I remember vividly where I was when I received the call that the results of my biopsy were positive for malignant cells. I was about to hop onto a ski lift with my elementary school age kids, and I was just told I had breast cancer!
Amidst the seemingly unending number of medical appointments and further test procedures, one question stands out, and nips at your heels from that moment when you first hear the news. What next?
Followed by the stark realization that you feel totally unequipped to play a meaningful part in answering this question. Immediately followed by sheer panic that you need to decide right away to avoid making the situation worse by wasting precious time to even think straight. We understandably feel vulnerable and place our trust in what we feel is expert advice, thereby often unintentionally excluding ourselves from being a part of making one of the most important decisions of our lives.
If you are feeling like that right now, take a deep breath! You do have some time to play an informed and active role in deciding “What next?”. In most cases, cancer did not develop within a short period of time, and thus does not require an immediate crisis response. A diagnosis is the beginning of a journey of healing and recovery, and there will be many paths to cross. Let’s narrow it down, and look at two important questions you can ask yourself right now to help you make an educated, unpressurized decision at a most unsettling time.
ASK: Where am I on the cancer spectrum?
When we hear those words “you have cancer”, the emotional overwhelm that hits us and throws us into panic mode often causes us to tune out a lot of other important information. We want to rid ourselves of “this thing” as soon as possible. People around you may recommend you speak with a friend or colleague who recently was diagnosed and treated for the “same” cancer. Tempting as it may be to use that information to judge what is best for you, it is really important to understand the nuances of your diagnosis and pay attention to the details. Why?
Most cancers exist within a microcosm that is unique to you. Knowing what you are dealing with affects your ability to decide what treatment approach is right for you AND to be an active participant in this decision-making.
What is my diagnosis?
When we are confronted with “What next?”, we need to start with “What type of cancer is it?” Utilizing diagnostic tools that help us identify this important question is a good start, and this may include having a biopsy done. Yes, this is often controversial and causes anxiety in itself, and we can argue for and against it, but for the purposes of this blog, I want you to think about it like this. When a treatment decision needs to be made, you want to know exactly what you are dealing with so that you can optimally target your cancer cells AND its surrounding environment. Although it may sound as if I am stating the obvious, different cancers may require different combinations of treatment approaches. Sometimes, in the midst of this emotional overwhelm, we ignore this important fact.
The first piece of information you want to know is which of these following groups your cancer falls into. Why is this important? One of the first questions you will have is whether or not your cancer can be removed surgically, because not all tumors can. For example, leukemias and lymphomas affect many parts of your body and thus do not have a distinct location.
This is also often an area where we may be led astray when hearing about how other patients healed themselves without undergoing any conventional treatments. Always understand what type of cancer they in fact had before comparing your case to theirs, as this plays a vital role in the necessity and potential efficacy of treatment.
Here are four of the most basic cancer groups. Each has a different impact on the body, consequences for long-term survival and requires its own specialized cancer care.
- Sarcoma – this is cancer of the bone, muscle, cartilage, fat and other soft or connective tissues
- Carcinoma – this is cancer of the skin (melanomas are a sub-group), lungs, breast, pancreas and other glands and organs
- Leukemia – this is cancer of blood cell-forming tissue, including bone marrow and the lymphatic system
- Lymphoma – this is cancer of a type of immune cells called lymphocytes that fight infections, often originating in lymph nodes, usually spread throughout the body by way of the lymphatic system
What is the growth rate of my cancer?
Next, you want to know if it’s a fast or slow growing cancer, as you want to get a feel for how long it has been developing in your body. Why is this important? This is an indication of how aggressive the cancer is and, in turn, how much time you have to research your options. Most cancers are slow growing and have been developing over a longer period of time, so there is no need to rush into treatments within a week of being diagnosed. But just in case you are dealing with a fast-growing cancer, you need to know what the level of urgency really is.
You may even have a gut feel as to what may have triggered it, even if this is never an easy or straight forward answer, do listen to what answers come up for you. This is an important part of your overall healing journey and helps you with your emotional healing and releasing underlying trauma, an essential part of your recovery.
What stage of development is my cancer?
Cancer can generally be categorized into these three stages of development:
- Initiation – Cell DNA (genetics) has been damaged, genetic mutations are occurring, and cancerous cells are developing
- Promotion – cancerous cells develop into a tumor, often fueled through nutritional and environmental stimulants (such as blood sugar imbalances, free radicals, toxic chemicals, xenoestrogens (chemicals that mimic estrogen)
- Progression – the tumor is actively growing, and may have already moved from its original growth source (metastasized) to infiltrate other body parts
What staging is my cancer?
In order to determine at which stage of development your cancer is, you will be given a certain score. Pay attention to this! It is important to know this as it has a direct impact on your treatment decision, giving you an indication of how far your cancer has spread, how aggressive it is, and how effective certain therapies could potentially be.
Some cancers receive a TNM Score which can be interpreted as follows:
- T=Tumor size
- N=number of involved lymph nodes (which helps spread cancer cells throughout the body through the lymphatic system, which is an intricate network of many vessels all over your body, similar to your network of blood vessels)
- M=metastasis (degree to which cancer cells have infiltrated other body parts)
A TNM score will also have numbers attached to each letter, and this will indicate the level of spread of a tumor.
- X = no cancerous activity could be measured, e.g. TX
- 0 = no cancer can be found, and when used with the M, this means that the tumor is localized
- 1-4 = the higher the number, the more aggressive the cancer growth or number of lymph nodes involved is, e.g. T1, N2
- a or b = sometimes this provides further information about the nature of the tumor, e.g. T1b
Some cancers do not receive a TNM score, but are categorized into these general stages:
Stage 0 = in situ, non-invasive, but yet still abnormal cells
Stage I = small, localized
Stage II = larger, still localized, may affect lymph nodes
Stage III = affected lymph nodes, regionally advanced
Stage IV = advanced metastasis in other organs or organ systems
I do want to mention here that if you belong in the Stage IV category and feel disheartened at the fact that there is no stage V, please know that in my line of work I have met numerous long-term Stage IV survivors, thriving many years after their diagnosis. What they all have in common is a super dedicated commitment to doing what it takes, not what is convenient, and adopting a truly integrative approach to their cancer care, more on this later on.
ASK – What is my overall level of health?
Now that you know where on the cancer spectrum you are, you need to gather some data points which will tell you what, besides the cancer diagnosis, is the status of your overall level of health. What else is going on that can have a direct impact on how well your body will respond to a particular treatment path. Determining the type and stage of cancer alone is not an indication of how well you may respond to any given treatment approach.
Do you have other health issues, such as a history of inflammation, pre-diabetes, certain chemical sensitivities, hormonal, cognitive, skin or digestive imbalances, anxiety or panic attacks, are you a fretful worrier, to name but a few. Knowing what other weaknesses you have gives your healing team a complete picture of what needs to be addressed as part of your overall care in order to give your body a fighting chance. This last part is often not addressed with the traditional approach.
Treating cancer successfully is still a challenge today, and the conventional treatment paradigm is slowly realizing that the traditional treatment methods (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, hormone therapies, immunotherapies…) are often too reductionist and mono-focused, aiming to only kill cells, address only a certain pathway or inhibit only a certain receptor.
Cancer is sneaky, even an established tumor can change and adapt whilst it is still growing or being treated, it lives within, and creates its own, dynamic microenvironment that may evade the more narrow parameters of a reductionist treatment approach.
Healing from cancer requires an integrative approach in which careful attention is paid to the body’s inner environment – what is going on in there already that can significantly affect the success of treatment, AND what can I, as the actively participating patient, do in my life to help my treatment along and hopefully make it more successful? This is where nutrition and lifestyle come into play, as you can truly empower yourself with an extensive toolbox to complement and enhance your cancer care.
As a patient, you will have your own set of unique needs, and certain areas will require priority attention in addition to a focus on cancer care. Remember, you have time to think, investigate, react and organize your life, in most cases there is no need to rush to make a treatment decision overnight. However, you do need to know what you are dealing with, both from an actual cancer diagnosis as well as an overall health paradigm, before you embark on your health journey, educated and empowered as an active participant, not a victimized by-stander. You can take back control even if that is the last thing you think you can actually do right now!
In my free webinar “Start the Right Way After a Cancer Diagnosis – 5 Things you Need to Know Before Making Any Decisions” you can take it a little further than the two questions I addressed in this blog, just click on the link here and you can sign up for free.
Kirstin Nussgruber, CNC, EMB
Speaker and Educator
Founder of Eat Holistic LLC