I was 44 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I lived in Washington, D.C., which statistically has the highest prevalence of breast cancer among young women of all cities in the U.S.
And after the initial shock, I began to ask why.
Why me? Why did I get this disease? Where did it come from? And why are there so many new cases—more and more in fact—despite millions of dollars that have been raised over the past decades in the name of supposedly finding a cure? What cures breast cancer? Is there a cure? Will there ever be one? What are they researching with all of those dollars and pink ribbons?
My body kept waking me up, many nights in a row, in the spring of 2013, leading up to my diagnosis on April 15 – tax day. I’ll never forget that call from my dear, dear doctor Sharon. “Suzanne, I’m so sorry—but you have breast cancer.”
Shock to a single mother, working an hour’s drive around the Beltway of the nation’s capitol. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and a gorgeous spring day. She told me to leave, and to go home and sit quietly. She told me that she had already made me an appointment for the very next day with a breast surgeon she knew, so that I could learn more details.
At the time I had no knowledge of any of the details of this disease. But I had raised funds for and walked in three of the highly publicized Avon Breast Cancer Walks in the early 2000s—one right before my wedding, and one when my first daughter was just getting teeth—around 7 months old. Together we raised about $30,000. I walked those walks with a dear friend whose life had been touched by lots of cancer, and we made another dear friend during our first training season who had had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation in the 90s, also at a very young age.
During those fundraising days I’d read and touted the oft-quoted statistic: One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. To bring it home, that meant one of my book club friends. And then, that one became me.
The funny thing is that though my life had been tumultuous, to say the least, during the years leading up to this diagnosis, I had grown into a very good place. I was still separated from my husband and had been for three years. But I was once again ready to move into my own life and finally carry out our divorce. And I was within three days of completing my amazing and rigorous yoga teacher training certification at my beloved home-away-from home yoga studio in gorgeous downtown Alexandria, Virginia.
So how could this possibly be happening to me? Hadn’t I been dealt enough? “Well, I just don’t understand why these things keep happening to you,” my mom had declared on the phone. I didn’t either—back then. But now, I think I do. I think I have some clarity, some reasons, some notions, some gut instincts. And it is my intention to share. Because I also know I’m not alone. I’m not alone as a young woman diagnosed with cancer. And I’m not alone on my healing journey. Many angels have walked with me, and do still.
But the frustrating fact is that our healthcare system is fractured. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And in Western medicine, I was only served with part of the healing that I really needed. They cut the cancer out of my right breast and told me that I had a pretty good chance that it had not spread through my lymph system based on test results. And then they sent me on my way. They didn’t tell me things like: Cancer eats sugar. Therefore, try not to eat much sugar. (I love sugar. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s addictive.) Cancer loves alcohol. Try not to drink much. (I love wine and had certainly had my share over the past 25 years.) In fact, women who drink 3 glasses per night increase their chances of cancer by 20%, and women who are overweight seem to have a significantly increased risk. I mention these factors because they are all things that in many cases, we can control. They are within our grasp. They are associated with habits we can change. They are not like the scarier risks of toxins in our environment, for instance, which merit a whole other book by someone much more scientific than myself.
My doctors also didn’t tell me any of the good news: Broccoli seems to really reduce our risk of breast and other cancers, as do the other cruciferous veggies, many mushrooms, and turmeric. Exercising 30 minutes a day (and they don’t even have to be consecutive minutes) reduces risk by about 20%, and getting eight hours of solid sleep a night is one of the best gifts to give ourselves and our immune systems. Raise your hand if you have trouble sleeping. Thought so. But in the end, if we really want to do good things for ourselves, these are little and big habits we can choose to manage in a healthy way, and it begins, quite simply, with awareness.
In this book, I don’t claim any cures. But I do claim hope, and a growing body of evidence supporting natural prevention and even treatment. I am frustrated by the disconnect between what I experienced in a system that uses banners and posters all over its halls proclaiming, “One of the Top 100 Hospitals in the U.S.” I am frustrated that they don’t have or offer resources to show patients what else lies beyond their walls—what may help, what may cure, what may at least console us and give us something to work with.
I feel lucky that through various connections and my own desire for knowledge, I began to seek. I started finding books on cancer. My yoga teacher fortunately showed me a copy of “The Definitive Guide to Cancer” and I bought my own. It started to give me the nutritional and sleep facts I began to adopt.
I began to piece together the connection between my physical disease and my life/mind/heart dis-ease. My dysfunction. While I don’t punish myself by saying that I caused my own cancer, I know I did. I know that my circumstances led to it. My marriage had begun to unravel in 2008-2009. My surgeon said that my tumor, while still small, had been growing for 4-5 years in there. I did the math and counted the years leading up to the 2013 pain knocking on my door. It’s too much a coincidence to ignore. When we break down, so too can our systems, our immunity, our beautiful bodies. I am frustrated that nowhere in my medical world did anyone ask me what kinds of things were going on in my life that I might want to examine, or change, to improve my health.
And that is why I am sharing my story.
I want a bridge to be built from our Western medical system to the world of the heart, mind and spirit. I want us to be aware of and support the large and thankfully growing body of evidence and research that suggests that there is, indeed, in many cases, a direct connection. And I want another bridge to what are still considered ‘alternative’ therapies or ways of treating or preventing disease. People have been using modalities that work for thousands of years. We owe it to ourselves to consider what they can teach us, and to incorporate what works.
To clarify, I know there are some healthcare systems and some offices and some centers doing really good things. But not where I was treated, which happens to be in one of the wealthiest towns in the country. It’s oddly shocking. How could that be? I am grateful to people in my world who began to shine little lights on the world of alternative thinking where I began to carve my own path forward, and it is my hope that my sharing will smooth the path of others, or even better, will inspire at least a few women to make some positive changes in habits in diet and lifestyle, and though we will never be able to track it in a study, make the path not even necessary at all.