A body’s cry for healing manifests in many forms, sometimes as a soft whisper – recurring headaches, ongoing fatigue – and, if brushed off, the body screams louder, nudging one to notice it is off balance before disease sets in. For Sylvie Lessard, now living healthy with breast cancer for nearly seven years, the messenger has been like a noble friend, calling for her to seek answers and healing from within.
Though she has chosen a natural and unconventional path to help her heal her body, her journey, “dancing with cancer,” has not been about the physical side of cancer, but rather, as she has come to understand over the years, the many facets to the emotional side of the disease.
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I already knew within me that the body can heal itself, given the right conditions,” Lessard says. “I never had thought I’d get breast cancer because it doesn’t run in my family and I’d never been concerned with my health because I never had health problems. I don’t believe in disease, so my journey was to understand why did it manifest in me?”
What if one understood at a deeper cellular level how emotions like fear and resentment can potentially lead to illness? How would that change the healing path one might follow?
Dr. Lissa Rankin asserts, through her many years of research compiled in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, the nocebo effect has such power that when a person believes in illness it triggers a stress response in the body and the whole physiology of the body changes, such that it provides a perfect breeding ground for chronic illness and disease to manifest.
This has powerful implications for the individual facing a diagnosis of cancer, says Lessard.
She need only point to an instance in her life only a couple of years ago when she met with a surgeon to monitor her condition. Nearing the end of the appointment the surgeon looked at her and said, “It does not matter what you do. The only thing for sure is that the tumour one day will take over your body.” I said to her “We’ll see.” I thought to myself, What right do you have to tell me that? Consider the nocebo effect. If that has been told to someone else who believed it, then it will be.”
Most have heard about the fight or flight stress response, but few understand they themselves may be living in a constant state of fight or flight, unknowingly, simply because the mind cannot distinguish between a negative thought and a real life threat, Rankin explains in her book. Being frustrated while caught up in rush hour traffic triggers the same stress response in the body as being confronted by a black bear. The challenge then becomes how to turn the response off. The only way to switch the stress response off is through relaxation of the body, which in turn triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body’s self-healing responses to kick in. The body only heals in a relaxed state, Rankin asserts, who is a strong advocate of meditation to help the body relax and heal.
Cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton explains the brain responds biochemically to emotions – fear, worry, anger, resentment and negativity all being emotions that result in a cellular change in the body at a biological level.
For Lessard, this understanding has been the turning point in her journey. Nurturing her body physically by consciously choosing healthy foods that nourish, and regular exercise, had been Lessard’s way of life since 1990, so she knew deep down that the roots of her cancer had to have taken hold at some other level. The cancer has been not the enemy, but rather a messenger crying out to her deeper self to pay attention.
Working long hours for a publishing house, and employed as a director of communications for a theatre company, as a single mom juggling life and career, the day’s end left very little time for self care. And that, perhaps, has been her greatest nemesis.
“The last thing I would do would be to take time for myself,” Lessard remembers. “Looking back, had I given more time for myself I would have been better able to handle the stress. Looking back I’d resent having to work long hours, but my dedication to work, to being a perfectionist, was stronger than my desire to take time for myself.”
At the time of her diagnosis her two children were ages 12 and 16. She had ignored her body’s pleas to pay attention. She was fatigued, but had chalked it up to long work hours and the price one pays living a life juggling as a single mom and career woman. Headaches began to surface, but again, that was just the busyness of life. Two years prior to the diagnosis she had noticed a physical change in her breast, and yet, too busy to have it checked by a physician, and disbelief that cancer could take hold of her body, she continued day to day, letting time slip by without paying attention to what was really going on in her body.
“It was a shock to be diagnosed with cancer, but I never saw it as an enemy to be conquered or feared or destroyed. Cancer was the messenger telling me something was out of balance.”
There has been no more powerful influence of emotional understanding for her since the day she went to the hospital for pre-admission for upcoming surgery that was urged by her doctor, only a week after her cancer diagnosis. She had been reticent about the idea of surgery.
“The surgeon and nurse were completely baffled by my reaction and my resistance to surgery because usually when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer she immediately wants to have surgery,” Lessard recalls. “So I finally accepted to have the surgery.”
That day in pre-admissions was her turning point. Up until that point in time, she had felt healthy, despite the cancer. They had given her booklets to read on the surgery, and talked about risks and what to expect after the surgery and the different treatments, and the whole experience left her “completely depleted of energy.”
“It completely brought me down,” Lessard recalls. “I felt sick, nothing like I did when I went to the hospital.”
She discussed the experience with her sister and her sister reminded her of a time when a family member was going through cancer and Lessard had handed the family member the book Breuss Cancer Cure. Her sister had reassured her that she would know what she would need to do to heal. When that realization came to her, she felt a sense of peace and her whole energy shifted back to feeling well, says Lessard. She opted not to have the surgery.
“Through the journey there have been times when I have had doubts about whether or not I was doing the right thing,” Lessard says, “but I’ve never lost power like the day I went to do the pre-admission. It brought me to a new level of understanding about myself.”
In so much as it was an emotional journey of understanding self, she knew the cancer itself was physical so addressing it at a physical level was a necessary part of the journey.
She explored the Breuss Cancer Cure fasting and herbal remedies, then moved on to follow the recommendations in Bill Henderson’s book Cancer Free, and much more. Each time she came to a crossroads and felt uncertain about her next move, another resource for remedies would appear in her life – a book would be recommended, she’d come across information online – there was always another natural cancer protocol awaiting her.
“I continued finding books that have helped me,” Lessard says. “Every time I found myself at a crossroads I’d ask the question “What do I need to do now?” and the answer would come to me.”
She connected with a naturopath who recommended vitamin C injections and supplements. She routinely had blood tests to monitor the level at which her cancer was at. At one point the naturopath had said to her that her c15-3 cancer marker was so low that had it not been for the mammogram results one might not even suspect the presence of cancer.
With so many schools of thought on physically healing with cancer, it is often a challenge to determine what protocol is the right one for an individual, Lessard says. For two years she kept herself on a rigid vegan diet, mostly comprised of raw foods, wheat grass and juicing.
In essence, the physical journey has been an integral part of the journey of learning to listen to the inner voice.
“I really have to just listen to what my body tells me to eat,” Lessard says. “I believe our biology is different in each one of us.”
“I discovered that if I was eating too much of a rigid diet I was squeezing joy out of my life. “
“Everybody needs to go through their own journey,” Lessard says. “There are as many answers to healing as there are people who need healing.”
By March 2008 she felt the onset of burnout taking hold. Her employer had paid for expenses for her to do fascia therapy massage treatments. The holistic therapist provided a pathway for Lessard to explore the mind-body connection at a deeper level.
“It helped me develop a greater mind-body connection, to understand how emotions stored in the body can lead to illness,” Lessard says. “It’s about stopping and listening to your body.”
She began to practice guided meditation, introspection to listen to the gentle, or often times not so gentle, voices within.
Thing is, despite now living with breast cancer for several years, she’s never felt ill.
“I believe in perfect health,” Lessard says. “Symptoms are signs that need to be paid attention to. When you don’t pay attention your body will come back with a hammer,” Lessard says.
“I know in the beginning of my journey I was very focused on the physical part of it, but then I started becoming conscious that there is an emotional level that I needed to pay attention to.”
“I didn’t do any of that (mediation, and self-care time) consistently,” Lessard says. “I have been aware that there’s a link between emotions and cancer and the finding of Dr. Hammer’s research on the emotional link to cancer helped me connect the origin of my cancer.”
“At times I found life to be really hard and at some point I knew I had to let go of the past, but how? The how was a big question because I had a hard time finding the time to explore that question.”
The only real answer is to make the time. We are really the only ones standing in our own way.
“Give yourself 10 minutes a day alone in a room,” Lessard says. “If you can’t be with your thoughts for that 10 minutes then put on gentle music and just breathe. Do it consistently and increase it to two times a day, at morning and night. I prefer guided meditation because I have a hard time silencing and stilling the mind.”
One of her favourite stilling activities has been to reconnect with music that she enjoyed as a youngster. She has also created a “fun” folder where she places reminders of joyful things in life.
“I’d ask myself, ‘What are the songs I enjoyed when I was young?’ and I’d find the songs online and listen to them and they lift my spirits and I begin to see images of me when I was younger, when I felt free.”
The physical health of her breast is her barometer. In a complete relaxed state the tissues surrounding her breast are soft, but in times of stress the tissues become hardened, reminding her that her body and mind are in a stressed state. In a deep relaxation she can feel a gentle tingling sensation around her breast – physical healing manifesting.
“When I had the diagnosis, yes, it was a shock to the system, but because of what I already believed about the body’s ability to heal itself, I knew I had some power to do something about it.”
It is her hope that the day will arrive when cancer patients are given real hope at the time of diagnosis, rather than eliciting the fear responses of the body.
“I wish when people receive their diagnosis they are told ‘You know there are so many options for you, so many things you can do to help heal your body.’ I would like to see people not making decisions based on fear. As soon as you feel fear, your immune system is down, yet what the immune system does is fight cancer.
“Sometimes when there is cancer present you need to act fast, but most times it takes a long time, and emotions can have a big impact on how you heal. When people are diagnosed they shouldn’t be in a state of panic and fear, they should be told ‘you have time.’”
Although Lessard chose the course of natural medicine she does not believe that alternative medicine is the only answer.
“For me, it was physically impossible for me to take the conventional medical route,” she says. “I had a strong feeling that I had to do it naturally. I’m learning that it’s not the choice of medicine; it’s how you feel about it. For me, conventional medicine would be a last resort, yet conventional can work and alternative can work.
“I wish conventional and alternative medicine could work together so that cancer patients could understand that life does not necessarily depend on a quick decision, that they can take the time to know what feels best for them in their healing.”
“This journey has humbled me. It has showed me a wide variety of possibilities. It has taken as long as it has because there were things that I needed to learn along this journey.”
And she is still learning and believes the day will come when she is completely cancer free.
“In my dreams, I am totally healed. The missing link in what I need to get back to perfect health is completely understanding the emotional side of my cancer.”
By Sari Huhtala, Publisher, Alive+Fit Magazine