore the environment they are swimming around in.

My healing journey with my body began with food and it mostly began being afraid of food. When I was first diagnosed last winter I nearly stopped eating out of fear of everything I put in my body. Slowly I began to develop rules and restrictions. My main goal was to limit inflammation. Your body normally uses inflammation to repair itself, like when a wound gets red and puffy, by bringing in immune cells to get their healing on but many of us suffer from chronic inflammation today which means our immune systems are constantly overworked and can lead to chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, . Highly acidic and inflammatory environments are bad for our little T-cells but they are wonderful breeding grounds for cancer.

So I spent a lot of time trying to eliminate inflammation. My plan to do that was three-fold:

  1. Eliminate inflammatory foods: Guess what foods are most inflammatory? Sugar, trans fat, dairy, corn-fed, red and processed meat, processed grains, alcohol and artificial additives (this helpful article explains why these things can be inflammatory). So, in short, yummy stuff.
  2. Stay lean. Furthermore, fatty tissues, or adipose tissues, are actually inflammatory all on their own as they send distress signals to our immune system which overworks it.
  3. Eliminate toxins. Your body responds to toxins like pesticides, artificial and processed ingredients, inorganic fertilizers, etc. like it does bacteria and viruses. And we as humans carry around a pretty unprecedented toxic-load (mostly in our fatty tissues). Toxins overwhelm the immune system while also having a carcinogenic impact that disrupts normal cellular metabolic processes.

So initially my main focus was elimination: cut out the bad stuff, stay lean, stay away from non-organic, artificial processed foods.  This worked for a little while but as anyone who has ever been on a diet can tell you, it can be exhausting. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself and was pretty unforgiving when I would slip up. And even though I was eliminating lots of bad stuff I wasn’t necessarily eating to nourish my body. I would get stuck in my limited selection of foods and eat the same thing every day. I constantly felt like I was failing, like if I didn’t spend hours juicing and whipping up really incredible raw, vegan, organic meals that I wasn’t stacking up. But I just didn’t have the energy or the time.

My diet had started to fall apart and it showed. While my scans showed that the cancer was progressing my blood work showed that my inflammation levels were super high for the first time in months. After that I went back to the drawing board with my nutritionist and we decided that I needed to shift my focus from being all about elimination to focusing more on nourishment- getting in all the good stuff I need to make my body run well as opposed to just being afraid of what was bad for me.

She recommended I try out her favorite health food company called Purium. Purium’s stuff is all vegan and organic, free of GMOs, pesticides, additives and artificial anything and super, duper pure, like they grow their food on farms hundreds of miles away from anything that could pollute the air, water or earth pure. So immediately I felt really confident that I wouldn’t have to worry about any of the bad stuff I was afraid of. But Purium also packs its products with all of the greatest, greenest, meanest anti-inflammatory foods on the planet (think wheatgrass, dandelion root, mushroom blends, algae, spirulina, chlorella, etc.). It’s basically the best medicine money can buy.

I started out with something they call their “10 Day Transformation” which most people use to lose weight but I was using to detox and try to quickly bring down inflammation. Unlike other cleanses I’ve tried this one kept me super full, was packed with super powered (like Olympic athlete level) protein so I could still work out and actually tasted pretty good. Since then I’ve incorporated the “Core 3” products from the transformation into my diet every day. This way, I know, that every day, no matter what, I am getting all of the anti-inflammatory nutrition my body needs. I still eat a few regular meals and just try to keep those as clean and nourishing as possible. I generally feel great, have tons of energy and am actually in even better shape than I was when I was being super, crazy strict.

Psst… I’ve liked Purium so much that I decided to join their team so if you want to try Purium’s stuff shoot me an email! I’ve got a ton of $50 gift cards I would love to share with anybody… friends, family and strangers alike, and would be happy to discuss my experience and all the other products they have available… thus far I’m totally in love!.

Healing My Mind

3fd1c554b6376d3bd63c3f3ab1027881So this one is the real kicker. This is where they the really juicy healing has to happen. So, you may not have guessed, but living with cancer is hard, like really, really, really hard. It can get uglier than I’d care to share here. First, there is the incessant, unrelenting fear. If I really let it all go I could probably end up living in near constant fight or flight mode from the never-ending fear of death that comes with this diagnosis. Then there is the grief, the deep well of grief for all the things that I’ve lost that I could easily sit at the bottom of all day every day. Cancer has taken away motherhood, taken away pretty much all of my money, all of my future plans. And the thought of leaving my friends and family, particularly my husband behind, is heartbreaking. Then, of course, there is the general, every day anxiety about whether or not I’m “good enough” at fighting my cancer. Top that off with a pretty solid case of PTSD which cuts to the core of my feelings of self-worth and living with cancer could very well equal living in pure and utter misery.

So clearly that’s not sustainable. That’s not “living,” nor is it good for my other kinds of healing to be constantly stressed and sad and fearful. After going through some very low lows over the last few months I decided that whether or not I am ever able to totally heal my body I HAD to heal my mind. I had to confront my demons and stare down some of these emotions that were so incessantly rocking my boat. This meant facing down the thing that makes this all so hard: the idea that I might die. What I discovered after some exploration of this with my therapist and others was a movement out there called “conscious dying,” or “conscious living and dying” because they are really the same thing. The idea of “conscious dying” as I’ve come to understand it is that we find a way to heal all of the painful pieces so fully that we are able to live so deeply that we no longer have to be afraid of death. I’ve started going into this process by trying to deepen my meditation practice, by practicing a tremendous amount of self-love on a daily basis and by reading “Healing Into Life and Death” by Stephen Levine which I could not recommend more highly.

As I’ve gone through his book I’ve tried to start focusing in on the areas of deepest pain, deepest fear, deepest grief. I’m taking them one little bit at a time and starting with setting strong intentions even if my heart doesn’t always agree with them. For example, instead of carrying around the enormous grief of not being able to be a mother and feeling bitterness towards every mother I encounter it occurred to me one night that the problem was not that I couldn’t have children but that I didn’t feel worthy without having children. I started to meditate on the words, “I am worthy even if I cannot be a mother.” I know I’ve hit on something good when the tears start to roll out of nowhere and this was one of those times. I laid there as my mind railed against those words, not believing them for an instant, repeating them over and over as I cried. I started to do this daily and found as the days wore on that my grief started to roll away. It’s not gone but it’s not quite so biting. I had a similar experience when I decided to try and forgive my cancer. Now that’s one that’ll certainly take some time! But I’m tired of this constant resistance that I hold on to, especially against something in my own body. I am hoping as I keep moving through the motions of healing that I will find a way to let go of some of that resistance and wiggle into ever widening spaces of acceptance and holding.

So that’s it my friends. Heal my cells, heal my body, heal my mind. As I said in a blog I wrote almost a year ago, I don’t know if I will heal my cancer but I will heal. I feel the same way now. I’m done fighting all the time. I can’t carry on or live like that. Instead I want to go on healing, cell by cell, bite by bite, meditation by meditation.

I’d love to hear from you about the healing work you’ve done or are doing. I’m always up for more ideas and inspiration!

Sending love and hugs,

Katie