Dear Jack,

My closest friend at work was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on December 23. She’s already had a hysterectomy, as the cancer was spreading to surrounding organs. She is now launching into some intense chemo. She went to her chemo orientation yesterday and was a little frustrated because she expected to get some advice about ways to use diet and exercise to help her along the road to recovery. I have become a faithful follower of Deirdre’s blog. In it, I’ve noticed that she’s received a lot of good advice about diet, exercise, massage, etc., etc. Could you ask Deirdre if she would be willing to put together a list of suggestions for my friend in terms of where to find diet advice, Eastern medicine approaches that supplement the world of Western cancer treatment, and good/cheap masseuses, etc.?

 – Kari

Hi Kari! Thanks for reading the blog and I’m sorry to hear about your girlfriend.

Am I willing to offer advice? Girl, you can’t shut me up on this topic! Now, for many of you, this is repeat information, or it draws from bits and pieces of other lists. So skip this entry, or read it just to see if I say anything scandalous or awkwardly confessional.

Anyhoozleberrypie, it is frustrating how little information your cancer team gives you, isn’t it? In fact, it’s kind of weird. And then they have the nerve to issue earth-shattering information about how WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE before heading out the door and waving, “Heading for Italy tomorrow. If you need anything, my partner’s on call.” 

To add insult to fish-out-of-water injury, my experience has been that Western doctors think Eastern practitioners are a bunch of lapsang-souchong-lapping hippies – and Eastern practitioners look at the Western guys as pill-pushing sadists.

Neither is true (completely), but it does take quite a bit of effort to figure out an oil-and-water treatment plan that will not only help you kick your candy, but will also help you maintain a semblance of your original self when you head toward the exit door (hopefully the one marked “living”).

Though there’s no way of knowing if everything I’ve been doing has actually helped, I have had a relatively easy go at this whole thing, even though my team says that my protocol is one of the most aggressive they’ve ever seen. In fact, they warned me that I might only make it through half the treatment (we’re past that point), or I might have to live in the hospital during treatment (one night in hospital to date), or worse, I might not actually survive the treatment (according to my cold bloodless feet, I may not have survived and nobody told me and I’m just a tenacious ghost cracking bad jokes from the sofa, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case). 

While my worst symptoms are fatigue, weakness, nausea, numb extremities and memory loss, those are all manageable. I just have to remember to manage them.

By the way, anytime I do anything in either worlds, I tell every doctor and practitioner what I’m up to in my renegade game of Candyland. Afterall, a lot of the Eastern stuff is to help me flush toxins from my system, but with chemo, you actually want to be a little glowy toxic. So far, the doctors have said that I could do everything (I suspect they think things like lymphatic drains and cranial sacral treatments are akin to witchcraft), but I still tell them what I’m up to … just in case.


My top Candyland weapons:  

1) Drop everything: I think of this as a one-year contract – and my job this year is to survive cancer. Period. I have put my major projects on hold – as much as I can – and I have slowed way way way down, focusing my time on resting, enjoying myself, and getting better.  

2) Educate: Peruse Life Over Cancer (by Keith Block) and Anti-cancer: A New Way of Life (by David Servan-Schreiber). They have all kinds of helpful advice on supplements, diet and exercise. I couldn’t read anything on cancer when I was first diagnosed – I found the whole thing too depressing – but Jack did and started to help hone a lifestyle plan. And now I read stuff voraciously.

3) Talk it up: See an integrative medical specialist who integrates Eastern and Western medicine. They can help tailor a cancer plan with dietary advice, supplements, therapies and exercise. I went to Dr. Puhky in Canada, but he’s closed shop to write books since then. Fortunately, Seattle has some very good Eastern/Western gurus and there’s no need to travel. Try Bastyr for referrals. Do this right away. I was told to get my mind and soul strong before I started treatment and I really do think it helped. But also, talk to every cancer patient you meet, every doctor, every survivor, every nurse, every anybody who might have helpful tips. You’ll get a lot of advice, I warn you. And you will have to learn how to vet information that may or may not be helpful to your situation, but really, don’t expect one doctor to have a holistic treatment plan for you. They do what they do, and frankly, I’m glad they’re specialists. I don’t want just anybody nuking my brain to hell and back. Your individual oncologists will have your chemo plan, yes, your radiation plan, yes, your surgery plan, yes, but getting better can and should involve so many other practitioners and treatments. 

4) Acupuncture: I go to David Goodell on Queen Anne once or twice a week. He is ah-mazing. I honestly think he saved my life. I’ve sent other people to him and they are all hooked too. I can’t really qualify what he does, I just know that after my first treatment, I could tell something was happening. I’ve had other treatments with energy workers (reiki), but nothing has felt so helpful as acupuncture. BTW, David’s wife, April, practices with him and she’s also supposed to be amazing.

5) Hydration: Chemo and radiation are shockingly dehydrating. I drink water and cancer-fighting teas all day. Google your cancer and what teas help fight it, or go to a specialty tea house – oftentimes they’re very educated and can help you – I like Remedy Teas on Capitol Hill.

6) Exercise: This is the hardest and one of the most important steps. I never want to get up off the couch anymore, but I force myself to walk my dog (20/30 minutes a day) and go to swim classes (aqua-jog, it’s for old ladies and it’s perfect for my current capabilities). I think I’m going to sign up at the Y and take all their old-lady classes (swimming, yoga, cardio …). You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how weak and brittle you become. Exercise is the only thing I’ve found that helps that.

7) Meal train: I always harp on about this, but maintaining a healthy organic diet is so helpful in this battle and it’s friggin’ hard to shop or cook if you’re in pain or can’t stand or don’t drive or whatever. A friend or family member should set this up for the patient (it’s free) and specify the kinds of food that are good for their flavor of candy (for example, brain tumor food is different from breast cancer food – those books I recommended will help figure that out). Then, your supporters bring a home-cooked dinner to your home as often as needed. Now is not the time to be self-sufficient and independent. I find meal train every other night is perfect. And it gives the patient the chance to debrief with friends and family at home and receive their love and support – a VERY IMPORTANT part of making it through all this.  

8) Touch: This is also huge – and never discussed by the Western boys. I try to get at least three massages a month, if not more. Here are some of the places I go: A) Super cheap and easy – Chinese foot massage parlors such as Two Smiling Feet in Fremont, $30/hour of massage in a common room; B) Gil Bar-Sela, the Cadillac of massage therapists, more expensive, but wow, he’s magical (917.294.7919); Olympus Day Spa, also pricey, but I’ll go for a whole day to soak in the tubs, get a scrub and moisturizing treatment, have lunch, and sleep in the heated rooms; Facials – I just go to my favorite woman, Jennette, at Frenchy’s (chemo and radiation can wreak havoc on your complexion); Electric massage: I now even use one of those hand-held massage devices on my feet (which are losing circulation) and neck (which aches as the chemo leaches calcium from my bones – also take a calcium/magnesium supplement for that);  Mani/Pedis: Sounds vain, but it’s not. Having your hands and feet rubbed and tended too is one more luscious form of self-care and curative touch; Sofa begging: Rose and Jack almost won’t sit on the sofa with me anymore because they’re so tired of my shameless, slutty, massage-begging ways, but hey, that’s when you pull the cancer card!

9) Sleep: Guiltless napping – get to know it. 

10) Supplements: OK, I hate this part and I often fall off the wagon. Honestly, I’m just not sure I believe in supplements (especially if you have a good diet). But I’ll tell you what, a lot of people out there do and even though I totally hate choking down numerous horse-pill-sized herbs (barf), I begrudgingly take them just in case. I mean, this is a game where you don’t leave any doors unopened in case that’s the door with A NEW CAR behind it (or just your life). Again, a supplemental regime is something an integrative medical team can tailor to your situation. Sugarpill on Capitol Hill is an apothecary that offers many herbs, teas and tinctures that can be helpful.

11) Drink up: Kind of along those lines, some people tout juicing and smoothies loaded with grass and hemp and fir tree needles (kidding, please, don’t drink those) as life-saving injestables. I hate ‘em and I won’t do ‘em and I am not recommending chard-and-garlic laden smoothies that “taste good, I promise,” but they’re a big part of the alternative cancer treatment world and I’ve read of juicing fanatics who swear it cured their cancer (along with pot, whatever, these patients are from the Patchouli Tribe). Research these things, maybe they’re for you, Patchouli Tribesman (and you know who you are).  

12) Cranial sacral/lymphatic drain: These treatments are, again, to help your body fight toxins. My phone isn’t booting up so I can’t give direct recommendations. Stay tuned. And again, Bastyr can be a resource (how Freudian, I wrote “recourse” the first time by mistake!).

13) Colonics: When I was stopped up like a kitten stuck in a drain pipe, my doctors recommended drinking water and taking laxatives and popping stool softeners and consuming dietary fiber and partying with home enemas. And then the Eastern peeps weighed in with more tinctures and supplements and herbs – but NOTHING would pull out that kitty. When I cried to my doctor he just said, Yeah, that’s a bitch. Good luck with that. NEXT! But it turns out that colonics are God’s gift to stuck kitties, and Heidi at the Tummy Temple can flush your kitty out with the best of them! Mew mew. Caveat: Colonics are kind of an ache-y treatment, but turn seven days of food into cement in your gut, and the word “uncomfortable” doesn’t begin to describe it.

14) Clean up: This is going to sound like a total no-brainer, but honestly, doctors rarely seem to discuss lifestyle choices and I don’t know why. So, I’ll say it: Quit drinking and smoking and behaving like a depraved beast. I LOVE to do things that are bad for me, but I gave it all up the day I started treatment (and it was surprisingly easy). Six months in, I’ll have a glass or two of wine and the occasional martini, but nothing like, ahem, the binges I have been known for.

15) Therapy: You know, after posting this entry, I’m adding one more: therapy. I don’t do traditional therapy – it makes me feel like I’m in a Woody Allen film and I just start bumbling around making nonsensical jokes. But a lot of people do and this is such an emotionally trying experience, that if you like therapy and you can find a good therapist who works well with you, I say go for it. In my opinion, most everyone needs somebody to help them sort out the psychological and emotional challenges in Candyland.

16) Enjoy: Well, Kari, your friend is stuck with cancer. That sucks. However, she has no choice but to try to survive and learn from her adventure. If she hasn’t felt it already, she’ll be shocked at how much support is around her. Cancer is such an eye-opening experience that way. While physically a nightmare, it exposes a truth that is rarely touted in our culture … that life and people are wonderful – not because of money, not because of success, not because of things – but just because we have souls, those souls are beautiful, and love is the most common go-to response when people are personally touched by your plight. And THAT is something Western doctors probably won’t tell your friend, but Eastern practitioners will, helping her to adjust her focus on hope and recovery, as opposed to fear and death.

Good luck!

Pictured above: I Googled images for “soul,” and got a lot of swirly stuff, soul food advertisements, soul musicians and anime (?). Since the soul pictures look a lot like Dale Chihuly glass, I included one of my pictures of glass from Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle Center. Imagine it’s a soul.

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