Healthy and Hearty Series: From Victim to Survivor

By Ric Coggins

If you have been living under the same rock as I have, you also might have missed the fact that cancer diagnoses have increased dramatically since the 1980s. In 2015, studies showed the incidence rate of cancer had climbed to 1 in 2 persons who will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. This is up from the start of the last century when the rate was 1 in 20. So, look around you. If you have not been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps your loved one has been. Maybe your best friend or your neighbor, maybe your coworker?

How did I miss this epidemic? How did you?

This article is the first of a new Health and Wellness series. While I will talk about cancer and my experiences relating to it, the real story is about your good health and that of your loved ones. It is about your avoidance of things that my family and I endured. Things that are becoming increasingly more common in today’s toxic world. Things that, if not prevented, could have dire consequences.

Last year at this time, my body was talking to me — or more accurately, yelling at me! I knew it was trying to tell me something, but like holding a screaming baby whom I desperately wished to calm, I had no clue what it wanted or needed. And so my body continued its tantrum in the form of decreased energy and drive, gout-like joint pain in my feet and ankles, and an added “yelp” of knee pain for punctuation. I was also more frequently developing a rash that had years before been diagnosed as a leftover side effect from childhood chicken pox. Called Zoster, it had appeared some 20 years earlier but had remained mostly dormant. Now, it seemed that every month I was dealing with a patch of it. I was also feeling depressed. I thought my melancholia was the natural result of all of the “symptoms,” rather than a symptom itself. Because all of these outcries were so much more audible, I really hadn’t noticed that my throat had begun to swell ever so slightly.  

I tried to shrug this all off as normal; after all, I had just celebrated my 62nd birthday, what did I expect? I was getting old. Getting old sucks, doesn’t it?

Six months later, on July fourth, I would find myself on the end of a phone call from a very concerned oncologist. He was taking time away from his family vacation to tell me he had received lab work which indicated I had an uncommon strain of cancer in my throat. He declared it to be at once aggressive, advanced and inoperable. He said if we did not act equally as aggressive, it could be fatal. More tests would be needed to determine an exact diagnosis and treatment plan.

Quickly scheduled biopsies, blood tests and a PET scan showed the cancer was well developed in my throat, which was now swollen to the point of restricting my windpipe. I also was having trouble swallowing as the tumors were intertwined into my lymph nodes, thyroid and arteries and even constricting my esophagus in my neck. The cancer had further metastasized into another lymph node in my thorax, and a trace was found in my bone marrow. Not good.

A week later in the oncologist’s office, reviewing the whirlwind of rapid-fire test results, I asked the obvious, “How long have I got, Doc?” Without hesitation, MT doctor responded that I may have as little as 90 days unless I immediately began several months of intense chemotherapy which would likely be followed by a Mayo Clinic visit for a stem cell transplant.   

While some might have received this information a death sentence, I took it as my last wake-up call. I remembered all of the previous wake-up calls I had had from my body, starting six months earlier. Alarms that were loud enough, but just the same, alarms that I had in effect hit the snooze button on. I did this because I did not at all know how to respond to the messages my body was desperately trying to get my attention with. If this was not to be my death sentence, I knew very clearly I could not afford to hit the snooze button again, as I might find myself not waking up at all.

I felt fortunate to have a caring, experienced oncologist on my case but was less enthused about the rigid allopathic pharmaceutical regimen he had lined out for me. In addition, I was grateful for my oldest daughter who advised me daily. A practicing RN, she is trained in oncology nursing and had actually administered the chemo drugs I was prescribed. She was able to personally verify both the credibility of the oncologist and the plan laid before me. She was fully on board with his allopathic approach, a path she had been down a number of times with patients before.

Sheepishly, I raised the subject of a more natural, nutrition-based approach, and the doctor surprised me by saying he was aware that green tea and vitamin D had been clinically proven to benefit cancer patients. From there, he quickly dismissed any other dietary and nutritional regimens of having any proven value other than to bolster the body for the onslaught of the harsh chemotherapy he had proposed.

One of the problems I have with conventional oncology is that it sees me as a victim of an unfortunate combination of bad genes and bad luck. In essence, its view is that I could have done nothing different in the past to have prevented this cancer. Along those lines, my doctor assured me I could do nothing different now nor in the future to heal myself or prevent a recurrence. That is, I could do nothing other than submit to multiple rounds of harsh and poisonous pharmaceuticals drugs. This mindset is completely disempowering to me as a patient.

I also struggle with the science that claims genetics play such a fateful role in the increase in cancer cases. For genetics to be the cause of the cancer rate rising from 1 in 20 in the early 1900s to 1 in 2 in the early 2000s, the human genome would have had to dramatically alter itself at a rapid mutation rate unseen in previous history. I just don’t see that as sound science.

I am even less convinced the human race as a whole just has worse luck today than it had in the last century. I am baffled that doctors of medical science consider bad luck as 50 percent of the cause of my disease, while at the same time dismissing any environmental or behavioral considerations as possible causes.

In my doctor’s office, pharmaceutical drugs were the only answer. I required chemotherapy, a brain scan and an echocardiogram. This, my doctor explained, was because the drugs were likely to cause brain damage as well as damage to my heart. The tests were not to see if I was strong enough for chemo, but to get a baseline for future comparisons to see just how much damage the chemo would do to my brain and heart. He also told me that one of the chemo drugs was known to create perforations in the brain that could later lead to early onset dementia. As he said this, I mused in my head, “Great, the chemo will cure my cancer and allow me to live years longer — I just won’t remember it!”

In addition to the heart damage, he went on to say that one of the chemos was a carcinogen itself, known to cause a different cancer which could appear about the same time as the early onset dementia. Once again, I chuckled silently at the thought of having to fight another kind of cancer, but thanks to future dementia I would not remember that, either! Now the question in my mind was, which was worse? The disease or the allopathic path to cure? I would soon have the answers to this question.

Confronted with the reality of a cancer diagnosis and the inherent fear associated it, it would have been very easy for me to take everything said by the doctor at face value. By far, this is what most people do. And having been there, I understand the inclination to check your brain at the door that says “MD” on it.

However, like you, I think somewhat alternatively than the standard accepted cultural norms. In fact, I think the reason that you and I find ourselves together here in the pages of Green Living now, is because we know there are too many places where the “wheels are off the wagon” in our culture. We are aware of the toxicity of our environment and how our bodies do not go unaffected by these poisons.   

As I write this, it has been almost six months since that Independence Day phone call which marked the beginning of my journey to health and wellness. More importantly, it has been three months since my last PET scan which showed me cancer free.

And since this series is about you, I invite you to please join me here in Green Living magazine next month and the following months as I share with you the details of my “Yellow Brick Road” to healing. I will introduce to you my own versions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion — those mentors who I met along my way to meeting the Wonderful Wizard of Health! Our journey will take us to oncologists and naturopaths in the US, Mexico and Italy, as well as the latest research in cancer causes and cures — and how I am now, thankfully, without cancer. See you next month!

Ric Coggins is a University of Arizona Master Gardener (Maricopa County) who grew up on a one-acre garden tended to by his father, who was a regular contributor to organic gardening and farming magazines. Ric continues his father’s “green” traditions, owning and operating The Fool on the Hill Farm, a one-acre organic garden homestead in Mesa.

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