So what’s the smartest way to survive a “golden year” diagnosis?
If you’ve been with me for a while, then you know by now that I’m a big believer in treating the patient, not the disease. And here’s why: In conventional medical situations, you often become your disease.
In fact, all the way back when I was a resident, we would refer to patients not by their names but by their diagnoses. (“How’s the heart attack today?” or “How’s the lady with swollen ankles?”)
Obviously, my years of experience have taught me a much better way to approach my patients. But trust me…this kind of myopic medical practice still reigns supreme today.
And I recently came across a particularly terrifying example of it. It’s the reason I’m writing this article today.
Not too long ago, an 85-year-old patient of mine had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A terrible thing for sure—and understandably, she was frightened.
What was worse, however, was the recommendation her oncologist had made: a double mastectomy. Now, surgically removing both breasts is an extreme measure for any woman of any age to take—to say nothing of the consequences it could have for an 85-year-old. So I called this doctor up to find out why, exactly, he’d suggested such a drastic move.
And his answer was, basically, why not?
I was appalled. But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Many doctors, especially oncologists, recommend major surgeries and exhaustive treatments simply as a knee-jerk reaction. They do it because they can…and effects on the patient are never considered. Because to them, once the cancer is gone, the case is closed.
Needless to say, this is never an appropriate attitude with which to approach a diagnosis. And it’s particularly problematic when you’re a woman of a certain age faced with breast cancer.
Fact: Your risk peaks well after retirement age
I probably don’t have to point out that this month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a glowing testament to the power of public health campaigns that so many women are now so familiar with their risk of this disease.
For instance, you probably already know that your risk begins to rise after the age of 40 (hence the recommendations for routine mammograms, starting by age 45). You may also know that the median age of breast cancer diagnosis is 61 years old.
But while these statistics make good soundbites for the media and easy guidelines for your doctor, they only tell one side of the story. Today, I want to tackle the other side. (Or at least, one of the many other sides.)
Starting with the fact that rates of breast cancer are highest among women over the age of 70.1 Obviously, the tragic stories of younger patients grab the most attention—that’s only natural. But based on numbers alone, it’s the senior women out there who really need to have their guard up.
You should also know that disease management options can—and should—change as you age. The right protocol for a 45-year-old isn’t necessarily going to be the right one for an 85-year-old.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop a lot of conventional oncologists from making one-size-fits-all treatment recommendations—just like they do with so many other critical, highly personal health crises.
But despite the higher rate of the disease, for the most part, cancer in older people tends to be much less aggressive—especially when we’re talking about hormone-related diseases, like breast and prostate cancer.
And less aggressive cancer means a much better prognosis. My clinical experience speaks to this fact—I have many older patients living with their breast cancer. These patients have refused drastic treatments like surgery. (A personal decision that I will always support.)
And they are still alive many years later, to tell the cautionary tale that, in some cases, any conventional cancer “treatment” is, in fact, overtreatment.
Most doctors cut you open first, and ask questions later
First off, no matter what your age at diagnosis, the most important question that you and your doctor should be asking is, will this treatment increase my life expectancy? Because even if it will remove the tumor or decrease the size, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will help you live any longer.
The other thing you must consider, especially if you’re older, are your other health conditions. So the next question to ask is, can my body safely tolerate surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy?
These are not easy treatments. And they can come at a very high price to your health. Including heart disease, pulmonary fibrosis (or scarring of the lung), and what I call “chemo brain”—which sentences some patients to lasting brain fog and memory issues.
These are just a few of the many complications that can occur long after cancer treatment ends. And that’s not even mentioning issues like nausea, neuropathy, and the assaults on your energy and immune system that accompany active treatment.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that it’s never worth it to pursue conventional treatments. (That’s not for me to decide anyway. That choice lies with you, the patient.)
I’m simply cautioning that the go-to aggressive treatments may work wonders in a younger woman… while leaving an older woman very sick in both the short and long term.
In other words, you may never feel like yourself again.
That said, if you decide that it’s worth it, then it is—simple as that. But you should always bear in mind, if you’re treating a disease that is not likely to kill you in the first place, you may wind up taking unnecessary risks. Risks that could both shorten your life and impact its quality.
So how do you know if your cancer is likely to kill you without aggressive treatment?
Two life-saving steps…and a lethal cautionary tale
The clinical work-up should be the same for anyone diagnosed with breast cancer—no matter what your age. This includes knowing exactly what type and stage of breast cancer you have, as they all carry a different prognosis. (And thus, different treatment strategies.)
So you should insist on a PET/CT scan to see if the cancer has spread (metastasis). Yes, this does involve some exposure to radiation. But in this case, I would almost always argue that it’s worth it. Unlike the radiation you might get during treatment or routine mammography, PET/CT scan radiation isn’t an ongoing process. And your results can greatly influence how you choose to proceed with treatment—or if you choose to proceed with treatment at all.
Now, I know we’re talking about breast cancer today, but allow me to deviate here for a moment to illustrate the seriousness of this point.
I had a patient with endometrial cancer come to see me a few months ago. She had already had appointments with all the best cancer doctors in New York City. They told her she could expect to be fine after a minor surgery—no chemo or radiation necessary. So she came to me for help in supporting her immune system.
I asked if she had her PET/CT results yet. She replied that they told her she didn’t need one. Unfortunately, “they”—some of the top oncologists in the city—were very, very wrong.
To make a long story short, when my patient went in for her “simple” surgery, the doctors discovered that her cancer had spread. This required bowel resection, among other additional procedures, which they performed. They sent her home, and a day later, she died of a heart attack.
This was a 60-year-old woman who ran her own business. Her family was devastated. My patient, believing she was entering into routine “minor” surgery, had no chance to prepare for anything. And when I asked her “top doctor” why there was no PET/CT scan done, I was told they “are discouraged to do those in someone with mild disease.”
That’s interesting…seeing as how a PET/CT scan would have revealed that this patient’s disease was not, in fact, mild.
Ultimately, my patient died because some administrator decided it’s just not necessary to determine what disease stage each patient falls into following a cancer diagnosis.
My advice: Even if your doctors are convinced your disease is nothing to worry about, don’t just ask for a PET/CT scan…demand one.
You may also choose to have genomic testing to see which treatments will target your disease most effectively. Unlike genetic testing, which assesses your cancer risk, genomic testing uses tumor tissue analysis to help guide treatment decisions. It can help to assess the aggressiveness of your cancer, and also tell you how responsive it is likely to be to drug therapy.
Why mammography is overhyped at any age
While I believe PET/CT scans are well worth the radiation you encounter, the same can’t really be said for mammograms.
Definitive staging, which can only be done by a PET/CT scan, is critical for appropriate treatment. Routine screening, on the other hand, is just that—looking for something that may or may not even be there.
I wouldn’t mind so much if routine screening involved non-invasive and non-radiologic imaging, like ultrasound or MRI.
In fact, I always recommend that if you can keep screening without radiation, then you should. Knowing is always better than not knowing, if it means you’re able to be proactive in keeping the disease at bay. But of course, insurance won’t pay for those alternatives.
So when it comes to mammograms, I don’t believe the risks of radiation outweigh the benefits—even for younger women. And I definitely think the risk is wasted on older patients who, again, are less likely to run into aggressive breast cancer.
Of course, this advice might change depending on your family history. (The higher your personal risk, the more intensive the screening. For more specific recommendations regarding breast cancer screening, take some time to revisit the August 2014 issue, where I covered this topic in-depth.)
But as I explained earlier, as you get older, the likelihood of cancer killing you or doing you significant harm decreases dramatically. The likelihood of conventional treatment shortening your life, however, skyrockets. So let’s talk a little bit more about that…
When you’re fighting cancer, knowledge is power
I’ll say it again: Should you choose to undergo conventional treatments—like surgery, chemo, or radiation—be prepared for harsher side effects. Be prepared for a longer recovery time. And be prepared for the possibility of never feeling quite like “yourself” again.
My best advice in this situation is to take the time to get multiple opinions. (And no matter what your doctor says when he or she gives you your diagnosis, you DO have time to do that.) Take all of the feedback and recommendations into consideration. And really ask yourself: Will I be better off getting the therapy or living with what I have?
And please realize that the latter is absolutely an option, provided you’re able to overcome the psychological hurdle of feeling like you’re “doing nothing.” I find that when low-risk patients can learn to live with cancer, they often fare much better than when they jump straight to the “slash and burn” approach of mainstream medicine.
I do understand that not everyone can just go about their daily life knowing they have cancer in their body. But let me remind you that every minute of every day, your body produces and destroys cancer cells. This is a biological reality that a healthy body is well equipped to handle.
With proper nutrition and supplementation, many patients can and will continue to live a long and healthy life despite their diagnosis. Your job is to collect all the facts and weigh them carefully.
If you are an older woman facing some tough decisions, you’ve got some basic questions in front of you: Do the benefits of the therapy outweigh the risks? How sick will I be? And what are the long-term side effects of the therapy?
Ask your doctor for answers and make sure you get detailed responses. You have to live with the results of your decisions, so you should be the one making them… and they must be as well-informed as possible.
Once again, living with cancer is possible—and I have a whole host of patients to prove it. It may not be the right decision for you…but it is a viable and successful approach, should you choose it.
And if you do, the next step is simple…
Transform your body into a one-woman army
Here’s a short list of supplements I recommend most for armoring your immune system. If you’re a senior woman facing a new breast cancer diagnosis, these need to be on your list of essentials:
- Curcumin. This is a powerful natural anti-inflammatory. And like a lot of other potentially deadly diseases, cancer has a strong link to inflammation.But if you’re in a fight for your life against this devastating disease, you need to know that not just any old curcumin will do. Studies have shown that curcumin is not easily absorbed on its own. Luckily, nutraceutical technology has come a long way. Now, there are several potent, bioavailable forms of curcumin on the market. I like Meriva®, a patented time-release curcumin extract. It is a “phytosome” form of curcumin that’s paired with fat—a combination that’s much easier to absorb. In fact, one 2011 study suggests Meriva is absorbed 29 times better than plain old curcumin.2
- AHCC. This non-toxic mushroom extract is a powerful immune modulator. Clinical studies show higher survival and remission rates with AHCC supplementation. And if you choose conventional treatment, AHCC can minimize side effects while enhancing benefits. That’s why I recommend 1,000 mg three times per day.
- RegActiv™. This is a probiotic that activates your body’s production of glutathione. As I explained last month, glutathione is the most powerful antioxidant and liver-detoxifying agent in your body. And Regactiv is the only oral supplement capable of raising your levels. I recommend at least one capsule twice per day.
- Vitamin D3. Studies show that the higher the level of vitamin D in your body, the lower your risk of death in general—and from cancer in particular. Aim for levels between 80 and 100 in your blood stream. I recommend at least 5,000 IU per day. But if your levels are low, you may require a dose as high as 10,000 IU to get your body back up to where it needs to be. Your doctor should be routinely testing and monitoring your D status.
- Astaxanthin. An amazing, well-supported antioxidant. I recommend 4 mg per day.
- Cocoa polyphenols. Again, some of the most powerful antioxidants known to man. Get as many as you can, from 100 percent pure cacao (add coconut milk and sweeten with stevia to taste) or supplements. (In this case, I recommend taking 1 gram, three times per day.)
Shoring up your defenses with these six supplements is essential, whether you choose to undergo conventional treatments or not. (And you can learn even more natural ways to fight cancer in my special report, Cancer-Free for Life. To order a copy click here or call 1-888-884-7768 and ask for order code EOV1S10A.)
Your immune system is your first line of defense against cancer. But keeping it as strong as possible will also help to protect you against major complications associated with surgery, chemo, and radiation should you choose that route.
The goal, as always, is to extend life.
But the idea that this must always require you to compromise the quality of your life is just plain wrong. And that includes cancer treatment.
- Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, et al. (editors). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2012. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2012/, 2015.
- Cuomo, J., et al., Comparative Absorption of a Standardized Curcuminoid Mixture and Its Lecithin Formulation. J Nat Prod, 2011.