Navigating the Breast Cancer Journey

By Debbie Jeans

“I have learned that if you love life, Life will love you back.” – A quote is seen on the wall in the Milpark Hospital Café 

On the Saturday morning of October 26th, 2013, my husband Austin and I walked into the surgeon’s office. I was told I had stage 2 breast cancer. At that moment, time stopped for me as the two doctors in the room reached out to each other, attending to the facts at hand.  We walked out of the office on automatic pilot; bodies working but heads spinning, uncertain of what to feel, where to go, what to do, what to think, who to see; the future beckoning us onto a path at complete right-angles to that on which we had envisioned our lives, only a few minutes earlier.

The irony was not lost on me that it was breast cancer awareness month, and this Saturday had been planned to set up for the annual Pink Triathlon at Mount Pleasant Pool for the following day. Deeply, desperately, grateful to have something to do, we went about it without a word to anyone, buying time to absorb the impact of our situation, attempting to gather thoughts and emotions enough for the next step; whatever that was supposed to be. We had no idea.

Later that day, a close friend visited us at home in her capacity as a patient advocate. We will be ever indebted to her professional care and concern whilst sensitively taking the lead to explore options whilst methodically meeting our overwhelming questions and grateful need for direction.

Both my grandmothers, my mum, and my aunt have had breast cancer, so I had “the seed” or gene but what was in the “soil” that I provided for that seed to germinate, to grow, to become a tumour? As a three-time African judo champ, a two-time Olympian, gym owner, and instructor for 25 years, I was stunned to find myself sitting in the waiting room of a breast cancer clinic for my first appointment with the specialist surgeon! Prof. Carol Benn took the time to answer my many, many questions. Looking back now, I may have looked fit but for decades I was metabolically very sick, spending my days on blood sugar, insulin, and energy roller-coaster fuelled by sugar, refined carbohydrate, and processed food and drink with a big dose of stress to get through my every day, with work and training.

For four weeks, The Milpark Breast Care Centre of Excellence under Prof. Carol Benn and her team in Johannesburg was our “home”. After having a double mastectomy and reconstruction, I was delighted to be back home in Zim in time for Christmas, thankful for life, for friends, for the angels in white coats, and all around us in our time of need.

Six weeks post-op, I took my first yoga class with the “new girls”, and marvelled at the capacity of the body, mind, and spirit for healing. Austin and I had just started following the low carb, healthy fat nutrition research and now, with renewed motivation, leaned hard into it together also using what we knew about exercise for my rehabilitation.  So began our dedicated quest to study and apply what we were learning to stay alive and even dare to thrive through our cancer experience.

Viktor Frankl said, “When we cannot change our circumstances, we are forced to change ourselves.” The herculean task in any life-threatening situation is to find the courage to discover what remains when all else falls away. All that defines us becomes a faded background to the all-consuming, all-important vulnerable “space” within which we search for meaning and to somehow make sense of it all. If we are lucky through the Grace of God, we come to realize that we have a choice. It can either define or destroy us. 

Judo teaches; “meet resistance with non-resistance” and “fall down five times, get up six times.” That which we fight finds us angry, resentful, toxic to ourselves and others. Judo is translated as “the gentle way”; to go with what is, to understand the enemy (aka breast cancer), and to know ourselves is to have the freedom to choose our way or how we fight. 

The Pink Project

We founded The Pink Project eight years ago to identify and develop projects which support the breast cancer continuum in Zimbabwe and to share the latest developments in functional medicine (a holistic fusion of conventional and supportive therapies i.e., exercise, nutrition, and stress management techniques) and promising implications for being well through cancer. 

“Navigating the Breast Cancer Journey: A Personalised Wellness Program” 

This is the latest pink project, a culmination of what Austin and I have learned in our roles as the patient, physician, exercise physiologist, and life partner. There exists an important critical gap in the space immediately after a diagnosis; we hope to help close the gap, to shine a light so that others may see the way forward after a diagnosis and take ownership over living fearlessly, mindfully, and qualitatively in the “new normal” of living with cancer by using the tools we have developed specifically for this. Grounded in evidence-based, current research, lifestyle medicine practice, and personal experience, the program is presented as a live or online workshop and is to be launched this October.  

Education, examination, eating real food, exercise, emotion, and environment comprise the 6 “E”s of Empowerment over Breast Cancer; a simple daily formula to guide the decision-making process at any stage on the cancer journey and to provide an extensive list of resources available locally and virtually i.e. organic food suppliers,  cancer exercise specialists, all-natural skincare products, “Keto Kitchen” practical workshops, a breast cancer directory of services, a Cancer Wellness Companion journal, vetted, evidence-based, recommended reading, with YouTube and podcast links, all to help patients take back control and partner with their medical team on the way forward. 

 “Health is wealth” has never been so true; Covid has revealed another global pandemic; that of metabolic disease. The healthier we are, the less risk for illness. The sicker we are, the weaker our immune system. Chronic disease from how we live is not a lifestyle, it is a deathstyle. 

Breast cancer risk increases alongside diseases of lifestyle; type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, PCOS, hypertension, depression, an autoimmune disease. The answer lies in real food/nutraceuticals (not pharmaceuticals), exercise, resting the mind-body-spirit connection, not smoking, and limiting exposure to toxins (including people and information sources!). Neuroscientists can now watch our thoughts cross our cell membranes as molecules of emotions; imagine the power of this knowledge in the choices we can make for our health.

Integrative oncologists are prescribing exercise, meditation, acupuncture, massage to name a few with cancer treatment. Research using the ketogenic diet and fasting has shown conventional treatments to be more effective with smaller dosages needed and increasingly more successful outcomes in terms of quality and extension of life.

Everyone has cancer cells; whether our immune systems can fight and kill them depends on how we move, what we eat, drink, think, and to what we expose ourselves physically and mentally. The time to start is now. Think pink – it could be you next. Take massive action today. Thanks for reading and look out for our workshop launches. 

Your breast friend 😊 

Debi’s contact details: thepinkprojectzim@gmail.com or Cell: 0772 351 455

Images by Debbie Jeans

Originally published in the 119th Ndeipi Magazine

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