***Addendum added at end of post***
One of the hardest parts of living with this disease is that it leaves you feeling like you don't have any control. I feel like I had no control in how I got breast cancer. I had no control in losing my hair. I had no control in whether or not the chemo would work. But, I do have control in how I decide to live my life. How I decide to take care of my body and how I decide to handle the cards that have been dealt to me. One of those decisions has been to do anything and everything in my power to stay as healthy as I can and help my body remain as strong and well-equipped as possible to fight off this disease.
After the initial shock of being diagnosed subsided, I decided that I needed to become an expert about what I was dealing with. It was one way to gain some of the control back. And I figured, if I went to college for 7 1/2 years to learn to be an "expert" in physical therapy, I better become an expert on the disease that is threatening my life. So I have read a ton of books and research articles, I have talked and emailed with many fellow survivors, I have attended conferences and listened to all sorts of experts.
One recurring theme that I kept coming across was the role that nutrition, diet and lifestyle choices play in any disease. The frustrating thing was that I always led a pretty healthy life prior to being diagnosed. I had a physical job, worked out regularly, and ate well. I actually became a vegetarian a year before I was diagnosed after reading The China Study and deciding that I wanted to be even more proactive about my health. So, although I agree with much of the research out there, I don't believe that everyone who gets cancer has a poor diet or a lifestyle that led to the onset of the disease - just as there are many people out there living very unhealthy lives that will never develop cancer. I have made the choice to not be discouraged or angry that I developed cancer despite trying to lead a health conscious life. Instead, I have decided to focus on continuing with those efforts - and actually improve upon them in order to further improve my health.
After much reading and educating myself on many of these topics, I decided that I wanted to consult Dr. Block at the Block Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago. Although I love my team at Karmanos, the one piece that I felt like I was missing was the integrative approach -- how could I best combine traditional medicine (chemo, surgery, radiation, prescription meds), with complimentary medicine such as diet, exercise, supplements, and the mind-body-spirit connection. I feel that there are tremendous benefits with both approaches and there is no reason why I can't integrate all of this together to maximize my health and cancer-fighting potential! So, after reading Dr. Block's wonderful book, "Life Over Cancer" and talking with a few other women that have been to his center, Mike and I decided that it would definitely be worth our while to go. Prior to my visit, the Block Center staff sent me a 20 page questionnaire asking for the most detailed and specific information I have ever seen! Not only did they want a very extensive medical history, but they also asked numerous questions on every topic imaginable - my current diet and exercise regimen, childhood and adolescent trauma, how I cope with stress, what my sleep habits are, what is my relationship like with my parents and spouse, do I floss, what type of water do I drink - city, well, spring, distilled?!...let me tell you, the questionnaire was intense and took me many days to complete! But right off the bat, I loved how thorough they were.
A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I made the road trip to Chicago for my appointment at the Block Center. We were there for nearly 7 hours! It was a super long and exhausting day but it was well worth it. We met with a psychologist to talk about the mind-body connection, what are stressors in my life, and how to manage stress properly since it has been shown to have negative physiological consequences on the body. After speaking with her for about an hour, we met with Dr. Block himself for about 1 1/2 hours! We discussed many different topics ranging from his thoughts on my treatment up to this point, his recommendations for a specific exercise regimen, the importance of sleep cycles and circadian rhythms, and treatment options that may be available in the future if needed. He was a wealth of information but even more than that, he was a beacon of hope and optimism. Dr. Block stated that he has treated, "many, many" women with much worse disease than me, who have lived "not just years, but decades." This was exactly what I needed to hear. I need to know it is possible! If one woman has done it, I definitely know I can do it too!
(photo credit: Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care)
After our great meeting with Dr. Block, I had LOTS of blood drawn so that the Block Center could run their comprehensive blood work analysis. I had 18 vials of blood taken - yes, 18! That's a ton of blood! In the process, three of my veins collapsed and the poor woman taking my blood had to try every trick in the book to eek out those last few vials worth. They check for everything imaginable in your blood work - your tumor markers, antioxidant levels, vitamin levels, a glycemic panel, hypercoagulation panel, inflammation and immune system panels.
The final part of our day involved an hour or two meeting with my dietician, Eric. Since I have always been very interested in nutrition and have read many books regarding cancer and nutrition, I came prepared with 4 pages of notes for our meeting. Poor guy - I peppered him with all sorts of questions and concerns. He is very knowledgable and did an excellent job answering my questions and explaining the purpose and indication for every vitamin and supplement that I inquired about. We also spent a great deal of time going over the Block Center's specific and fairly strict dietary plan. Eric and Dr. Block had devised a plan for me detailing what my daily caloric intake should be, and how many servings of each food group I should be consuming each day - whole grains, vegetables, fruits, protein (plant based), fats (preferably only good fats such as olive oil, flax and avocado), and dairy alternatives (soy or almond milk, vegan cheese). The Block Center provided me with a binder full of information including what accounts for one serving size for each of these food groups. Using this guide, I am able to track what I eat each day, measure my food, and calculate how many servings and calories I am consuming each day. It is definitely hard work and time consuming right now but I know if I start out very regimented, it will become second nature over time.
The Block Center advocates a plant based diet, including eliminating dairy. They recommend a high intake of various whole grains and vegetables, a limited amount of fruit (due to the high sugar content), and very low amounts of fat. There is a great deal of research backing up all of their recommendations, which is one reason that I was really drawn to Dr. Block and wanted to visit his center. If you would like a detailed explanation of why the Block Center recommends this type of diet, please read "Life Over Cancer" by Dr. Keith Block.
Today I had a one hour phone consultation with Eric, my dietician, to review of my blood work results. Overall, it was very good news. My tumor markers are very low, my glycemic levels are great, as are my coagulation and inflammatory panels. For the most part my antioxidant levels and immunity were really good but there were a few areas where I was low. Eric told me this was to be expected considering the treatment that I have endured this past year. Part of the very detailed report that Eric provided me includes what my levels are, what the desired level is, why this specific vitamin/cell type is important and how to improve my levels through specific food sources or supplements. I will be adding a few additional supplements to my daily regimen in order to improve those levels that are on the low side. I will have blood drawn at a local lab in 4 weeks to assess a few of these levels and then have a full panel of testing completed in 4 months. This will give us concrete data on how my dietary plan is affecting these important aspects of my blood work analysis.
Mike and I both agreed that we were very pleased with our visit to the Block Center. We walked away with a great deal of information and knowledge. It has actually been fun to come home and try all sorts of new recipes, vary my exercise program and implement other suggestions we received at Block. Although we consider ourselves very educated in the realm of exercise, nutrition and positive lifestyle choices - it always helps to learn more. We feel like the more we learn, the more tools we are adding to our arsenal. We are doing everything in our power to fight this disease and I believe an integrative approach is the right path for me.
I also wanted to give a big thank you to all of our wonderful friends that live in Chicago. I am so grateful that it worked out so we were able to see all of you. We had such a blast (as always) and can't wait to come back this summer!
***Addendum....I forgot to add this link to my original post. It is a quick video highlighting the Block Center and Dr. Block's work. Check it out if you have a few minutes - it's very interesting stuff!
My blog to keep you all