By Tolson O'Toole
Some might call what follows an autopathography.
I’m not a doctor, and this is not medical advice. But it is the story of how I, a healthy, yoga-addicted vegetarian, who’d exercised every day of my life, was suddenly diagnosed with an incurable metastatic late-stage cancer*.
I was a never-smoker, never-drinker from a long line of incredibly healthy people. I walked to work. I had good posture. And suddenly I had the karma of a flea.
It’s as though someone had broken into my home and flipped a plot switch - and I suddenly found a bunny boiling on my stove.
It was not a dark and stormy night. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I went for my annual check-up. My doctor weighed me (fine); took my blood pressure (fine); asked if I had any questions.
I lifted my arm and showed her my boing.
To which she said: hahahaho.
So it won’t kill me? I said.
It’s called a tendon, she said. Hahaho.
Without it, your arm would fall off.
But… should I be able to see it? I said.
The only reason you can see it is
because you don’t have fleshy armpits.
Well, there’s a phrase, I thought.
But, I persisted, shouldn’t I have one on the other side? (I know I didn’t carry my left arm over here in a case.)
All bodies are asymmetrical, she said.
So I paid my bill, and home I went. Asymmetrically.
And this is how my story began.
But the boing continued to grow. Must be all those handstands I'm doing in yoga, I reasoned. But: if it gets any bigger, it’ll need its own yoga mat.
So back I went.
The doctor looked up from her clipboard. What brings you in today?
I pointed at the boing.
OMG! She shrieked. That’s C_____ ! Why didn’t you come in sooner?!
Hahaho, I said.
Q. Describe your health.
A. Good - except for boing.
What followed was a battery of tests and other humilities. Most of which required me to constantly remove my clothing. At this rate, I thought, if I just grab a guitar and head to Times Square, I could give the Naked Cowboy a run for his money.
First up was an ultrasound.
Can't we go straight to a biopsy (to see if it’s malignant)? I asked.
No, the doctor said, first we have to do an ultrasound to “mark” where it is.
But you and I can both see it, I said, pointing at a bump which was beginning to look like a golf ball.
First things first, he said.
After the ultrasound came the biopsy. Which entailed shooting my boing with something that sounded a lot like a staple gun - loaded with what they called my “jewelry”: metallic biopsy clips (to mark the lesions internally). The first was in the shape of the breast cancer ribbon. Only once it was firmly lodged in my armpit, did I wonder: why is it shaped like barbed wire? Now is the time for comfort, people, not branding!
I heard the staple gun go off a third time, and looked at the doctor.
We’re testing several lymph nodes, he said. Looks like it's spread.
Are you saying - I might have lymphoma?
Let’s not jump to any conclusions, he said. We’ll send your results to your primary doctor.
So back I went to hahaho.
In she walked. Without taking her eyes from her clipboard, she summarily asked, How are you?
You tell me, I said.
She read me the results.
And just like that, for the first time in my life, I failed a test.
Try to avoid riding the scan-mobile.
Do you have any friends? My doctor asked.
What a bizarre question, I thought. Yes, I said, I’m about to go visit some in Switzerland.
I wouldn’t go, she said.
Why not? I asked. Will they have to send me home in a box?
Well, she conceded, you’ll be back in time for your first oncology appointment, but if I were you, I’d be too stressed to enjoy the trip.
I contemplated that nugget as I left her office, stepping over some discarded styrofoam coffee cups to get back onto the city streets. Where honking cars were spewing exhaust fumes. I’m opting for the Alps, I thought, with water so clear I can swim in it.
My phone rang: it was the oncology coordinator. He was assigning me to the head of the department. We think that’ll be the best fit, he said. Don’t overthink it, I told myself.
The next day, in a how-did-I-get-here kind of fugue, I followed the signs to “oncology”, a word I’d previously relegated to spelling bees. At first I didn’t get why I was seeing so much pink. Pink walls. Pink chairs. Pink scrubs. I half expected the Pink Panther to be lurking in the waiting room.
The receptionist took my insurance card and entered me in the system. There seems to be a problem, he said. That can’t possibly be your co-pay. That’s my co-pay, I said, I’m self-employed. Oooooh, he said.
A nurse approached and said, I'm here to take your vitals.
Do I get them back? I replied.
Uh-oh, I thought.
I met the head of oncology. I liked her enormously. (She was not wearing pink.) I like to think that if we’d met at a party (and not half naked while receiving yet more bad news), we would have been fast friends.
We called over to Medical Records, she said; we think your file was lost.
It’s not a mistake, I explained. All I’ve ever had are travel vaccines.
And a root canal, I added. That tooth was so infected - I’ve never known such pain in my life. Like do-me-a-favor-and-whack-my-head-off-with-a-crowbar kind of pain.
She didn’t seem interested in the tooth. She asked me to draw my family tree. How many family members have ever had boings? None, I said. (And this was so not how I’d hoped to distinguish myself.)
Her department had two more questions for me: was I Jewish? and had I ever taken The Pill? (Interesting, I thought; they don’t play that up in the ads.)
Could my cell phone have caused it? I asked (the boing was not far from my phone ear). We’re still awaiting more research, she said.
Is there something I should be doing? I asked. Like eating more broccoli?
We should probably all be eating more broccoli, she said.
In short, they didn’t know how long I’d had it, or what caused it, or why. Someone might have flipped my plot switch, but they’d lost the plot altogether.
Next up were a series of CT scans and bone scans. Adorned with bright yellow “Warning!” signs - the equipment emits radiation, which could cause… boings. File it under: irony.
As a nurse put a catheter in my arm, he said the boing cells were like hungry Pac-Men - eating up my healthy cells. They were trying to determine the exact size of the buffet - to know whether they could take the “bad” cells out with a “sniper” or whether they would need a “full-court press”.
He handed me 2 vats of barium liquid and told me to drink it - apparently to radioactively light up my insides. Now, I’m not someone who finds herself on a shortlist of graduation speakers, but this piece of advice I feel comfortable imparting: be wary of any beverage that has a picture of your intestines on it.
When I was done, he told me I could go have a cheeseburger. I’m a vegetarian, I said. Whatever, he said.
The MRI followed. The receptionist handed me a questionnaire that asked how healthy I was. Very, I wrote, except for boing.
Instead of ionizing radiation, MRIs employ magnets - that are so strong, they could fling a wheelchair across a room. They asked if I had any shrapnel in my body. I mentioned the biopsy clips. Those should be fine, they said. Tattoos? Tattooed eyeliner? Tissue expanders? (Add it to my Google queue.)
Everyone else fled the room. Lying on my back, feeling like Houdini strapped feet-first to a waffle iron, my thoughts were interrupted by the voice of another nurse over the intercom. He was wondering if we’d met before.
I don’t think so, I said.
Maybe in my other life, he said.
Which life is that, I asked.
I'm an exotic dancer, he said.
I'm in a claustrophobic tube, I said.
Cure - or Cause?
Conventional medicine loves militaristic metaphors: You fight cancer. You kill tumors. Then again, chemo is derived from WW2 mustard gas.
Be wary of any beverage that comes with a picture of your intestines on it.
Now, while all these tests were being performed, I could literally see my boing growing. In fact, it had sprouted a little baby boing, right below the mother ship. They scheduled another biopsy, took out their staple gun, and shot another metallic clip in my bumper crop.
More irony: they handed me a list of all the things I wasn’t supposed to do post-biopsy. No heavy lifting (fine), no cleaning of my apartment (even better), no yoga for 48 hours. But then they proceeded to contort me, first squishing me into a cold, hard, mammogram machine. Is this necessary? I asked. We need to record the location of the clips, they said. As my face was smushed against the plexiglass, my shoulder was yanked back, and I was told to bend one knee, I saw a sign that said “No selfies”. Really, I thought. There goes my Christmas card.
My coils were located very far back, the mammographer told me, as she tightened her armlock on me.
You’re my challenge for the day, she said, giving me another wrench.
Trust me, I thought, this is no picnic for me either.
I was now at greater risk for infection and was told to avoid large crowds. Like the humongous sports stadium across the street? I asked. Yes, they said, like that.
Crushing a tumor can raise the risk of metastasis.
Next I met with the surgeon assigned to my case. She seemed kind, and interested, and could have played herself on Grey’s Anatomy. When I first started practicing, she said, you would have been a very young person for this kind of diagnosis. But now I see so many people in their 20s and early 30s, the spectrum is shifting.
What’s causing the epidemic? I said.
* Sigh * everyone asks that, she said.
Seems like a good question, I thought.
The surgeon called back with the results of my scans. I was now sporting a collection of boings: the original (in my non-fleshy armpit), its concomitant baby boing, additional malignancies in my lymph, my lungs, and now they were seeing suspicious lesions in my liver. Which would require a biopsy with a capital B. Read: hospital gig.
Now, it’s good practice to avoid needing a liver biopsy generally, but I soon learned you should especially try to avoid them during the summer months, which is when they train the newbies.
Wonder why he’s putting the needle in there, I thought, as the newbie aimed a Mac Daddy of needles underneath the right side of my rib cage. (Which is the moment I realized I had no idea where my liver was.) And then I heard the word you never want to hear from a medical professional:
Ewwwww, he said.
He left the operating room, returning with a white-haired mentor, who took a look at the monitor and said: Hmmmmm.
I asked what the hold-up was. Turns out neither was sure where to put the very, very large needle - they didn’t want to puncture my lung.
At least our interests are aligned, I said.
At which, the compassionate Irish nurse leaned over and turned up the music.
Patience has never been my virtue, but I spent a lot of that summer awaiting results. When they finally did come back, it was confirmed: my boing liked to travel as much as its host.
This changed the treatment plan - they were no longer talking about “curing” my boing. I had been kicked down to the farm league where the team shirts read: trying-to-prolong-life.
Soon, almost 1 out of 2 Americans is expected to deal with cancer.
A man with his health has many dreams;
a man without it has just one.
How I spent my summer vacation.
Now, lest you think I took this news lightly: I recently came across the notes I took when I first received my diagnosis (which, no matter how well someone delivers it, does not exactly arrive in bubble-wrap). My notes are so shaky they look as though I’d written them with a seismograph while straddling a speeding bullet train. (The diagnosis did, however, demote all trivialities to their rightful place.)
There was one more test before they could begin palliative care: an EKG (to make sure my heart could withstand the treatment). I reported for duty - and was promptly told they would need my credit card. But I’m all paid up, I said. Not for this you’re not. How much is it? I asked. $3000 the receptionist replied. Well that can't be good for my heart, I thought.
I mentioned my steep co-pays to my oncologist. We can set you up with a financial planner, she said. Especially given the new treatment plan.
The original plan had been 12 rounds of chemo - to shrink the boing, followed by surgery and radiation. The new plan had an addendum: chemo for the rest of my life. However long they could extend it.
Isn’t there an alternative? I asked.
No, she said. Not even in Europe. I'm glad you got to go to Switzerland, she added. Per the new plan, that was the last trip I’d ever take.
Seriously? I said.
Well, she conceded, maybe if we had enough advance notice, you could schedule a long weekend away.
She had one patient, she told me proudly, who was in her 14th year of chemo. I didn’t know what to say. She, on the other hand, was undeterred.
I’m not going to tell you you have 9 months to live, said my oncologist.
What do you do when all the odds are against you? You keep going.
Surprising fact: Oncologists are allowed to profit from the sale of chemo.
You'll never travel again, she said.
"Now You're a Chemo Person."
I was to receive a rotating “cocktail” of 3 different kinds of chemo. (But, frankly, that word scared me, too, so I called it “the chair”.) I learned a lot of things my first day in that chair. One of which was that my cocktail was so toxic, the nurses were required to don gloves before attaching the bag to my IV drip. Yes, that same cocktail they weren’t allowed to touch was given to me intravenously.
My oncologist had informed me that had I been diagnosed just a few years prior, I would have been particularly bad off, since my boing was hormone-resistant and they had not yet discovered my particular targeted drug therapy. It was to be administered in conjunction with another drug originally derived from a yew tree. As the nurse took out her gloves, I mentioned the tree. Yeah, she said, it used to be from a tree. What’s it from now? I asked. They found a synthetic equivalent, she said.
It must be said, the nurses were extraordinarily nice. Nice-nice. Like they-were-the-kind-of-people-who-had-invented-soup-kitchens nice. They brought me pillows. They primped said pillows. They lifted my feet. They brought me warm blankets. It was how I’d always pictured first class on an airplane - except without the flight. And landing, of course, with fewer white blood cells than at take-off.
That first day, one of the nice nurses appeared to read me the list of possible side effects. Settle in, she said, this’ll take a while.
I’m not exaggerating when I say it might have taken an hour. Bleeding. Bone Pain… I awoke as she was nearing the end. And then, she said, there’s infertility.
What? I said.
Is that a problem? she said.
Well, I wasn’t planning on leaving here the Octamom, but that seems like a biggie.
And she wasn’t done yet: apparently, I was nuclear.
If you have sex, she told me, you could be passing the chemo (read: poison) on to your partner. (As if my social life needed any more impediments.)
And, she said, do you have a thermometer?
No, I said.
You don’t have a thermometer?! She was shocked. Get one! If you spike a fever, you need to call 911 immediately. And tell them you’re on chemo. You’re no longer like everybody else; now - you’re a chemo person.
The following week, I returned for Round 2. I was in a grey corridor of people, each attached to an IV drip. There were no windows to the outside world - and not a lot of privacy. Occasionally I could hear someone crying. Or nurses fielding calls about nausea medications. Whenever someone had to use the restroom, you could see them shuffling down the corridor, dragging their chemo cart behind them. And the chemicals coursing through our veins - chemo cocktails, steroids, and for some, anti-anxiety meds, made us all extraordinarily dozy.
A social worker unexpectedly poked her head behind my curtain. I heard you had some concerns, she said. I tried to wake up. I tried to sit up. I tried to remember having a concern that would send a social worker after me.
I landed on this: I heard I might lose my hair.
Is that important to you? asked the social worker with hair down to her waist.
What I wanted to say: hey, Lady, not for nothin’,
but when Britney Spears voluntarily shaved hers, every tabloid trumpeted it as a sign of psychosis.
Instead, I offered her a snack from what the nurses had offered me: Cookies. Boxed juice. Those nuclear orange crackers with peanut butter that come wrapped in crazy glue.
Each week I was required to get my blood drawn. I was getting poked and prodded with so many needles, I was beginning to feel like a voodoo doll. I asked if they could tell me if my iron levels were low. No, they said, we don’t test for that. Vitamin deficiencies? Nope.
What do you test for? I asked.
White blood cell count, they said.
Ah, I thought, medical malpractice concerns: they want to know if the treatment’s killing me.
Hair today; gone tomorrow: Sanity or Vanity?
Imagine the worst Bad Hair Day you’ve ever had.
Then string 730 of those in a row.
My third week in the chair, they had me fill out a medical proxy - whom to contact in case I died. They also encouraged me to meet with a geneticist.
Now I had just read a fascinating article in Yoga Journal by Amie Valpone - about how she had almost died in her 20s - how a bevy of doctors could not figure out what she had - some thought she had leukemia and had given her a week to live. She finally self-diagnosed herself, and cured herself by giving up 13 food groups - not just 13 foods, but 13 food GROUPS. Wow, poor thing, I thought. (A week later, I was assiduously following her eat-clean diet. More on that later.)
Amie Valpone mentioned something else: that she had a genetic variation known as MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) that basically makes it harder for her body to detox - so it’s more sensitive to toxins. And that 35% of Americans have this same mutation.
So I met with that geneticist. She showed me a pie chart. There was a teeny, tiny little sliver of pie (only about 5%). This represented how many boings are a result of genetics.
So the whole rest of the pie - that really big 95% piece, I said - what causes those boings?
We don’t know, she said.
Did she test for MTHFR? I asked.
What’s that? she said.
I thanked her for her time and left to pay another bill.
Now it was around this time that I received a Divine Intervention. As with many of my Divine Doorbells, its ringing came in the form of a phonecall - from my mother.
The long and short of it was this: my Mom said: You need to speak to Jane.
Never you mind that my mother had never herself spoken to Jane (she’d never even met Jane). But that’s another story. My Mom gave me a phone number and I called it. And Jane invited me to her home, which really, was like going through the door in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Turns out Jane had been a conventionally trained RN. But she’d been working with more and more “alternative” practitioners, and, while she wasn’t allowed to give me medical advice, she had some suggestions she thought I might like to explore. Jane wrote them out on a little piece of notebook paper. I still have that piece of paper. I’ve always thought of it as Jane’s List.
But before getting to the List, Jane wondered if I wanted a cup of chaga tea. Sure, I said. What I thought was: what the heck is chaga tea?
Chaga, Jane explained, is a kind of mushroom. And while I’d always thought of mushrooms as vegetables, they’re actually “adaptogens”. They pre-date even the dinosaurs - they’ve survived so long, because they’ve learned how to adapt to their environment. And they can pass that adaptogenic power on to the humans who consume them.
So I drank the mushroom tea. And it was delicious.
And Jane unfolded her List. I share it here with you.
This was a far cry from the “nutritional” booklet the oncology department had given me - which recommended ice cream (dairy + sugar) to relieve internal sores brought on by chemo.
No meat; especially no pork. No problemo I thought.
No alcohol. No cigarettes. Ditto.
No dairy. Uh-oh, this cheese-eater thought, the uphill climb just set in. Admittedly, I had been hearing this message for years, but that day it finally got through: unless you’re a baby cow, hoping to grow into a big cow, don’t drink milk. Who knew? There’s actually more Vitamin D in broccoli - and broccoli is more bioavailable to humans.
This was already a far cry from the “nutritional” booklet the oncology department had sent home with me - which proclaimed I could eat anything I could “tolerate” and actually recommended ice cream to relieve any internal sores and blisters brought on by chemo.
No artificial sweeteners. Phew, a respite. I had always found the taste of them appalling.
And then, the biggie: No sugar. Um, hold the phones. No sugar, like NO sugar?
No processed sugar, said Jane. Boings love sugar. So if you want to feed the boing, just keep eating sugar.
And this is when I learned some alarming facts: 80% of foods in the US contain added sugar (Big Food knows just how addictive it can be). In fact, the average American consumes 130lbs of sugar a year (for the record, this is more than I weigh).
Jane also mentioned the time-tested benefits of fasting - not coincidentally, a part of every major religious tradition. Your GI tract is about 28 feet long; it's home to 2/3 of your immune system (so you need to be sure it's functioning properly). And 2/3 of your body’s energy is spent on digestion. Imagine - if you stopped sending food down the pipes, your body could finally have a chance to focus on fixing other things.
Try to finish dinner by 6pm - and give your body
at least 12 hours before breaking the fast.
Take a look at the warnings on fluoride-containing toothpaste: “If you accidentally swallow more than used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a poison control center immediately.”
It’s scary to think what’s in our tap water. I mean SCARY. We’re no longer drinking water that’s trickled down a pure mountain stream, mineralized from its downhill journey over rocks, energized by the sun’s rays. We’re drinking reclaimed sewage. (Yes, you read that right.)
In fact, if you ever think your job’s hard, read an interview with the man responsible for NYC’s tap water. There’s stuff in there you don't even want to think about: microplastics from people’s disposable contact lenses, antibiotics, psychotropic drugs, birth control. And then there are the toxins our government actively adds in (such as chlorine), trying to kill off the bad bacteria. And fluoride. The history of how this toxin ended up in our drinking water is a very interesting one.
And you want to avoid plastic, Jane said - it contains hormone disruptors - one of the reasons men’s testosterone levels have plummeted in the US in recent years.
Then and there, I switched over to glass bottles.
Gargle with baking soda, Jane said. Boings love acidic environments, and most of our water and diet are too acidic.
One of the fastest ways to make your body less acidic is by giving it more oxygen (deep breathing, for example). Boing cells can’t thrive in high-oxygen environments.
And berries are great, Jane said, they also help alkalinize your body.
An alarm bell sounded in the back of my head. What about… coffee? I squeaked. I had consumed coffee in quantities that could have rivaled Lorelai on the Gilmore Girls.
Jane looked at me kindly. Boings love acidic environments, she repeated. Oh, no, I thought. This is going to require some adulting.
What I learned from Jane:
I’m the one driving this bus.
Perhaps to divert my mind from its hitherto favorite bean, Jane’s husband Steve offered me freshly squeezed juice. I can’t remember exactly what they put in there, but whatever it was, it was fresh from their garden. Basil, perhaps, and mint, and ginger, and… it was one of the most life-altering delicious beverages I’ve ever experienced in my life. Boy, I thought, these two are good. I’d once been recruited by a NYC law firm, and they had nothing on Jane and Steve.
Jane explained how, when we juice, it’s so much easier for our body to absorb nutrients - especially when our body is run down.
Steve showed me their low-speed juicer (the low speed extracts the maximum number of nutrients).
Then he showed me how easy it was to assemble and how easy it was to clean. It was like Willy Wonka himself appearing to give me a tour of the chocolate factory.
Buy organic, Jane said, especially when it comes to the “Dirty Dozen” (see the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists on ewg.org).
(The next day I was texting Jane a picture of me at a farmstand, the trunk of my car loaded down with vegetables. Juice bar, here I come.)
Juicing is like letting your body put its feet up.
Jane handed me a little bottle of frankincense. It was like my own travelling cathedral. Jane was slowly reacquainting me with both my sense of taste and smell. I started diffusing lavender oil and massaging peppermint oil into the soles of my feet.
Many believe the Wise Men came bearing the most powerful of medicines: Frankincense, turmeric (gold) and myrrh. Used for thousands of years without an FDA recall.
I know this might sound silly, but until I’d met Jane, I’d never taken a vitamin in my life. I trusted that if I ate well, I could get all the nutrients I needed through my food. Little did I know that our soil is so depleted, most of our vegetables have nutrient disorders as well. Jane encouraged me to get my levels tested - sure enough, like most people with boings, I was deficient in both Vitamin D and iodine (as well as a host of other things).
So I started supplementing. I started taking probiotics. I started rubbing iodine on my boing. You’re not what you eat, I soon learned; you’re what you absorb.
My blood type might have been A+, but my vitamin levels received a much lower score.
Now this next one is hard, because toxins are everywhere: chemtrails in our skies and pollution in our oceans; brake dust in our air and arsenic in our rice. It’s impossible to reduce your toxic exposure to 0 and still stay on this planet. But do what you can.
Jane advised: no deodorants, no chemical cleaning products, no chemical beauty products. Body care products, make-up, hair dyes, etc. are pretty much completely unregulated in the US - they could put any toxin in there they’d like (and they do). I could create my own, Jane said - like body butter out of coconut oil. (At the time, she might as well have said I could go live with the Swiss Family Robinson.)
And cut down on radiation and “electrosmog” she said - no X-rays, no scans, never put your cellphone next to your head and turn your wifi off at night.
Reduce toxic exposure
Since WW2, we’ve introduced about 80,000 man-made toxins into the environment.
I used to run marathons, and now I’m wondering if that was one more thing I was putting on my tab. In the original Greek myth, poor Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, delivered his message, and… dropped dead.
I took a look at Jane’s List, and here I saw “IV glutathione”.
Looking back on it now, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I thought she was using the Roman numeral 4. But then I saw it was followed with “IV Vit C”.
That’s when I realized she was talking about intravenous drips. Some people are so vitamin deficient, their body needs a big boost, and quickly.
Jane suggested infrared saunas. Like the sauna at my gym, I asked? Those aren’t bad, she said. But infrared is even more effective.
Sweating is great, Jane said - it’s one of our body’s best ways to detoxify. Which is why exercise is so good. But, as with anything, too much can be too much. The problem is your body can’t tell the difference between hey-I-get-a-star-for-this-much-exercise and OMG-am-I-still-being-chased-by-that-mastodon? The trick is to find your way back over from your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to your parasympathetic (rest and restore).
(Which, for the record, is even more difficult when you get the sense your medical team isn’t recommending you buy green bananas anymore.)
In short, for my body to heal itself, I had to hurry up and relax.
And, she said, you could do Borax footbaths. Um, what’s that? I asked (as Dr. Seuss images floated through my head). You can find it in the detergent aisle, she said.
Get outside! Jane told me. The best way to get Vitamin D is the natural way; we were not designed to sit in cubicles all day.
Jane also listed “tree bathing”. Yes, I soon became even more of a hippie-dippie, vegan, tree-hugging yogini.
My favorite yoga card says it all.
Here Jane's list sounded a little like a personal ad. Especially when I realized that “grounding” was another way of saying “I like taking long walks on the beach”.
Going barefoot is one of the best things we can do - touching our planet with our feet is a little like putting our electronic devices in a docking station - it’s how we re-energize our operating system and rid ourselves of electrosmog.
Speaking of energy, Jane also included daily yoga, and acupuncture.
(Side note: grounding is also a great way to stave off jet lag.)
Mercury was used in hat-making - giving us the expression
“Mad as a Hatter”.
Each tooth is actually a separate organ. A hard organ. If they’re cracking and falling out, just think what could be going on with your soft organs.
Now until I met Jane, I’d never heard of a “biological dentist”, and to be honest, it sounded a little scary.
What do they do? I asked.
They remove mercury fillings. They replace root-canalled teeth. They can test you to see which dental materials are bio-compatible with you.
Silver fillings, Jane explained, are only called silver because of their color. They’re actually 52% mercury - perhaps only slightly less toxic than plutonium. Mercury has been linked to all kinds of disorders - from Parkinson’s to dementia.
The fillings in your mouth are like asbestos in your home, Jane said. You can’t just yank them out - there’s a specific protocol you have to follow so you don’t open yourself up to even more exposure.
Also, Jane said, avoid fluoride. Not only is it toxic, it blocks iodine absorption. And, if you’re low in iodine, you’re boing-vulnerable.
"Silver" fillings leach highly toxic mercury for the entire life of the filling.
The mind-body connection was one familiar to me. Yogis know that half the trick to doing a pose is to focus on your drishti (your gaze sets your intention). If, for example, you’d like to do a handstand, it helps tremendously to first visualize where your body’s headed.
So you might be surprised, given the list so far, but this one gave me the biggest pause. Jane could tell. She looked me square in the eye and said, You’re Catholic, I get it, but trust me, this one’s important. There really is such a thing as a boing personality: I would have to learn to say No. I’d have to start putting my needs first. I would have to let go of toxic relationships. And any bottom-feeding emotions like guilt or bitterness or shame I’d have to toss overboard. They only corrode the vessel housing them.
Our bodies are more than 70% water. As the saying goes: We're basically just cucumbers with anxiety.
It’s important to monitor your levels and track your progress, Jane said.
She recommended something called thermography (unlike mammography, a radiation-free diagnostic).
There were clinics I might want to look into, and I could opt to work with a functional/integrative doctor (the first time I’d ever heard the term).
And then Jane said something I’ll never forget: there’s a theory, she said, that your body is always trying to protect you. If you have a boing, your body’s either trying to grow something you’re deficient in, or trying to keep toxins from going to your more vital organs - like your brain.
I loved this theory.
Your body’s pretty magnificent, said Jane. Just think about it - it’s capable of growing new skin. It can re-generate huge portions of your liver!
My body and I had always been the best of roommates. We had a longstanding pact: I would try and treat it well and it would tell me what it needed. But apparently the day-in-day-out alarm bells had been drowned out; I had never learned to hear the thrum of constant, modern-day toxicity.
Fear is never an appropriate response to symptoms.
But, she warned me, I might find it daunting.
I braced myself. I pictured a parade of horribles. Uh, Jane, why would I find it daunting?
Because there are so many paths back to health, you have to figure out which ones are right for you.
OK, now that’s a daunting I can live with.
Armed with Jane’s List, it was time for me to do a little detective work. To undo my boing, I had to figure out what had caused it in the first place.
I went home and watched the series. I learned my boing could have been growing for 10-12 years; that boing cells are part of the human condition - we all have them; hundreds of thousands of boing cells course through our bodies on any given day. It’s when our immune system gets so maxed out (through lifestyle choices and toxins, etc.) that the drain gets clogged, so to speak, and the boing cells start to overflow. So the real question was not how did I get the boing - instead, it’s what’s got my immune system so overwrought?
I remembered my very first discussion with my oncologist. More than being overwhelmed, I’d said, I was puzzled. All I’d ever had were travel vaccines and a really bad root canal. I took Jane’s List, googled iaomt.org and made an appointment with the nearest biological dentist.
She took a look at my teeth. And confirmed I had a lot of mercury in there. Yes, that same metal that could clear an elementary school should a thermometer break; that same metal that has pregnant women avoiding tuna. It had been off-gassing next to my brain for years. Even scarier: holding a cell phone anywhere near my head acted as an antenna for said mercury, increasing my exposure exponentially.
My “crime”? I had eaten fish from our oceans; I drank water our government had touted as safe. And I was born with crooked teeth. (As my mother points out, technically I was born with NO teeth, but you know what I mean.) My teeth had been so out of whack, I had braces for 9 years. The kind cemented to your teeth. I suspect they made my teeth weaker; in any event, they were certainly harder to clean.
When the materials used in "silver" fillings are shipped to a dentist’s office, they have to be delivered in hazardous waste containers.
Mercury levels: the blue rocket was me.
My biological dentist asked if I knew what was underneath my crowns. Or why I had needed them? I had no clue. (I could tell you my 7th grade locker combination, but I couldn’t tell you what was parked next to my brain.) I called my old dentist. They couldn’t tell me either.
My biological dentist wasn’t surprised. If it makes you feel any better, she said (it didn’t), I’ve never had a patient whose previous dentist kept any useful records.
Unlike my conventional doctors, my biological dentist wanted to hear all about my infected root canal tooth. She explained how, by definition, root canals keep dead tissue in your body. Imagine if that were your toe, she said. Any surgeon who sewed you up, leaving dead tissue behind, would be sued for malpractice.
Then she pulled out a tooth meridian chart.
In some quarters, I’d get in trouble for showing you this, she said. (She had my full attention.) But I just had another patient who was a lot like you - similar in age, did a lot of yoga. She had a boing exactly where yours is, and had a root canal on the exact same tooth. She showed me the chart. Apparently there’s a meridian that runs from your left knee, to tooth #14 (a big one on the left side of your body), to tooth #3 (a big one on the right side of your body), to your right breast/fleshy or unfleshy armpit, and down to your liver. You could say I’d shot the moon.
She suggested I have my mercury levels tested. I did. This is what they looked like. The silver bar represents the average of people who suspect they have a problem (so they have their levels tested). The white bar represents the national average. That big blue rocket was me.
Next time I do a handstand, I thought, I could moonlight as a thermometer.
And so began an extensive mercury detox protocol, which continues to this day.
All those years,
I should have been drilling my dentists.
Now you might find yourself asking, um, hello? If things were so amiss, why didn’t you notice? Truth is, I had lived with it for so long, I had lost the ability to distinguish between what was a symptom - and what was well, just me. I carried my fatigue around like a pet in a pocketbook - every now and then it barked, or grew heavy, but we’d grown quite attached to one another.
Ironically, I had thought it was my “high energy” that caused me to be zapped when turning on a lightswitch; or experiencing the occasional eye twitch. Or even panic attack - which was becoming so du jour. I didn’t realize that the mercury was actually draining me of all my energy - like an evil bouncer, blocking my mitochondria from making ATP.
And while, as far as symptoms go, my fatigue was a biggie, it wasn’t difficult to normalize in our go-go-go culture. To boot, our culture is so quick to equate age with either lassitude or decrepitude. They’re teenagers, we say, of course they sleep in! It’s college! Of course they sleep in! It’s been a long work week! I can’t wait to sleep in! So I soldiered on in a country that says, rest when you’re dead! Everyone needs coffee to get through the day!
Which leads to another conundrum. Chronic stress is the first cousin of chronic illness. If one is constantly stuck in one’s sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, the body is too busy with knee-jerk reactions to repair itself.
Here’s a sports analogy for you: you’re committing the sin that all coxswains warn against: you’re rushing the slide.
For those who haven’t yet seen the inside of a crew boat: each rower sits on a little seat, which moves up and down a metallic slide. You bend your knees and inch up the slide - to put your oar in the water. You then press your legs down as quickly as possible (moving you down the slide), pulling as much water as possible. But if you move quickly in both directions (up and down the slide), you’re spending half your time hurling yourself (and the boat) in the wrong direction (picture throwing your car in reverse when you want to be in drive).
How can you tell if your body is stuck in the sympathetic nervous system? Here’s a sure-fire way: do you grind your teeth at night?
And, guess what? If you have silver fillings AND you grind your teeth, you’ll release even more mercury into your Class A real estate.
As you will by drinking hot beverages, such as coffee, trying to wake up since you didn’t get a good night’s sleep because you were grinding your teeth while stuck in your sympathetic nervous system.
Rushing your slide: you might feel like you’re doing more, but you’re achieving less.
I was willing to do whatever it took. Deep breathing. Meditation. Epsom salt baths. Flotation tanks.
I called a clinic that specializes in heat thermography. It’s a very interesting technology - derived from high-speed, night-vision photography. Picture a semi-naked filmshoot on a wooden stool. Not unlike an improv stand-up comedian posing for mugshots in quarter-turn segments. The upside: it uses no radiation.
The resulting images light up your body in different colors - according to temperature. Blue denotes cooler temperatures; red denotes higher temperatures (where your body is most likely inflamed). Sure enough, all along my imbalanced meridian, my body lit up like a Christmas tree.
I returned to the chair for my 3rd round of chemo.
Interestingly, my oncologist had never heard of thermography. You mean mammography, she said. Nope, I said. (There are actually two different kinds of thermography: infrared thermography and contact regulation thermography. I tried both.)
I moved on to my next question: if the chemo makes my boing disappear, I asked, what will the biopsy clips hold onto? Good question, she said, but it shouldn’t be a problem.
Then I showed her two bumps that had appeared - one on each of my index fingers. What are these, I asked, bug bites? Looks like it, she said. What are the chances, I said, in the exact same spot on both hands? Odd, she agreed, and went to look in on her next patient.
Putting the “treat” back into treatment.
Parasympathetic tip: Listening to ocean waves - or reggae - or any music under 60 beats per minute - relaxes us because it’s slower than our heartbeat.
This is one of my first thermographs. I returned for a follow-up 3 months later - after having my mercury fillings replaced and my root-canal tooth extracted, this red line had disappeared.
It was during my fourth round of chemo that two things happened. The first, I’m embarrassed to admit, is that I finished watching The Affair. Which precipitated the second thing: I looked up from my iPad and took a look at my surroundings. I mean, a real take-it-all-in look. And some part of my brain said Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit.
My body must not have realized I’d received the message - because it kept sending me reinforcement signals. By the time I got home,
my mouth and ears felt like they were on fire. Like could-melt-a-marshmallow, on fire. My skin looked grey. Words from the docu-series were zipping through my head: the conventional model is cut (lumpectomy); poison (chemo) and burn (radiation). Conventional (allopathic) medicine focuses on the tumors, but not their root cause - so they’re just going to grow back if you don’t reverse engineer how they got there in the first place.
There’s no way I can do chemo for life, I thought. I can’t even get through 4 weeks.
Just as I had never failed a test before, I’d never “quit” anything either. But I knew it was time to break up with my oncologist. Since I’d just melted a pair of earbuds, you might think this would be easy. But I had a boing personality and she was a lovely person - the kind that invited patients to use her first name.
She took it very well. Of course, she said, you have to do what you feel’s right.
(Ironically, it was my new “integrative” doctor who seemed a bit prickly.)
A week later, I suffered my first big hair loss. And I mean, big hair loss. I’d read quite a bit on the topic, but nothing could prepare me for the trauma. Oh great, I thought, I’m going to become the first person in the history of The Chair to morph into a hairless xolo AFTER ending chemo. As fate would have it, I was actually on my way to a funeral. I tied up my remaining hair, and told myself everyone would be too distraught to notice.
A week after that, I was meeting a European film director at a hip café in SoHo. You look thin, she said. Thank you, I said. For a brief moment, I wondered if she wondered why I was wearing a hat. But, for Heaven’s sake, I told myself, I’m in the city where Anything Goes. I could have worn bottle caps. And then, alarming us both, my nose started bleeding. Right there in the middle of the café.
When people hear that I walked away from the known net of conventional medicine, there are two typical reactions. One is a sense that I’ve somehow aggrieved them (this usually comes from people I barely know). The other says how brave! But courage wasn’t my guiding principle; intuition and hedonism led the way. I really, really, did not want to be the person with the bleeding nose in the middle of SoHo. And I remembered the taste of Jane’s juice.
In truth, I told very few people about my diagnosis. I realize this is a very personal choice - some choose to wear their diagnosis loudly and proudly. I was on the other end of the spectrum: I did not want it attaching to my identity. (And trust me, when this kind of thing happens, a lot of cosmic mud will be hurled at your identity.)
I did feel the need to inform my yoga instructor - I wanted to spare her the trauma of adjusting me in a pose and potentially ending up with my pony tail in her hand. She felt very strongly that the rest of my yoga crowd should know. I was resistant to the idea.
You need to learn to accept support, she said.
You can tell them if you’d like, I conceded, figuring it would be nearly impossible to hide my hair situation in a handstand. Did Lululemon make yoga wigs?
She did, and that night I came home to a parade of voicemails. One friend left 5 weepy messages within the hour. Honey, she said, I don’t think you have any idea how hard this is going to be. Delete.
And then came the email - from a doctor friend, no less:
I was devastated to hear, it said, but I’m not without hope.
It had never occurred to me to be without hope. Delete.
I refrained from telling any more people than was absolutely necessary. If this was support, I thought, I’d rather fly solo.
My Swiss friend wondered why I wasn't taking advantage of her infinity pool (in the aftermath of my biopsy, I wasn’t allowed to swim).
I did tell two friends. One was German; the other Swiss. I was very glad these two friends knew - especially as they were both well-versed in a completely different medical paradigm. A paradigm that has its roots in German and Swiss medicine.
My Swiss friend gave me a great piece of advice: look, she said, oncologists are going to try to put a number on it. (Strains of Beyoncé started going through my head.) Stage this; Stage that. They don’t know how to fix you, but they feel like they’ve done something if they put you in a box.
Their words got me through a lot. And trust me, there was a lot to get through. Not the least of which was the continued loss of more and more hair.
Like the proverbial beans in a jar, I realized I wasn’t even close to correctly guessing how much hair I had, until it all started falling out. And out. And out some more. Like an evil Play-Doh Barbershop Factory in reverse. I lost whole ZIP codes of hair. And, of course, this was the exact moment in time when everyone else on the planet decided to grow theirs out. I’m not kidding: man buns popped up overnight. Even one of my yoga instructors, who’d hitherto shaved his head, decided to start looking like he was personally bringing back the 60s.
My oncologist had written me a prescription for "cranial prosthesis for chemotherapy-induced alopecia”. (If you write “wig”, insurance companies won’t cover it.) How bad can it be? I thought. I tried to vibe Tina Turner. Or Cher. I put it on, picked up a mirror, and… looked like a tranny.
My oncologist assured me that most people’s hair grew back. (Wait, said a panicky voice in my head, define “most”.) And that it might come back curly - and grey. Which prompted 2 thoughts on my end: (1) thank you for yet another party favor; and (2) if you’re going to biogenetically reengineer me, I’d also like olive skin and green eyes.
You’ve got this, my German friend said, as we drank freshly juiced kale-cucumber-lemon mocktails together.
Enough about my hair. I also learned a lot about my lymph. It’s basically our body’s sanitation system, constantly sweeping away the debris. We have 4x more lymphatic fluid than we have blood, but, unlike our circulatory system (which has our heart), the lymphatic system has no pump. It relies on us to move our bodies.
My integrative doctor recommended lymphatic massage, so I called to book an appointment. The woman who answered told me she was located on the 2nd floor. OK, I said.
Can you make it up a set of stairs? she asked.
Apparently I was doing better than anyone expected.
I opted to have my problematic tooth extracted. The root cause, so to speak, of my microbial infection.
At the end of the procedure, the assistant handed me an ice pack, but said, you might want to wait until you get home to use it.
Why? I asked.
Well, you might feel a little self-conscious, she said reasonably.
I thought: my nose is bleeding, my hair’s gone AWOL, and I’m missing a tooth.
Fork it over, I said and wore that ice all the way home.
Given my tuning fork issue, I figured it was high time I set about rebalancing my body’s meridians. I booked my first-ever acupuncture appointment. I didn’t know if it would hurt. Instead, I loved the sensation - it was like a good shavasana at the end of yoga. I showed the acupuncturist my symmetrical bug bites.
That’s your large intestine, she said. Oh, I said, It seems so far from home. Could be the chemo, she said. And eat warm food - a raw diet might be too hard on your body.
And then she said something even more interesting: you know, she said, you don’t have the boing pulse. The boing pulse? I asked. It’s hard to describe, she said, but it’s a very low-energy, thready pulse. And you don’t have it.
And that was my beautiful foray into bioenergetics.
There are 49 different cultures that have a word for ‘life force energy’; we are not one of them.
My vocabulary seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds: Bruxism. Emunctory. Goitrogenic. Oxalates. Phlebotomy.
Which is the word I was looking for the day I went to get my levels tested. Why did this kind of looking-under-the-hood seem to be such a rarity? (And why did everything seem to evoke an automotive metaphor?)
Surprisingly (to me anyway), my thyroid tested as if “patient did not have one”. Because I’d never had it tested before, I didn’t know what had knocked it out. The chemo? The mercury? The fluoride in my drinking water and in my toothpaste? A combination of all of the above? Had my underactive thyroid caused my boing - or had the chemo killed my thyroid?
A complicated road lay ahead. It seemed some things were good for my thyroid, but bad for my boing (and vice versa). Certain foods were recommended - unless I had yeast. Detoxing was good, but detoxing too quickly was bad.
Bioregulatory medicine views symptoms as dashboard lights - telling one to pull over and figure out what their engine needs. Conventional medicine gets the light to go out by detonating the car.
And, of course, I kept revisiting Jane’s List.
As for food, to Jane’s List, I added soy-free and corn-free and gluten-free and peanut-free. I learned to love to read ingredients (it really is shocking what gets added to our food supply). I followed Amie Valpone in Eating Clean and avoided her list of the “Toxic 13”. After a lifetime of eating processed “food”, I suddenly realized it wasn’t food at all. It was “Frankenfood” - made of chemicals (preservatives) and paint (food coloring) and things I couldn’t spell. Real food has a shelf-life.
I used to be one of those people who pooh-poohed those who only ate organic, non-GMO (who exactly has the burden of proof here?). GMO’s don’t even claim to be food. Most of what passes for “corn” and “soy” in the US is actually a genetically-modified “organism” - which, by definition, means you’re eating bugspray. Our government cracks down on knock-off Fendis, but subsidizes high fructose corn syrup.
After a lifetime of hearing - and cavalierly dismissing - how many things are bad for us, I suddenly knew they weren’t kidding: I had the boing to prove it. Pesticides really can kill us. Non-stick pans really are dangerous.
I had normalized the lead pipes in my apartment building; the toxins pumped into our water; the aluminum sprayed in our air.
How the #*& have we come to normalize all this stuff?? And even worse, why do we view its consumption as our birthright?
Honestly, if we were creatures in a zoo, and our zookeepers fed us the Standard American Diet (SAD), they would be fired for mistreating the “animals". We should be eating organic fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds and things that grow in the (non-contaminated) ground. We should not be hiring men in Hazmat suits to spray our future meals with the pesticide equivalent of Agent Orange.
I vowed to eat what our species was designed to eat. I started frequenting farmers markets. And discovered a whole new world of unbelievably delicious food awaited: dragonfruit (so Instagrammable!), curry carrot ginger soup, avocado with freshly-squeezed lemon topped with chili pumpkin seeds, barbecued jackfruit, jasmine tea, and the list goes on and on. I took my microwave out of the game and got myself an Instant Pot