Tuesday, 12 November 2013

What does cancer look like?

These days "You look well" can feel like a loaded compliment. 

What does cancer look like? Scrutinising photos of me on my 40th Birthday, just weeks before diagnosis, you would never have known that my world was about to change. Too often we confuse what cancer looks like with what chemotherapy looks like. Someone with early stage breast cancer will most likely look perfectly 'normal'. Maybe the more pertinent question is "What does cancer feel like?"

This photo was taken on my 40th birthday, a month before diagnosis.

For me it felt like a little grain of rice just under the skin. A second, smaller tumour resembled a piece of grit. Surprisingly, these two tiny, painless lumps measured a combined 2.4cms! But breast cancer comes in many guises. Inflammatory breast cancer may manifest as a hot, swollen breast. Nipple inversion or puckering can be a sign of disease, as can a hard, moveable lump, dimpling or discharge. Pagets disease of the nipple can rarely been seen, and invasive lobular cancer is difficult to palpate. There are many forms of breast cancer, varying in location (ductal, lobular, nipple) and hormone status (oestrogen and progesterone positive being the most common, with HER 2 positive cancers being generally more aggressive). Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) can present as tiny calcifications within the breast, and is generally deemed a pre-cancerous condition.

Beyond the tangible, cancer patients often talk about feeling slightly 'off', sensing that something is wrong, but without knowing exactly what. A poor immune system, recurrent candida and simply feeling tired all the time were unread clues to my early stage cancer. Weight loss, night sweats and persistent aches and pains could point towards more advanced cancer.

It's empowering to be pro-active with breast health. Get to know your breasts. Examine yourself at the same time each month (it's best not to check during your period when breasts can typically be tender and lumpy). Know what's normal for YOU. If you feel changes or are concerned, a good first call for monitoring would be a thermo-scan, which is non-invasive and can show changes in breast tissue years earlier than traditional mammograms.

Despite knowing that we should be breast aware, how many of us actually are? Unfortunately tragedy is usually the catalyst for change. SInce most tumours have been growing for around 7 years before being large enough to feel, what would I say to the 33 year old me? I would tell myself  "It's time to overhaul your life. It's OK to put yourself first." I would cut out sugar and swap my processed, fast food diet for greener, whole foods. I would learn to read my body better - to see how I felt after eating gluten (bloated, itchy) or dairy (like I had a constant low-level cold and heavy chest). I would stop rewarding myself with a glass of red wine at the end of a long day or a bar of chocolate on meeting a tight deadline. I would rest when I was tired, rather than pushing through with a cup of coffee or a can of coke. I would stop those sabotaging negative thoughts which were slowly destroying me. And I would tell myself how fantastic I would feel for making these simple changes.

So lately when someone tells me I look well, then pauses, the unspoken question "ARE you well?" hanging in the air, I think about how great I really feel, inside and out, and reply "Thank you, I AM well!"

Saturday, 9 November 2013


Exercise. It's a bit of a dirty word to me. I was a lanky, late-developer; rubbish at sports and always the last to be picked for the team.  I have zero muscle memory, and nowhere does exercise represent a happy place for me. Throughout my life I've been tall and slim, despite my sugar addiction. Please don't misread this as fit. I've never been fit, and this was part of my pre-diagnosis problem. I ate what I wanted without putting on weight. I never had to 'control' my diet, nor cut down on processed, sugary foods for vanity's sake. This in part lead to my holistic unwell state. 

Many studies have shown that regular, moderate exercise (equating to about half an hour a day) can reduce the risk of cancer returning by up to 40%. To put that figure in context, it's almost three times more effective than the combined success rate I was given of chemotherapy and radiotherapy working for me. However, purely improving diet, or solely focusing on exercise, has a much lower effect on survival rates. 

Breast cancer patients in particular seem to benefit from physical activity, possibly because it has a balancing effect on oestrogen and insulin levels. Insulin has a mitogenic effect (ie it encourages cell division) on breast cancer cells. Oestrogen can inhibit apoptosis (ie stop programmed cell death) and is also mitogenic. Exercise also diminishes fat deposits, which is often where excess oestrogen and toxins are stored. And let's not forget that the lymph system, responsible for cleansing our cells, relies on our circulating blood system to move. Exercise gets the heart pumping, and improves blood (and so lymph) flow.

I've dabbled in exercise since diagnosis. I try to walk whenever possible, I do the mildest form of yoga (gentle stretching at best, definitely not gymnastic inversions) and I chase my children around the playground, but I have yet to commit to a regular, invigorating practice that would increase my heart rate enough to improve my circulation. 

As I've said many times, I'm a work in progress. There's always room for improvement, and for me exercise is the glaring omission in my healing protocol. However, I refuse to berate myself that this is Not Good Enough, and instead am making a concerted effort to Try Harder. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013


A significant part of my healing has been learning to observe my body, and listen to what it's trying to tell me.

Before I was diagnosed, I totally subscribed to the idea that I could motor on through illness, regardless of how bad I felt. There were pills for every ill. At the first whiff of a headache I would take codeine. I took anti-cramping pills for bad periods, and regular spoonfuls of Kaolin and Morphine for tummy ache. As a mum of 2 young children, I believed I was irreplaceable, that I had to drag myself out of bed and get on with my busy day no matter what. This carried on for about 6 years, until (a month before I found the lump in my breast) I got so ill that I was bed-ridden with swine flu. I ended up losing my hearing in my left ear, and now have relentless tinnitus. The irony that I didn't listen and that I ended up deaf is not lost on me. 

For a long time I had felt that something was wrong, but I didn't have the tools to read my body, or know how to heal myself. Instead I relied on doctors and medication. I never looked at the underlying message, and I never took responsibility for my health. We're born with a natural wisdom to understand our physiology, but it's been silenced by a constant bombardment of 'wrong' messages from adverts, doctors, vaccinations and fast food. As a result we've become largely disconnected.

Early on in my healing, my nutritional therapist relayed to me the importance of only doing what is Right and what is Needed. She taught me that we must find the delicate balance of cleansing at the correct pace for our bodies. So for example, if I'm having a hectic day, and my kidneys and adrenals are feeling fatigued, a coffee enema and endless cups of green tea are not the best remedy (despite their health-giving properties) because they will put further pressure on those organs. On a day like that, a chamomile enema, and increased water intake would be more sensible. When I first bought my juicer, I started off with carrot and apple juice. Super cleansing green juice came later, when my body was becoming better at using it's rusty elimination routes (ie when my cells were less clogged with bad cholesterol, when they were more able to unload their toxicity into my lymph, and when that in turn could filter out through my liver, and finally my colon). If any one of these elimination routes is blocked, the body will attempt to cleanse through a less efficient organ - usually the lungs or the skin. For me, skin complaints are often a good sign that I have the pace of cleansing wrong.

It's also important to observe how the body reacts to food, to see if what we're putting IN is causing stress. Quinoa is a super food, no doubt, but it doesn't agree with me. We're individuals. Some things suit our biology, and some don't. Don't plug away at a 'diet' which is not working for you. Bashing on regardless can actually do more harm than good. Telltale signs are dark shadows under the eyes, lethargy and cravings caused by blood-sugar spikes. 

Watching thought patterns is equally important. For me, going back to a place of 'not good enough' makes me repeat age-old habits, like scratching non-existent itches (literally 'tearing myself apart').

These days I don't get period pains. I supplement daily with magnesium, and that was the deficiency which those cramps were trying to alert me to. Headaches are now thankfully a rare occurrence. If I do get one it's almost always down to stress, and a coffee enema tends to relieve the pain, whilst meditation calms the stress. And tummy aches are a thing of the past since my diet no longer contains processed food, gluten, sugar, caffeine or MSG. These were the substances which were irritating my gut lining and creating an imbalance in my gut flora, leaving me susceptible to infections.

In my experience, observing, becoming aware, and making changes is an imperative part of healing. Listening to the body is a skill which may have been lost, but is easy to re-learn.