An unfolding journey with cancer: Part II
Two weeks ago, I began describing the new journey of my best friend, Zachariah Walker, in his process of dealing with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). We are revealing his story in the event that readers will gain valuable perspective on managing a new diagnosis of cancer.
Zachariah was diagnosed as being in “blast crisis” in his bone marrow 3 1/2 weeks ago, requiring immediate and strong intervention. He completed his first chemotherapy course (known as induction) two weeks ago, remarkably complaining only of nausea and fatigue during his hospital stay. His treatment course has been very unusual in that he was successfully able to integrate conventional, naturopathic, and other holistic medicines while in the hospital here in Grand Junction, fully disclosing all his supplements, herbs and treatments to the attending physicians.
This week he began to lose his hair due to the chemotherapy, and thanks to a skilled hair stylist, now looks somewhere between Zen monk and Vin Diesel. He also has been plagued by his long-standing issue of digestive problems, bringing up the importance of getting treatments that are specific to him, not just a protocol designed for patients with AML. In other words, a patient-centered approach is critical for his recovery. Because he does not have a large intestine and has a stoma (literally “mouth”) that projects the end of his small intestine through the side of his abdomen, he is particularly sensitive to the effects of the chemotherapy, which tends to irritate the end of everyone's digestive tracts that are receiving these treatments.
In a general sense, it is important that the cause of cancer is investigated, rather than just treating symptoms. It was Hippocrates, the father of Western Medicine, who first highlighted this important principle when he said, “It is much more important to know what sort of person has a disease, than what sort of disease a person has.” If the cause of the cancer cannot be immediately identified, then the question, “What is the cause?” must continue to be asked.
The cause of cancer is often not well understood. In Zachariah's case, he did not match many of the most commonly-known causes of cancers, such as pesticide, heavy metal or other chemical exposure. He is only 36, a yoga instructor, and has an incredibly positive outlook, even now. He eats a predominantly organic, nutrient-rich diet with limited processed or junk food. However, his father was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, which has been linked to cancers and could have possibly affected the DNA inherited from his father. Another curious connection is the growing link between Crohn's disease and AML.
Since Crohn's disease is a digestive auto-immune disorder (the body mistakenly attacks itself), perhaps his immune system was susceptible in a way that others are not. His white blood cell count was already down, and he did have a severe viral infection after returning from a cruise ship in January of this year. Unless cruise line food is that bad, the fact that he was affected so strongly is probably more due to his vulnerable state, which may have allowed the leukemia to progress.
This is a lot of conjecture, but sometimes the cause of cancer is not at all understood when it is appropriate to begin treatment, especially in the crisis that Zachariah had. Is this overall treatment working? That will be revealed shortly when he gets other tests back. For now, we have adjusted his plan to support his recovery at home after chemotherapy. We are adding several super-nutritive herbs and vitamins and have added special external treatments in order to soothe his irritated belly. He is continuing to eat nutrient-rich meats, broths and foods to balance his anemia, which often leaves him feeling light-headed and tired.
One of the common treatments after receiving his particular type of chemotherapy is to get stem cell transplantation, which replaces his ravaged bone marrow and might put both leukemia and Crohn's disease into remission, meaning that there is no evidence of cancer in the body. This is the ultimate plan, since a long-term cure cannot be predicted.
He can get the stem cell treatments in the US, but another option is to travel to a modern Mexican hospital, where he would be able to receive unique therapies for his white blood cells such as NK (natural killer) cell therapy. This is less invasive than stem cell transplantation and evidence suggests it will produce similar results.
So how is Zachariah handling this process? How well does anyone handle a cancer diagnosis? It is obviously stressful, emotionally traumatic and difficult for him, his friends and family. Yet some people have described cancer as being the best thing that has happened to them, calling it a “wake-up call” and the impetus to make changes that they have been wanting to make, but have never taken on. As for Zachariah, he has good days and bad days, and he continues to show up with grace and courage, facing each decision as it needs to be made.
Since it is likely that none of the alternative treatments Zachariah chooses will be covered by his insurance, he is expecting significant medical costs, magnified by the ongoing treatment needed to prevent the leukemia from recurring. If you would like to donate to Zachariah's health and wellness fund, please visit around-z-world.blogspot.com.
Dr. Christopher Lepisto graduated as a naturopathic doctor (ND) from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. He is a native of Grand Junction and opened his practice here in 2004. Previously, Lepisto lived and worked in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in indigenous herbal medicines. Lepisto practices downtown near Fourth and Main. For more information, visit www.grandjunctionnaturopath.com or call 970-250-4104.