Complementary Treatments Before, During, and After Chemo (or in Everyday Life!)

Having cancer was a learning process for me.  I learned a lot about my personal limitations but maybe most important, I learned there was plenty I thought I knew about my body and overall health, that I was completely clueless about. I always believed I was healthy and in fact the adjective “healthy” was one I would use often to describe myself. When asked in a group setting icebreaker game to name three words to describe yourself, I would say “understanding, caring, and healthy.”  I would go to a health food store before a candy store any day. I truly loved frozen yogurt; I knew kidney beans were high in antioxidants; and washing off pesticides from your food was a must. I wasn’t necessarily wrong or being inauthentic when using this term prior to my diagnosis, I simply wasn’t aware of everything “health” encompassed. 

When I was given a diagnosis of lymphoma, it was natural for me to analyze and question the diagnosis.  Not because I didn’t believe I had cancer. I understood. I saw the scans. I felt the sickness. I just wanted to understand “why?” Not in the sense that I felt victimized; it just seemed to me that somewhere, somehow I had misunderstood what my body needed and therefore, it had developed a cancer.  As I drove around Tampa in my car alone, I would repeat out loud “I have cancer, I have cancer.” I was trying to grasp what the word meant for me and the full understanding of it would launch a decade-plus journey into healing.

Before I began my chemo treatments, I had a plan. I would exercise as much as possible, take my beloved vitamins and supplements, and I had a nutritionist on call. This is what healthy people do and it was a plan I was going to stick to.  All of that went out the door after I received my first round of chemo. My protocol AVBD chemotherapy was in charge - not Kim. That was quickly crystal clear. I got sick very quickly in so many violating ways, that I was in shock of how much my body was not in my control.

Your first round of chemo is called your inoculation round.  It is the time that your doctor can see what side effects will affect you throughout the duration of your treatments.  When you buy Advil, the pamphlet that comes along with it has a mind-numbing list of potential aliments the anti-inflammatory might cause.  Can you imagine the list that comes along with each individual drug given to treat a cancer? The list has the normal things like: headache, nausea, fatigue, and in addition includes, potential heart and lung damage, risks and damage to your nervous system, infertility, risks of developing other cancers, low blood counts, bruising, blisters, bleeding, mouth sores, hair loss, and so on.  Some of these are clearly life threatening on their own.  Every patient won’t necessarily get all of the possible effects so that makes it hard for the doctors to be proactive prior to round one in predicting a defensive plan to help stabilize the patient. 

Round one took me down.  A TKO before I even had a chance to train or plan.  I had mouth sores that were so bad I couldn’t talk and wouldn’t eat.  My whole digestive system was paralyzed - by far the most painful experience of my life. My blood counts plummeted.  As my nurses would say, “Your counts are in the toilet.” You can’t survive without the proper number of white, red, and platelet cells.  Almost daily, mine would be artificially boosted. Of course my hair fell out, infertility set in, and the blistering, bruising, etc. all began to happen. Once my doctors got me past the first round, they could properly put together a game plan so that I could hopefully sustain the next 11 rounds.

Prior to sitting down to get my first treatment I wanted nothing to do with any additional pharmaceuticals that were not absolutely necessary.  I tried to denounce getting IV’s of steroids prior to treatment.  I knew the risks overuse of steroids caused. However, the seriousness of the whole situation overtook me in every way possible and I was brought to my knees in pain and fear.  I was humbled by what I saw happening in other patients around me, and ultimately, did what I was told and what was recommended.

Of course everyone going through cancer has a different experience but looking back on it, I would have done the same treatments in the same way. You’re simply in survival mode at that point and anything that seems to help, you want to try. Anything and everything is necessary, but the power you have is really before and after treatment.

What I can see now is that before cancer, I thought I was healthy and to a certain extent that’s true, but not as healthy as I could have been. Even friends were amazed I got cancer. If I knew then what I know now, I would have paid more attention to the stressors in my life and wouldn’t have underestimated how those things can manifest in the body. We know when you’re embarrassed, your face turns red. Or for some, seeing something that doesn’t sit well may lead them to actually vomit. It’s clear that emotions can manifest and cause physical reactions. I know now that my relationships, career and joy in life are central to my health. Read more about how “Your Mind Can Make You Sick.” 

In terms of maintaining health, I stress that being an advocate for yourself is critical. Doctors are obviously knowledgeable but they don’t know your body as well as you do. Tapping into what your body is telling you and working with doctors to treat ailments is much more beneficial than just having them tell you what’s wrong and accepting the most immediate medicine or treatment available. I understand that some patients are too sick or have additional health concerns beyond cancer, however, ask a family member, caretaker, or patient advocate for assistance.  Do your best to form a team - your own cancer survivor allies. This approach is empowering!

When I was going through chemo, I could barely talk sometimes because of mouth sores but I always kept track of when I was supposed to get my red and white blood cell shots and could mentally track this like a “job.”  One time, I very proudly announced that I was not supposed to get a particular shot that day. My nurse had it ready for me but I was steadfast in not giving her my arm until she triple checked my chart.  She came back and teased me and said, “ I was about to label you non-compliant.” Turns out, I was right that day. This sounds very minor but in reality, those medicines are expensive and it’s serious business to get injections correct. This allowed me to feel like I was a part of my healing and I was not passively sitting back waiting for my cancer cells to die.

Since completion of chemo and being cleared of cancer, I’ve rarely gone to western medicine doctors beyond my regular oncology check-ups. Not because I don’t believe in them but because I’m proactive with my health and I know how to keep my immune system strong.  I don’t wait for signs that I may be getting sick. Prior to getting cancer, almost every time I flew, I got sick. I travel frequently and never even get a sniffle these days.  Now, I take immunity boosters like Sovereign Silver, and eat anti-inflammatory foods, as well as incorporate a spiritual practice to stimulate my energy channels, feed my body nutritious foods that are specific to my needs, and exercise. Acupuncture, Reiki, yoga, adequate sleep and a basic morning practice, have all been proven to help your immune system. Learn more in the following articles:

I include a daily reading in my morning practice as well as entries in my gratitude journal. Studies have shown that you can actually train yourself to be happy and grateful.  You can make these patterns a habit, similar to brushing your teeth in the morning. This recent study is a practice I do daily:

A spiritual practice takes you out of your ego and allows you to stop navigating life through your “small self.” Spirituality reminds you, you’re not in control of everything and there is a force much bigger than you helping all the time if you pay attention. It doesn’t matter whom or what you believe in; it’s about how you move yourself away from being stuck in fear mode and start believing that life is rigged in your favor. This is particularly helpful when you’re going through any kind of illness or life stress. I didn’t pay too much attention to grounding myself or asking God for help during cancer, thankfully I had a lot of other people doing that work on my behalf. I primarily operated on fear and survival. I remember being generally happy and upbeat, but I was also more of a robot than focused on a guided spiritually based path. Today, I have a strong spiritual practice and feel that no matter what comes my way, it’s showing up for a reason. No mistakes, just lesson or successes. I know that there is a path for me and I trust in that. Part of practicing faith is the joy of not knowing what’s in store for the future, and that’s the fun part! Remember, patience is a virtue.

If you don’t currently have a spiritual practice, I’d encourage you to take the first step and go to YouTube and listen to a meditation or hypnotherapy track, or download an app like Surf City. Hypnosis is the power of healing your subconscious mind, and can help with pain management and emotions. Your mind is like an iceberg – what we’re thinking and how we are acting on the surface is such a small part of what is really triggering those thoughts and reactions deep down. I’d recommend guided meditations for beginners, because it does just that – it guides you through the meditation process and minimizes your wandering mind. Gabby Bernstein, Doreen Virtue, and Deepak Chopra all offer fantastic meditation options.

Also take a look at how you start your morning. There is plenty of research that points to incorporating time for meditation and other practices to be more productive with the rest of your day. It can just be a few minutes to begin your morning on the right foot. This is a book I highly recommend: Panache Desai’s book “Discover Your Soul Signature” walks you through healing a range of emotions while also organizing them into a daily plan.  I have personally read this one several times!

It’s encouraging to see that western medicine is coming around to these alternative methods and pairing with traditional forms of treatment. Throughout chemo, I would ask my doctors if I could get a massage or acupuncture and they typically frowned upon it. There wasn’t enough research at the time for them to feel comfortable recommending it, and doctors were afraid these methods could make me even more sick. Now, I happily see hypnotherapy and Reiki in hospitals, and Elements Wellness Center is a partner of Florida Cancer Specialists providing acupuncture and much more, both of which I received treatments at.

Whether you’re going through chemo or simply want to lead a healthier life, remember that it doesn’t stop at diet and exercise. While important, your mental state and how it can affect your physical body can be just as important. Oddly enough, having cancer ultimately brought me to a happier place.  It taught me to pay attention to the signs my life is giving me.  I often joke that I wish I could turn off the analytics in my brain.  But as those questions kept firing, I kept seeking answers. Every time a “why” popped in my head I didn’t tell it to be quiet; I tried to give it a voice and seek an answer. That is where I am today - I am a seeker.  There is so much to learn and know in this life. I hope that everyone can one day approach every situation with the wonder of a child and the wisdom that this life has given to them!