Ashlander Sharon Wilson found out about her cancer on a fluke. She was in a car crash in February and went in for an X-ray. There it was — a shadow on her lung, about the size of a walnut.
A life coach with a positive attitude, Wilson, 58, was thrown for a loop and wanted to deny it until a CT scan made that impossible.
"I was so shocked. It was hard for me to believe because I didn't feel anything," Wilson says. "After the biopsy, I realized, OK, this is real. What are we going to do about it?"
What Wilson, like other cancer fighters, found is that there is no straight-line answer. They also found the time-honored mother's advice is right: Eat your vegetables.
As Wilson started living with cancer, she combed back over her life, trying to answer the question, "Why me?" There was grief after her partner died in a plane crash last year. Could that be it? Possibly, Wilson thought, as she began the process of educating herself on her cancer via the Internet, blogs and with experts.
"There's a lot of grief," she says. "Grief is associated with cancer. The energy of cancer gets attached to emotions."
Could it be smoking? Unlikely, she decided. The cigarettes were casual, light and long ago. But there was the big asbestos factory down the street in her younger years. She and the other kids used to slide down a pile of it every day and breathed in plenty of it.
Harnassing her emotions came next in her process. Wilson had worked in Cambodia with children who'd lost limbs to land mines. She says she found them the most joyful people she'd ever known.
"They shifted my whole perspective in life. I began looking at only the beauty in life, seeing every person as valid and giving thanks to my body for everything it does. In every darkness there is a gift as long as you stay positive."
Next came diet. Wilson, who already followed an organic diet, greatly increased her intake of vegetables and fruits, dark, leafy greens and raw foods. Gone were any sugar, gluten or dairy.
"Now I'm very aware of how my body is functioning and very grateful for it. I know what it wants."
Then came the choice about surgery to remove the tumor or to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. So far, Wilson is taking an "alternative" route and will check this month to see if it has helped shrink the tumor.
Wilson is among a growing culture of cancer patients who, while they may seek conventional procedures, are educating themselves and seeking alternative healing modes, all the while coping with the uncertainties of going "out of the cancer box."
Steve Read, 63, had a long and happy career with Musicians Friend and left two years ago, looking forward to a long and happy retirement. Instead, in January, a fast-growing and supposedly incurable liver cancer turned up.
"It knocked the crap out of me. It destroyed my physical conditioning," says Read. "I was playing racketball three times a week. Within a couple weeks, I couldn't walk around the block."
Read chose a mix of Western medicine and alternative methods, including chemo and radiation (it reduced the tumor by half), trying for a liver transplant with Oregon Health & Sciences University and getting in the Oregon Medical Insurance Pool. OHSU has so far denied his requests for a transplant, saying his condition prohibits it at present, but he can be re-evaluated as a transplant candidate every six months.
"This is the new reality," Read says, "so what am I going to do? You adjust instantly. I'm not the kind of guy who gives up."
Read now eats lots of greens and other alkalai-laden foods, does a lot of juicing of vegetables and fruits and eats organic produce from the family garden.
Like Wilson, Read, who says he's an atheist, has undergone a radical shift, spiritually and emotionally.
"I have no fear of death. If it's time, it's time. But when you face your mortality, you hit a new level of consciousness. You wish you'd told all the people you love them. With this time, I'm able to improve my relations with family and friends. That's the real wealth. It's 100 times more appreciation.
"I think cancer is a blessing. The doctors told me I'm not going to be around next year. Every day I walk out and appreciate that day, the trees, the clouds, every little thing — I ponder it, instead of walking past it."
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, management consultant Thompson Barton, 68, reacted with initial denial, he says, and "tried to assimilate it."
"I thought, is this real?" Barton says. "I was casual. But I wasn't able to concentrate on work. Here was the 'Big C.' I thought of it as the plague. It's everywhere and no one knows why they get it.
"The doctors wanted surgery right away, like, get it out, it's the enemy. I felt like I was in the closing booth at a used car shop."
But Barton was not prepared to do that.
"I said 'Wait a minute' and I dove into all the alternative stuff, the nontoxic ways, joined cancer support groups, found a whole underground movement, instead of the conventional. I became essentially a Ph.D. in cancer."
Over four years of trying alternative methods and avoiding surgeries and chemo, Barton says, he has found a big downside and a big upside. The downside is "I haven't found anything that works and that's very nerve-wracking."
The upside is "spirituality in a completely new context, immediately and with a depth I can't articulate well," he says.
"It's very humbling to realize I can't stop the cancer. ... It's given me a way larger context for my life. ... It's all spiritual now, a spiritual awakening."
In addition to shifting the emotions and spirits, cancer brings a huge change to people's personal finances.
Read had a $4,000 deductible and pays 20 percent of the rest. A recent two-day visit to OHSU was billed at $42,000, of which he owes $8,400.
"It's expensive as hell, but I'm happy with the care I get. I have 18 doctors up there," says Read.
Barton has spent more than $40,000 on his cancer so far and, he notes, "It's money out of pocket."
Wilson says her finances have "changed drastically, but I do what it takes. I went through my whole savings quickly. It's been hard. My family helps me out."
What do doctors think of these alternative modes? Dr. Robin Miller, a Medford physician, advises shifting diets to the Mediterranean model, with lean protein, lots of veggies and fruits, olive oil and "definitely organic, because who needs extra pesticides if you've got cancer?"
She also suggests using medicinal mushrooms, which boost cancer-fighting cells. What matters, she says, is to eat your vegetables.
"Guided imagery is amazingly powerful," says Miller. "See yourself relaxed and your body as healed of cancer."
Exercise, especially the aerobic kind that comes with walking and hiking, "is incredibly important," says Miller. "Lifestyle is a huge factor. An unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle and obesity are linked to all kinds of cancer and other illnesses."
Having loving support and being positive, says Miller, makes a big difference in recovery from cancer, as does faith in a higher power.
"You do better and heal quicker," she says, "whether it's Mother Nature or Buddha you believe in, so studies have shown over and over."
Cancer patients on the alternative path might be expected to use naturopaths, but naturopathic physician Lissa Mcniel of Medford says they should be an adjunct to medical doctors.
Her advice? "Eat veggies, 100 percent whole foods and nothing that comes with a label. Eat more vegetable protein than animal protein. Eat organic. Eat salads. Use olive oil, not processed oils. Combine raw foods to make phyto-nutrients and antioxidants (plant chemicals) more available. Eat brightly colored things."
Negative emotions also can lower immunity, she says.
"So get rid of the negative things in your life," Mcniel says. "Clear out what doesn't serve you. A good support system really helps. Yoga, tai chi and meditation help you balance and cope."
In the end, says Mcniel, "Cancer is horrible, hard and awful but all sorts of people beat cancer and move on, even people who aren't that postiive — and some with a mild case don't. Studies show, that the stronger and more coping you are, the better your chances of survival."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.