In this blog and the ones following it, I would like to share my story—what I’ve learned about how to beat cancer—most important, how to make cancer your ally rather than your enemy.
Ten plus years ago I was diagnosed with stage 3.5 breast cancer. I beat it. I was cancer free for seven years. Then a little over 3 ½ years ago in January of 1999, I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastasized breast cancer. It was everywhere, in my liver, my lungs, my bones. By the third week of April, that same year, the cancer was completely gone from my body. My oncologist was amazed. Now he calls me his “Miracle Girl.”
This year at the beginning of March 2013, I collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. I had been down at the beach trying to take a walk, but had not been feeling well for at least a month. Since I was gradually coming off a very strong anti-depressant, Loranzepam, that had been prescribed to me the second time I’d had cancer, I thought I was just going through a very difficult withdrawal. I’d read the horror stories on the Internet about how hard it is to get off this drug and how one should never take it for more than 3-4 weeks. No one had told me that, so I assumed the anxiety attacks and trouble concentrating I was experiencing were because I’d been on the drug for three years.
When I got in my car that early evening, I could not start it. I knew where the ignition was, but the hand of the Divine was on me because I could not fit the key into the slot. I called out to a jogger and discovered to my great distress that I could not speak. I knew what I wanted to say, but the words came out in the wrong order. It was surreal. She called an ambulance and I was taken to the emergency room. Eventually I was admitted and submitted to every test they could think of.
On day two, following an MRI, I was told that I had brain cancer. Fortunately, it was metastasized breast cancer, which is a hundred times easier to cure than brain cancer, especially when one has Her2 positive cancer, which now has many, many genetically engineered drugs, many powered by Herceptin, to knock the cancer out of your body. The doctor told me that I had 14 brain tumors, 13 tiny ones and one larger one.
[The cancer was nowhere else in my body (following two PET scans), and my regular oncologist feels that tiny stray cells of this cancer had been in my body from the first time I’d had cancer and had somehow activated ten years later. He believes this since all my blood work and scans over the last 3 years had all been cancer free on every count.]
My first feeling after the hospital diagnosis was tremendous distress and fear. But less than 10 seconds later, a feeling of joy coursed up my spine like a tree growing out of my body and spreading its golden branches above my head. I lost my fear because I knew I was going to be all right. This was not going to kill me. This time, more strongly than ever before, I knew that I was being called to embark on a new life mission, although I did not yet know what that was.
Once I realized that, I started to regain my ability to speak coherently. By day three in the hospital, I was still struggling a bit, but I could talk to people again. Both my regular oncologist, Dr. John Link, and my radiation oncologist, Dr. Kim, say it’s a miracle that I have come all the way back so quickly. I believe my quick recovery comes from my decision, my willingness to do whatever I’ve been called to do—teach, write, help others to beat cancer. I’m even teaching my classes at UC Irvine now—that’s how “back” I am.
Finding My Way
I knew ten years ago that I needed to write a book about my experiences with cancer because they were so extraordinary as a journey, but I just couldn’t face it. It was too depressing to revisit those memories. I started but just couldn’t finish.
However, my turning point, my epiphany happened when I was talking to my friend Carol. She said, “Joy, you know how to beat cancer, and you need to write about it.” I was stunned because I suddenly realized that she was right, but I had to think about it for a while. How had I done it? I certainly didn’t do it alone, but what were the factors that had led to my miraculous recovery twice and to my certainty that I would recover this time?
This blog is going to be about my journey to recovery and all the ideas, perspectives, people, prayers, and treatments (both mainstream and alternative) that brought me back to health and strength and, most important, helped me to become the kind of person I never dreamed possible. Believe me, when you are faced with something like cancer, all your limitations seem petty and the amazing spirit that lives inside of you, the extraordinary person you are, that we all are, rises to the surface and you become a warrior. You find strength, faith, love, and support you never realized you had.
I want to begin this series of blogs by sharing some of the things that I think have helped me the most. I will describe them briefly here, and write about them in more detail later. It is my heart’s wish that you will find something here to help you.
Find the Best Mainstream Medical Care You Can
I hate to disappoint those who believe that they can cure cancer by using only alternative medicine, but I personally don’t believe that. I’ve heard too many stories of people who travel to clinics in Mexico that put you on a juicing regime (usually at the cost of $11,000 for two weeks of treatment), or some other alternative therapies, and have died.
Why take that chance? Yes, cancer treatments are really hard. Chemotherapy is tough to get through, to make a great understatement. Surgery is no picnic. Radiation makes most people exhausted for weeks, and some of the oral medications have unpleasant side effects. But these treatments beat the crap out of cancer.
So, don’t settle for less. Do the research, ask for recommendations, find the best oncologist you can. I found Dr. John Link of Breastlink, and I know that he is one of the top oncologists in the country. Most important, go with a doctor who will give you hope, that will speak positively to you, because a doctor’s words go deeply into you unconscious and conscious mind and are important factors in your recovery.
That said, I’m a firm believer in complimentary medicine. While you’re getting the best that modern cancer treatments can offer, find out everything you can about alternative medicine and use it. You will need to consult with your doctor since certain vitamins, anti-oxidants, for example, interfere with chemotherapy and radiation. Yes, you need to keep that stuff in your body for a certain period of time. But there are many things that really help during and after your treatments, including aerobic exercise. Even walking a little and slowly building up stamina helps because cancer hates aerobic exercise.
Reach Out to Others
DO NOT CURL UP IN A BALL. This behavior does not help you at all. In fact, I believe it will have a really negative impact on your recovery. I’ve talked to friends and relatives of cancer patients who have seen their loved ones do this, and they all feel it makes them sicker. But most important of all, you need to understand that your loved ones need your help. They probably feel worse than you do, especially at the beginning, because they feel helpless. Believe me, they’d take the chemo for you if they could because they love you. I knew people loved me, but I never realized how much until I was diagnosed this third time. It has helped me so much, to just let them help, to accept their offers made out of love.
Learn to accept gifts, help, prayers, money, etc., etc. Somehow we think we don’t deserve it, or are afraid we will be a burden. Bull Sh–! Get over it. Let that loving support into your life. It will not only help you and speed your recovery, but it will help your family and friends. They need you. You need them.
Keep people informed: since you don’t have time to make a career out of calling up everyone you know, create a mass emailing list and send out updates every couple of weeks. Create a Facebook page. Designate a close relative or friend to be in charge of updates if you aren’t up to it.
Sign on an ally to help you find rides to doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping (there are angels out there who will even do that for you), and whatever else you need. People want to help. Wouldn’t you help them if the shoe was on the other foot? Can’t we reasonably assume that ALL of us will be in need of help someday? Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to pass on the love in the future.
My sister, Debby, has helped me so much, even though she’s three thousand miles away. She was the one who contacted all my friends and family and employer when she found out where I was and how I’d been diagnosed. Since then she’s talked to my doctors, worked with my social worker at Hoag Hospital to find organizations that can give me rides to my doctor’s appointments, researched medications I’m taking, become my power of attorney, and just taken care of so many details that have made my life easier. She also calls me up almost every day to encourage me and see how I’m doing. I love her so much.
The POWER of Prayer
Each time I’ve had cancer, I’ve had thousands of people across the country praying for me. I’ve felt every prayer and I believe prayer is one of the reasons I’m here today. The details of a person’s belief system or the name of the church they attend (or don’t attend) don’t matter. Mother/Father God does not pick favorites.
I’ve prayed for many, many people under many circumstances. Recently, I got some amazing lessons in the power of prayer. In the weeks after I was diagnosed, I was placed on steroids four times a day and anti-seizure medication to reduce the swelling in my brain and to avoid my having any seizures. The steroids kept me from getting much sleep, only2-3 hours per night. That was hell. However, when I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep, my mind was crystal clear and I kept getting the most amazing insights for the next few hours.
One of the things that seemed strongest was the feeling that I should pray for the healing of others. For a few weeks I felt filled with this incredible power, like a mainline to the Divine. The people I prayed for were healed. For example, my 83-year-old aunt who’d had breast cancer last year and had undergone three weeks of radiation found a lump in her breast. She was due in three days to go to the doctor and get a scan. The day after her scan I went over to see her and asked what had happened. She told me that the nurse couldn’t find the lump and neither could she. The scan turned up nothing. I hugged her. I was so happy.
Prayer takes many forms, speaking with the Divine, a loving parent or friend who has passed on, an angel (such as Zadkiel, the archangel of compassion), meditating and asking for guidance.
Hypnotherapy and healing CDs are also powerful tools because they align your entire being, your entire consciousness, with the desire and belief that you will get well. My dear friend Larry Garret, who is a master hypnotist, has custom-made hypnotherapy CDs for me over the last 10 years and I believe that he is also one of the big reasons I’m here today.
Find a New Perspective
One of the most powerful things you can do when you have been diagnosed with cancer is to find a new perspective. Create a new story in which cancer is your teacher, a story in which it has not come to kill you, it is not your deadly enemy, but your ally, given to you by the Divine to teach you valuable lessons, to make you into a more wonderful, powerful, loving person.
I’m not one who can call cancer my “friend.” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. But I can view it as an opportunity, to see my life in a new way, to imagine things I’ve never seen before, to stop postponing my dreams, to have greater faith in myself as a precious and extraordinary person who has come to this earth to do important things. And all of you reading this have come here with a purpose.
There are times when you will feel very discouraged, or even like giving up, but know that those times won’t last. I’ve been there. Sometimes I’ve just felt really bad. I’m not Joan of Arc. But I kept on going because I knew that continuing to be alive in this beautiful world is worth it.
Each one of us is filled with life lessons, things that only we know, things that only we can give to the world. Hanging on my wall is a framed picture of Martha Graham, one of the pioneers of modern dance, and underneath I’ve typed one of her quotations:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all of time, this experience is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”
This describes you.
My sister-in-law, Shari, recently sent me a beautiful doll made by an amazing couple who create these wonderful creatures for people who have cancer. There is a note pinned to her dress that says, “Don’t ever give up.” I read those words quite often. Pin them to your bathroom mirror. In fact, put up notes around your house in places where you will notice them. One of the notes that I have taped to my bathroom mirror is something I got from the television series Treme, which is about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It says, “Won’t bow. Don’t know how.” I like to repeat that one over and over in a loud voice when I feel down.
And, you know, I won’t bow. And I don’t know how. That’s why I’m still here. I only know how to live, and keep on living, and giving, and loving. I have good days and bad days, but I keep going, and I have faith.
I send my love to all reading this blog. Remember that the light comes out of the darkness.
—Joy Parker, Radiant Warrior