Chemo or no chemo? That had been the question when I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer in September 2012. I was fortunate to have caught it very early, but there was very little research about whether or not post-hysterectomy chemo was advisable for my stage and type. One study with a sample size of 12 women who did not get chemo found no recurrences. N=12=nothing to go by. My doctors were of mixed opinion, as was I, until a dream about a docile lion waking up and going on the prowl for red meat tipped the decision in favor of chemo. But there were other decisions to make. Here’s something I wrote way back when, right before the Presidential election. (By the way, I’m fine now.)
I’ve had my doubts about chemo, but my deepest ambivalence has been about whether or not to incorporate Chinese herbs into my treatment. I just don’t lean alternative, to put it mildly. I really, really wish I could be like Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, embracing the allure of the new, but sad to say, that’s just not me. I’m more like Madge—the uptight Brit who sulks in her hotel room and escapes back to dank England as soon as possible.
But so many people I trust swear by Chinese medicine as an adjunct to chemo. When I told my beloved yoga teacher, Robin, I had cancer, the first thing she said was, “You must go see the oncology specialists at Pine Street Clinic.” Robin does not have a woo-woo bone in her body. As she puts it, “I’m from Indiana, and I don’t do anything that isn’t practical.” She works extensively with medical issues, and knows more about physiology and body mechanics than anyone I know.
So even though Robin uses a Neti pot, I trust her. I called Pine Street Clinic and set up a consultation, gathering along the way everyone’s opinions about integrative medicine. One friend told me she’d begged her partner to try herbs during chemo; they triggered a terrible allergic reaction and a lot of guilt. Everyone else had good experiences, many with the encouragement of their Western-medicine health teams. Even the Kaiser nutritionist was all for it.
“But does it work if you don’t really believe in it?” I asked her.
“Well, the placebo effect matters,” she conceded. “But I’ve seen it do real good no matter what you believe.”
Only my husband and I remained dubious. And, of course, my oncologist, who said, “Show me an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.” He really is kind of a numbers guy.
Michael from Pine Street asked me to send him my test results and some background information before we met. Wanting to make the right impression, I wrote a 5-page manifesto detailing not only my diagnosis and medical history, but also my staunch agnosticism, misgivings about positive thinking, and unwillingness to give up chocolate and lattes.
At the appointed time, I entered Pine Street Clinic as wary as someone loathe to accept a free dinner from the Moonies. The sun-filled, white-raftered room was crammed with fat Buddhas, oriental rugs, potted plants right out of the 70s, and two large, peach-colored poodles. Now that I’ve confessed my secret identification with Madge, I may as well finish off my reputation by adding that I’m not really a dog person. My stomach clenches when I encounter dogs in the workplace, even though some of my favorite people bring their dogs to work. And yes, I do mean those of you who are right now scrolling down to unsubscribe and canceling plans to bring over a casserole. Sorry. In chemo veritas.
The giant poodles didn’t lunge for my throat or crotch as I made my way to the restroom. Two sardonic flyers graced the bathroom wall, and there was a bumper sticker with a picture of a poodle that read “I Ride Inside: DogsAgainstRomney.com.” Despite my agnosticism, I was beginning to think I might be able to keep the faith with these people.
I sank into the plush couch and waited. And waited some more. I tried to quell my rising irritation by telling myself that I was merely imposing my wrong-headed Western notions of punctuality on an ancient and wise Eastern philosophy of time. This made me more irritated. So I switched to remembering that I wouldn’t think twice about being kept waiting at Kaiser, and checked my iPhone for the latest polling data.
About 20 minutes after the appointed time, Michael appeared, gray-haired and ordinary, with a firm handshake. After ushering me into his office, he remarked on my professed agnosticism by citing Martin Buber. Then he referenced research debunking the universal efficacy of positive psychology. Michael may have been late, but clearly he had done his homework. He then gave me two hours of careful attention, devising a protocol he thought would pass muster with my skeptical oncologist. Michael talked a lot about exercise and food (with no move to deprive me of baked goods); acupuncture and L-Glutamine to minimize anxiety and neuropathy; reading fiction to thwart chemo brain; and paying less attention to tracking polls to thwart brooding. He also suggested herbs, vitamins, and supplements to promote circulation, metabolize the toxic effects of chemo, and build immunity.
I wasn’t exactly hooked, but I definitely felt better about going the integrative route. What could happen, besides dropping a bundle of money, or possibly sprouting a third eye (not the Taoist kind)? While comparison shopping online for the best deals for all my magic potions, I encountered one testimonial after another about enhanced performance, superhuman energy, and muscle repair. Had I stumbled into the antechamber of Lance Armstrong’s doping ring?
Finally, my cache assembled, I sat down to a nasty mix of powdered beverages and capsules. The mysterious Ten Flavor Tea Pills looked like chocolate-covered dragees, so they were easy to swallow, but everything else made me gag. Would I shrink or expand like Alice, going down the Chinese medicine rabbit hole? I choked it all down and waited: for my stomach to settle, my third eye to sprout, and my treatment against cancer to go as smoothly as possible.