Well, hello to you all! My name is Suzanne, and I am a patient at the Yinova Center and nine-year survivor of breast cancer. I represent a demographic that is, unfortunately, becoming much more common – a young, pre-menopausal woman diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 32 at the time of my diagnosis… and a week away from my wedding! You can imagine how shocking it was to hear I had breast cancer, but I was even more stunned to find that I had a fairly advanced case of it.
That is what galvanized me to become my own advocate and to seek out complementary treatment to go along with the conventional therapy. I had been interested in nutrition, homeopathy and herbs for several years, but I was dragging my feet on making dietary changes. I seemed pretty healthy, and physically I was in the best shape of my life since I had been exercising to look good in that wedding dress! It was a little incomprehensible to me that I had cancer – I looked and felt fine. I still had trouble believing it, even when I was thrown into the maelstrom of doctor’s appointments and second opinions and scheduling surgery for a lumpectomy, which eventually turned into a mastectomy once I found out how much the cancer had spread and how many lymph nodes were involved.
I hadn’t gone to acupuncture before, but at the urging of my homeopath I made the appointment. I am sure many of you completely understand where I am coming from when I say that my visit with Jill was like an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was the first time in all of the craziness of being diagnosed that I began to calm down and feel like I had some power over how I was going to deal with my disease. She exuded such an extraordinary sense of compassion and caring, and her skill as a practitioner was astounding. I started going to acupuncture weekly before chemotherapy and radiation commenced to get myself physically and mentally prepared for treatment. I also modified my diet so that I was eating wholesome, health-supporting whole foods: a multitude of fresh vegetables and fruit with every meal, whole grains like quinoa, barley, buckwheat and polenta, and lean protein. I cut out processed foods like sugar, white flour products, and junk food entirely. I was amazed and a little confused to see my health improve rapidly, even though I was “sick.” It was the beginning of a journey that changed many things for me, not the least of which were my ideas of what “sick” and “healthy” meant.
Once I had my mastectomy and started the process for breast reconstruction, I began a regimen of chemotherapy, which occurred every other week and lasted four months. The most difficult aspects of it were the nausea, mouth sores, fatigue, and hot flashes. I wasn’t too thrilled with the baldness part of it either, though I kept trying to remind myself that it was temporary. The doctors prepare you for it and can even pinpoint the exact time when it will start, but it still doesn’t help when you get down to the moment when you are Officially Bald. Until then, I had been able to hide the fact that I was sick and still pass as a healthy, normal person. It was a hard adjustment to have the world see me as a cancer patient.
Then, the hot flashes started coming on pretty strong – in the cancer world, we call that chemopause – so I wasn’t just a bald cancer patient: I was a sweaty, red-faced bald cancer patient drowning underneath my cute red-haired wig. Jill adjusted her treatment and they decreased so dramatically that I hardly noticed them.
Between acupuncture and homeopathy, I found that I could deal with the side effects of chemotherapy quite nicely. In fact, I did so well I even went out on an interview and got a part-time job – wig and all!!
Radiation presented different challenges for me. The fatigue was much more debilitating during this phase. I think part of it was the regimen. I was treated five days a week for six weeks, which quickly becomes very taxing in itself. But, I also think that as I was nearing the end of my treatment I was experiencing the cumulative effects of the physical and mental trauma that goes along with cancer. In the last week of radiation I started to get a very bad burn. It was extremely painful and very demoralizing, and that coupled with the fatigue found me dragging myself into Jill’s office and collapsing onto the table. I found that the acupuncture was extremely helpful with decreasing the fatigue and the pain of the burn, and I was extremely grateful to have another option to help with this very difficult side effect.
Many people have asked me what my lowest point was during this breast cancer journey, expecting to hear that the treatment was the hardest part. But for me, my lowest point came once my treatment was over. Before that, I didn’t have much time to reflect on all that had happened – I was more concerned with survival and keeping myself going through all that was ahead of me. Once treatment ended, I had a chance to catch my breath and actually feel just how hard it was for me to lose my breast. It shook my confidence down to the core and changed my body image. I wondered how all the drugs and radiation might affect me in the long term. I worried about my fertility. I lost friends that I loved to the same disease that I had. I thought about my sense of myself as “young” and “healthy” and how I felt like I had lost both of those feelings forever, at the ripe old age of 32. And I worried – boy did I ever worry – about the cancer coming back.
Feeling the heartache of this loss – the loss of my old life and the step forward into my new “normal” – was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. It was much, much harder for me than the actual treatment. And grieving for it is a process that takes time. No one wants to do this voluntarily. But with it comes an amazing opportunity for growth. I was very surprised to experience these wonderful gifts that were also a part of my cancer journey. I had a newfound clarity, and that helped me to let go of a lot of baggage that was weighing me down and helped me to prioritize the important things in my life. I live my life now with a joy and a freedom that were only a faint idea for me before cancer. I am far from perfect, so I still have my moments of doubt and fear and unhappiness. But I don’t stay there for very long. I appreciate the fact that my life is a gift. I keep a quote from Joseph Campbell in mind and have it posted so I can read it every day: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
And so one of the biggest blessings that has come out of my experience is that I have found my voice and a calling to be a strong advocate for vibrant health, for myself and for others experiencing illness. I am thrilled to be able to turn this experience around and offer it as a helping hand to someone else who is struggling. I certainly have been the beneficiary of that: I cannot thank all of the amazing people in my life who helped me through such a difficult time enough, especially Jill and all the other wonderful people at the Yinova Center. I am so deeply grateful for the compassion, kindness, encouragement, and emotional support I received from them.
And so, here I am, nine years later. I’m still cancer free, and acupuncture is an integral part of my long-term plan for a healthy and vibrant life. I have continued and expanded my dietary modifications, and returned to a lapsed meditation practice, which gives me a sense of peace and gratitude every day. I’ve continued to grow in my knowledge of nutrition and herbs, and have added in exercise to keep myself fit and flexible. And I feel confident again, but in a much deeper way than I was before. It comes from a sense of who I am, rather than just what I look like on the exterior. I feel empowered to work on my health in order to live my life, rather than have my life work to serve my health. I hope that by sharing some of my experiences you will feel empowered to work on your health, too.