A Recovering Chemist Learns to Empathize with Chemotherapy…for Now
by Jackie Acho, Ph.D. | May 14, 2020 | #CurrencyOfEmpathy, Cancer, Empathy, Empathy as Healing Medicine, Healing, Science | 6 comments
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo
As platinum drugs drip into my veins, one thing goes through my mind: It shouldn’t be this way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to have this option since I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer less than 3 months ago. Still, it shouldn’t be this way. Why do I think that?
For starters, human bodies are not deficient in platinum. Platinum is a noble metal, but there is nothing about our divine design that requires platinum to live, heal, and thrive. So, I know an infusion of platinum into my body does not solve a natural nutritional deficiency. It’s an unnatural thing to do.
Then, I think back to my time as a graduate student, earning a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at MIT. My advisor made groundbreaking contributions to understanding the mechanism of cisplatin as an anti-cancer drug. The upside is that I remember the kind and smart people working in our lab who were good company for those 4 years. The downside is that I’ve been a “recovering chemist” ever since, and it’s been hard work.
I wasn’t one of the cavalier chemists who mixed things with ungloved hands while eating a muffin and teaching a class (that guy lived until age 79!). Most of us were careful. We worked under hoods, in laboratory glove boxes, and with protective gear. We knew we were dealing with toxic heavy metals, dangerous acids, and solvents that you really shouldn’t sniff. In 1997, a former student of my advisor – a Dartmouth College professor and mom – died of mercury poisoning. It was incredibly tragic and inspired new safety procedures around working with mercury in labs.
Meanwhile, mercury-based Thimerosal continued to be used as a preservative in childhood vaccines until 2001. Monsanto’s Roundup/glyphosate was ubiquitous in the produce of my childhood, altering our microbiomes like the potent killer it was designed to be. Convenient plastic was all the rage, imparting endocrine-disrupting chemicals into our food, water, the environment, and our bodies. The assault on our endocrine systems came from every angle, really – sunscreens, makeup, DDT, PCB. I could go on. Actually, I have before, many times. I woke up from the myth of “Better Living Through Chemistry” – which I swallowed, hook, line, and sinker as a young professional – with some buyer’s remorse and a passion for change. Why?
I left chemistry for the business world in 1994, in awe of the natural design, and grateful for how science helps us think. Still, I was happy to leave the lab bench behind for less lonely and more broadly-focused work. When I got pregnant and had kids, I started paying closer attention to the foods we consumed. Whole Foods moved in and upped the quality of organic produce widely available. The internet exploded with information about health, some of which was bogus and a lot that made sense…in a revelatory way. I appreciate having science as a background to absorb it all in with discernment. I came to see all the ways we’ve lived, especially in the United States in my lifetime, out of sync with how our bodies are meant to function and feel well. I made every adjustment I could, in real-time, as the information was available.
Our family struggled with some health issues along the way, but they were manageable and only served to enlighten us about how to live in harmony with the amazing design of our bodies and the natural world. We were doing a lot of the right work. It felt good. We felt better – together.
So, I always thought I would be one of those people who could avoid cancer or beat it holistically, even as I accompanied too many fit and fabulous family members and friends on this journey. Like many of them, I do not have the usual cancer-related genetic mutations. What I do have is a sensitive body that has to work hard to clear toxins. So, the idea of using chemical poison as a therapy to treat the results of our being poisoned sounded crazy. It still does! But believing I could avoid chemo was a luxurious dream in the absence of a serious cancer diagnosis in these modern times. It only took a few weeks, direct conversations with experts around the country, and a handful of pointed questions to my oncologist to understand that now, it’s my turn. I’m sorting out that reality more and more each day. Meanwhile…
Making peace with chemotherapy has been hard work, and it’s ongoing. Here’s what I have come to understand:
- In some cases, a body tips over an edge, and we can only regain safe ground with the most powerful ammunition available in the toolbox today. Cancer can be like that. I guess that’s why people use language like “war” and “fight” and “army.” As one of our dearest physician friends says, there’s a time for blending holistic and western medicine. For me, this is one of those times. I hope that time never comes for you and respect whatever choice you would make. Here is what I know for sure: every diagnosis is different so generalizing isn’t helpful, and empathic doctors are pure gold.
- Our bodies are heroic, especially in the midst of an assault! We are designed to heal, and heal we do in ways deeper than I imagined. Our wholeness is not always dependent on our physical wellbeing. That’s liberating.
- Holistic care does not need to stop during the onslaught of necessary, but brutal, western medical interventions like surgery and chemotherapy. That’s such good news for so many reasons, not in the least because it gives us agency. We are still here and able to fight, in the ways we were designed to do. I’m even more adamant and working as hard as ever, to support the natural healing pathways of my body. So far, so good. The cancer markers are dramatically improving, yet I’m feeling surprisingly well after 2 (out of 6) rounds of chemo. I’m learning how to ride the cycle of assault/manage/recover without many of the worst side effects so far. I’m fortunate. In many ways, I actually feel better than I did BC (before cancer). The second round of chemo has been easier than the first. We have more figured out. None of this is linear or easy, and new hurdles can pop up. Dealing with chemotherapy is a lot of work for my 105-pound body. There have been hard moments, and being bald still feels crummy (and cold). But if there were ever a time for a low-maintenance head, this is it!
So, riding the chemo cycle is what I’ll do. I have come to see these cycles s as a chance to practice surveying the damage and recovering when the treatments are all done. Learning to recover from trauma can be transformative, especially when we are not alone. I am profoundly grateful to be able to drink in the boundless love and many gifts of this journey with a relatively clear head and open heart, as well as less pain and fear than I expected. Less fear means more empathy…even with chemo.
Artist friends have told me they “empathize” with their materials. It sounded strange at first, but they explained that the material is an active partner in their co-creative, artistic expression. Michelangelo put it in plain words when he said he carved away all the parts of the marble that were not his statue of David (pictured above, with Sophie and Grant LeMay). David was always in there.
So, rather than curse the platinum as it drip, drip, drips, I’ve made peace with accepting its help…for now. I can empathize with chemotherapy and its western partners (e.g., IV antihistamines, growth factors, anti-nausea pills) and co-create my health and future. It’s been a big leap for a woman who hasn’t touched so much as Tylenol for a very long time! Still, I hope and pray that in 10-20 years no one has to go through any of this experience. I dream that we learn, FAST, how to clean up our act inside and out so everywhere is a Blue Zone of optimal health and wellbeing. The long hike from the top of the scientific mountain has taught me that ultimately, the answers to our health look and feel a lot more like swimming in a hot mineral spring, eating fresh whole food, and breathing uncontaminated air than anything cooking on my lab bench years ago. It’s a lot easier to empathize with Pura Vida. Our bodies are designed for it!
We are grateful for the excellent care and uncommonly empathic advice from Dr. Steven Waggoner M.D., of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center/Seidman Cancer Center, and Dr. Mark Dabagia, M.D., of Northeast Indiana Urology. We are also profoundly thankful for the healing support of Michelle Gerencser, MS, and Nutritional Solutions, as well as Keith Block, MD, Penny Block, PhD, and Danielle Gengo, RD, LDN, of The Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment for exceptional virtual support, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
Thanks to Andrea C. Turner of Act One Communications for edits to this post.
Photo credit: Michelangelo’s David with Sophie and Grant LeMay, taken by John LeMay
For more on how empathy can help us build a better, safer, and less toxic world, check out Jackie’s book: Currency of Empathy – The Secret to Thriving in Business and Life