Of the five Love Languages, I am a toucher. Having a bad day? I’ll rub your back. Walking the street? I’ll hold your hand. Watching a movie? I’ll brush your hair. A few lines from a favorite quote by writer Lora Mathis reads, “kiss your friends’ faces more / embrace plutonic intimacy / take care of the people around you.” These are the same words I posted alongside a photo of me during my third chemo infusion, about nine months after first presenting a questionable lump to a gynecologist, and nearly 20 years since I first began examining my breasts every 28 days, just like clockwork.
The act of touching myself revealed the curse: cancer. But the curse itself held the blessing: a sea-change life event that allowed me to become deeply and soulfully in-touch with myself, and ultimately my own best healer. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, mine is not a story of basic survival, but one of vivacity and hope; one of getting to the other side and feeling better than ever.
Allow me to get a little hippy here, but we will all face a trauma – loss of a loved one, lay-off from a job, life-or-death disease. None of us is immune to life, nor should we want to be. But how we walk through this journey is up to us. I’ve been asked how I maintained my sense of positivity through this wee chapter in what will be a very long life. Much like Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the answers are simple and even obvious. After the battery of “discovery phase” tests, then the tears and the maddening reactions, like slamming glass on cement, you get to the matter of healing. These are the healing lessons I learned from cancer – the tips that have helped me through my illness, but that also support holistic wellbeing through all of life’s seasons.
Sweat, just not the small stuff. My mom’s favorite saying is, “when you rest, you rust,” and it’s true. As a small business owner who ironically cooked for cancer patients, fitness was often the first thing to go when my days ran 12 to 13 hours long. When I was diagnosed, I paused and asked myself what I had done to get to this place, and what I needed to do to get through it and make sure it never happened again. So I started walking. In gratitude for the life I have, for the limbs that work, aiming for three to four miles every day. And there were times, on the second or third day after chemo when your body (or mind) is against you, when I could only loop the neighborhood with someone propping me up. Research shows that three to five hours a week of moderate exercise not only increase the effectiveness of chemo during breast cancer treatment, but also dramatically decrease its chance of recurrence. Then there’s the positive rush of endorphins that reinforce your warrior status. So sweat—sweat to cleanse your body of toxic chemical fighters, sweat to lower the insulin levels that feed your illness, and most importantly, sweat so you can…
Sleep. Sometimes, I think this journey was a God-given gift just so I could take a three-month nap. I went to many naturopaths for a holistic plan to complement the six rounds of barbaric chemo my body faced and to help her heal thereafter. Their first question every time was: How much do you sleep? I don’t know when sleep, like exercise, became optional, but hours fewer than the fingers on my hand could kill. Doctor’s orders were eight to nine hours, so how could I accomplish that naturally when insomnia is a common chemo side-effect? Take up to 20 mg of Melatonin every night to not only help you fall asleep, but also as a powerful antioxidant to combat inflammation and neurological disease. Take Magnesium to help you stay asleep. My preferred source was lemon Natural Calm, right before bed. Side benefit (and slight word of caution): Magnesium is also a sublime laxative. If chemo is stopping you up, as it does, this will help you doo.
Eat and drink from Mother Earth. What you put in your body is fuel for your fight; it is your medicine. It is common for breast cancer patients to gain weight with treatment, but I healthily lost 20 pounds, never once throwing up, due in part to a very clean diet. The guide is simple: wake with warm lemon water, and drink it throughout the day. It will purify your pipes and support an alkaline (aka anti-cancer) environment in your body. Always choose organic – your body is working overtime against disease, so don’t treat it with agents that cause more trouble. Consider a Ketogenic diet, focusing on wild and organic fish and poultry like salmon and whole eggs, plus five or more cups of low-fructose superfood fruits and vegetables daily, like avocado, kale, watermelon, blueberries and butternut squash. Avoid sugar at all costs – that includes eating minimal amounts of even the choice grains like quinoa or 100% soba noodles, since those carbohydrates convert to sugars. When my appetite failed me, I kept nutritionally dense shakes at hand instead of traditional comfort foods, like the recipe I have provided below. If you are the caregiver of someone in treatment or healing from illness, these shakes are a thoughtful gift alternative to a rich, cheesy casserole.
Try natural supplements. I was fortunate to have a best friend whose own fight with Lyme Disease put her on a crusade for personal health. The knowledge she gained with the help of holistic pharmacists and naturopaths made her my best resource for the minerals and vitamins that would be essential to my vitality. Please consult with your doctor before adding these into your care, but for me, I supplemented my clean eating and basic multivitamin with 5,000 IUI of Vitamin D to start. (Chemo will dramatically deplete your natural levels and a deficiency has been closely linked to cancer.) Turkey Tail Mushrooms are being researched by Bastyr University for their immune-boosting benefits and effectiveness against breast cancer. Theracurmin, the best-absorbed form of Turmeric that causes its hyper yellow pigment, is valued for counteracting inflammation. 85 billion or more probiotics help with optimal gut health, and Biotin helped my hair grow fast (a whole topic in and of itself!). If there is a weird Eastern tincture, I tried it. Frankincense essential oil massages? Yes. Raw garlic? Sure. Kombucha? You betcha.
And perhaps the most important…is to have faith from fear. You are not your disease, and your body is a miracle – give her grace. I never asked my “stage” because that was not a productive number. I only wanted to channel my thinking on problem and solution. There were dark times full of nausea and hot flashes, but I found a cool compress with lavender essential oil to the back of the neck was a magic healer. If anxiety rolled in like heavy fog, I would do a hundred jumping jacks because inevitably things would turn silly and laughter would lift the spirit. And when I could not calm my body, I learned how to breathe deeply. The 4-7-8 Breathing Method is a perfect meditation: take one long breath in through the nose to the count of four, held for seven seconds, then slowly exhale out through the mouth for eight. Repeat. Then repeat again.
There are more balms to speak of, from the benefits of dry brushing to choosing A+ house cleaners to make-up and skincare products (visit EWG.org to learn more), but again, healing is a journey, and there are different options for every person. For now, I hope my words touch you, as though given by a close friend over a cup of tea. My own dear friend and cancer survivor prayed the below words over me and they are lovely to have at hand when you don’t quite know what to say.
And when we meet, and I hope we do, I will invite you to touch me. Touch me if it helps you understand what a “lump” (that is quickly scarring over) may feel like. Touch me because I am here and very much alive.
RECIPE: For Your Body
2 ½ cups unsweetened vanilla hemp or almond milk
2 cups unsweetened coconut water
1 cup each frozen raspberries and blueberries
2 scoops of a chocolate protein powder, I like Vega
1 tbs chia seeds
1 tbs almond butter
1 tbs cacao powder
4 kale leaves
Optional: knob of ginger or turmeric, fresh mint
*Note: For all ingredients, choose organic and raw if possible.
Blend in a high-speed blender. Serves 4.
RECIPE: For Your Spirit
Chosen God/Spirit/Self, I pray you would have your hand on [name] now more than ever. Fill his/her life and his/her heart, body, and mind with your love and your grace and your peace and your presence. I pray for supernatural wisdom for every doctor, nurse, and technician who treats [name], and pray you would guide the minds and instincts and hands and tools of everyone who cares for him/her, including friends and family, hospital administrative staff, and random insurance people. I pray that every aspect of his/her treatment and care would far exceed the best possible results that his/her team could even hope for. I pray that his/her treatment would destroy the [sickness] without harming [name] in any way. I declare no negative long-term effects from his/her treatment – that you yourself would protect him/her and hide him/her in the shadow of your wing and sing over him/her as he/she hides herself in your love. I declare peace, shalom, over his/her entire person; over every cell in his/her body, over every thought in his/her mind, over every emotion in his/her heart, over every relationship in his/her life, and over every minute of rest and sleep that you provide. I command every good and healthy cell in [name’s] body to rise up and fight every diseased cell. I declare healing over his/her entire person. I decree divine health, and I call forth your original intention for [name] when you dreamed about him/her for millions of years before you ever even created him/her. And I just declare that you are good and you give good gifts to your children, and we worship you in the midst of this struggle because you are worthy to be praised. We know [disease or struggle] isn't from you but we also know that you are going to use even this for good in [name’s] life and we bless the work that you're doing in him/her. I thank you that you are a [God/Spirit] who is near and not far off, and I pray for your peace and presence to be so strong on him/her that it would be almost tangible, even to others but especially to him/her. I pray you would speak to him/her in dreams and through your word, and you'd let him/her feel your love powerfully in the night when he/she wakes and that he/she would know, without a doubt, that he/she is not alone, that you are with him/her, and you're in this thing together.