by Tamara Levine

(Editor’s note: Tamara is a patient of Dr. Leesa Kirchner, the Naturopathic Oncologist at Carp Ridge. She wrote a book about her experience with cancer, But Hope is Longer: Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer. It’s available from secondstorypress.ca, chapters.ca, independent bookstores (Singing Pebble, Octopus, Books on Beechwood) and the Carp Ridge Natural Health Clinic.

Below is a piece she wrote for our newsletter.
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It was during the black hole after my diagnosis that I stumbled upon Leesa, more by accident than by design.

BHILCover.inddWhen I found a lump in my armpit in the shower in the spring of 2009, it didn’t occur to me that it might be cancer. How could it be when I’d had a clear mammogram ten months before? But several weeks and many tests later, there it was: a diagnosis of an aggressive, locally advanced breast cancer.

In a heartbeat, my world fell apart as I went from being a seemingly healthy 58-year old wife, mother and adult educator to being a cancer patient. I had entered the “country no one wants to visit”.  Who was I now that I had cancer?  Would I make it?

I felt like a snake having to shed its old skin. I mourned each layer of myself as I imagined it loosening and separating from me before I sloughed it off and watched it fall to the ground: my resilient good health, my identity, my hopes for a vibrant future.

Breast cancer patients generally start treatment with surgery to excise their cancerous tumour(s), by definition a local intervention. As I waited for what seemed like an eternity for a treatment plan, I wondered whether I should see an oncologist as well as a surgeon since the cancer had already travelled to my lymph nodes.

Should I start with chemo first to attack the cancer systemically? My mother had told me about a naturopathic doctor who had treated a friend with breast cancer. I stuffed the piece of paper with Dr. Leesa Kirchner’s number into my pocket.

The surgeon I was referred to was patronizing and dismissive when I asked about the nature of my cancer and my prognosis, about starting with chemo first, and about naturopathic medicine and acupuncture. “There are lots of quacks trying to make a buck off of desperate people,” he said. It was summer, which meant there was going to be a seven week wait for surgery, over three months since finding the lump. I thought, “My cancer isn’t on vacation, it’s rampaging through my body”. Frustrated and in despair, I figured I’d have to find a new surgeon.

Soon after, a painful infection in my underarm got me to an oncologist. With care and compassion, he told me my cancer was Stage III and highly aggressive, proposing I start chemotherapy immediately to be followed by surgery and radiation. Finally I felt I was in good hands with a plan that made sense, at least as far as mainstream medicine was concerned.

At the same time, I knew in my gut that I’d have to rally every resource out there to fight this cancer. But what did that mean? I pulled Leesa’s number out of my pocket.

At our first appointment, she warmly welcomed me into her office and invited me to call her “Leesa”. I learned about her extensive training and experience in naturopathic oncology. The initials FABNO after her name meant she was a certified Fellow of the American Board of Naturopathic Oncology, one of only a handful of such specialists in Canada. She had read my file and biopsy report ahead of time. Once she had examined me and we’d talked, Leesa explained how we might work together to come up with a plan to complement my conventional treatment.

She proposed various treatments, including vitamins and supplements intended to lessen the side effects of treatment, strengthen my immune system and fight the cancer, including Vitamins C and D and concentrated green tea and mushroom extracts. Acupuncture before and after each round of chemo would help me deal with nausea and vomiting and would ultimately help me receive the chemo more effectively.

Later, we would consider the possibility of using intravenous Vitamin C, which can be absorbed through the blood stream in larger quantities than when it is taken orally.  There was strong evidence that intravenous Vitamin C could be a powerful anti-cancer agent and that it combined well with various chemo drugs.

Leesa and I then discussed how there might be a collaborative approach to my clinical care between her and my oncologist.

Leesa: It’s tough when my patients want integrative treatment and their oncologists are negative about it. It scares them when they don’t have the approval of their oncologist, so they end up in an internal battle. They come to see me and say, “I trust you and I know what you’re saying. But I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do.” I don’t know if there’s a single answer because everyone is different. Some people raise the possibility of complementary care with their doctors and then get shot down. Then they say, “Forget it, I’m not telling you anything anymore.” Others say “I’m not doing anything unless I have a 100 percent seal of approval from my oncologist.” So it’s where people fit on the continuum and how they deal with it.

But if we were really interfering with treatment, why isn’t everyone dead? Why are all these people doing so well? Why are all these cancer patients saying, “I didn’t have a lot of side effects, and I’m still biking to chemo.” That has to say something.

I left Leesa’s office knowing I wanted to work with her, convinced that the best route to go was to find a way to straddle mainstream and complementary medicine. Combined with healthy food and exercise, I would be doing what I could to get well. But what about my oncologist? Would he be on side? What if he wasn’t?

I brought my list of supplements to my next appointment at the Cancer Centre, and was grateful when my oncologist said he had no objection to me taking them. A couple of months later, when it was time to start Taxotere, a particularly brutal chemo drug, he agreed to call Leesa to discuss how to best work together. After considerable discussion, they were able to work out a protocol for me to receive intravenous Vitamin C (IVC) treatments at Leesa’s clinic in addition to getting my regular scheduled chemo treatments at the hospital.

The IVC room was an oasis, a home for fellow “straddlers” like me who were looking for the best treatment possible, whatever the source. We traded stories of our diagnoses, our doctors, our treatments, our tests, our side effects. We talked about how to get second opinions if we weren’t satisfied with the first, about which doctors we liked and disliked, about approaching whatever was happening to us from many different angles. We met each other’s families, shared recipes, books, snacks, tears, and laughter. We followed each other’s progress with interest and concern. We worried if someone didn’t show up for a few weeks, and were devastated if we learned that someone had lost the battle. While there were painful moments, it felt good to be among such kindred spirits, each of us searching, asking questions, unwilling to leave any stone unturned in our quest to heal and be well.

Over the course of the next year, my father died suddenly of acute leukemia. I went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, becoming visually impaired when a cataract on my good eye was exacerbated by Taxotere. After a lumpectomy and lymph node dissection were performed by an excellent new surgeon, I had twenty-two radiation sessions before complications sent me to hospital for ten days. This was followed by a wretched case of shingles. Finally, after cataract surgery, I began my slow road to recovery. It felt like a miracle when my husband and I celebrated the end of our “year from hell” with a trip to the Greek islands.

Treatment was tough, but it worked. I was ecstatic when my pathology report showed the cancer was gone. I believe the ongoing naturopathic care I received from Leesa not only helped me tolerate chemo better by avoiding the worst of its side effects, like mouth sores and neuropathy. I believe it also helped fight my cancer.

I learned my cancer was triple negative, a particularly aggressive marker with a higher rate of recurrence (one in four). I also learned there were no preventive drugs yet available for me. This means I continue to be closely monitored: I see my oncologist every four months and have regular mammograms, CT scans and ultrasounds. I also continue to work closely with Leesa on prevention with vitamins and natural supplements, including intravenous Vitamin C every two months.

Leesa: I hope our focus shifts from not only killing cancer cells to also supporting the body more completely throughout the process. We need to manage side effects without causing others with the treatment, teach patients the importance of exercise and diet, and keep them healthy physically and emotionally.  Hopefully, patients will be empowered so that when treatment is over they are not simply waiting for the next CT scan to tell them if the cancer is back. It will give them tools to actively lower the risk of recurrence so they can move on with their lives feeling that they are being proactive.

The good news is that today I am well and cancer-free. One of the unexpected gifts that came with cancer was that I started writing.  My letters to friends and family about my breast cancer experience became the basis for my book But Hope is Longer:  Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer. Published by Second Story Press in the fall of 2012, it also includes reflections and interviews with my oncologists, surgeon, life coach and Leesa.

Now retired, I share my experience to help other breast cancer patients.  I speak to support groups for newly diagnosed women and with nursing students. I give readings and workshops based on the book.

Cancer is a powerful message about the condition of the world that raises many questions. What can we learn from a deadly disease that is causing too much loss, hardship, and suffering? What can we do to recreate balance in our own lives and in the life of our planet?

With the numbers being diagnosed rising each year, we need to advocate for prevention, better treatment and institutional support for complementary care. A world where the causes and incidence of cancer are dramatically reduced and where patients receive optimal care will be a better world for us, our children and grandchildren. The struggle is long, but hope is longer.