Personal Journey -- A Triumph Over Cancer
Date effective: December 13, 2006
Content provided by Alternative Medicine Magazine
"She's healthier than anybody I've seen in my office in the last 12 months," says Dennis Grossman, an internist in Cleveland, Ohio. Out of context, this isn't a remarkable statement. Meeting his patient, though, one realizes Grossman's assertion is nothing less than astonishing.
Sitting in the afternoon sunlight on an early spring day, Janet Vitt looks like a normal 54-year-old woman. Thin, but not sickly. And yet nine years ago, this divorced mother of two then-teenage sons was worse than sickly -- she was terminal.
Stage IV lung cancer was the diagnosis. A dull pain in the center of her chest had led to a CAT scan, revealing three tumors in her left lung and seven in her right -- and the disease had spread. Her liver housed three tumors, she had another in her pancreas, and yet another was causing her abdomen to swell. A registered nurse since 1971, the soft-spoken Midwesterner understood the gravity of her diagnosis. "When cancer is above and below the dia-phragm," she explains, "we say people aren't going to make it."
Though her mother had died of lung cancer at 42, Vitt had thought her fate would be different. She worked out three times a week and had what she assumed was a fairly healthy lifestyle. Okay, so she held two part-time teaching jobs in addition to working full-time as a nurse manager at a local hospital. ("I foolishly thought being stressed-out was exciting," she admits.) But so what? Unlike her mother, she never smoked.
She didn't have time, though, to rethink her lifestyle in the beginning. When her abdominal tumor was removed eight days after her diagnosis, it had ballooned from the size of a nickel to an 8- by 11-centimeter mass. One oncologist gave her three to six weeks to live; another suggested three to six months. She grabbed onto the more promising prognosis and agreed to participate in an experimental chemotherapy trial, hoping to extend her life by a month.
But just three weeks after receiving the first dose, she dropped 46 pounds from her already slender 118-pound frame. "During those three weeks," she recalls, "if I had even a sip of tea, I'd puke for a half hour."
Realizing that a second dose would kill her, Grossman suggested something that sounded outlandish: alternative healing. "I thought that was for hippies," Vitt says. "But I asked him what he thought I should try and he said, 'macrobiotics.'"
Through a chance meeting with a macrobiotic counselor, Grossman had begun reading about and taking classes in this highly specialized diet. "I knew there was no harm in it," he says. "The oncologists had nothing for her, and I thought it might help to change her immune system and enhance her quality of life."
Macrobiotics (meaning "great" or "large life" in Greek) is much more than just a diet; it's a way of living in balance. Exercise and rest, socializing and solitude, sensible sleep habits, even keeping a tidy home, are all part of a macrobiotic life. But most people associate macrobiotics with the nutritional regimen developed by Japanese writer-philosopher George Ohsawa in the early 20th century. Popularized in America by Michio Kushi in the sixties and seventies, the macrobiotic diet is a far cry from its trendy, contemporary counterparts, like the low-carb, antiaging, or raw-food diets.
There's nothing flashy about it. Emphasizing whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and beans, and largely restricting intake of meat (fish is an occasional staple), dairy products, refined sugars, and processed foods, macrobiotics aims to provide the body with essential nutrients while limiting the accumulation of toxins.
It's based on the Eastern concepts of yin and yang, two contrasting universal energies believed to be present in all things, including food. By consuming foods with the least pronounced yin and yang qualities (like whole grains and vegetables), one can supposedly achieve a more balanced condition and initiate a healing process. It's thought that the standard American diet, with its emphasis on red meat (overly yang) and sugary foods (overly yin), can throw the body out of balance and lead to disease.
"I would have done anything at this point to live," Vitt says, so her sister proceeded to search the Cleveland phone book for macrobiotic counselors. The one she found arrived to meet a 72-pound fragment of a woman gasping for air. "I was on oxygen," she recalls. "I was bald, my nails were blue, and my color was gray." By that point, she was relying on hospice workers and had signed her do-not-resuscitate papers.
Observing her face and hands, Vitt's macrobiotic counselor uttered a statement no doctor had ever made: "You could be healed," he said.
"That was the first positive thing anybody had said to me," she recalls. Too weak to cook for herself, she enlisted the help of friends and her ex-husband. After learning the principles of macrobiotic cooking, they signed up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or overnight shifts. "Basically," she says, "they gave up an entire year of their lives to save me."
Gasping for air made swallowing difficult, so Vitt eased her way into the diet with very small portions. After two days of meals consisting of just two tablespoons of pressure-cooked brown rice, a half cup of miso soup, and some steamed kale and bok choy, her vomiting stopped. After only one week on the diet, she got rid of her medications, which included painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs. "I decided if I wanted to clean out my body," she says, "I couldn't be putting drugs into it."
To address her pain, a massage therapist came three times a week. After a few weeks on the regimen, Vitt began emitting a horrible odor from her skin and was convinced she was dying, but her macrobiotic counselor assured her she was just detoxing.
Months passed and she began to feel better. No longer in need of oxygen around the clock, and able to get to the supermarket with help, Vitt had become cautiously optimistic. "I thought I might have some quality of life before I died," she says.
Although she was relying on an alternative therapy, she continued seeing her internist. "I told him, 'No more scans; no more Western medicine.' Our agreement was that he would support me as long as I came to see him once a week," she explains. "Mostly he listened to my lungs, and we talked about sadness and death."
But one year after her diagnosis, and ten months after she began the macrobiotic diet, Vitt turned the corner. "I was still weak, but I could feel that I was getting better." And soon she got proof. The CAT scan that had delivered a deadly diagnosis one year earlier now brought miraculous news: The tumors were gone.
Usually that's where stories like this end. The patient walks away, mainstream docs scratch their heads in wonder and disbelief, and life goes on. But this one is different.
In 2002, the Kushi Institute, the world's leading macrobiotic educational center, in Becket, Massachusetts, presented Vitt's case and five others like it to the Cancer Advisory Panel for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAPCAM) at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A panel of 15 physicians and scientists reviewed all the evidence and unanimously recommended that the Kushi Institute receive government funding for a clinical study on macrobiotics and cancer.
The study is not yet under way, but George Yu, clinical professor of urology at George Washington University Medical Center and the person who presented the cases on behalf of the Kushi Institute, offers one explanation of why macrobiotics might help: the diet's reliance on fermented foods like miso. "They have good bacteria, which produce many enzymes," he explains. "Those enzymes may have some way of keeping the body in balance, breaking food down, preventing inflammation, and decreasing toxic accumu- lation." The simplicity of the diet also improves elimination, Yu adds, which contributes to its detoxing effect.
Yu says approximately one-third of people who adopt a macrobiotic way of life recover from their illness after three to six months on the diet. "Why it doesn't work for the other two-thirds, I don't know," he admits.
Vitt is just happy she was one of the lucky ones. Nearly a decade after her life came dangerously close to ending, she's still cancer-free. Now a certified macrobiotic counselor herself, she still follows the diet; these days, food is her medicine.
Gone is her habit of eating without thought and working without rest. These days she rises at dawn and goes to bed at 10. She makes room for quiet time, takes daily walks, and has intimate conversations with God.
There have been other positive side effects of eating and living in a more balanced manner. "I used to have migraines, joint pain, and restless sleep," she says, "but not anymore." The big- gest changes in her life, though, are less tangible. "I'm no longer afraid," she says. "I don't care about impressing others, and I don't judge myself.
"All the cells in my body are different," she adds. "I'm really not the same person I was before."
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