Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is a shocking, life-changing moment. No one is ever preparedto hear that they have a life-threatening disease. Even with the best support systems, patients can easily become overwhelmed with fear, concern for their families and anxiety about treatments, side effects, finances and the unknown. Stress can skyrocket.
This is a perfectly human response to a potentially catastrophic situation. It’s also the ultimate catch-22.
That’s because research shows that the ways in which people respond to their cancer can greatly impact the course of their disease. There’s a large body of data indicating that strong negative emotions over time can impair the body’s ability to fight cancer. But let’s be clear: short term stress can be healthy – it stimulates our “fight or flight” responses. The shock of a grave diagnosis spurs many people into a pro-active mode, giving them energy to make dramatic lifestyle changes that can support their recovery. However, it’s the chronic daily stress, the dwelling in negativity and fear, that can impair the immune response and drive cancer’s aggressiveness.
I’d like to share an inspirational story about a remarkable patient of mine, named Bonnie Bell. Ten years ago, Bonnie came to see me with metastatic stage 4 breast cancer. Her doctors were expecting the worst. The odds were tipped against her, but fear and pessimism wasn’t a path Bonnie chose.
Her bravery and determination were clear. She told me, “No, I don’t accept this prognosis….I don’t want anyone projecting to me that I am going to die from this.”
Bonnie and her husband David admit that the journey was frightening at times. Her disease was advanced and had spread to her bones. But eventually, through an integration of advanced conventional treatments and alternative anti-cancer therapies, Bonnie healed herself completely. Today, she lives a happy, healthy, cancer-free life. Bonnie attributes part of her success to a positive mind state, artistic expression, a strong support system and a spiritual connection to nature – all proven elements in the fight against cancer.
The uplifting story of Bonnie’s recovery was featured in the TV program The Incurables, and can be viewed at www.bonniebellstory.com.
The Journey of Healing
As a holistic cancer physician, I strongly believe that the journey of healing, especially the journey of healing in cancer, is found in integration. That means it’s not just about doing one course of treatment from one medical system. Instead, we must strategically combine therapies from diverse medical traditions to support each patient’s unique needs.
In my years of working with cancer patients, one of the most powerful therapies I’ve found to support recovery — especially for breast cancer patients — are mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, Qi Gong and others. These time-honored healing methods can calm the mind, ease stress, and help one cope with the weight of their diagnosis. Essentially these practices increase our innate healing capacities.
Even in the wake of terminal cancer, regular practice of mind-body therapies can generate positive feelings which are proven to boost immunity against cancer. Cultivating inner calm can reduce the stress hormones and inflammatory proteins that fuel cancer. The mind plays an important role in cancer recovery and prevention.
One of the ways chronic stress chemicals damage cells is by shortening “telomeres”. Found on the tips of chromosomes, telomeres are end-caps that protect DNA from unraveling, preserving its integrity and preventing damage that can lead to chronic disease. Cells with shortened telomeres age prematurely and pose risks for numerous cancers, including breast cancer.
Stress, pessimism and other negative emotions can also impact our immune system by suppressing and even destroying critical immune cells. As a result, cancer can gain a stronger foothold. Some research suggests that cancer risk increases in women who experience long-term distress.
Regular meditation is a proven way to neutralize depression, anxiety, fear and other stressful mind-states. Simply taking a few minutes to sit quietly and focus on deep, slow breathing, can reduce cortisol and other stress-related hormones, minimizing some of the factors that feed cancer. A number of studies have shown that meditation and other forms of mindfulness based stress reduction boost immune activity, increase antioxidant activity, reduce pain and improve quality of life in cancer patients.
Other mind-body methods which can reduce stress and improve immunity are “moving meditations” such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. These exercises emphasize meditation and breathing, and help deepen the mind-body connections for greater healing capacity. Again, studies have shown that these practices have an excellent effect on immunity and other processes. For example, one study found that yoga enhances telomeres, protecting our DNA from stress and other damage. Studies show yoga significantly alters genetic expression, activating genes associated with immunity. Yoga also helps accelerate healing in patients following lumpectomy or mastectomy.
Meditation and exercise are proven to fight cancer, but don’t hesitate to personalize your approach. Remember, joy is cancer’s enemy. Any activity you enjoy can ease stress. Walks in nature, doing art, spending time with friends, laughter — these can all improve your mental state and lessen factors that drive cancer growth.
Food vs. Cancer
Just as there’s a strong association between emotions and cancer; there is also an established link between our eating habits and the disease. Red meat and fried foods are shown to heighten cancer risk. Sugar feeds inflammation and tumor growth.
On the other hand, fruits and vegetables provide abundant antioxidants that help prevent cancer by neutralizing free radicals: unstable molecules that wreak havoc on cells, tissues and DNA. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in a variety of phytochemicals, which support health from numerous angles, including fighting cancer.
Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, kale and cauliflower are especially beneficial because they contain components that act against cancer and help balance hormones. One compound that’s particularly helpful is 3, 3’- diindolylmethane or DIM, which is created when cruciferous vegetables are digested. Once inside the body, DIM helps reduce inflammation, boost immunity, regulate hormone metabolism and fight cancer metastasis.
While many foods are great sources of anti-cancer compounds, there are also many herbs and botanicals that have been shown to fight breast cancer, even in its most aggressive forms.
Derived from citrus peels, modified citrus pectin (MCP) has been shown to reduce cancer aggressiveness and metastasis. MCP is high on the list because it fights cancer in so many ways. It boosts immunity, our first line of defense against cancer and other diseases. The compound also reduces inflammation and encourages cancer cells to self-destruct — a process called apoptosis. Perhaps most exciting, early research suggests that MCP can make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy, potentially reducing treatment resistance and making these front-line therapies more effective.
Medicinal mushrooms can also be effective against cancer. Many species contain powerful therapeutic compounds including beta-glucans, which have a profound impact on the immune response. Medicinal mushrooms do more than boost immunity, they actually optimize it, helping to train the immune system and make it more efficient.
I also recommend a botanical breast formula that contains the extracts of turmeric, Chinese Skullcap and Astragalus, the flavonoid quercetin, DIM and medicinal mushrooms. This combination of botanicals and nutrients has been found in studies to suppress cancer invasiveness, control metastasis and provide additional anti-cancer benefits when combined with MCP.
In my practice, we are seeing the most successes against breast cancer using highly individualized programs that take into account a person’s physical, mental, emotional and psycho-spiritual health. The goal is to strategically combine a number of approaches which can work together synergistically to fight and prevent cancer, while simultaneously supporting a patient’s health from multiple angles.
Bonnie says, “Getting the alternative help is what allowed me to heal so quickly, and what has brought me to the state in which I feel healthier now than when I first got ill. I feel like I healed, but I expanded, I became more than I was. Healing was a doorway to myself.”
While it’s natural to experience fear and anxiety when you or a loved one are faced with cancer, don’t let it overwhelm you. Be positive. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family. There are always choices, and new medical breakthroughs are providing hope for patients with even the most aggressive cancers.
“I’m grateful to be alive,” Bonnie affirms. “I feel a lot of joy. I don’t feel that I lost — I feel that I gained. And I feel a lot of hope, beyond everything, that the treasures I gleaned will benefit other people on their healing journey.”
Many of my cancer patients say they feel most empowered when they can make positive life changes. Central to this transformation are practices which cultivate inner calm, reduce fear and increase joy to deeply experience life in the moment. This is true healing which goes beyond the disease, and can heal the whole person: Body, mind and spirit.