Louise Sharp’s story
Breast Cancer. Those words first hit my consciousness in 1986. While driving in New Mexico where seat belts were required by law, I found the seat belt created some discomfort in my right breast. After returning to Maine, I made an appointment for my first mammogram at age 46. A non-malignant tumor showed in the X-ray and was surgically excised, and annual mammograms followed. In fall 1990, a group of coalescing white flecks showed in that year's mammogram.
On New Year's Eve of that same year, my right breast was biopsied and a golf ball-size amount of tissue was removed. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The medical recommendations were more surgery for additional lumpectomy tissue removal and underarm lymph node sampling, with possible chemotherapy and radiation later on. My response was to tell the surgeon and oncologist I wanted to explore an option of macrobiotics as a healing method.
Without the full support of most providers, family and friends, but with the support of Women-to-Women in Yarmouth, Maine, and Muriel, their only liver cancer patient. Muriel had been developing her own healing diet from macrobiotic books. From her I learned of a Kushi Institute counselor, Marc Van Cawenburger, who was seeing people in Belfast, Maine. Muriel and I scheduled sessions with Marc, then began practicing what we learned. After work I would come home and begin two hours of cooking macrobiotic foods. Within 15 minutes of food preparation, I noticed I would begin to feel more calm and centered. For about a month, I cooked macrobiotically as best I could, without yet knowing cooking styles and without any known local macrobiotics support. Unsure of myself, I opted for allopathic treatment. I also made the decision at that time to work towards becoming a vegetarian.
The second surgery removed more tissue and underarm lymph nodes. One lymph node indicated chemotherapy with radiation therapy as a follow-up treatment. After the surgery I received wonderful and much-needed support from my family. My oldest son, an EMT in New Jersey, came to help me during those initial days home from surgery. In addition to helping me change my dressings, he also made the most elegant miso soup and was very supportive in dietary adjustments (though he is still an “omnivore”). My younger son was also extremely supportive and sent me a copy of Annemarie Colbin’s Food & Healing. Then more help came my way. In the local paper just days before the scheduled second surgery was an advertisement: “Just-out-of-college vegetarian available for home cooking.” Two days a week, vegetarian meals were prepared for me (as it turned out, the cook had been in high school with my older son).
The food support greatly eased my anxieties. A few weeks after surgery I returned to work in a bit of shock, and felt the sudden need to protect not only my right arm but my whole body from the machine and office environment. It was, however, good to be back in a familiar routine with supportive staff members. Chemotherapy challenges were met, as a wonderful woman from Portland and her two children volunteered driving services. Using advance vacation time, I took Fridays off from work, took supplements prescribed by my internist and presented myself at the chemotherapy center for several months. At the Center, my request for some privacy was met by placing a three-panel screen around me. On the screen I taped magazine pictures of women I admired engaged in outdoor activities I had enjoyed, and most often listened on headphones to soft, soothing music or encouraging tapes by Dr. Bernie Seigel. During the sessions I would either have my eyes open looking at the pictures or closed listening to the tapes. I also practiced some visualization.
After most sessions I would sleep from 12 to 20 hours, wake up for a couple of hours, then return to bed for a Saturday night sleep. Sunday would be a slow day spent regrouping and cooking lightly (maybe one meal). Monday I would return to work. A couple of the chemotherapy sessions were more of a recovery challenge, and during that time I also attended some physical therapy sessions. Life went on.
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 1990, I had been chemically injured by a toxic gas that previous spring. Before that injury, I found great pleasure in the activities I enjoyed most: work, sailing, hiking, organic gardening, restaurant dinner dates, and clothes shopping. However, as a result of the chemical injury, I began to experience problems with fibromyalgia, carpel tunnel, blurred vision, random dyslexia, brain fog, fragmented sleep, passing out from severe pains located within my rib cage, difficulty eating several foods, and bad reactions to everyday levels of gasoline fumes, perfumes or copier machines. These various new health issues would incapacitate me for anywhere from a number of hours to several weeks at a time.
Saturdays, once a month, Meg Wolff of Cape Elizabeth was teaching macrobiotic cooking at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland. (Cancer support systems have come a long way in 10 years!) I am a regular attendee, vegetable chopper and dishwasher. Four times a year, Warren Kramer, on visits to Portland, teaches and counsels at the Five Seasons Cooking School. The cooking school continues to offer many lessons throughout the year.
I am continually nudging along toward a healing balance in mind and
body with the direction of such wonderful teachers and the supportive
New England macrobiotic community. Significant recovery events continue
to happen. I am in deep gratitude to Michio Kushi and Aveline Kushi (who
died in 2002), the Kushi Institute and Warren Kramer. When I first contacted
the Kushi Institute in 1990, Aveline had answered the phone. Her helpful
talk and advice will forever be with me: for breast cancer, dairy is
fire; sugars (even fruit) is fuel.
Peace to you.
Louise Sharp lives in Bath, Maine, and has assisted Meg Wolff in teaching macrobiotic cooking classes at The Cancer Community Center, in South Portland, Maine.