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Living Positively With Cancer

by Vivienne Silver-Leigh(more info)

listed in cancer, originally published in issue 111 - May 2005

By August 2005, I'd have spent 25 years living with cancer. I have decided to share some of this experience, in the hope that it may be of value to others.

In 1979, I had noticed a tiny lump, in my right breast, and went unconcernedly to my GP, who reacted by sending me immediately to a specialist hospital that very day. Numerous tests followed. It was plain from the solemn faces of the doctors that they thought it was cancer even before the biopsy results came through. I went into shock, anger, despair, disbelief, all quite common reactions when waiting for the actual devastating news.

After the diagnosis, I became probably the most difficult patient that my hospital had ever met, because I refused to accept all the doctors' recommendations, and went down a path that I never knew existed until then. I was motivated by fear, propelled by determination to live, and guided by a strange belief that I would know what would work best for me and my body.

Reacting to a Dire Situation.

Having a diagnosis of cancer is terrifying, frightening for anyone.

When it happened in 1979, I reacted by running round in total panic, asking questions, accepting a lumpectomy, refusing radiotherapy, and discovering that homeopathy existed, while all the time making decisions about what I would and would not put myself through.

I had just survived a messy divorce, and I felt vulnerable and also determined that I was going to live to see my two young children grow up. This was my motivation for everything I was doing. After the lumpectomy, I went back to my teaching job in College, and somehow coped with this and organizing my family life.

Taking Action of Some Kind

There was very little support or information available for people with breast cancer in 1979, even at a top specialist hospital in London.

I remember a year later, hearing on the radio that a Cancer support group was being set up in Battersea, not far from where I lived, and I phoned immediately and joined their committee. Sharing experiences and getting information about complementary therapies for cancer was a tremendous help.

Then I heard about the Bristol Cancer Centre which at the time ran residential courses, and I spent two whole days there, learning about the diet they recommended, and the many other complementary therapies that would help me. I responded well to healing, meditation and relaxation. I turned vegetarian overnight, practised yoga, and was so active I did not have time to think much about the possibility of dying.

Getting Further Help

The person who initially influenced me was an elderly aunt, who I knew had knowledge of homeopathy, about which I knew nothing at all, but instinct or intuition told me it might be useful. Following her instructions, I phoned the Royal Homeopathic hospital and was given the name of a Consultant Homeopathic doctor who specialized in cancer. I saw him privately as I needed to make quick decisions about what to do after the lumpectomy. He was reassuring, and recommended that I self-administer Mistletoe injections. He also thought that radiotherapy was not a good idea for me. This gave me the courage to refuse it, and I asked instead for a referral to the Homeopathic consultant's clinic at the Royal Homeopathic hospital. I was somewhat amazed when this was given to me. From then on I felt supported and on a different path from many other patients.

I soon learned how to inject myself with Mistletoe (Iscador) three times a week, and accompanied this with positive affirmations like "this is going to cure me of any remaining cancer". I did this for five years. It was not difficult to learn how to do the injections, and I became quite expert at jabbing myself and felt happily in control.

The Five-year Survival Goal

One lumpectomy, followed by lots of homeopathic Mistletoe, and I was now living a different life on many levels. I was influenced by the book by Carl and Stephanie Simonton, Getting Well again, Living with Cancer. I did everything they recommended, including visualizing the cancer cells disappearing as I injected the mistletoe into my midriff. Meditation and deep relaxation became everyday routine activities for me.

The Mistletoe seemed to do its work well and five years later I eventually stopped taking it and went on with my life.

Getting Good Support

The Battersea Cancer Support Centre was definitely helpful. So was my family. I am grateful for my patient sister-in-law's support in particular. She regularly accompanied me to check ups over the years, and although a doctor herself, somehow managed to stay neutral when I put myself on my non-orthodox path.

More Crisis in Later Years

Seventeen healthy, problem free years later, another lump showed up, in the same area. Devastation again. 1996, more surgery, back to Mistletoe, but then came a mestasis (spread) to the shoulder, and this time I had to face radiotherapy.

I had a long-standing terror of all machines which give out rays. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy (CBT) got me over this. (This was available at the hospital's new rehabilitation centre, where complementary therapies had now arrived.) I went for six weeks of daily treatment totally relaxed and positive, lying under the enormous machine, affirming that it was curing me and breathing deeply.

By 1997 the scenario for complementary therapy seemed to have changed considerably and there was much more support available. Dietary advice was also different. I read Professor Jane Plant's book, Your Life in Your Hands, and appreciated her scientific approach to dealing with her own breast cancer. I decided to follow in her footsteps. She had pointed out that cows are injected with oestroegen to fatten them; I had an oestrogen based cancer, so like her, I said farewell to dairy products.

Personal Diversionary Therapy

I started a three-year course of training in Advanced Psychotherapy at the same time as I began radiotherapy, because I knew I needed some mental stimulation to distract me from the unpleasant routine of the treatment I had to have. In my studies I met new people and enjoyed being a student again. I had more to think about than what I was going through at the hospital each morning.

Yet More Crisis

I had a few good years, feeling fine. My sons had left home: I had changed my work and was in private practice as an accredited Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Rebirther.

Then in 2000, a new lump appeared, after a bout of bronchitis, in a neck lymph node, and again it was diagnosed as malignant. I had long ago decided that chemotherapy would kill me off completely and refused to even think about it. I did not think that I would be able to cope with the side-effects. However, hormone treatment was possible and I embarked on a regime of Tamoxifen, but experienced serious side-effects. Alternatives like Arimidex, Examastane and Progesterone were equally unpleasant.

I continued to brew exotic teas, played meditation and healing tapes and signed up for a course of rigorous martial exercise, at a new centre locally. This entailed daily classes of a modernized Chi Kung/yoga/meditation regime, which teaches strong breathing and physical exercises, and where smiling was the order of the day. I met lovely people, smiled a lot and received healing for which I am grateful. But I also realized that I was soon going to need something different from their programme.

Managing Grim Times Effectively

What do you do when you feel desperate, fed up or sad? What are you supposed to do?

Some people come from families which never admit to such feelings at all and everyone goes around pretending things are fine, while pushing down their pain or despair.

I have learned what works for me; it is definitely being open and honest and talking about what is happening, to my family and friends. It may not be too nice for them, but it is much worse living with it by yourself. It also makes them realize that we are all vulnerable, we are human and we can help each other. I had much help from everyone I knew. It touched me greatly how people seemed to care for me.

The Internet and Global Support

I turned to the Internet, where I discovered that 'Integrated Medical Care' clinics existed in the US, so I searched for similar clinics in the UK. I found the Fountain Centre, a complementary therapy centre, situated in the NHS Royal Surrey Hospital, in Guildford. A few emails later, I went there and talked my fears through with the Director. He listened well and was totally accepting of my panic and anxiety, as well as being reassuring and giving me all the information I wanted.

Cups of tea and talks with volunteers, who had been treated for cancer themselves, took place in a pleasant sitting room, with armchairs and books, and an atmosphere which was much more 'normal' than a hospital clinic. Finding this place was good for my morale.

I also found a private centre for integrated medical care in London, and went to see a doctor who specialized in nutritional advice for cancer patients. I left with a long list of supplements. I was limited by cost and also the difficulty of actually swallowing so many tablets, but for a while I took most of them. I felt that it helped, to be actively making my immune system stronger.

Another special find was the Haven Breast Care Centre in Fulham, which was local to me. It is based in a converted old church, where complementary therapies are available for anyone with breast cancer. It has a welcoming and very pleasant atmosphere. Acupuncture, counselling, massage and art therapy brought my stress levels down, and life began to feel more normal.

I had taken charge of my life again, though the neck lump was not disappearing. I have now learned to live with it. Apparently it is not going anywhere at the moment, just sitting there reminding me that I am not cured.

Ways of Dealing with the Situation

I tell my story to illustrate a few obvious things. We need others to help us deal with difficult situations which occur, from everyday upsets to serious illnesses. Not having enough work or money can bring desperate feelings too. Again, we need to connect with people, to talk, and be listened to, and to find ways to improve things.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I see the pressures on people today: perhaps being a foreigner alone in Britain, or a young woman not having enough support when parenting, or breaking up with partners. Working too hard, not getting time with your children and non-communication at work or at home, are other common stress factors. The people who cope best are the ones who have a good support system and friends they can talk to.

Acquiring a Positive Attitude

The same principles seem to apply to how we turn round from depression or worry. We need support; from friends, or from whatever professionals we are drawn to. I have found many books helpful too, for finding out what others have been through and getting new ideas from them. I have a whole shelf of them, reminding me of this.

Support Systems

I have learned that it is important to take one step at a time. Then, add in the support system that you prefer; it might mean going to a healer, psychotherapist, counsellor, or priest – you will know which one is for you. But non-action is not an answer. In 1994 I found breathwork/rebirthing, which helped me a great deal, and which I now also teach to some of my clients.

The first time I had to face an operation, I discovered I had faith of a kind. I went into the hospital chapel and prayed for support. In more recent years I have been put on the prayer list at my Quaker meeting. This is something that helped me, to feel that other people were thinking of me and asking that Divine healing would follow. I seem to have been given far more time than the doctors predicted – I passed the five-year survival line, and although I have had set backs, I have seen my children turn into adults and that is what I wanted most of all.

TV shows programmes about braver women than myself who did everything possible to survive breast cancer, and despite positive attitudes and huge support from everyone around them, did not make it. I do not know why I am still here.

Pluses and Minuses of Living with Cancer

Some people have said that they are grateful for having cancer. I cannot go that far, but I know that it has changed me physically and emotionally in unexpectedly good ways. I now find myself able to understand far more about living well, keeping fit, and also dealing with the negativity that gets thrown at you when you have cancer.

I have become a strong swimmer, as I found swimming regularly makes me feel so good physically. I can almost feel my immune system buzzing into action after a good swim.

I do feel somewhat mutilated by the operations, which have left brutal scar tissue and radiation damage too. But no one can see them when I swim, wearing my high cut sporty swim suit, and for this I can be grateful.

I have gradually become more assertive too. My check-ups at the fist hospital were depressing me so much as I saw a new doctor each time, and I had no sense of continuity nor much faith in their interpretations of the size of my lump since they had never seen it before. So I recently decided to change hospitals, with the support of my GP. It has made a great difference to my morale.

My Current Situation

Now I see the same experienced and kindly Professor each time, who takes my personal eccentricities into account, and treats me like a reasonable human being rather than an extremely difficult patient. We have agreed that I should stop all medication for a while, although I continue with oral Mistletoe, of course. I feel fine. I still go to the Royal Homeopathic Hospital regularly too, where, again, I get to feel that I am doing well.

I am hoping that some time soon a laser treatment or an ultra sound therapy could be tried out on my neck. I look out for articles on new treatments, and websites about new research being carried out all over the world. But meanwhile, I am hoping to be of use to the world, perhaps encouraging others to be strong and hopeful too.

Books I Found Helpful include:

Living Proof, a Medical Mutiny. By Michael Gearin-Tosh. Simon & Schuster UK LTD. 2002;
Getting Well Again. By Carl and Stephanie Simon. Bantam Books. 1978. (4th printing 1981.);
Your Life in your hands, understanding, preventing and overcoming Breast Cancer. By Professor Jane Plant. Virgin Publishing Ltd. 2000;
Healing Foods, how to nurture yourself and fight illness. By Dr Rosy Daniel. Thorsons. 1996;
The Breast Cancer Prevention and Recovery Diet. By Suzannah Olivier. Penguin Books. 1999;
A Visible Wound, a healing journey through Breast Cancer. By Julie Friedeberger. Element Books. 1996.


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About Vivienne Silver-Leigh

Vivienne Silver-Leigh had a career first as a speech therapist, and then became a lecturer in English and counselling. She trained counsellors for five years, and now has a private practice, working as a psychotherapist, from a humanistic/integrative perspective. Following a strong interest in spirituality, she learned yoga and various forms of breathwork and meditation. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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