Putting Your Self First
Posted On Jun 25, 2015
When battling cancer, the latest research is clear. Everything has an impact on your overall health from the thoughts you think to the food you eat.
BY ECHO GARRETT ? ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTO NGAI
A few months ago, I spent some time with Beth McKinnon, a life coach with a non-profit I co-founded called Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, which helps homeless youth aging out of foster care. I noticed that her fridge was stocked with healthy foods and her pantry contained supplements and herbs. Rarely do I encounter anyone whose healthy eating habits are in sync with mine. When I asked her about it, she said she was a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2002— which is exactly when I had my own scare.
Coincidentally, she’d elected to take an alternative route to treatment with the same doctor I had considered: Nicholas Gonzalez, MD, a classically trained oncologist based in New York City who has been treating patients for 25 years with an intense regimen of coffee enema cleanses, juicing, supplements, and a mainly raw-food diet. While these methods have been called controversial by more traditional members of the medical community, McKinnon is the fourth person I’ve encountered to have received successful treatment from Dr. Gonzalez.
Then age 60 and divorced from her restaurant business partner, McKinnon was working as a counselor at a meditation retreat in the Catskills when she was diagnosed. “I was scared to death, but I just felt in my soul that my body was not going to be able to take chemo,” says McKinnon. A friend informed her about Dr. Gonzalez’s ways, and soon after she spoke to another friend who had been successfully treated by him, too.
McKinnon was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) on top of stage I breast cancer. Now more than 12 years later, she continues to follow Dr. Gonzalez’s program to the best of her ability and has had no re-occurrence. An added bonus: Her CFS has gone away. “I have more energy today than I’ve had in years,” says the slender, vibrant 71-year-old. “I used my cancer to transform my life. I became a life coach and moved to Macon, Georgia to be closer to my support network of friends and family.”
Though McKinnon chose a nonconventional approach to her disease, more and more cancer specialists are emphasizing to patients the need to control their thoughts and their nutrition. Says Maurie Markman, MD, senior vice president of Clinical Affairs and national director of Medical Oncology with Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), which has integrative hospitals in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Tulsa: “So many factors come into play with an individual’s cancer. There’s the nutritional side—the variety of medications, herbs, and nutritional supplements a person is taking.
There’s the mind-body approach—counseling, spirituality, support groups, and practices like expressive writing and mindfulness. Then there’s the physical aspect of exercise like yoga and qigong and its impact on anxiety, stress, depression, and quality of sleep, as well as pain management. Of course, diet is key, and how that affects the hormone balances and the body’s ability to metabolize sugar.”
Joycelyn L. Speight, MD, PhD, DABR is a board-certified radiation oncologist and palliative care specialist at University of California, San Francisco. The university is home to one of the few National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers and offers one of the first integrative medicine and symptom management (palliative care) programs. “We are not curing everyone, but we bring whatever we can to manage the disease: acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, tai chi, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, and so on,” says Dr. Speight, who specializes in women’s cancers.
“All of these things are beneficial for patients.” Dr. Speight launched Phenix Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization with an outreach mission to educate, promote, and support survivorship and wellness for cancer patients before, during, and after treatment. Her mission: to offer programs and resources that help patients maintain and regain their quality of life and promote pathways to recovery. “We are changing the concept of survivorship, making it an important goal to focus on post-treatment and the journey back to wellness. An important area that needs to be addressed is quality of life.”
Traditional chemotherapy has been a shot in the dark, says Tasneem Bhatia, MD, medical director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine, acupuncturist, and nutritionist. “You end up damaging a lot of systems in the body while trying to get rid of cancer,” she says. “The art in medicine is understanding a person’s individual cancer journey. We help them pick what they might respond well to, things such as meditation or craniosacral therapy. This art requires skilled practitioners.” “Dr. Taz,” as she likes to be called, approaches her cancer patient’s treatment plan in phases. In phase I, the doctor (best-selling author of What Doctors Eat) creates a plan that takes into account conventional treatments that the patient may be receiving.
“I often find poor gut function and toxicity,” she says. “I determine a way to deliver optimal nutrition and prevent side effects. That may mean supplements, antioxidants, IV vitamin cocktails, and injections of nutrients.” She gets to know the person and identifies what will soothe the mind, body, and soul. “The mind-body piece is important in predicting good outcomes,” says the doctor, whose father-in-law died within three months of his cancer diagnosis. “Helping people be resilient is so important. They walk into my office shell-shocked and angry. We start to help them find hope. It’s a day-to-day process of controlling your mind and emotions. Healing happens when people are connected and feel like they are being loved. You may do that through meditation, prayer, having family near you—whatever you need to build resilience, hope, and a support system.”
During phase II, her plan calls for aggressive repair—healing the body and helping the patient move forward. In phase III, she focuses on a fiveyear prevention plan and figures out why the body created its cancer in the first place. “Was it genetic? Environmental? Can the body not properly utilize certain nutrients? Does it lack specific enzymes needed for detoxification? Is your system overloaded with toxins? Heavy metals? That’s where the science is going, and what I’m most excited about,” says Dr. Taz. “We combine conventional wisdom with integrative medicine to help patients make educated decisions.”
Botanicals and biologics are proving effective in the prevention, treatment, and survival from cancer, too. Funded by the National Institute of Health, Nagi Kumar, PhD, RD, FADA, of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida has led a team of 56 to complete several preclinical and early phase I-II clinical trials with purified isoflavones, curcuminoid complex, green tea catechins n-3 fatty acids, tannic acid, and lycopene. “For the past 10 years we’ve been evaluating substances from the food we eat and the extracts and concentrates of botanicals in preventing and treating cancer and the symptoms that arise from chemo and radiation,” says Dr. Kumar.
The work has primarily been focused on women who are genetically at high risk for breast cancer (like actress Angelina Jolie, who carries the BRCA1 gene and opted to undergo a double mastectomy in 2013), men who have early stages of prostate cancer, and former smokers with a 50 percent chance of developing lung cancer. A study looking at isoflavones derived from soy and their impact on prostate cancer is in phase II. Another study is looking at the effect of green tea catechins on early lesions in the lungs. “We are also looking at breast cancer survivors who suffer from chemo brain—difficulty with speed of processing and multitasking—which was first thought to be a transient symptom, but we’re now learning can linger for 10 years after chemo,” explains Dr. Kumar, whose team collaborated with Alzheimer’s researchers.
“Both are marked by inflammatory changes that happen to the brain. We wanted to treat with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances from blackberries, currants, and omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil. We’ve had good results. ” To fight lung tumors, the team is studying curcurmin and pepperene, which are found in turmeric and peppers, respectively. “Paint your plate like a painter’s palette,” she advises. “Most diseases of the day are the results of inflammation and stress due to environmental insults that are not compensated for by the food we eat. The best way to eat is the natural way.”
In 2001, Dana F. Flavin, MD—pharmacologist, biochemist, and a former FDA official— founded CollMED (the Foundation for Collaborative Medicine and Research) to collaborate with colleagues on research and in helping patients. One patient had been given a death sentence, but Dr. Flavin found a treatment based predominantly upon natural remedies. Many of her support measures are nutrients and diets that allow patients to remain in remission and live symptom-free lives. “I never would have believed so many answers are found in nature,” she says.
“I used to think juicing and eating raw vegetables was ridiculous. I was completely mistaken.” An herbal tea called essiac and bitter almonds help alkalize the body and get rid of parasites and fungal infections that cancer patients often experience. “We look for immune support therapies to get your system working again,” she says. Dr. Flavin also lauds the power of curcurmin to reverse the desensitivity of cancer cells, claiming that it hits the cancer stem cells, which are resistant to most types of chemotherapy. Another powerful anti-inflammatory is frankincense, an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia. “I was the biggest skeptic,” she insists. “I never realized the importance of the nutritional aspects. The tumor itself is only one problem and chemo works on the cancer cells, but not the real problem. The real problem is the cancer stem cells.”
Research showed her that the beta-carotene found in carrot juice inhibits the BCL2 gene while vitamin A inhibits one of the major genes that can cause cancer. Doctor Flavin now partakes in regular detoxes, using garlic and oregano oil to rid herself of parasites. “As I did more and more research, I began to realize that diet and nutrition play a major role in this process,” she says. “If your diet is low in acidity and very alkaline, you are going to have better responses to chemotherapy and fewer side effects.” She also mentions that stress levels in cancer can be problematic. She recommends sweet basil as a means of calming down the nervous system. “Juicing helps deliver oxygen to distressed cells, which are low on oxygen,” she says, noting that many cancers are caused by our environment, so they need to be addressed on the cellular level, the immune level, and psychological level.
She agrees with David Perlmutter, MD’s campaign against grains, which raise insulin levels and promote tumor growth. “Grains are a real problem,” she says. “White flour ferments in the intestines. You have to look at the biochemistry of the disease and then use nutrients against it.” She explains that combining some of these super natural substances like green tea extract and high doses of vitamin C can inhibit blood vessel growth in tumors. “Sending in a lone soldier to fight the bad guys doesn’t do any good,” she says. “You’ve got to deploy an army.” Many of her patients juice with anticancer veggies like carrots, parsley, red beets, and celery with a little bit of olive oil and ginger. “I’ve changed my own diet completely,” she says. “I eat seeds and nuts, greens, greens, and more greens.”
Heather Paulson, ND, FABNO from Arizona Natural Health Center, a licensed and boardcertified naturopathic oncologist, has found that high doses of vitamin C by IV helps resolve bone pain in patients with breast cancer that has metastasized. “We do lots of diet counseling and encourage cancer patients to eat a more plant based diet,” she says. “I recently had a patient with stage IV prostate cancer in excruciating pain, and with homeopathic remedies, he was able to get off all his pain meds.”
Spirituality is a crucial component of the cancer journey, according to Rob Berberian, DO, founder of Whole Health & Soul in Los Angeles and double board-certified in family medicine and integrative medicine with a sub-specialty in spiritual wellness. He uses biofeedback to help his cancer patients learn to control their breathing, which affects heart rate, metabolism, and mood. “When you go for a chemo treatment, you tend to get really stressed, which releases the stress hormone cortisol,” he explains.
“We guide the person through a breathing exercise and change the way she reacts to a stressor.” He also uses guided meditation. “It’s like recharging your cell phone,” he says. “We teach people to release worry, fear, and negative energy, and replace the clutter with thoughts of love, hope, happiness, and health. Many studies have proven that positive energy aids healing.”
Dr. Berberian, whose father succumbed to lymphoma, also employs positive visualization with patients: “When a person is sitting for a sixhour infusion of chemo, they need to replace negative images with positive images. It’s easy to look around and see other people in pain and fear. I tell people to think of a place that brings joy, and call up that image whenever they’re feeling stressed. I notice that patients who do these things are less angry and eventually are filled with gratitude for what they do have in their lives.”
Daniel A. Monti, MD, the executive and medical director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and associate professor of psychiatry and emergency medicine at Jefferson Medical College, has studied the neuroemotional technique (NET) which allow patients to release negative emotions through noninvasive methods. “More than one-third of cancer patients experience high stress, and stress manifests in a number of physical and psychological ways,” he says, citing studies that show amplified stress in cancer patients has been associated with increased morbidity and mortality, decreased immune function, increased relapse, and certainly decreased health-related quality of life.
With the increasing number of survivors, it has become critical to understand the mindbody connection because it impacts their outcomes. Says Dr. Speight: “We already know that physical activity has a direct correlation to survival. We are just beginning to grasp how important the mind-body connection is to survivors on this journey. Anxiety and stress are common among survivors, but we’ve got to help find ways to manage them. They want more time, but they also want a better quality of life, and we can do that by addressing the whole person as a spiritual being. My patients echo that to me every day.”