The Kingdom of the Sick

Chemo Secrets From a Breast Cancer Survivor

Breast Cancer Survivors

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When I was 38 years old, I entered what breast cancer survivor and novelist Susan Sontag labeled "the kingdom of the sick." I was diagnosed with cancer. Like many of the people who will read this book, I became very ill from the life-saving medical treatments I received. At times about the only thing I could do was lie in bed and read. So I read a lot and plotted my recovery. Of course, being a physiatrist—a doctor trained in rehabilitation medicine—I had spent thousands of hours helping others recover from terrible injuries and illnesses, including cancer, but this was different. No longer was I comfortably sitting next to one of my patients and offering medical advice. I had switched roles: now I was the patient.

As a patient, my life changed dramatically. Before, I had been the busy doctor struggling to balance work and family. Now I was too sick to work, and often too sick to do much for my children and husband.

Being catapulted into a completely different role with no time to prepare was, to say the least, difficult.

Sometimes I didn't even realize how sick I was. For example, I had chemotherapy every other week in a "dose-dense" regimen. One of my close friends told me that eight days after my chemotherapy, essentially every other Tuesday, I would call or e-mail her and "re-enter the world" for a few days. I didn't even know that I wasn't participating in relationships until she pointed it out. I was just too sick to give it much thought.

Apparently I did a lot of just sitting around, though I thought at the time I was functioning better than I was—as I learned, the hard way, a year or so later. My husband, who stays at home full-time with our children, told my then 4-year-old daughter that he was going on a school field trip with our middle child. I would be home for the day caring for my daughter. The usual response to this kind of news was "Great! I get to play with Mommy!" To my complete surprise, however, she became distraught and said, "Daddy, when you go on field trips, Mommy just sits around." I don't have a clear recollection of the year before, but there was a field trip then that my husband went on, and I must have been too sick to play with my daughter. In her mind, the field trip was the problem. She didn't realize that I was stronger a year later and therefore better able to interact with her.

It is not easy for me to reveal such a thing, because I take great pride in caring for my children. That I had difficulty doing so for a period of time causes me enormous distress, even today. Though I know that my children were always safe with me, and though we have a large extended family who helped meet their emotional needs, still I wasn't able to be the mom that I was before my cancer treatment.

Ironically, it was during this period of treatment that I was playing on the computer and decided to Google my name. (I am a bit chagrined to admit doing this as well.) I was surprised to find that there are at least three Julie Silvers and that we have markedly different professions. One of the other two women is a professional singer, the other an adult film actress. I decided to check out the singer and ordered a CD by her. One of Julie Silver's songs, titled "This Train," reminded me of the literal trip through cancer:

I hear the whistle and the bell Conductor pull that worn down chord Forgot my bags, it's just as well I think it's time to climb on board

Moving through the country, town to town The people wave from open doors We steam on through or we slow down Just long enough to gather a few more

As diseases go, there is no doubt that cancer is a tough one to have. Because cancer is such a destructive illness, it warrants using treatments that are incredibly toxic to the human body. Someday the treatments we use now will be outdated. Surgeries to remove tumors will probably not be necessary. New medications able to target diseased cells will replace chemotherapy, which was first conceived of during the World War II era, when pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman studied substances closely related to mustard gas, which kills both healthy cells and cancer cells. Gentler and more effective treatments will make radiation obsolete as a treatment. Screening tests will become much more sophisticated so that instead of trying to catch cancer in its earliest stages, we will be able to predict who is going to get cancer before it even begins. Almost certainly there will be vaccines to prevent certain types of cancer.

But we are not living in the future; we are living now. If you are reading this book, chances are you are interested in restoring your physical health. Regardless of what kind of cancer has been diagnosed and what treatments you have undergone, the information put forth here will likely help you. Much of its content is about how our bodies heal, whatever the injury or insult. Woven in with these important restorative principles is information specifically about cancer and how one can heal after undergoing cancer treatment. You may be in the middle of your treatment, or you may be just finishing up, or perhaps it was completed months or even years ago. Your cancer may be cured or in remission, or you may be living with your illness as a chronic disease. Perhaps you will continue with some cancer-related treatments for the next few months or years. Deepak Chopra, Ayurvedic and alternative medicine guru, once wrote, "The reason why not everyone manages to take the healing process as far as it can go is that we differ drastically in our ability to mobilize it." I want to help you to take your healing process as far as it can go. Wherever you are in the cycle, you can work toward physical recovery.

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