When Barbra Edwards found a lump in her breast, she made a notation at the bottom of her grocery list: check with doctor. "Like it wasn't even important," she recalls of the experience from five years ago. "None of us believe we're going to get cancer. I certainly didn't."
But after a fall at the beach that resulted in odd ribcage bruising, the Pender Island resident, now 60, detected what mammograms hadn't: a tumour that had already spread into 17 lymph nodes and was considered "high risk."
She was shocked. Panicked. She asked all her friends and family for advice. Barbra quickly found out about Dr. Sat Dharam Kaur, author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast Cancer (Robert Rose, 2004) and developer of the Healthy Breast Program.
It is this integrated approach to prevention and treatment of breast cancer that Barbra says helped save her life. "I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't done both [conventional and complementary therapies]," she says.
Life before diagnosis
Living in Toronto and working at an advertising agency, life was good for Barbra and her husband. But the high-paced environment eventually took a toll. Stress, she says, was one of the contributing factors to her disease.
The diagnosis added more stress, she recalls. "I was bouncing off walls, I was terrified. I thought I'd be dead in a week. Now I say to people, 'Figure out what you believe in now. If you have a team around you-naturopaths, herbalists, a GP you can talk to, a massage therapist-and if you get sick, they're there for you.' "
Barbra's search led her to Dr. Kaur, who also has a practice in Owen Sound, ON. "We sat down and worked out an entire protocol for me-everything from diet and exercise to supplements," Barbra says. "She is a phenomenal agent for breast cancer patients. A wonderful balance of intelligence and humour that gets you through difficult times."
Barbra also met two long-term breast cancer survivors because she wanted to know why they were still alive and well. Their revelations about diet and lifestyle, combined with Dr. Kaur's protocol, and combined with Barbra's decision to undergo a lumpectomy and mastectomy along with chemotherapy and radiation, made her a patient in an interesting situation.
The oncologist wasn't comfortable with all of her supplementation choices, she recalls, so there was a constant back and forth between the oncologist, the pharmacist and her. Ultimately, Barbra was faced with tough-but informed-personal decisions to make.
"What I loved about doing both was that I had options and I did the best I felt I could at the time."
Dr. Sat Dharam Kaur first began ruminating on good breast health practices in 1988, when she was still in naturopathic college in Toronto. She eventually went into practice and found that women with breast cancer were somehow drawn to her clinic.
"I realized that there was a need for them to have a program," Dr. Kaur explains. "A support program that uses naturopathic strategies to help them cope with their disease and help them to regain their health."
Weekend seminars on breast health provided the text for what would eventually become The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast Cancer. Since the 1990s, Dr. Kaur has traveled internationally on a mission to empower women both for themselves and as teachers of others.
The Healthy Breast Program is exactly that-a program containing numerous components. Women are encouraged to develop a positive relationship with their breasts via breast massage and monthly self exams. Understanding and eliminating environmental risk factors plays a role, as do correcting hormonal imbalances, following the Healthy Breast Diet and using specific nutritional supplements to maintain breast health. Underlying infections and imbalances of microflora and body acidity/alkalinity must be addressed. Regular detoxification is another crucial element to long-term breast health. Last but not least is nurturing the mental, spiritual and emotional aspects inherent to all of us.
To all women-not just the 23,000 Canadians who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year-this multifactoral message comes none too soon.
For Barbra Edwards, maintaining faith in the integrated path she'd chosen was important to her. The physical benefits couldn't be denied, either. During her treatments, she had strong energy and, the nurses told Barbra, fewer radiation burns than women tend to have. Now, five years cancer-free has given Barbra an opportunity to reflect on a life-changing experience.
Reflections of a breast cancer thriver
"Illness forces you to slow down and spend time with yourself," she says. "You need to be happy with yourself. To enjoy yourself. To like yourself. I sometimes think a lot of people, particularly women, don't."
"In the first couple of years, it's a pretty long haul. 'Take it a day at a time.' That comment is very real." Because cancer feeds off sugar, Barbra further modified her already good diet while she and her husband slowly revamped their home. They cut out household sources of possible hormone disruptors, especially plastics. They have an organic garden and Barbra has become a big fan of rebounding, a small trampoline that greatly benefits the lymphatic system and assists detoxification.
"On a down day, I have fears," she admits. "But I don't believe I have cancer. They say you're 'in remission.' I hate that word. I believe sickness is because of something that's happened to your body. If you're doing positive things and listening to your body, you have a great chance of living a heck of a good life."