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Holistic Treatment of Breast Cancer: My Personal Story

by Sue Pembrey(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 33 - October 1998

Four years ago I found a breast lump. As I put my finger on it I felt both fear and panic – my heart raced and I felt sick – but also, more deeply I felt calm, even excited. I somehow knew this was a cancer and while it brought the threat of disease, disfigurement and death it also brought a sense of living more fully and richly, a sense of a new life.

Looking back, my experience of cancer has acted as a great bridge between my old life, working with orthodox medicine for thirty-three years as a nurse in the NHS, and a new one which is embracing wider approaches to health and healing. I have tried to integrate the best of these different approaches in a way that feels right for me. It is a journey of personal discovery that many of us are making, and this article shares aspects which I have found helpful.

I retired from full-time nursing at the age of 52, having nursed many patients with breast cancer. I discovered my own just two weeks later. Suddenly I was on the other side. Within an hour I had seen my GP; within a week I had seen the breast surgeon and a nurse in a superb NHS service which provided an immediate biopsy and diagnosis of cancer. Two weeks later I had a partial mastectomy and sampling of lymph nodes followed by 16 treatments of radiotherapy. Fortunately I did not need chemotherapy. I was offered the drug Tamoxifen, regular mammographies and follow ups.

The whole experience was, at one level, excellent. I felt safe and well-cared for; the staff were competent, kind, happy to provide information and supportive when I did not take their advice, for example, not taking Tamoxifen.

But inside this good experience and outcome is a more complicated personal story which is about my own responsibility for healing and maintaining good health. I believe that the seeds of illness and health lie within each of us and that the body, if we do not override it, has wonderful ways of telling us what it needs, if we develop the ability to listen and to feel our way intuitively, as well as thinking rationally about what we should do. The diagnosis of cancer presented a challenge; how was I going to protect my body and delicate healing mechanisms from the assaults of surgery, radiotherapy, and possibly chemotherapy? Alternative therapies seemed too extreme; I trusted surgery but felt anxious that the assault on the enemy, which is how western medicine deals with breast cancer, would override my own healing resources. I did not see the cancer as an enemy, but as a messenger. What was it trying to tell me and how could I best listen and respond?

What happened next helped me trust more, that the answers would come if I remained open. The day after diagnosis I was struck down with flu. A dear friend who is an orthodox doctor and scientist, and also has some homeopathic training, came to see me. He felt a healing presence and he immediately gave me homoeopathic remedies which had amazingly good effects within hours. They were remedies that worked with my body; antibiotics could be kept in their rightful place for emergencies only. This integrated physician also gave me remedies that protected my body against harm: such as Arnica to prevent or reduce bruising at the time of surgery, and Xray and Radium to protect against the ill-effects of radiotherapy.

These remedies really worked for me. My vicious flu was arrested; a huge bruise that the medical student made while taking blood vanished almost immediately, and I had no bruising at surgery – which the surgeon noted with pleasure! Now I go to a classically-trained homeopath for specific problems such as hot flushes, but most importantly to build up my immune system – of great relevance in cancer – by taking constitutional remedies which fundamentally strengthen the body. The effects have been remarkable; I feel surrounded by a great shield which throws off any infection or attack.

Excellent nutrition has also played a vital part in this strengthening of my immune system. The integrated physician frowningly observed me drinking hot milk and honey and said: "Why are you drinking milk? Milk is for babies and increases the amount of mucus." This observation, together with him lending me Kushi's (1982) research on diet and breast cancer, set me on a slow but radical change to my diet. An allergy which my GP had been unable to treat, and – I now view as my body trying to obtain healing – only returns if I take milk products. Giving up milk encouraged me to eat soya (milk, tofu, miso) instead. Soya is probably the single most important food that women with breast cancer, or other hormone-dependent cancers, can take; it is full of natural weak oestrogens which protect the breast against strong dangerous oestrogens found in drugs such as the contraceptive pill and HRT, and pollutants such as plastics. Japanese women who eat a soya-based diet have a low incidence of breast cancer – until they move to countries with a high dairy intake, when their level of cancer rises to that of the host country.

Many other aspects of my diet have changed. I eat a wide range of natural foods, organic where possible, as pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are implicated in the big rise in breast cancer. I try to maintain a balance between raw and cooked foods and to take as many essential nutrients as possible as food, although some supplements such as vitamin C are necessary. A nutritionalist, working from a healing centre, who analyses my hair, has been immensely helpful both in telling me what excesses (such as fluoride which damages bone) there are in my body, as well as what deficiencies I had. A great influence and practical source of help has been Leslie Kenton's seminal book Passage to Power (1995).

Long before my cancer, I started to build up some personal resources, which I realise now, have provided healing. In my mid-forties, like so many other people, I was aware of how much 'unlived life' I had. There were so many things I had wanted to do but had not yet started. Urged on by Campbell's wonderful exhortation to 'follow your bliss' I started to learn Tai-chi and to dance. Tai-chi in its meditative form enables strength and suppleness of body and spirit; it achieves awareness and balance of the energy flow of the body and a great stillness. I find it impossible, even after many years, to remember the formal sequence of movements, but its ways are deep in my body.

I love most of all to dance, sometimes free form, but mainly sacred and secular circle dances. Many of these dances have been used since time immemorial as worship dances and to celebrate the great festivals of the turning year; they put us in contact with the Earth, the seasons, the great rites of passage, with ritual and symbol. Diseases of the reproductive system of women, and increasingly of men, can be seen as linked to our loss of contact with the Earth and her healing bounty. Our food is processed and steeped in chemicals; we rarely eat it in season or from local sources; we pay little attention to the cycles of the year or of our own bodies; all of this diminishes our health. I find dancing and celebrating the eight festivals of the year – and any others we can create – restores the feeling of connection and community that heals us.

As part of my midlife renewal I entered Jungian analysis. Women who have breast cancer often have poor relationships with their mother and also suppress anger in favour of compliance. It is believed that this anger can erupt in the body as tumours, as mind and body are inextricably linked, and my psyche presented me with a wonderful image of a volcanic crater! I had many dreams to reassure and inspire me and also to guide me when faced with dilemmas; for example, should I take Tamoxifen? This drug, a synthetic weak oestrogen designed to block dangerous strong oestrogens, reduces the recurrence of breast cancer but it also has side-effects. I was guided to not take it but to find different ways of keeping healthy, for example filling my body with weak oestrogens from foods which have no ill-effects. For everyone the path will be different, but the guidance of our dreams and unravelling and repairing some of the psychological damage of our lives, as well as releasing our potential is, in my view, an under-estimated resource in healing.

Discovering wider approaches to health such as homoeopathy, nutrition, working with the body and spirit in Tai-chi, dance and festival, and developing the personality in analysis, helped me put the contribution of western medicine into a new perspective. While breast screening, surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have a role, the overall cure rates of breast cancer do not change greatly and the incidence is rising dramatically. In the 1960s, 1:20 women in the UK had breast cancer; today, just some 35 years later, it is 1:12.

It seems vital to look for the underlying reasons for this increase, which is reflected in some other cancers of the reproductive system in both women and men. For me, the theory of oestrogen dominance developed by Dr John Lee from 20 years of clinical observation, makes the most sense. He argues (1996) that the delicate hormonal balance of oestrogen and progesterone, the two major reproductive hormones, has been disturbed by the in creasing dominance of the stimulating hormone oestrogen, through its use in drugs such as contraceptives and HRT; in farming to fatten livestock and through petro-chemical pollutants which mimic oestrogen. Oestrogen pollution is now so widespread that we ingest it in our water supply and it is feminising the fish. The balancing and protective role of progesterone, the production of which is suppressed by excessive oestrogen, is neglected. Synthetic progesterones, called progestogens, often work in different ways and also have unwanted side-effects. Recent research (1995) shows the protective effects of progesterone on breast tissue through the inhibition of cell proliferation. Strong oestrogens have the opposite effect, stimulating breast tissue, which is why doctors ensure women come off oestrogens when they have a breast cancer.

John Lee started using a natural progesterone cream, Pro-Gest, in physiological doses when presented with women who had breast cancer but also menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, loss of libido, depression and concerns about the health of their hearts and bones. He found progesterone could help with all of these problems, and in particular it can build new bone, reversing the effects of osteoporosis. Importantly, Dr Lee says that, to his knowledge, none of his patients taking progesterone has had a recurrence of their cancer.

Unfortunately, western medicine does not usually know of, or accept when it does, the theory of oestrogen dominance. A major reason is the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the knowledge and treatment choices of doctors. Progesterone, being a natural substance, cannot be patented and bring exclusive profits to drug companies; which is why they take natural progesterone and chemically alter it, producing a synthetic progestogen which they can then patent and promulgate.

I take progesterone as there is a family history of heart disease and osteoporosis, and I have a low bone mineral density; I am currently trying to get a repeat measurement to see if there is any improvement after 18 months on progesterone. I feel very well on it – though it has not helped my hot flushes! – but my breasts are much smoother, a point noted by the surgeon. The Natural Progesterone Information Service (see references) provides help in obtaining progesterone.

I believe we all, individually and collectively, can play a crucial role in reducing the epidemics of cancers. Women in particular often have gifts of instinct and intuition which have not been overruled by intellect. We are often more in contact with nature through the monthly cycles of our bodies and bearing and raising children. We are the ones who usually select and prepare food and therefore have great influence on the health of families.

Our cancers can be messengers, helping us return to a greater honouring of nature in the way that we live our lives. In the food that we grow and eat, the remedies we take, in learning with our bodies and spirits as well as our minds; in creating community and celebrating the festivals; all of these, I believe, as well as many other approaches, can bring us closer to the health and healing that we all desire.


Chang, K-J et al; (1995) Influences of percutaneous administration of estradiol and progesterone on human breast epithelial cell cycle in vivo. Fertility and sterility, 63; 4; April; 785-791
Kenton, L (1995) Passage to power: natural menopause revolution. Ebury press.
Kushi, M et al; (1982) Cancer and heart disease; the macrobiotic approach to degenerative disorders. Japan publications.
Lee, J (1996) Natural progesterone: the multiple roles of a remarkable hormone. Carpenter.
Natural Progesterone Information Service, PO Box 24, Buxton SK17 9FB.


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About Sue Pembrey

Sue Pembrey was a nurse in the NHS for 33 years. She devoted the last 16 years to the development of nursing practise in Oxfordshire. She was Foundation Director of the Institute of Nursing for practise development and research. She retired in 1994, but continues to do a weekly family planning clinic, mainly for students, which she loves. Sue discovered a breast cancer two weeks after retirement. That experience and subsequent treatment, for both orthodox and complementary medicine, have led her more deeply into women's health and healing. She provides Mistletoe Workshops – small groups for women – on natural choices in reproductive health. Tel: 01865 514988.

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