Surviving and Thriving Through Breast Cancer: Fairfield County Women Share Their Stories
May 05, 2015 11:39PM
By Beth Leas
The statistics are sobering. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer. In 2015, it is estimated that about 40,290 women will die from breast cancer. Breast cancer will be responsible for one in 36 cancer deaths in women – a ratio exceeded only by lung cancer.
The good news is that early detection through breast cancer screening, increased awareness and improved treatment are believed to be the reasons for the declining death rates from breast cancer since 2000 – after increasing for more than two decades. In recent years, there has been an explosion of life-saving treatment advances, bringing new hope and excitement. There are also many treatments that can complement, increase the effectiveness and decrease the side effects of conventional cancer treatment, which includes radiation, hormonal (anti-estrogen) therapy and/or chemotherapy.
Holistic and Integrative Approaches to Treatment
No alternative medicine treatments have been found to cure breast cancer, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. However, integrative oncology is a relatively new movement and the field is growing, due in part to patient demand for a more holistic approach to care. In addition, it is being driven by the desire of physicians to change their relationships with patients by putting more of an emphasis on healing and less on technical advice. The Center for Cancer Guidance at The Center for Women’s Health in Stamford was created in response to this need and provides patients with the information required to design their individualized treatment regimen. The Center’s founder and director, Joel M. Evans, M.D., takes into account the patient’s medical history and an assessment of the emotional and spiritual issues that accompany a diagnosis of cancer. It is this integrative approach which is credited by many survivors and “thrivers” of breast cancer to be the key to their successful outcomes.
Ann Katz, a registered Svaroopa yoga teacher and Vidya meditation teacher based in Westport, is a breast cancer survivor of 22 years. Her mother’s death and job dissatisfaction led Katz to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she discovered yoga and meditation in September 1993. While undergoing fertility treatments several months later, Katz was diagnosed with breast cancer. After the initial opinion of a top oncology physician who recommended a lumpectomy, she sought other opinions; a radical mastectomy was recommended by the other physicians, which she had that December.
Katz assembled her own integrative medical team, consisting of an oncologist, an herbalist and a psychotherapist. “You need to become your own health advocate,” she advises. She credits yoga, meditation and diet to healing her body, mind and soul. “I count my blessings every day that I’m healthy. Breast cancer changed my whole life. It required a total mind shift, something I still have to practice, even all these years later…I learned new life skills, which I now teach to my yoga and meditation clients, including those experiencing chronic and life-challenging illnesses.”
Differing mammogram guidelines have led to confusion about when to begin mammogram screenings and how frequently women should repeat the test. The American Cancer Society and other organizations recommend screening begin at 40 and continue annually while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests starting at age 50 and repeating every two years. When to begin mammogram screening and how often to repeat it is a personal decision.
Jacqueline Conlon, a partner and practicing attorney in a Stamford family law firm, had not gone for an initial mammogram before discovering a lump in her breast in August 2012. Jacqueline now advocates strongly about early screening, even for those women who are at low risk for breast cancer. Conlon had an oncological breast reduction upon receiving the news that her breast lump was cancerous. Chemotherapy was recommended following surgery because of lymph node involvement. She opted for the most aggressive form of chemotherapy with 28 weeks of treatments, followed by 36 radiation sessions.
During that time, Conlon received regular Reiki treatments, which she credits for reducing the nausea and exhaustion side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. “As a woman who was used to being able to override my body, this was an eye-opening experience. There were days when I didn’t have the energy to read. I learned to give up control and give in to the experience,” Conlon remembers. The emotional component while going through breast cancer treatment is often as challenging as the physical side effects.
For others going through breast cancer treatment, Conlon offers the following advice: “Be positive. Remember you’re not in it alone. Accept all the help that people offer and give them specific tasks such as bringing food or walking the dog. Your diagnosis affects not only you, but everyone close to you. And above all, be kind to yourself.”
Options for Breast Cancer Screening
For some women, radiation exposure during breast screening is a concern. Mammograms do expose women to a low dose of radiation, which presents a cumulative risk over time. Women with breast cancer – who are being treated with radiation in addition to exposure from repeated mammograms – often seek radiation-free alternatives.
Debbie McIntosh, owner of Alba Thermal Imaging, offers digital infrared thermal imaging (DITI) in both Norwalk and Stamford. DITI is a clinical imaging technique that records the thermal patterns of the body, which can aid in early detection of disease and pathology. “Many people use DITI in place of or in conjunction with traditional mammography because the procedure is relatively inexpensive, painless, non-invasive, there is no compression, no radiation and can take as little as 15 minutes,” explains McIntosh.
A 2008 clinical trial by New York Presbyterian Hospital–Cornell’s Department of Surgery in New York, New York, concluded that DITI can be a useful adjunctive test in detecting breast cancer with 97 percent sensitivity. It may be especially effective for women under 50 whose denser breast tissue makes it more difficult for mammography to pick up suspect lesions – although anyone can benefit from having a thermographic breast scan. DITI can identify patients with the highest level of risk and increase the overall effectiveness of mammograms and ultrasounds by detecting signs of cancer up to 10 years before traditional mammography. This can boost long-term survival rates by as much as 61 percent.
Ginny T., a holistic health coach in northern Fairfield County, now uses DITI as an indicator of her breast health. Having been diagnosed twice—in 2001 and again in 2009—with stage 0 breast cancer after mammographies, she had two lumpectomies followed by radiation treatments. She refused Tamoxifin both times. “I am not a victim. I have eaten organically for over 20 years and am a big believer in the power of healthy living,” she says.
In January 2015, despite her healthy lifestyle, an MRI showed yet another reoccurrence. “I was terrified!” says Ginny T. She decided to have a DITI scan, which indicated no inflammation. The scan picked up nothing on the breast in question but found very small abnormalities on the opposite breast, which the MRI did not pick up. These results caused her to question the previous two cancer diagnoses. “I decided to refocus intently on healing myself by following an anti-inflammatory diet. Exactly what I tell my clients. I started taking Juice Plus and tinctures in order to step up my breast health. Three months later, I went back to have a mammography and the radiologist saw nothing. He seemed surprised.”
“There is evidence that the use of nutrition, herbs and supplements can increase the effectiveness and decrease the toxicity of traditional cancer treatment,” shares Evans. “It’s important to achieve normal blood sugar levels and normal body weight through eating a more alkaline, anti-inflammatory diet. And a key principle is reducing stress. It has been documented that stress promotes inflammation and inflammation promotes cancer.” The Center for Cancer Guidance encourages patients to be an active participant in their health care; to expand beyond the conventionally accepted dynamic where doctors, drugs, radiation or surgery fight the disease.
India Penney, a holistic nutritional consultant in Westport, is a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals and the Society of Integrative Oncology. The first piece of advice she gives someone who is diagnosed with breast cancer is to get multiple opinions, echoing Katz’s experience. “Find someone who thinks the way you do. Go to a cancer center and find specialists that treat your kind of cancer specifically. Find an integrative practitioner to work with – a nutritionist and/or naturopathic physician. Allopathic physicians are not trained extensively in nutrition –they take one class in eight years of education,” Penney says. “People need to eat well, to support their general health and especially during and after cancer treatment…Our food provides the nutrients our cells need to function properly. Those cells are created and nourished by the foods you eat and the nutrients those foods provide.”
Penney, a cancer survivor herself, supports an integrative approach to health and wellness including nutrition, lifestyle changes to tend to emotional health, eliminating negativity, accepting support and spiritual connection. “My best advice to someone who is newly diagnosed with breast cancer is to trust your instincts; don’t listen to statistics, get your health team in place and then follow their advice.”
There are certain times when it’s crucial to be connected to others. Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is one of them. And it’s these connections that make the survivors thrive.
Beth Leas is founding director of Total Life Center at 152 East Ave, Norwalk, and a contributing writer to Natural Awakenings Fairfield County. She can be reached at 203-856-9566 or BethLeas.com.