I knew it. Call it sixth sense, if you will. I knew it when the face of the sonogram technician changed, and she suggested I follow her to the next room to get prepped for a mammogram. “What’s wrong?” I asked her then. “Nothing,” she replied, “just a standard procedure for young women.” I did not believe her.
Exactly four days, a sonogram, two mammograms, and two biopsies later I received the phone call. “I’m sorry, Vic. It’s bad news.” Dr. Luedke’s voice sounded comforting, yet distant. As if she had done this hundreds of times before. She had.
Cancer. I was utterly unprepared to hear this. But no one ever is.
There goes my trip, I thought.
I had found the lump three months earlier but dismissed it. After all, I was only 34 years old without family history of breast cancer. I didn’t even want to think about the lump. My mind was busy planning a trip back home, to Belarus, previously a part of the Former Soviet Union; the trip was 20 years in the making. I spent months on the Internet reconnecting with my former classmates, surprising myself with our ability to bond with each other as if I had never left. My itinerary was planned. I knew where I was going as soon as I landed and what I was going to wear to dinner with Victor, my first love. I remember fantasizing about us in 5th grade: Victor and Victoria. Funny, I had never even heard of Julie Andrews.
All those previous months I was planning to live. Now, I was planning to not die. What a difference.
Had I known what lay ahead I would have preferred to die. I had never thought the words “chemotherapy” and “mastectomy” would be a part of my personal vocabulary. Nor I have ever experienced such shattering pain.
The goal of chemotherapy is to destroy cancer cells, cells that divide rapidly. But, according to cancercare.com, as chemotherapy wipes out fast-growing cancer cells, it destroys all fast-growing healthy cells — that means hair, nails, and skin, inside and out. The side-effects are brutal.
Chemocare.com, a website that educates about various chemotherapies, lists all possible chemotherapy side effects in an alphabetical order. I was only mid-way through H’s when I counted more than a hundred. I was lucky. I had only experienced about fifty. No burning peeling nails. No painful mouth sores.
In his blog “The Chronicles of a Cancer Patient” pianist David J. Hahn, who was diagnosed with Stage IIIB Hodgkins Lymphoma in July 2005, wrote about his experiences with chemo: “Chemotherapy side effects are worse than cancer, that’s for sure. With cancer, most of the time you’d hardly know it if some doctor didn’t tell you. I mean, I was pretty hard up by the time they found it in me, but sometimes cancer can go all the way to stage IV and you’d never know it. Chemo, on the other hand, you can never forget that. Not for a second. There’s no ignoring. It invades every cell by the end of it. You spend months marinating in a stew of toxic wastes that are out to kill you. And I don’t think that’s overly-dramatic. You try it sometime and see if I’m not right.”
These side effects occur during treatment.
In 2006, the online edition of the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, reported findings of the UCLA study which shows that chemotherapy causes changes to the brain’s metabolism and blood flow that can linger at least 10 years after treatment.
I had to make a decision. It was the hardest decision I had ever made. It was the most courageous decision I ever made. You see, it takes courage to refuse the very thing everyone is convinced will save you. I quit chemotherapy after four excruciating treatments.
Everyone was convinced I was signing my own death sentence. My husband and my parents were begging me to give it another go. “You only have two treatments left,” they were crying. My father was on his knees pleading, questioning me whether I was ready to turn my children into orphans.
Besides the doctor treating me, I consulted four other oncologists, who were telling me the same story: Chemotherapy significantly lessens the chances of cancer relapse and death from the disease; Chemotherapy can eliminate the number of cancer cells that can travel and spread to other parts of the body that may not have been detected by MRI. One of the oncologists I consulted challenged my decision to quit chemotherapy. “What if cancer comes back? What are you going to do then?” he asked me. In response I asked him why he was placing all bets on cancer?
I had done enough research. I was firm in my decision. I had never felt that strongly about anything in my life.
In 2005, the Australian Journal Clinical Oncology published a study titled “The Contribution of Cytotoxic Chemotherapy to 5-year Survival in Adult Malignancies” whose goal was to accurately quantify and assess the actual benefit of chemotherapy in the treatment of adults with the commonest types of cancer.
The three authors of the study were oncologists.
The International Center for Nutritional Research Inc. posted the finding of the study on its website:
“Their meticulous study was based on an analysis of the results of all the randomized, controlled clinical trials (RCTs) performed in Australia and the US that reported a statistically significant increase in 5-year survival due to the use of chemotherapy in adult malignancies. Survival data were drawn from the Australian cancer registries and the US National Cancer Institute‘s Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) registry spanning the period January 1990 until January 2004.
Wherever data were uncertain, the authors deliberately erred on the side of over-estimating the benefit of chemotherapy.”
The study concluded that chemotherapy contributes just over 2 percent to improved survival in cancer patients.
The authors of the study continued: “…in lung cancer, the median survival has increased by only 2 months [during the past 20 years, ed.] and an overall survival benefit of less than 5 percent has been achieved in the adjuvant treatment of breast, colon and head and neck cancers.”
To me, continuing something that had little chance of working was the very definition of insane.
I knew the treatment was going to kill me faster than the disease ever would; and I would be lucky if I survived the treatment.
Thus began my fight for my life. On my own terms.
I read everything I could find on alternative treatments. Anticancer, The New Way of Life. Beating Cancer with Nutrition. Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place.
I was on a mission.
Cancer Cure. Burzynski, the Movie. Crazy Sexy Cancer. These are just a few of the films I saw.
The more I read, the more I knew I made the right decision.
It was a lot of work. At the end, I am not sure what did it: quitting chemo in time before it did its damage, changing the way I lived, or just sheer willpower.
A day doesn’t go by that I do not think about my decision.
I see my oncologist (some have manicurists; I have an oncologist) every six months. I would be lying if I said I did not worry every time I go see her. I would be lying if I said somewhere deep inside I am not afraid cancer may come back. But I can state with complete confidence I stand by the decision I made three years ago.
By the way, I did manage to fly back home. It took 21 years rather than 20, and it was glorious.