April is National Stress Awareness Month. It also happens to be the month I was officially diagnosed with lymphoma. It’s the month I found out I had cancer. Months of stress culminated in a cancer crisis in what apparently is a month dedicated to awareness of how stress impacts our wellbeing. No coincidence there in my opinion.
April 1st was my two year #cancerversary of the day the docs confirmed that the grapefruit sized growth in my chest was cancer. This was not a job for the surgeon. His best guess was lymphoma. His best guess was I would need chemo. It was a pre-diagnosis, but the significant activity that came up in the PET scan indicated that I would need chemo, not surgery. In hindsight it’s probably better than they didn’t actually have to cut my chest open to cut out a growth the size of a grapefruit, but at the time, all I wanted was for them to Get. That. Thing. Out. NOW.
We sat there quietly, stunned by the news. Reality began to sink in.
Chemo terrified me almost more than the cancer itself. Things did not pan out well for the seven members of my family who went through it (all for completely different non-hereditary forms of cancer…). Not to mention the hair. When the surgeon said well look at the bright side, it might grow back curly, then I started crying. But I don’t want curly hair! #priorities
My mom turned to the doctor and asked how this happened – I was the healthiest person in the family. He shrugged apologetically and said, we have no idea. Well, I didn’t take that one lying down. While it’s impossible to know precisely why I got cancer with any absolute uncertainty, I certainly have my own hunches. Because I know myself and my personal history.
And I’ve learned a lot about how cancer develops and grows. The body is not really the giant mystery we make it out to be. Nor is the manifestation of disease. It’s certainly complex, and there are certainly MANY things we sill don’t know, but science has come a long way and today we actually do understand a great deal.
Biology was my favorite subject in high school (legit bionerd right here… I was literally in the science version of Mathletes three years in a row lol!) and I turned to the basics of how the body works to figure out what I needed to do to actually heal. Chemo kills the cancer, but it doesn’t heal the body. Environment and lifestyle matter. Oh, and then there’s that little thing called ‘stress.’
I was a stressed out mess pre-diagnosis. Insomnia, anxiety, and brain fog ruled my life. Not good. Stress impedes the body’s natural healing capacity; my body couldn’t fight the cancer that was growing inside it. Did stress alone ‘cause’ the cancer? No. But it certainly created the perfect environment for it to grow.
And grow it did – to the size of a freaking grapefruit. In the one week between the CT and PET scans, it grew another centimeter in one direction alone. That’s insane. My aggressive form of lymphoma meant it was a fast-growing one; meaning it likely grew to the size it did in less than a year. When (and why) was that first seed planted – those are definitely questions I will never have an absolute answer to. Though looking back, there are pieces of the puzzle that start to fit. The jigsaw is still far from complete, but two years of research and soul searching later, the picture is getting clearer.
Today, April 5, 2018, is the two year anniversary of my biopsy. Technically it was a minor procedure, but the grapefruit in my chest was compressing my left lung and my heart. Before I went under, the doctors had to come over to inform me that given the location of the growth, there was a risk the needle could puncture my lung or my heart. Did I understand? I nodded. Ok. Well please do you job well then. Just please do your job well.
But we already knew it was likely lymphoma, and there was a lot of it hiding in there. A grapefruit sized amount of probable lymphoma to be precise. The biopsy would simply determine exactly what type of lymphoma it was. To this day, the replay of the doctor’s shrug, apologetic shake of his head, and admission that technically ‘we have no idea’ why people get cancer haunts me.
To be fair, no one knows with concrete scientific certainty why one person develops cancer and the next doesn’t. Doctors can’t say the know, because technically they don’t why a specific individual got cancer. There is no irrefutable scientific proof to back up such claims and each cancer diagnosis is incredibly individual, so even if they are highly knowledgeable about specific factors and triggers, they can’t say they really know.
Since then I have done a tremendous amount of research into the links between stress, disease, and healing. Here are facts that we do know: individual unhealthy ‘cancer’ cells exist in everyone. Mutations happen. It’s the immune system’s job is to eliminate these rogue cells. The body’s systems work to regulate checkpoints and turn off the signals that cause mutation and unrestricted cell growth. Some people have genes themselves that – current evidence suggests – predispose them to certain types of cancer.
But we also know that having a gene does not mean cancer is a forgone destiny. We also know that there are many environmental factors that impair immune functioning and contribute to the development of disease.
Stress has been directly linked to inflammation in the body. It alters the immune response, suppresses proper immune functioning, and prevents the body from tapping in to its natural healing capacity. I examine the biology of stress and research more in this post on my wellness coaching blog.
I have since come up with a few of my own possible factors that contributed to my diagnosis: stress, insomnia, and polluted air. The fact is stress – and its cousin insomnia – played a major role in my life in the months leading up to my diagnosis. The other fact is stress plays a major role in the development and spread of disease. And breathing in air polluted with grit and toxins certainly does the body zero favors. It places an extra burden on the body’s natural detoxification processes, and an overburdened body becomes a stressed body.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system itself. To me the link is abundantly clear. As I mentioned before, stressed ruled my life in the months leading up to my diagnosis. I also took a step back and examined my own personal history, including past traumatic events, as there are links between stress, trauma, and illness. I have incidents of trauma in my past, including a car accident where the car flipped over. I walked away from the scene, but suffered from PTSD for months after.
Stress and trauma can get ‘stuck’ in the body, and add chronic stress to the mix and you’ve got a potent cocktail for a health crisis.
There is certainly a great deal to be said on this topic, and there are absolutely many other factors beyond stress that contribute to cancer development and spread. I see cancer as a perfect storm. A perfectly ugly one.
The body has many checks and balances built in. Any one factor alone will not cause disease as it’s literally the body’s job to keep itself running. But if the body’s ability to do its job is impaired by any number of factors, those rogue cells will take advantage of weakness at first opportunity.
While I can’t know every little thing going on inside my body, I am now far more conscious of how I treat it. I listen to the signals my body sends me, and prioritize self-care when it says I need to slow down and relax. I pay attention to how my environment and the food I eat make me feel.
There is certainly a great deal of uncertainty, but I am taking my health back into my own control with every choice I make.