"Surviving a Big Breast Adventure" by Jen McDonald

SheByShe is humbled to bring our readers this insightful post by Jen McDonald of Sydney, Australia. Jen talks about her current battle against breast cancer and shares her personal insights and advice about diet and nutrition. This is a must read by all!

Jen McDonald, SheByShe guest blogger,  is a Sydney Australia-based communication professional and blogger. For the past 28 years she has run public relations firm Blackie McDonald with her journalist husband, Tony Blackie. Amazingly, they are still married! Jen is also the founder of communication consultancy, Epiphany Communication and is currently working on a digital publishing startup, For Pity Sake Publishing.

Jen’s blogging efforts under the Epiphany Communication banner include essays on Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and a travelogue on the Drawn to India art tour of Rajasthan, India. Earlier  this year she started posting on her Big Breast Adventure after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis.

Jen is currently waiting to start radiation therapy and for her hair to grow back. She lives on Sydney’s beautiful northern beaches with her husband, two children and the family dog, Clark the Beaglier.



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In November 2013 I decided to change doctors.  I don't know why it took me so long to make the decision but over the previous months I had become increasingly disgruntled with the judgements and commentary from my general practitioner du jour.  You know the type of doctor I mean.  They're the ones who question why you would prefer giving diet and exercise a try before starting straight away on blood pressure medication.  Or the type who snorts derisively when you ask for a copy of your blood results so you can show them to your naturopath.

Yep.  I was definitely fed up and when I received a reminder in the post that my biannual Pap smear was due, I decided to take the plunge and seek out a new doctor.  I'm so glad I did because that decision probably saved my life.

Now a Pap smear would hardly be anyone's first choice for a first visit to a new doctor but my chosen one was unfazed.  He ran that and a barrage of other tests including a breast exam - a proper one this time - using the flat of the hand rather than the tips of fingers, while the patient is lying down. It was here that the good doctor discovered a lump about the size of a mandarin-segment, arching over my left nipple.  I'd noticed it before but thought it was muscle build-up resulting  from  some stretch-band exercises I'd been doing to help heal a recalcitrant shoulder injury. 

A mammogram, an ultrasound, a biopsy and a few days nervous wait later my new doctor confirmed I had breast cancer - an infiltrating lobular carcinoma to be exact.  That afternoon I was sitting in the office of a breast surgeon.  Two days later I was having a mastectomy and complete removal of all the lymph nodes in my left armpit, most of which were compromised. 

Eight weeks after surgery I started chemotherapy - 12 rounds of weekly Abraxane and steriod treatment and three rounds, three weeks apart, of a hideous cocktail of drugs with the unfortunate acronym of F.E.C. - 5 fluorouracil, which is also known as 5FU (seriously, who writes this stuff?); Epirubicin and  Cyclophosphamide. This was accompanied by weekly blood tests to monitor cancer marker levels, red and white blood cell counts and vital organ function, like the liver, which takes a hammering during this process. 

And that brings me to now - a four week wait to start radiation in mid-August.  Radiation will be a daily treatment for six weeks, taking us up to the first week of October.  So 2014 has hardly been a merry-go-round of mirth for me. Happily though, I can report that certain things I was doing before my diagnosis, and some things I introduced after it, have stood me in excellent stead to weather the storm thus far while retaining some semblance of sanity.

A few of these habits are diet and nutrition related and others are more lifestyle and spiritual.  I don't profess to know everything about all or any of these categories - I only know what seems to be working for me on my Big Breast Adventure.  With any luck you may find something useful in it. 

Eat organic food and up your vegetable intake:

I haven't done anywhere near the amount of research people like Kris Carr (Crazy Sexy Cancer) or the Food Matters folk have done, but I've always been a proponent of organic food simply because (a) it tastes better and (b) the whole idea of genetically modified, pesticide and preservative-ridden 'Franken-food' appalls me. 

When I first walked into my breast surgeon's office she looked at me in a surprised kind of way and said, "You look really well."  I told her I felt well except for the growth in my left breast that was trying to kill me!  Likewise, when my Oncologist would go over my blood test results with me regularly during my chemo treatment, he'd often report that my organ function and red blood cell counts were holding up remarkably well.  My hair took longer than most to fall out.  I didn't get any of the horrid mouth ulcers that are often a side effect of chemotherapy treatment. My skin and nails (where the toxins leach out) stayed in pretty good shape even though I was being pumped full of poison on a regular basis.

I'd put most of this down to being well nourished with organic food and upping my intake of cancer-fighting vegetables and fruits such as leafy greens like spinach;  vegetables in the cruciferous family like kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries and red grapes. And while I like a good steak as much as the next red-blooded female I have it on reliable authority from my complementary health practitioners that animal products are starting to gain attention for the role they play in creating a fertile environment for the development of cancer cells.  I haven't become a vegan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have made an effort to blitz the recommended five-vegetables-a-day quotient by making green juices and opting for vegetarian recipes.  The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I'm told I look pretty good for a bald woman who's just come through chemo!

Give up the sugar:

When you get diagnosed with something like breast cancer the list of scans and tests you need to have is seemingly endless.  Before surgery they send you off for a CT and a bone scan, an MRI and an ECG to make sure your heart is healthy enough to take the anaesthetic.  The bone scan is the interesting one here because cancer cells, apparently, are attracted to nutrient rich environments, like bone marrow, so if secondaries are present, that's where they will probably show up. Bone scans, however, only show spots where inflammation is present such as the beginnings of arthritis.  To differentiate between this general wear and tear and what could be a cancer colony, you have to have another sort of scan - a P.E.T. or Poistron Emission Tomography.

I'd had so many scans by the time they sent me for this one I was well schooled in making chit-chat with the therapists while being prepped for my close-ups.  I asked the nice young man who was about to stick a needle in my arm the difference between the radio-active sludge they inject you with for a bone scan and the radio-active sludge he was about to inject me with for this P.E.T. scan.  You could have knocked me down with a feather when he answered, "sugar."  Apparently cancer cells lap up sugar like there's no tomorrow - that's how the doctors who read your scans can see the difference between what's plain old inflammation and what's a group of cancer cells gaining a foothold somewhere in the body.    

Given that everything we consume (even protein like meat) eventually becomes glucose in order to fuel the cells in our bodies, you can't really give up sugar. But if this little story shocks you as much as it did me, you'll get serious about avoiding unnecessary additional sugar in your diet.  And that goes for the sugar you don't know you're ingesting such as the stuff they add to processed food or what are supposedly 'low fat' foods to make them taste better.  I've never been a huge sugar fiend but even so, my taste buds took a bit of retraining to recognize those 'sugar sleepers.'  Now I find I am eschewing a lot of takeaway and processed food, preferring my own home made versions because the ready made things are often too sweet. Knowing what I know now about sugar I've upgraded my favourite sweet things like ice cream and white wine to 'treat' status so I only indulge occasionally rather than every day.

Get thee to a Naturopath:

Even when you've made major adjustments to your diet if you're undergoing treatment for a disease like cancer you'll need supplements in the form of pills to ensure you’re getting the optimum amounts of the good stuff.  For example, the liver gets beat up pretty good at every stage of cancer treatment - from the anesthetic during surgery and the pain relief drugs after it, to the chemotherapy drugs and all the other stuff they give you to quell nausea and inflammation.  Milk thistle is a wonderful naturally occuring substance that supports the liver during its travails.  While you can take milk thistle as a tea and it is present in some vegetables, you don’t get anywhere near the active ingredient you need to make a difference unless you take a supplement in tonic or pill form.

But like conventional drugs milk thistle and many other naturopathic medicines are very powerful and can be contra-indicated with certain other treatments and conditions. Self medication, even of natural medicines and vitamins is never a good idea so it’s best to consult a naturopath before you do anything. Here are some of the 'naturopath approved' supplements I've been taking during the Big Breast Adventure and why:

Vitamin D3 - My blood tests showed up low levels of Vit D which is important for healing, absorption of nutrients in the digestive process and bone strength.  I take a supplement for this but the best way to absorb Vitamin D is from sunlight - 20 minutes at the peak time of day (10.00am to 2.00pm).  

Vitamin C  is an excellent source of antioxidants. Rub some lemon juice on a piece of apple or avocado and you'll see it doesn't go brown.  That's the antioxidants at work. Vitamin C is also essential for collagen production in the body - your tendons, blood vessels and your skin - keeping these vital body components strong, supple and elastic.  

Zinc  is involved in a myriad of chemical reactions in the body but the main reason I use it is for skin healing and the healing/prevention of mouth ulcers.  Works a treat.

Probiotics, Aloe Vera juice and Slippery Elm - Chemotherapy is designed to put a halt to the growth of fast dividing cancer cells. The down side is that chemo also destroys other good fast dividing cells like those in the digestive tract.  

You can't stop the destruction but you can support your system with probiotics which help replenish the good bacteria in your gut; Aloe Vera and Slippery Elm which soothe the entire alimentary canal and help with some of the annoying side effects like indigestion, constipation, bloating and gastric reflux. 

The outside matters too:

If there are hidden nasties in the processed food you consume you can bet there are things in your cosmetics and personal hygiene products as well.  During this Big Breast Adventure I've gone predominantly organic with face and body creams, make up, and even the cleaning agents I use in the dishwasher, to wash clothes and clean the house. 

Turns out organic rosehip oil is the best night cream ever.  It restores elasticity in the skin, reduces wrinkles and helps with scarring.  It's also much cheaper than the mainstream cosmetic companies night creams and wonder serums. Another example, albeit a more sinister one is the use of aluminium in deodorants. Even though it’s yet to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that deodorants containing aluminium cause breast cancer, think about it for a second.  Aluminium is used to plug up the sweat glands in your armpits to stop them performing the completely natural function of expelling sweat from the body. That can't be good. And while I have yet to find a natural deodorant that's totally effective in stopping wetness and odor, I think reapplying deodorant a couple of times a day is a small price to pay to allow my sweat glands to do what they're supposed to do. It also means I'm not introducing additional, possibly harmful foreign toxins into my body that cause all manner of chain reactions that could be harmful.  

Get calm, get grateful:

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer I practiced certain things like meditation, but I was pretty poor at setting aside time to play or enjoy other activities that bring joy.  Now I recognize the importance of the things like drawing, reading, watching reruns of Downtown Abbey or old movies I love like Moostruck, playing with our dog and anything else that gives me a sense of well being. It's so important to stay calm and to remain upbeat about all the good that's in your life while you're going through something like chemotherapy, a course of treatment that often makes you feel like you want to give up the ghost, so to speak. In fact, you could substitute 'chemotherapy' for any other life crisis and my thoughts on the matter would remain the same.  

The only advice I'd proffer here is to get in touch with which rituals work for you before a life crisis hits. Easier said than done, I know but it's really hard to determine what these are when you've just received life-changing news like a cancer diagnosis, job loss, death of a loved one or whatever it happens to be.

 This isn't for everyone but I've found that blogging about my experiences has been a fabulous way to transcend my own troubles and to process the veritable tsunami of information that came my way when I was told I had had breast cancer. I've also found that stepping up my mindfulness practice with every day activities that still need to be done is a great way to center myself - things like hanging out washing or chopping vegetables for dinner.

Soon the ordinary, day-to-day chores become triggers for mindfulness exercises that really help keep me on the straight and narrow.

Thanks to some previous life crises I had already discovered the practice of gratitude as a survival mechanism.  Many years ago I decided living in fear is a crap way to live and the only thing I've found to date that eliminates fear almost instantaneously is gratitude.  When you're in a fear spiral count on your fingers at least five things you are grateful for right this very minute - a loving family or great friends, a sunny day or maybe even that the day is over!  Keep going to 10 fingers and beyond until the fear abates. Try it if you don't believe me. 

Above all, accept: 

This remains a biggy for me, both physically and emotionally. I didn't want to feel nauseous when having chemo but nauseous I certainly was.  Resistance and a tense body didn't help me feel less sick.  What did help was accepting the physical sensation of sickness and reminding myself that "this too shall pass."  Same goes for the panic, fear, disappointment, anger, sadness and any other emotions that come up when one is experiencing a life crisis.  Denying they exist doesn't make them go away.  Strangely though, acceptance does.  One thing I know for sure, struggling against what is exhausts you and I truly believe struggle begets more struggle.  Acceptance on the other hand might not bring immediate happiness, but it does bring peace. It also opens the way for the unexpected and often joyous things to happen – like your husband bringing you tea and toast in bed of a morning or your teenage son suddenly discovering how to unload the dishwasher! 

Still, acceptance has been and remains, my biggest daily challenge to date on the Big Breast Adventure and the one think I have to remind myself of every day.  

Breast regards!