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Living A Good Life with my Incurable Cancer

by Emily Evison(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 192 - March 2012

Four months ago I was happy and pretty complacent: a healthy, active omnivore with an allotment, home-baked bread and minimal processed foods. I did regular yoga, walked my children to school and ate organic. My life was comfortable and wholesome.   

As a primary school teacher and mother of young children, I had plenty of causes for the dull, persistent backache that I felt all spring, and plenty more reasons for ignoring it! When I threw my back into spasm sneezing whilst lifting something light, and my GP sent me for an x-ray, we were stunned to discover that the results showed cancer throughout my spine, ribs and pelvis. This was stage 4, and there is no stage 5! How could I go from perfectly healthy to terminally ill overnight?

It took most of the following month to discover where my cancer had begun. Ironically we had started off with the worst news, so by the time I found out I had breast cancer I was pretty relieved. At least it was something common. We all like to be special but when it comes to cancer you don't want to be unique! Common means more wisdom to share, and research being done, so I started investigating.

Friends joked that I was 'such a teacher' about my diagnosis, but I took comfort in information. During the month that the hospital was running scans and tests to try and locate the primary tumour, my husband and I set up the University of Anticancer Studies in our spare room. Every pertinent book, research document and idea was avidly found, digested and then incorporated or rejected. Friends and family around the world started researching their local experts, and so my support web widened.

We had a totally 'open doors' attitude towards healing, and quickly learned that there are many types of holistic treatment that could help me. It is important to emphasize that I participate in mainstream treatment; in no way would I ever encourage rejection of Western medicine in the face of cancer. I worked with an incredible integrative oncologist in the States, Dr Jeremy Geffen, who describes Western medicine as the crisis management, but suggested I look to Eastern medicine for long-term health management. He became the hub in my wheel and every different treatment I participated in came back to him. Instead of feeling like I was clutching at disparate research and healing, I felt securely held, and evenly supported. Acupuncture, massage, homeopathy, psycho-emotional hypnosis, meditation and reiki all became crucial elements of my lifestyle. However it was through my diet that I began to feel most empowered.

Dairy and Soy
We learned quickly that dairy needed eliminating from my diet. As a breast-feeder, I knew that milk was a super-food for my babes, helping them to grow and thrive. Turns out that it does the same for my cancer, too! Research kept popping up which had used casein and rats to show how clearly milk proteins turn on cancer growth, When I traced the original research documents, I felt convinced and immediately cut the dairy from my diet. Much as I loved my cheese and butter, why would I want to consume something that so directly supported my cancer growth?

I've never been a huge fan of soymilk, and need to keep up my fat intake to maintain body weight, so I tend to use almond or coconut milk for most things.

Initially the research that I saw claimed that soy conflicted with Tamoxifen (my mainstream drug treatment). The phytoestrogens, which cause such controversy surrounding male fertility in a high soy diet, were raising their heads here too. I chose to avoid soy until I understood better its impact on my diet. After further research, we discovered enough information demonstrating that soy's oestrogen-like cells actually support the function of my medication by blocking the receptors on the cancer cells. However this function of soy is only present in the simple soy products like edamame, tofu, milks and tempeh. The over-processed soy foods that have filled our health food shops suffer from the same problem that other over-processed foods face. They lose one of their active properties. So soy is a part of my diet, and a useful one at that, but I'm not filling the fridge with soy cheeses, burgers, fakin' bacons and ice creams.

Looking at clinics that treat cancer partially through diet, I came across the acidity concept. Our bodies most naturally settle to a pH balance of 7.4. Cancer thrives in a more acidic environment, but what was my bodies' pH? Ebay provided some cheap litmus paper strips and I began testing several times a day to find out the average. Although it was high, it wasn't astronomical - about 8 or so. Looking into the foods that increased the acidity, I realized that sugar, and processed wheat were amongst the main culprits. Sugar gave that energy spike and then energy deficit, but processed grains were so quickly transformed into sugars in the body that they might as well have started out that way! The sugars flushed through system so quickly that the body needed to rob its own oxygen stores to try and rebalance the pH. An acidic environment was one low in oxygen, and cancer loves acidity, so how could I redress the balance? It's actually quite simple, and all around us. The plants which store and release oxygen into our atmosphere are also full of it in digestible forms. So a high plant-based diet, especially green plants, would effectively lower the body's pH.

Superfoods like wheatgrass are amazing at oxygenating blood because their juice is extracted whilst living, so there is no time for it to deteriorate, and the same goes for some blue green algae like e3live. Both are flash-frozen or consumed fresh, which enables the nutrients to be at their optimum when consumed.  But you can only ingest a certain amount of wheat grass or algae a day, and looking at the amounts of plant-based food I needed to consume daily was daunting. Cruciferous veg like broccoli and cabbage, blueberries, turmeric all needed squeezing in on a daily basis and I wanted a life beyond the kitchen too!

Then I discovered the Gerson Institute in San Diego. They used fresh vegetable juices as a part of their treatment plan, not to replace meals but to supplement them. So I tried, and was hooked. My energy was incredible when I drank a couple of pints each day. The best advice I was given early in my juicing life was to blend like colours together. Not only does it give you an easier way to track nutritional content, but it makes for wonderfully vivid mouth-watering juices. It is easy to make delicious fruit juices, but if I was trying to decrease the sugars in my body, and increase my veggie intake then I needed to be juicing differently. I knew I loved carrot juice, but I needed to be consuming vast quantities of greens and broccoli - juice just didn't sound appealing.

I began experimenting, and used Kris Carr's Crazysexy Diet book as food for thought. She shares a variety of green juices as part of her cancer management strategy, and I quickly came up with a few versions that I loved. My Green Goddess absolute non-negotiable pint every day is made of 300g spinach or chard, 1/2 cucumber and 1 apple. It's delicious: refreshing and not at all like cold soup! I have a special love for another, which I've nicknamed the Green Dragon. It's 200g watercress, 1/2 cucumber and 1 kiwi. No-one else likes it but I do, and it really lights a fire under me like my old espresso did!

White Foods
So now I'd found a way to increase my plant intake, I needed to address those white foods: starches and sugars. I'm English, and we love our bread and spuds. I bake my own bread every couple of days, and my husband grows different potatoes for different jobs in the kitchen. I had to look at how much starch was on my plate, though. Pasta and rice joined my two English favourites, and I realized that it was easy to have almost half the plate be starch and the rest be the flavoursome sauces and stews. This balance needed adjusting.

I have always preferred brown pasta, rice and bread, but questioning the grains they were made from opened the door to many more whole grains. The glorious spelt makes a wonderful risotto (even the kids prefer it because it's less porridge-y), there are many wholegrain rices which digest more slowly than white basmati, and quinoa in salads, stews or sauces adds couscous-texture but a protein content to rival red meat. Portion control applied to carbs would also help increase my intake of other veg. If white potatoes were easy starch (ie pH raising) then parsnips, yams and celeriac were more complex starches, which didn't convert quite so quickly. There are differences in pH influence even within the selection of potatoes available. Firm, young, new potatoes are a better choice than big, fluffy, floury potatoes, so a few of the former tossed into a dish might be fine from time to time, but they could no longer be a staple part of almost every day. I still need to ingest carbs, just not the high GI ones.

Those complex whole grains could be used to replace the over-processed wheat flour products in flour, pasta and many other guises. Rye bread, spelt pasta and nut-flour pastry all prove that the alternatives are often better flavoured as well as better for me!

Sugar itself is surprisingly difficult to cut out. As anyone with candida or diabetes will know, once you seek to limit it, and look for it, you realize that it's been added to everything. Our food industry is appealing to our sweet tooth by adding sugar unnecessarily. Baked beans, all types of stir-in sauce, pies, sausages, ketchup and other condiments . . . it's everywhere! By saying I wasn't eating sugar, I was turning down almost every labour-saving ingredient in the pantry. I was going to have to start with the raw ingredients almost every time I made a meal. I love cooking and have always taken the slow-food route to good flavour, but I was worried this was going to take forever.

If this is going to be a new way of eating and living, then the new habits had to be sustainable. It was unrealistic to think that I might go for a totally sweet-free rest of my life, so finding new sweeteners and retraining my palate was key. I quickly discovered agave, and was delighted with how well is worked in my food. The children even preferred it on their porridge or pancakes! Agave is low on the GI, which means no blood sugar spike to acidify my body and give the cancer that ideal climate to thrive once again.

Realistically, I had to retrain my mental associations. It is so easy to think of sweet things as a treat. When I was marking class work, I'd often keep chocolate nearby to use as incentives and rewards to keep myself going. When I was stressed I wanted some caramel chocolate to indulge with. Now though the treat wasn't just for me, it was a treat for my cancer! Why would I crave something that was going to nourish my disease? Keeping treats around that I could have: nuts, figs and blueberries, crackers and dips, the odd bit of unsweetened dark chocolate, all meant that I was less likely to dig into my kids tub of Ben and Jerry's. Wholefood snacks also fill you up, so there's less of a hollow to keep stuffing snacks into!

Other fun foods that acidify are well known to those of us with reflux or ulcers: coffee and alcohol. Giving them up was going to be another big challenge

By now I had become vegan and given up wheat flour and sugar, coffee and alcohol. I love the clear, clean feeling I get from what I consume. There's no bloating after meals, or indigestion, constipation or yeast infections. My energy without caffeine is now pretty close to what it was with my 3 espresso and 2 cups of tea a day. I do miss wine. But more than two glasses conflicts with my medication, so I'm not tempted to push it.

The way that we cook (or don't cook) our food is of utmost importance. We all know not to overcook vegetables, but the nutritional role that raw food plays is fascinating. Initially I went too far too fast, trying to create a raw food diet in line with Dr Cousins, whose Rainbow Food Institute successfully applies a raw diet to cancer treatment, but I didn't have the knowledge base to balance my meals properly. I spoke to a Cancer Lifestyle Management professional about raw diets and her advice was sage. She said that much of the raw food research is conducted in hot places where the winters are like our summers. Being careful about not overcooking food is much more important than trying to stick to a raw food diet in an English winter. I was relieved, because I craved comforting roasted squash, as the nights drew in, and couldn't face it grated and raw. I also learned that owning the diet is about having good sense to question wisdom and listen to your body.

I initially approached an acupuncturist about pain management, as I was feeling uncomfortable about the amount of high-dose painkiller I was taking long-term. She quickly opened my eyes to a new way of addressing my cancer. Effective handling of my pain was crucial. My sternum is apparently 'moth-eaten' and made a hug induce a wince; however my acupuncturist needled the area and it became painless enough to rap on like a front door! This area has now been radiated, and is no longer an issue, however she continues to treat my pain just as effectively.

It was the other benefits of acupuncture that surprised me. Tamoxifen is likely to stimulate menopause-like symptoms, and although my periods are incredibly strong, I suffer from none of the hormonal swings that I used to. Hot flushes are gone, too. When calendar events are likely to drain me, she is able to help me draw from deep energy reserves so that my strength will sustain me. Acupuncture is supporting my body in healing itself, it is difficult to explain how, but it makes me feel stronger and more clear-minded as well as managing my pain.

As a busy, active (relatively) young woman, I have always been on the go. Whether acting as the circus ringmaster all day in a classroom or organizing a ladies craft-night, there was always something good to do. Suddenly my energy was different. Initially I found that I needed a two-hour nap after lunch in order to stay awake past my children's 7pm story-time. Slowly I started to consider my energy differently. If energy was currency and I only had a certain amount to spend each day, then suddenly I was more careful. Saving enough for my own children meant carefully considering how I spent my weekdays, and reconsidering my career.

I was given the mantra 'Will it tire me or inspire me' by Kris Carr, and it has become the question I ask myself before accepting an invitation. Some things are utterly exhausting but nourish my soul for months to come, but most decisions are about available energy on that one day.

Now my cancer is better managed, I no longer sleep so much every day, however I still take a quiet time after lunch to reflect, meditate and refocus. If I need to sleep, then that is fine, but it is not a crucial element of my routine like rest is.

Psycho-Emotional Hypnosis
Once you receive a cancer diagnosis, people pop up and tell you their incredible, and inspiring stories of survival. One such friend had used deep, emotional work to reconnect with her body's own healing ability. She leant me Brendan Bay's book The Journey which I read with mouth aghast. If her story was true, then I had to try her hypnosis. She had self-cured from a basket-ball sized [benign brain] tumour in only a couple of months, and had the medical records to support it. My friend had used her methods to induce spontaneous remission in a lung cancer recurrence, without need for mainstream treatment. I felt there was nothing to loose.

Although I had been through some emotionally challenging times in my life, I felt like I had reconciled myself with the feelings associated with them. However, when my friend came over to lead me on the hypnosis 'Journey' I had no idea what I was starting. For almost an hour I wept as I described scenes from the day my mother died and complex associations with those memories. I was skilfully guided to reconciliation of these feelings, and a 'campfire' scenario was created in my stomach to generate calm and peace. This would provide invaluable just the next day, when I underwent a physically gruelling bone biopsy procedure.

I have since had another guided Journey, with different emphasis and outcome. Both are invaluable to me, and I look forwards to another opportunity to lay to rest my subconscious fears and anxieties.

The guided meditation practice in my yoga classes had always proved valuable to me both physically and mentally, however now it was going to be necessary to support my calm in the face of serious challenges. During the hour-long incarcerations for MRI and CT scans, I used a journey meditation. I chose to focus on a favourite canoeing trip from my life in California. Although 7 years ago, I could recall the river in great detail, and now every time I felt anxiety I would put my canoe into the river and start paddling, trying to focus on those details of the route. I took creative licence and combined other memories into the meditation, and when the river finally opened up to the Pacific Ocean my husband was sitting by a beach fire at sunset. The final widening of the river evoked such calm within me that I felt at peace in spite of my surroundings.

As a result of my 'Journeywork' I had another tool in my meditational kit. The campfire became invaluable during the lengthy bone biopsies, which combined high-tech scanners with archaic hand-drills. When the doctor began each bore into my pelvis I would focus on that campfire in my stomach and feel the warmth radiating out, relaxing my entire body as it spread through.

These meditations had an effect on the mainstream hospital practitioners too. Each time I underwent such a procedure, an inquisitive nurse would approach me afterwards to ask me about the relaxation techniques I had used. They all commented that my physical and mental state had had an enormous effect on how the procedure had progressed.

Daily affirmations are now a crucial element of mind-over-body healing, and I began to incorporate them both formally and informally after a Macmillan nurse told me to imagine a lemon being sliced, after a moment she asked 'Did my mouth water?' When it did, she asked whether I had considered the connection between mind and body in healing. Louise Hay whose Heal your Body books are recognized worldwide, provided recommendations and direction. It seemed logical, if anxiety and worry could trigger my acid reflux, why couldn't positive affirmations support my healing? So I strung up meditation beads from my mother's broken necklace and began daily practice. I genuinely believe my affirmations, currently: "My body is strong and beautiful; and it is healing itself right now" , "I release all past anger and resentment" and "Every cancer cell that dies is replaced by a strong, healthy cell". I drift off to sleep each night with their comforting shape silently framing my breath, so much better than the fears and anxiety which could otherwise plague my dreams.

Tai Chi and Qigong
During the summer of my diagnosis, I had been recommended to protect the spine at all costs. The cancer had already compromised one of my vertebrae and, although it didn't currently require surgery, there was still a risk of further damage. I quickly lost most of my muscle tone and flexibility, and was wary about which form of exercise would be sufficiently low-impact to pick up. My father has practised Tai Chi for most of my life, and suggested a simple set of daily exercises called Ba Duan Gin. They quickly became incorporated into my routine and helped me to regain both strength and flexibility.

Reading Dr Nan Lu encouraged me to add his sequence for breast health to my routine, and NHS recommendations were released around my diagnosis that 20-30 minutes of low-impact exercise each day would make an enormously positive impact on healing from breast cancer. So now I walk (or chase!) my children to school then take a longer route home before my Qigong, putting an hour a day aside for gentle exercise. I also swim twice a week, adding a couple of lengths each time as I build up my stamina.

Although I cannot pretend to fully understand how Reiki works, it has been another eye-opening healing method. My practitioner identified a tumour on my ovary long before the hospital scans showed it, and she is able to identify my areas of pain without being directed. I always feel more relaxed and uplifted by a Reiki session.

I worried a lot in the beginning of this journey that I would spend all my time preparing food, but the truth is that healing is a full-time job. You are always with your cancer, and whatever choices I make will affect it. To pretend otherwise is to be in denial and give my cancer a chance to have another growth spurt.

So, deciding to bring a juice with me when I come into town, instead of popping into a café for a snack is about positive nutrition rather than compromise. Sure, it wouldn't make a huge difference to do from time to time, but habits and compromises build up.

However, it's not going to help me to give up all pleasurable food, that would make me a militant food-bore, but to change my definition of what a treat is makes all the difference. Am I going to refuse a slice of my sister's wedding cake because it's made with wheat, sugar and eggs? No way! But would I want a slice of that cake as a treat every day? Not any more.

When you have a chronic illness, it is as if there is a new person in your life. I had already chosen a wonderful man whom I wanted to make my lifetime commitment to, but cancer chose me, and like a devoted partner it wants to be with me all the time. As a result, I have to consider cancer at every turn. My favourite cancer cells are lazy and sluggish, lurking around in the background like a teenager who won't get out of bed in the morning! By ingesting the right foods, and maintaining a careful lifestyle, I can have energy aplenty for those I love, and none for my cancer. Just like the litmus paper I used in the early days of my diagnosis, my cancer will show me whether a choice is good for me.

The impact that this lifestyle overhaul has had on me is tremendous. I feel great on the diet I have chosen: my skin and hair are in good condition and my energy is strong, although I do need to rest more than the average person. If it were only these effects, I would be very happy with the choices I have made. However there is much more to it. After only 6 weeks of taking Tamoxifen and adopting this new, healing lifestyle, my oncologist took my blood markers. Those are 3 tests which track and count the cancer cells in my blood. They had dropped by over a third in that same six-week period. Now if you take into consideration the steep uphill climb they were previously on, then they have dropped by almost a half in comparison with where they would have been if they'd continued the climb. We all love statistics like that, but at the same appointment I also found that my primary tumour, the lump in my breast from which all this began, had shrunk by well over half in the same time-frame. It began as a big, chunky 5 cm tumour growing in every direction, and now it is a slim, flat 2 cm lozenge. Somehow I can have stage 4 breast cancer, and avoid both surgery and chemotherapy.

That information blew me out of the water! My oncologist was even surprised and recognized that these results were unusual. But it gets even better, possibly.

I have joined an online group of women who are using similar healing methods for their metastatic cancer,, and on my birthday this year they gave me the most wonderful phrase. American oncologists have had to come up with a new way to describe what can happen to stage 4 cancer patients whose healing takes a positive turn: we are never cured, but we can now be declared NED. This means No Evidence of Disease. In my support group of 85, there are 6 women with cancer that had spread to soft tissue organs, bones and brain who are now NED. Although no one is going to say that holistic methods alone can cure cancer, it is fascinating that the vast majority of cases of NED are people who have chosen to participate in their healing. I have become empowered and am now an active participant in my own health. It can make all the difference to how I heal.

As a society, cancer diagnoses are becoming more common and many more people are moving to stage 4. However life expectancy is extending over the years, and those of us who are combining Western medicine with Eastern and holistic methods are making our own statistics. I am learning how to live with, not die from, cancer. And the life we share is good.


  1. Pip parkinson said..

    Well done Emily. I too have met NEDS! I believe exercise is very good for you. Walking for health is a good project. Why not start a group near you. Keep up with your positive thinking it really helps you feel well and happy

  2. Dr Ranjitsinh said..

    Plant is reach with phytoestrogen, In my clinic practice we obtain encoureging findings with this herbs. Asparegus recemosus, Laptedenia reticulata, Ashoka Indica, cynodon with Curcuminoides 40% shows promising efficacey in Ca Breast and ovarian Cancer. Request to visit web for more info

  3. Emily Evison said..

    Thank you Dr Ranjitsinh,

    I am actively pursuing curcuminoides as a new research area, and will certainly be in touch. Your website is fascinating, and there is certainly wide evidence to support Ayurvedic treatment of cancer. I have just incorporated fresh turmeric root into my daily juicing, for its apoptosis (cancer-cell suicide) effects, and I look forwards to learning more!

    Pip, thanks for the encouragement. We currently have a cancer Tai Chi group in Lincoln and I walk daily with my children and friends on the school run (then take a longer route home through the fields). I agree that daily exercise is crucial, roll on Spring!

  4. Hilary said..

    I enjoyed Emily's article on her journey with cancer and wish her and her family courage. I was, however, confused about the paragraph on pH. She says her pH was 8 (is this a typographical error) because in this case her body was alkaline, not acidic. Too much alkalinity is also a problem but as she further refers to cancer as loving acidity, I think that her body was probably too acidic and she needed to raise, not lower her pH. I think this might be a source of confusion for some people. Could this be clarified?

  5. Emily Evison said..

    Hillary, thank you for noticing the error. My ph was initially about 6 and is now about 8.

  6. Igor said..

    My company gather scarce plants in Russia. Now I have dried root Amur cork tree (lat.Phellodendron amurence). This root has anticancer activity. Can you look partners for production medicines. Thank you, Igor

  7. Emily Evison said..

    Igor, I would be very interested in your research. Phellodendron amurense would also appear to show results in prostate cancer and lung cancer. Do you have any research into its use on breast cancer patients?

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About Emily Evison

Emily Evison worked as a primary school teacher in both the USA and UK until summer 2011. She is taking a year out from life as usual to create an anti-cancer lifestyle following her unexpected diagnosis, and now looks forwards to retraining in cancer lifestyle management. She lives in rural England with her husband, two children, 6 chickens and cat. She may be contacted via  

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