It was on a Monday I learned that the routine biopsy on the lump in my breast might not be so routine, and that it would be a few more days before definitive word. My husband, Steve, and I decided not to tell anyone, to spare needless worry in case this turned out to be nothing.
On Tuesday, my friend Patricia called me. In addition to being a successful sci-fi fantasy writer, she's also the witch who married Jim Morrison in a pagan ceremony. (One does enjoy having interesting friends.) She knew nothing about my looming news. Instead, she had called to tell me about a dream she had while away for the weekend.
It was one of the most terrifying dreams I have ever had. I was running through a dark, unfamiliar house, and I was holding something sharp, like a knife, in my hand. And I was screaming for you and Steve. I don't know what it was, but I know I was trying to keep something dark and malevolent from getting in. When I woke up, I was sure I was still screaming.
I checked to make sure my house and family were all right. Then I told the friend I was staying with I had to go home right away--something was very wrong with someone I love.
What do you suppose this meant?
So I told her.
After all, could she have been more specific? Trying to keep at bay something dark and malevolent? While holding a knife? While screaming for me?
I relate this not just because it's a good story (but isn't it, though?), but to explain that when Patricia says she and her fellow pagan friends are doing healing circles for me, I take them very seriously indeed.
Which brings us to the topic of alternative therapies.
From the moment I got my cancer diagnosis, I made arrangements to supplement Western medicine with Eastern. I had already been seeing an acupuncture/Chinese medicine doctor, Karen Raub at the Phoenix Pharmacy in Altadena. She promptly put me on herbal pills, which she said would keep my blood-cell count up (white blood cells often are severely reduced by chemotherapy) and another to deal with the chemo side effects.
Coincidentally, right at this time, the American Medical Assn. gave its seal of approval to acupuncture for dealing with the nausea from chemo. So my weekly acupuncture visits with Karen now have an additional aura of legitimacy. Karen also prescribed a strict diet, banning, among other things, fried, smoked or spicy foods, garlic, dairy products, sugar, white flour and yes, chocolate. But hey, I can have all the seaweed, brown rice and mushrooms I want.
Right, I said. I'm going to go nine months without chocolate. You know what? I'm not going to go nine hours without it.
Another friend, studying Eastern medicine herself, summed up the list by saying, "Basically, this forbids everything that makes life worth living."
So I've compromised by ignoring the diet entirely and taking my herbs--21 pills a day--as faithfully as I can.
My friend Janet Grey recently became a hypnotherapist with her own business called Greymatters in Los Angeles, and I've been going to her for regular sessions, in addition to undergoing the acupuncture.
Alas, she does not wave a watch in front of my face and announce that I am getting "sleeeepy." Rather, she maternally tucks me in and has me listen to wave sounds while she calmly tells me to relax and visualize. It doesn't take long before I'm out--napping or hypnotized, call it what you will. During this time, Janet makes suggestions about, among other things, strengthening my immune system, keeping my attitude positive and developing relaxation techniques to reduce discomfort. This is taped and I take the tapes home to listen to at night. It is so soothing and comfortable that often, immediately post-chemo when I'm not feeling so great and listening to one of her tapes, I think I can't wait to go to Janet again so I can feel good.
Karen, Janet and I all agree: It's my doctors who are going to cure me, but these two women are going to help me feel better during the process.
How's it working? Well, my white cell count is staying surprisingly high (tellingly, dipping when I've slacked off on herb taking), I haven't had any true nausea and, overall, I'm handling chemo quite well. In fact, my energy and spirits continue to surprise my friends.
Meanwhile, one Sunday morning, after an unexpectedly bad Friday with severe intestinal pain and a Saturday spent recovering, I leaped out of bed feeling just fine. I noticed this particularly because the change seemed to come out of the blue. The next day I learned that minutes before, my friend Christopher's Reiki II group had been focusing all their energies on me and my healing.
Now, I don't know that I particularly believe in Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing art, but after that incident, I'm not sure I don't, either.
In response to this series of articles, I have gotten some letters from readers urging me to abandon chemotherapy because it does not cure breast cancer (news to my clinic and countless people), and to follow some natural method of healing they know about and have sometimes written books about--self-published because, they claim, the publishing industry is under pressure to keep this information from the public. (Oh, yeah, the publishing industry hates to put out books about cures for cancer.)
Based on my own experience, I think that people are better off supplementing Western medicine with Eastern or other remedies, and that those who don't are being foolish. I've known other people who have gone through cancer treatments without so much as acupuncture, and they have had a much rougher time of it than I. Admittedly, this is not at all scientific, but it does seem to have merit--and besides, what do you have to lose?
But I also think that those who would abandon Western medicine are foolish, if not downright stupid. Some who suggest this offer me anecdotes--someone they know who cured herself solely with herbs, someone else who died from chemotherapy.
I offer an anecdote of my own, courtesy of my friend Robert, which I think shows everything you have to lose.
"I have known three women who experienced breast cancer: my mother, my friend Elizabeth and my sister-in-law Pat," Robert said. "My mother and Elizabeth did chemo. Pat didn't want to lose her hair, so she did not. My mother and Elizabeth, many years later, are fine.
"You can guess what happened to Pat."
* Next Month: surgeryCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times