A few weeks ago, I had posted a link of my entire two year collection of plant-based vegan interviews onto the Facebook page that I manage, “Cancer Project Nutrition and Cooking Class”, and soon after I got a very nice surprise from a woman named Jan telling me that she’d like to share her cancer survivor story. Well, I was thrilled, especially since she told me that she’d gone plant-based right after her diagnosis! Enough said, here’s Jan’s amazing story:
My Life Before, During and After Cancer
Almost three years ago, in mid-2011, my life changed for my family and me. The doctor at the OB-GNY clinic told me I had vulvar cancer. What is that, you say? The vulva is the external genitalia on a woman. I didn’t even know you could get cancer “down there”. You hear of ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancers, but there is also vulvar and vaginal cancer. I only knew of one woman who had vaginal cancer. There are just over 4,000 new cases of vulvar cancer a year, one of the rarer gynecological cancers. This doctor’s diagnosis was confirmed by doing a biopsy in her office. The next step was to send me to a gynecological oncologist, who specializes in female cancers.
Shortly after my examination with the oncologist/surgeon, I had my first surgery to remove the tumor. Because I had a trip across country planned months before all of this happened, my surgeon said it was O.K. to take the trip, just 10 days after the surgery. My next exam with my surgeon revealed at least one “lump” in my groin. Normal lymph nodes are microscopic, unable to be seen by the naked eye. My largest one was over one-inch in diameter. An ultrasound and biopsy revealed that I had positive lymph nodes, so the second surgery was scheduled. I was advised that there was a good chance that I could develop lymphedema in my legs, which I did develop and now I have to wear compression stockings every day. Swelling varies from person to person…some have very slight edema, other people’s legs swell quite a bit.
Because I had positive lymph nodes, my surgeon wanted me to start chemo and radiation, so an appointment was made to see a radiological oncologist. Lymph nodes are a highway system throughout our bodies. We have about 1,000 of them. I was concerned that the cancer could affect more lymph nodes.
Years before I was diagnosed with cancer, I ate a rather unhealthy diet. As many Americans do, I ate foods full of fats, sugars and salts. On days that we were in a hurry, I’d quickly fix foods like hot dogs and mac ‘n cheese, just foods that didn’t take long to cook. Unfortunately, eating this way was a fast way to damage my immune system. These kinds of foods are nutritionally poor. A few years before my diagnosis, my weight had gotten to 209.5 pounds. I was about 5’4″. The month before being diagnosed, I started on a popular weight-loss program and lost 19.5 pounds. My sister, who had been a vegetarian before changing over to a plant-based diet, kept pushing me to change my way of eating, too. So, less than two months after being diagnosed, I changed over to a plant-based diet within two days of my decision. It wasn’t really hard for me. I knew I wanted to survive and that I would do anything to achieve that end. You see, I learned that animal proteins encourage cancer cell growth, and I did not want to feed my cancer! My sister told me to read the book, “The China Study”, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell, II, M.D. Now, I do not eat ANY meats, no fish, no dairy, no cheese, and no eggs. And, I feel GREAT!
In the year after changing to a plant-based diet, I lost 72 pounds. I wanted to lose a lot of weight, but an added benefit that I noticed within three days or so after changing to a plant-based diet, I had so much energy! I’ve heard this from many other people who also eat this way. I got down to 137.5 pounds, and I hadn’t seen that weight in many, many years. I felt great, people told me how nice I looked, and it was just a nice feeling to not carry that weight around with me.
I believe I had the same types of thoughts going through my mind throughout my whole cancer ordeal that other cancer patients do. At first, it was a feeling of, “Why me?”, but then thinking about it, “Why NOT me?” I’ve read about so many other cancer patients who go through the whole range of emotions, which I probably did, too. But, from the beginning, my ONLY concern was that I WOULD survive. There wasn’t a question about this. You see, I am a fighter, and if someone tells me that I can’t do something, I probably will do whatever it takes to DO it, anyway, if I feel that strongly about it. I never even asked either of my oncologists, “How much time do I have left?” NOPE, never wanted to know, because I WAS going to beat this. It is very important for cancer patients to have a POSITIVE ATTITUDE. There will be bad days, for sure, but if you have something to keep working towards, whether it would be to be there in the future for your kids or grandkids, or you have an activity that you love to do, or something else that is SO important to you, then that is what you should focus on. It is also important to rid negativity around you from other people. If someone started telling me about negative things, I would tell them that I was only focusing on positive ideas right now.
In February of 2012, plans were made for me to start chemo and radiation. I was totally against doing BOTH of them, because chemo is toxic to your body and radiation burns skin tissue and can damage organs. I had done some reading, watched videos and heard testimonials about people who beat Stage 4 cancers by eating a plant-based diet. This is the way I was hoping to go, too, without these damaging treatments, but since my cancer had already gotten into my lymph nodes, I felt it was important for me to proceed with chemo and radiation. I was told that if I did BOTH, together, that the chemo would enhance my radiation treatments. I had six weeks of radiation and chemo and was not nice to endure. By the fourth week of radiation, I had become VERY sore. And, having the treatments down in “that area”, I was sitting on my pain. Each daily treatment didn’t produce pain, but it was pain that built up over time that burned the tissue, therefore causing a lot of pain.
The chemo drug that I was given didn’t make me lose my hair, but it does cause nausea. I was lucky to have good insurance coverage to be able to take a drug that kept me from developing nausea. But, about in the fourth week, I noticed that I wasn’t eating enough protein in my diet. The plant-based foods that I normally enjoyed, like rice and beans just didn’t appeal to me. I finally was able to eat a little peanut butter, but this chemo DID make me basically lose my taste buds temporarily. Not much appealed to me. I was in contact with a plant-based registered dietician who had worked on an oncology ward who suggested drinking smoothies with pea protein powder or brown rice powder, so I started with the brown rice powder. In just a short time, I was feeling much better and had more energy. It took several weeks before my taste buds seemed to return to normal and for me to want rice and beans and other proteins, again.
After having radiation, your body just doesn’t stop “burning”. It will have after-effects for months later, up to 1 1/2 – 2 years later. In the middle of the surgeries, chemo and radiation, I had to temporarily give up the one sport I just loved to do and lived for…bowling! It’s what really kept me going. I don’t work outside of the home, my husband is retired, and we belong to two bowling leagues and I look forward to bowling and seeing our seniors every week. But exactly six weeks after ending chemo/radiation, I bowled in the Women’s National Bowling Championship Tournament in Reno, Nevada, with my team. And, I had two games that were over 200 pins!
In the accompanying photos, in my “heavy” picture, I had blond highlights, and after I finished treatments, one day while at my hairdresser’s, I asked her if she could dye my hair another color. Her face lit up like a light bulb and had a smile on her face and told me, “I know EXACTLY the color to use.” So, I went to a reddish brown and I immediately loved the change and everyone else around me seemed to love it, too, except my husband! I told people that that blond woman died with the cancer and this was the “new me”.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: I firmly believe (and both of my oncologists do, too) that by changing over to a plant-based, whole-food diet, my body developed a strong immune system that could fight off new cancer cell growth and also helped me deal with the nasty side effects of chemo and radiation treatments. I had a couple of medical issues develop following the lymph node surgery, but came through those very well. I did gain a bit of the weight back, after eating normal, plant-based foods, but I still feel really great, still bowl, I play golf as often as we have time to get out, and all of my CT scans (four of them since ending treatment) have been clear. To celebrate life after cancer, I told my husband I wanted to get a trike (3-wheeled motorcycle). He had spoken of wanting to ride again at some point, so I decided this was the time, so he also bought one. I talk to many men and women about this type of cancer and that I’m not going to stop living, wondering IF or WHEN a cancer can come back. People have told me that I am an inspiration to them. I am on a mission now to educate people, especially about vulvar cancer. There are one or two vaccines that are being used now to vaccinate boys and girls against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). I would do a lot of researching about these vaccines, pros and cons of getting vaccinated. The big thing is for women to keep getting pelvic exams. This can help detect gynecological cancers, especially the vaginal and vulvar cancers, early. Having a support group around you is also very helpful. Family and friends often don’t know what to say to a person who has vulvar cancer. After all, it is in a private area of a woman’s body. But, knowing that your friends and family are in your corner no matter what you decide to do, is very comforting. My husband left ALL treatments up to me. That does free the family member from some guilt, because if I didn’t survive, for example, and he PUSHED me to do one or more treatments, it could leave him with a lot of guilt afterwards.