October 14th, 2016 marked my fifth anniversary as a cancer survivor. 6 years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage II Triple Negative breast cancer, a type, according to my doctors, more difficult to treat and tend to recur more often than other types of breast cancer. The 5-year survival rate was lower compared to others (77% vs 93%).
My surgeon performed a lumpectomy and the entire tumor was successfully removed with a clear margin. Because of the aggressive nature of this cancer, my doctors strongly recommended to at least follow-up with radiation, which I reluctantly did. Unfortunately, my case became complicated when the cancer recurred during radiation, and I had to face more aggressive treatments.
A year after the initial diagnosis, I completed all my treatments. Not only did I survive the ordeal, I flourished, thanks to a proactive approach to integrative medicine and the support of my loved ones. As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, I am passionate about self care and have been lucky to have access to holistic therapies to help with my recovery.
These are the most important things I did that were vital to where I am today:
1) I Picked The Right Oncologist
I consulted with 5 oncologists before deciding on one. 3 of the 5 oncologists knew nothing about Chinese Medicine and discouraged using any other modalities during conventional treatment, as they had concerns with adverse interactions. I was lucky to have found an amazing, top-notch integrative oncologist who not only encouraged holistic modalities but also made acupuncture, nutritional therapy, and mind-body medicine available at his office; which leads to the next point.
2) I Was Not My Cancer
Rather than focusing on the disease, I received integrative treatments to heal my entire being. I scheduled acupuncture sessions regularly, each time right after chemotherapy treatments. I remember coming home one time from a chemo session, too weak to even speak, my acupuncturist came by and gave me a treatment. Forty minutes later, I was cooking dinner, amazing! Herbal decoctions, supplements, and skin patches were part of my healing regimen to help improve my appetite, immune system, and energy.
Four cycles of aggressive chemotherapy took down the cancer but was very hard on my body. Chinese Medicine helped me regain my vitality and strength. The basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treats a person as a whole instead of the disease. The results were so profound that I moved to China to study more of this ancient medicine.
3) I Balanced Exercise And Rest
It is physically (and emotionally) taxing during and after treatments. Resting is crucial, but exercise is just as important. Studies show that cancer patients who exercise regularly have a better prognosis. I slept a lot but stayed active whenever possible. My friend, Quan, took me on beautiful hikes whenever I had enough energy, the time spent in nature not only helped improve strength but also uplifted my spirits! To further enhance my mind-body connections, I practiced Qi Gong daily.
4) I Was Proactive With Self-Care
Being in the field of holistic medicine, I am passionate about self-care. Even though I went bald during treatments, I did things that made me look and feel good. I had manicures and lash extensions. I started blending gentle skincare potions when I became sensitive to the scents of my regular beauty products during treatment. Warm baths with dead sea salt became a daily ritual.
My self care strategies extended beyond the physical. An important part of my journey involved meditation and shamanic teachings. These ancient practices inspired me to see things in a different light, strengthened me, and helped me gain equanimity.
5) I Let Things Go
It’s important to let things and sometimes, people, go. Especially when you feel stuck or they take too much energy away from you. I used to be a little compulsive about how things should be done, I am much more relaxed now. When a plan goes wrong now, it’s no big deal, I reflect on how I can do better and move on. Letting things go help me focus on the here and now, and allow space to experience joy and my true self.
6) I Received Amazing Support
This is the most important part of it all. There were many difficult and dark days, but I rarely felt alone in my journey. My immediate family was far away, but my wonderful friends showed me so much support and love during treatment and recovery. My resourceful friend, Naomi, created an online care community for me on Lotsa Helping Hands . Some days people brought food, other days they gave me rides to the doctor’s office, and some days they came simply to be with me at home.
In the past five years, I moved to China, built a dream home amongst the lush tea plantations of Hangzhou, and finished my PhD in Chinese Medicine. I also combined my passion, experience, and knowledge to start a holistic skincare company. The journey gave me wisdom, resilience, and a sense of fullness towards life.
It is possible to flourish after cancer.
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Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of the American Medical Association 2005; 293(20):2479–2486.