I felt a nervous chill as I wrote that title. It feels uncomfortable to share what I am about to share, because a lot of it goes against popular opinions about why people get cancer. But I’ve got this feeling, like I have to share this…I’ve got this intuitive sense that it is going to help someone.
There’s a lot of focus on external possible causes of disease – poor diet, exposure to toxins, radiation, fluoride, too much sun, being glued to your phone – the list seems to never end.
Before I dive into what I believe about my own cancer, I want to make a disclaimer. I am not attempting to make any generalizations about cancer or why other people get cancer. I’m simply putting out my beliefs about the factors that contributed to my own cancer. Getting a diagnosis as serious as the “c word” is very personal and I make no claims to know why anyone else has this experience.
My own story
In my own health story, I do believe that there are many external factors that look suspicious and might possibly have contributed to my disease. Being addicted to sugar. Taking birth control pills. Having a sedentary job and sitting at a desk all day. Not eating clean “enough”.
For those of you who know my story, the most obvious reason that you might think of is my genes. My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just 27 days before me. But I don’t even think that that was the biggest contributing factor.
Yes, we share genes, and officially yes, we both had ovarian cancer. There may or may not be a genetic link though – it’s not something science knows yet. Not to mention, our cancer cell types were very different.
My internal state
What I believe to be the biggest contributing factor for my disease personally, was my internal state.
What the heck do I mean by that? In simplistic terms, you might say my stress level or adrenal health.
That explanation doesn’t do it justice though – I don’t believe stress itself caused my cancer. What I believe to be the biggest culprit in causing my disease, was my reaction to stress. And a lifetime of negative reactions, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs compounded into a negative, unhealthy internal state.
For those of you who know me, you might be thinking “what is she talking about? Julia’s a pleasant, mild mannered person. She’s not negative.” And mostly that’s true. But all the negative stuff – the fears, the worries, the stress – I kept all neatly hidden inside. Except for those closest to me, most people never knew about the negativity, the anxiety, the worrying in my head.
Rewind a few years prior to my diagnosis when I still worked a traditional job as a web designer. For many years I loved that job, but as time passed, my seniority rose and the responsibilities increased. Creative tasks totally disappeared, and often it felt like I was doing tech support instead of the things I loved. I would get texts on evenings and weekends about websites being broken, and have to drop what I was doing to troubleshoot and fix a problem so we wouldn’t lose a client. I hated it.
Reacting negatively on auto-pilot
Most of the time I handled the stress very poorly. I would get frustrated and bang my fists on my desk, shouting and cussing at the computer (I worked at home, so no one witnessed this except for poor Brian). My attention was always divided in a million different directions, and I struggled to focus. I’d work late into the night sometimes to get uninterrupted hours on my timesheet – but it was at a cost. I’d almost always struggle to sleep. I used to joke with the other developers on my team that I’d be up all night “writing code in my sleep”.
By the last year at that job, I was having emotional meltdowns at least once a week. I internalized and took my work too seriously, and I cried on a regular basis.
To deal, I’d sometimes drink two or three glasses of wine a night. Yes, I also did healthier things like bike, ski, and hike. But the alcohol became a crutch, something that numbed my stress temporarily each night, and helped lull me to sleep (at least for a couple of hours until the insomnia kicked in).
Putting more pressure on myself
When I moved into entrepreneurship it felt like a very positive step because I was finally working on my own dream instead of someone else’s. But I put immense pressure on myself to figure it all out, to start making money as soon as possible, and to please any and every potential customer. I was seriously worried about what people thought, and whether they viewed me as successful or not.
Work wasn’t the only thing that contributed to my unhealthy internal state. One thing that bothered (even haunted) me every day was the conflict inside of me about having children.
Deep down, I didn’t want to be a mother. But it seemed like the messaging from every corner of society was “You’ll regret it if you don’t have kids! It’ll be so rewarding, even with all the sacrifices! There’s nothing better in life than being a parent! You won’t add up to anything if you’re not a mother!”.
I felt extremely conflicted because of what was expected of me, and I constantly questioned my choice because of all the external noise. I literally obsessed over my choice, and I let it take up so much unnecessary space in mind and suck so much of my energy.
A constant state of fight or flight
So in summary, I lived pretty much my entire adult life in a constant mode of fight-or-flight, letting my thoughts and emotions take total control of my state of being. I was always wound up, and had a hard time relaxing. My mind spun out of control with fearful, worried thoughts on a regular basis. And I dwelled on the things that brought me the most pain.
My internal emotional state manifested in my physical body in other ways before cancer. In addition to insomnia, I also had chronic IBS-like symptoms that came and went. It felt like I always had some kind of GI discomfort or upset.
The worst phone call
When my mom called in early December 2016 to tell me they’d found a mass in her abdomen, I felt like my world started to crumble. The thought of losing her was the scariest thing I had ever experienced. My stress response was kicked into overdrive. I was in the middle of my holiday rush in my business, and at the time I was still printing and fulfilling all of my own orders. I suppressed my pain and fear and drowned myself in my work so I didn’t have to feel anything. At least when I was working, I was distracted enough that I didn’t have to think the negative thoughts that kept swirling in my head.
By Christmas, my mom’s surgery was scheduled but we still didn’t know exactly what her diagnosis was or its severity. Brian and I went to Maryland for a few days, but had had a New Year’s trip to the Dominican Republic planned for several months. My parents encouraged us to keep our plans, so we did. But I felt guilty and unable to enjoy our vacation while the rest of my family was in a holding pattern waiting for the surgery and biopsy results. True to form, I couldn’t sleep and had diarrhea multiple times a day. My stress response was on overdrive.
Somewhere in the middle of our vacation, I tried to lay on my stomach on a beach chair to read a book. Except – I couldn’t. It felt unnatural and uncomfortable to be laying face down. My stomach felt hard and full, and it looked like I had gained weight in my lower abdomen.
Meanwhile, my mom had her surgery while we were still abroad, and it was confirmed that she indeed had cancer. She’d need chemo for the next 4.5 months, and while her doctor expressed optimism, nothing was for certain. It was a really difficult time, and being thousands of miles away from her did not make it any easier.
About two weeks after we returned to Colorado from our trip, the strange sensation in my abdomen hadn’t gone away. I went for an ultrasound, and it was clear that I too had a large mass in my abdomen. After a CT scan identified a suspicious solid area in the mass, I was sent the next morning to Denver to see a gynologic oncologist. She scheduled me for surgery the following Monday.
Surgery revealed I had stage 1a ovarian cancer. Months later I’d learn that despite being very large (almost 3 lbs) my tumor was actually a pretty indolent, and only a very, very small percentage of the cells were actually malignant.
Desperate for answers
The months that followed felt like an emotional roller coaster. Once I was feeling ok physically, I started devouring books on cancer prevention, and I obsessed over my diet. I let fear take control, and I worried constantly about how I was going to prevent a recurrence. I wondered all the time how this could’ve happened to me, and what changes I could make to ensure it never happened again.
In June I visited a naturopathic oncologist to see if we could combat any future recurrence from a more holistic angle. She did dozens of blood tests, and concluded that I had Hashimoto’s, a thyroid disease, despite the fact I had zero symptoms. She said that I needed to immediately stop eating gluten, forever.
I asked her what this had to do with my cancer, but she gave me a bit of a roundabout answer. It was something like “well, we have to optimize your immune system in every way we can, so because you have Hashimoto’s and that’s an autoimmune disease, and gluten can aggravate the disease, you need to eliminate it permanently.”
I guess her logic made in sense in theory, but I felt fine. I had no thyroid symptoms whatsoever, so something wasn’t adding up. For about a week, despite my bafflement, I heeded her advice and cut out gluten. I was miserable. Not because I can’t necessarily live without bread or pasta. But because it felt so restrictive, and it felt like there wasn’t a very solid reason to back it up.
An “a-ha” moment
Fortunately, my therapist at the time brought something important to my attention. She said, “you know Julia, you are in charge of your body. No one can tell you what to do with it, not even your oncologist. You are in control. You get to decide. Period.”
That’s when I had an epiphany. What if the stress of worrying about what I was putting into my body was causing me more damage than gluten itself?
My intuition was suddenly speaking loud and clear. I didn’t have thyroid symptoms, and I felt fine. I had tons of energy, I was at a healthy weight, and I felt better than I had in months. Why would I add so much stress to my life because there might be a vague, slim chance that gluten compromised my immune system and therefore caused my cancer?
I suddenly felt free…it was a huge “a-ha” moment. That’s when I made a choice to eliminate as much stress from my life as possible, and make living a fun, fulfilling, joyful life my number one priority. It made total and complete sense, and I felt more peaceful than I had in a very long time.
That was a turning point for me. In the months that followed, I became much more aware of how I responded to stress, and started to learn that I have a choice in how I respond to stressful situations. I stopped living my life emotionally on auto-pilot, and began developing awareness of my thoughts and emotions. I noticed that when I had a negative thought, it would develop into a negative emotion, and sometimes I would even feel that emotion as something negative in my body, like one of my old GI symptoms. Just this consciousness helped me to break the old habits I’d developed over almost four decades, and it set me free.
Two years later, I feel better emotionally and physically than ever. I’ve gained a deeper level of awareness about what thoughts I let myself think, and how I have choices when it comes to my emotions. I have cleaned up my diet, and I’ve scaled back on grains and processed foods, but I never ever let it stress me out. I focus on nourishing my body, but I eat what I want, when I want, and I don’t even give it a second thought.
I sleep well almost every night, and my IBS-like symptoms are about 90% improved. I’ve only gotten sick with mild colds just twice in over two years. I feel calm, content, and crazy happy with my life. I know without a doubt that if I continue on this track of being in control of my thoughts and emotions, I will live a very long, healthy life.
Looking back, my mom’s cancer diagnosis was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I’d been living in an uncontrolled state of fight-or-flight responses for decades. The extreme emotional response I had to my mom’s cancer, and the subsequent resistance and suppression of that response, were just the catalysts that I believe lead me down the road to my own disease.
Were there environmental factors that lead me to my diagnosis? It’s very likely. Did my genes play a part? Maybe. But I believe very strongly now that if I had a healthy internal state all along, my body would’ve been better equipped to combat external and genetic factors.
I am in control of my health destiny
Epigenetics is a newer field of science that I find fascinating. While I’m no scientist, the basic premise of epigentics is that our genes express differently in response to both external and internal influences. For me, I find that empowering – I know I’m not a victim of my genes, and I’m not doomed to a disease because my mom or dad or grandparents had that disease. I am in control of my health destiny.
Cancer was my wake-up call to start making vast changes in my mindset, to take control over my thoughts and feelings, and to seriously up level my life. Whether or not you believe that your internal state contributes to your physical health, you can’t deny that it impacts your day-to-day experience of this world.
You 100% get to choose how you react to situations. You get to decide who you are going to be when life gives you lemons. You can’t always change your external world, but you can always change your internal world.