It was nearly four pm on a Wednesday afternoon when the doctor found 'ripples' along the inner side of my armpits. I was in for a regular checkup and told him of the pain I'd been feeling on both sides of my breasts.
"I've been doing a lot of lat presses," I said, convinced I'd torn a muscle.
He felt on both sides, commenting I was skinny for my height which was bad. That day however, it was good, he went on say, because he could feel a lot of 'nubs' that he suspected were inflamed glands. His faced registered no emotion as he felt the inner part of my hips. "Checking more glands," he said. "See this? They are raised."
It meant nothing to me. I was thirty-two. In the best shape of my life. In fact, my world was perfect. A great career, a good marriage. We'd recently adopted a dog, a sure sign life had transitioned in to a grounded world of normalicy.
"I'd like you to see a specialist since I'm not sure about these nubs." Whatever. Sure. I didn't even look at the card he gave me and went on my way.
A week later, the pain was a bit more intense, and Rog suggested I follow the doctors orders. I looked at the card.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. It should have scared me, but it didn't. I'd never known anyone with breast cancer, let alone had it myself. Beside, breast cancer is here, there and everywhere. I couldn't go into the grocery story, the mini-mart or turn on the TV without seeing pink ribbons and being asked for a donation.
I made an appointment with the doctor listed on the card, and didn't notice the receptionist moved up the date when she learned it was a doctor referral.
Two days later, I was lying on my back, a woman's warm hands gently probing the lymph nodes under my arms and near my hip line. As she pressed her fingers on my skin, she began asking me questions.
"How much do you smoke?"
"I don't. Never have."
Her eyes met mine.
"Never?" as though I were lying.
Well, yes, once. I told her about the time I was eight, and my cousin was spending the summer with us. "I got in to her backpack, hid under the pool table where no one would find me, lit a cigarette and tried one inhale," I said, a wash of twenty-two year old guilt flooding over me. I'd never told anyone. (sorry mom!)
"What about drinking?"
That I had done, I confessed, but not much. I never have liked the taste of wine or beer, the smell of latter reminding me of bottled farts (though I left out that little tidbit).
"Are you a coffee drinker?"
"Smells great but tastes like mud." That, at least, got her laughing.
"You shouldn't be allowed in the state of Washington."
She ordered up x-rays, and while we waited, she asked me about our family history, specifically, relatives with breast cancer, or any type of cancer.
"Not one. No cancer of any kind."
We were tall, blond, Swedes blessed with a long shelf life. Not a single heart attack, cancer, or other disease my mom or dad could recall. In fact, the only problem seemed to be a tremendous capacity to eat butter, pure, unadulterated heavy cream and potatoes in quantities our Russian friends envied.
When the x-rays returned, she put them up on the screen for review. She gestured for me to get dressed, then we both sat down again.
"The predominant demographic for breast cancer are forty year old black women who smoke four packs a day," she said, facts removing the necessity for diplomacy. "You have every symptom of that demographic."
She didn't give me time to react. She began educating me on my situation.
"Your breasts are like a steak rippled with fat," she said, pointing to the x-ray. "These white dots--they are cancer waiting to turn, for lack of a better word."
My breasts ceased to be sexual objects at that moment. They were balls infested with white balloons with strings attached.
"They are ticking time bombs. At any moment, one, or all of them, can become malignant." She ordered up tests and continued.
"Alcohol and caffeine stimulate cancer cells," she said, as though this was common knowledge. Since I didn't smoke, she looked first to those two items as the culprit. I told her I adored chocolate. Was that enough to cause cancer, I asked.
She shook her head no. "You'd have to eat vats and vats," she said.
As we waited for the test results, we talked about other "possible" contributing factors. The environment, pesticides, man-made food (margarine) fats--the list was endless. As the short appointment stretched into hours, my anger grew. Why hadn't the public been told about the connection between alcohol and caffeine and cancer I asked.
She shrugged. "Those industries are huge supporters of the healthcare industry."
The only way to be sure would be to have a double mastectomy, she told me, recommending I go home, talk with my husband and we make a decision by the end of the week.
This is where my Swedish, don't-cry attitude served me well. When Rog came through the door, I told him straight up what I'd learned. He blinked a few times, then we both agreed we'd do what we had to do to live. Period.
When I called mom, she told me to call our swami (aka, our homeopath). He listened to my description of the situation, and though no cancer specialist he, told me to immediately change my way of life.
"It's easy," he said, in his middle-eastern drawl. "You are a carcinosen." (For the homeopathy-ignorant, this is a type of personality). "You hold everything in. You never cry. You work seven days a week, twenty hours a day and have done so since you were eighteen. Of course this was going to happen." He went on to tell me that it's a part of my DNA, this whole cancer is inevitable for a person like me.
I wasn't sure what pissed me off more-- hearing I had ticking time bombs in my chest or my freaking swami being so matter-of-fact about it.
"You knew this was going to happen?" I nearly yelled.
"Let's just say, I am not surprised." Even the way hef slowly enunciated each word infuriated me.
All I wanted to know was if it could be fixed by some miraculous means.
"Yes. But you have to do what I say starting right now."
He then told me I had to start taking a remedy, called Carsinosen, every day without fail. He told me it's normal for people with repressed feelings (check), those who were quiet and sensitive as a child (check), who loved butter and chocolate (check) who were sexually aggressive (um, doublecheck) and so on. He gave me some links to look it up online, and said he'd ship me out a batch the next day.
"You must quit all sugar and chocolate, go completely organic, get rid of every toxic item in your home, and eat greens at least three times a day. Preferably more." (did I mention I hate greens?)
"But one thing you must do," he intoned, like Moses coming down from the mountain, "you must, and I mean must, change your lifestyle."
What? As if his laundry list wasn't going to accomplish that?
"Reduce your work. Change your career. Change your lifestyle. Get your feelings out. Cry more. Be more sensitive to others. Be compassionate. Don't hold back doing things you want to do."
Oh, got it. He wanted me to change my personality. No prob. An easy thing to ask of a controlling, non-emotional Type-A.
"Read up on chemical toxins in your house," he advise, the parting bit of advice before he went on to his next patient. "Get rid of anything toxic."
I didn't waste time directing my anger at him. Rog and I read all about the top-ten toxic chemicals. We had every single item on the list, and sometimes, multiple items. We then looked at the top ten toxic ingredients. The worst and most common offender seemed to be Sodium Lauryl Sulfates. Depending on the list we looked at, it was number one or three. This is a commonly found chemical shown to cause severe changes to the skin, though studies linking them to cancer are still debatable (see link). It was (and is in) everything---toothpastes, shampoos, facial cleansers, body wash, exfoliant, moisturizers, you name it.
I was horrified when it appeared on every (EVERY) single beauty product I owned.
Gone. The entire lot.
As Rog and I literally cleaned house, and invested a fortune in natural products, we read cases where men and women with cancer (early-mid stage) arrested their cancer. This didn't mean it went away, it just stopped progressing. In each case, a complete life-style change had occurred, and this included dietary habits.
Rog and I went organic, but we also went largely 'green,' as in, eating lots and lots of green vegetables. It was hard. I hate salads, kale, broccoli. But life is choices, and my choice was to live, with both breasts. It wasn't debatable. It was obvious.
At the end of the week, I told my doctor I wanted to wait a month, and see if my actions were going to help 'arrest' the pre-cancerous blobs. She shook her head.
"In nearly twenty years, I've never seen a case this far a long be arrested," she said sympathetically, but sternly. She wished me well and told me she'd see me the following week. The second week, the same thing. The sizes had increased.
The third week, she was shocked. No increase. Fourth week, no increase. And so on, every week for three months.
"I can't believe it," she said. She'd brought in other doctors to review the results, and I was asked to explain what I'd done to affect this result.
They nodded to one another in silence, as though my comments confirmed their own opinions.
"Most people won't give up what they love," said a male physician. "They'd rather die."
Rather lose a breast or die than give up coffee, or smoking or drinking? Rather risk losing a loved one than replace a few hundred bucks worth of cleaning supplies in the home or passing by the fast food joint on the way home?
"Patients don't always listen to advice," he said. "Few want any at all."
That sounded like a typical type A to me. Seattle is full of 'em. The world is full of --us.
Since that time, ten years ago, I've remained in an "arrested" state. The checkups went quarterly, then yearly. At last check, the time bombs were still within, and can tick at any time. The journey, and it's impact on our lives was interesting upon reflection, though unfun (is that a word?) at the time.
It wasn't easy in the beginning; we lost most of our friends with whom we'd go out to dinner or travel on vacation. Rog stopped drinking, his show of solidarity akin to men shaving their heads when their cancer-ridden wife goes through chemo and loses her hair. Our then-set of friends were uncomfortable drinking with, or in front of us. That pretty much wiped out everyone in our social set.
With the loss of our circle of friends was an emptiness. It wasn't as strong as a death, but we grieved over the years of invested relationships, the people we loved, and those who we believed loved us back. Suddenly, we were in our cancer-induced island of isolation.
Those who didn't entirely desert us were hopelessly affected, behaving as though I were going to explode if I went inside their home and got whiff of some Windex. Back then, breast cancer, and discussing the subject, wasn't done as much as it is now. It was said in hushed voices, Rog's friends asked if they could hug me without hurting me (actually, for a while, my chest did hurt all the time, but this gradually faded). I felt guilty for Rog losing some of his friendships as well, many that went the way of the sand because he'd no longer go out w/his drinking buddies.
We had a few long years relative quiet and loneliness. My swami remained optimistic and unworried.
"You go through phases," he said, telling me it happened with his own wife. "The friends you had in your twenties and thirties reflected your hard-charging, party lifestyle. You now have different priorities and values. It will take time to find couples who share your values. When you do, they will be friends for life."
Sure enough, it was about four years until Rog and I started 'couple-dating,' eg, finding new friends and building relationships. This has expanded with other changes--children and community involvement. During that time, more studies have appeared in Newsweek and other magazines, linking various foods/drinks/environmental toxins to cancer. I've heard friends remark "everything seems to cause cancer," as though it simply doesn't matter anymore (we're all going to die, so live it up).
It's been hard keeping my mouth shut as I watch people injest what are basically toxic items into their body, as clueless as I was about the potential result. I don't thrust my opinions on others, or until this blog posting, share my story with friends or acquaintances. The reason is akin to the doctors' comment--most people don't want to hear it. When I'm asked about my healthy habits or skin--I'll explain that Jennifer Lopez noted drinking reduces collagen in the skin-- and it's better for you. I refrain from launching in to a diatribe about the evils. People can read and make their choices. I'm no more going to judge or try to change a person's life than I would want another's unsolicited opinion about my own.
Today, I'm downright lazy compared to my pre-cancerous life. I only work late hours, not vampire hours (into the wee-morning), though I still hear rumblings of complaints from certain family members I'm doing too much. Rog and I have even eat red meat and non-organic stuff, and in times of true desperation, will stop at a drive-through. I do have chocolate-within reason, and truly pay for it when I then have to get back on-the-wagon. Those are the exceptions though, and not the rule.
Can cancer be prevented? I'm not sure. But it can be arrested, for I'm living proof. I'll keep doing what I'm doing, for as long as I can, to live as long as I can.