Another Patient Journey: 2019 was a good year

Picking up the story from my last blog Was 2019 really that bad? my doctors advised that I should stop the TNF blocker drugs, that had enabled me to live a normal life for the past three years, before undergoing cancer surgery. That made sense. These drugs work by dampening the immune system. I could understand that my immune system should be as strong as possible for the operation, so I would have to go off them…. for a while.

However, after the operation I was told that I wasn’t supposed to stop the TNF blockers just for the operation. I was supposed to stop them forever, or at least for a few years, because TNF blockers might enable the cancer to come back. TNF = Tumour Necrosis Factor – the blockers stop these messengers in the immune system, which are thought to play a role in suppressing cancer.

My doctors all seemed to be saying “stop TNF blockers”. I couldn’t believe it. I read the patient information for my medication, and it said the same thing: Do not take this medication if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

I was absolutely devasted.

Until I spoke to one doctor, by whom I felt understood, and who said, “What do you want? What is Quality of Life for you?” I thought of my trips to the mountains, of laughing with family and friends and all the love of life that had come back to me with TNF blockers. After the trauma of diagnosis and the surgery, I felt so confused and helpless. I needed that input to start thinking for myself.

I posted a question on the Facebook AS patients’ page of which I am a member. One woman commented that she was in cancer treatment and had to change medication. She wrote, “I got my life back with humira [brand name of a TNF blocker drug] and now it’s the 💩💩💩.”

Then I looked for relevant research results, my oncologist sent me a paper, I opened the discussion with different experts, and discovered …that there was no relevant, reliable data to guide my decision. The risk of cancer caused by TNF blockers in my situation is theoretical, because it would not be admissible to run clinical trials with patients to find out. There is also no scientific literature showing that I will reduce the risk by stopping TNF blockers now.

Living with chronic disease is life on a knife-edge

With my condition I live on a knife-edge, and I want to stay on it, living a normal life. This is me, on a mountain called the Lyskamm. It’s a knife-edge ridge, about 5 km long, and the idea is to stay on it, to walk right over it. I walked over it on my mountain tour of August 2017. I tell that story in my TED talk or my blog 16 x 4,000m summits in 5 days.

Traverse of Lyskamm, 16 4,000m peaks in 5 days
Me standing on the knife edge of the Lyskamm on the border of Switzerland and Italy

When you stand on that ridge on the right is Italy, and a drop of 1000 m. On the left is Switzerland, and a drop of 1000 m.

Italy is happy go lucky, living for the now. “La Dolce Vita”. For me it stands for continuing TNF blockers. But maybe I will fall to my death, because taking the drugs might allow the cancer to come back!

Switzerland is the sensible place to be. If in doubt, choose the conservative option, wait and see. It stands for stopping TNF blockers. But maybe I will fall to my death because if I stop taking the drugs, the autoinflammatory conditions will probably flare up again! I had experienced this a year before, when the medication stopped working, see The Luxury of Despair. Furthermore, it is known that chronic inflammation increases cancer risk, as does a lack of regular exercise.

How would you choose? ……Which way would you lean on that ridge?

“What is Quality of Life for you?”

The words of that doctor were my guiding light. She saw my integral, holistic needs beyond the inflexible, “one size fits all” recommendations of a health system that generally places mortality and prolonging life above quality. In Switzerland I can choose my doctors and over the years I have sought out dedicated carers who are attentive to my experiences and needs and do everything in their power to help me.

I want doctors to give me the facts, listen to me, guide me, but recognise that this is my patient journey.

I could explain my perspective to my doctors and win their understanding, respect and agreement. I decided to continue TNF blockers and live as healthy and strong a life as I can, even if my decision might be increasing the risk of cancer. Life feels good right now, and that’s all I need.

Was 2019 really that bad?

If you’d told me in March 2019 that I wouldn’t write another blog on “arthritis and me” until 2020, I would have laughed and said you didn’t know me!

I had started two new drafts. They will be finished one day, but first I have to write about breast cancer and get that off my chest – excuse the intended pun.

“Breast cancer and me”? I mean…. that happens to others. People who are already managing chronic disorders don’t get cancer as well. Or do they?

Well yes, it seems that they do. In that sense people with chronic disorders aren’t different from anybody else. Nevertheless, most of my friends were very shocked and found it rather unfair and that I had already had my share of health issues in the last few years.

Today, looking back from these first days of 2020, I feel that apart from the fact of not being able to write any blogs or do much beyond managing the daily essentials for several months, 2019 was not such a bad year.

The year didn’t start so well and that already blocked my ability to write. In July I went for a regular Mammography as is recommended every 2-3 years for women of my age. A couple of days later the phone rang and to my surprise I was asked to come into hospital for a check. “It’s probably just a shadow,” the woman on the phone said. “It’s usually nothing. But to make sure, you should come in.” Another couple of days later I was under the ultrasound and then it seemed like endless samples were taken for biopsy using a sort of pressure gun that was held against my breast and took tiny bits of tissue. Very uncomfortable

I was asked whether I wanted the results by letter or phone. It seemed logical to get the information as soon as possible, so I opted for a phone call. This came in the early evening two days later. The doctor who had taken the samples rang me. “Good evening, Ms Safford”, she said. “Unfortunately….“ and after that I understood almost nothing. My reptilian brain, the Amygdala took over. Flight or Fight. My cognitive abilities were gone. I have since learnt from others that this is normal. It’s the shock.

A week or two later the exact diagnosis was explained to me. Luckily, I took a friend to the hospital with me, because despite my efforts to listen, I was still unable to take the information in. My friend took notes and then explained to me, I understood that the cancer had not spread. Treatment would be surgery and radiology over several weeks, but no chemotherapy. Most importantly, I would not die and could fully expect to be cured.

Surgery and radiotherapy went as planned. It was a strange experience having a disease that is considered so serious and generates so much fear, yet my own diagnosis was positive. That meant that my own feelings were that this breast cancer was much less important than the arthritis and intestinal problems that I had experienced daily for years, and for which there are no cures.

Brustzentrum, Inselspital Bern
Feeling frail but well after breast cancer surgery

The hardest part of the story came after surgery. My doctors recommended that I should stop the medication for the arthritis and bowel disease, which has completely transformed my life in the last 4 years by enormously reducing the pain, inflammation and tiredness. See my post How it all started for the story of my amazing improvement . The drugs are called TNF-alpha blockers, because they block messengers in my immune system called TNF-alpha, which are thought to be malfunctioning, and are causing my illnesses.

However, it is believed that TNF-alpha normally plays an important role in the immune system by fending off cancer and destroying potential tumours. TNF stands for Tumour Necrosis Factor. So obviously, someone already diagnosed with cancer, will be recommended not to take this medication. That advice initially really devastated me, but then it sent me on an important journey to pursue my needs as a patient and not just to follow doctor’s orders. I write about that journey in the next blog… coming soon.

Featured photo by Vernon Raineil Cenzon on Unsplash

Am I really what I eat?

In the bad old days when life seemed to be filled only with pain, I used to comfort myself and find moments of peace with the thought: „I am not my body!“ If I could see myself at a level of consciousness where my soul and not my body was in charge, then the pain lost its power over me. That was rare, but it did happen.

If I am not my body, then I am also not what I eat, right? Up to now I believed that medication, exercise and stress-reduction are more important for my well-being, than food. However, the more I learn about diet, the more I think that it may be important too. Diet seems to be the question that interests people the most.

The leading Swiss charity for musculoskeletal disorders, the Swiss League against Rheumatism, recognises that many patients would like advice about diet, but do not know where to find reliable information. They publish an excellent series of articles explaining the different views (German, French, Italian). Many rheumatologists are sceptical of or reject any significant dietary influence on the development of chronic disease, and fear that special diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies, and make things worse for patients. At the other extreme there are holistic physicians, and health advisors who believe that diet can even replace medication.

When the disease flares up, I would try almost anything to alleviate the pain; and it seems intuitively plausible that what we eat may affect the progress of disease. It is well-known that a poor diet can lead to other health problems, such as Diabetes or cardiac disease. But what about Arthritis? Health care specialists who believe that diet has no influence, point out that there is no clear evidence that diet makes a difference. But that could be because the subject has not been adequately researched yet. We still don’t understand what triggers arthritis, so in my view it’s too early to eliminate diet from the list of suspects.

But where can patients like myself find the information to make their own decisions?

My General Practitioner sent me to a nutritional consultation at the local University Hospital. I was amazed to learn that they even have a leaflet for people with inflammatory arthritis (published by the Swiss Society for Nutrition in German and French). There I was told that many elements of a Mediterranean diet can help reduce inflammation.

The picture shows me with my kids eating a Mediterranean diet on holiday in 2014. We were doing it years ago!

Family holidays in Sicily

The first thing is to guard against Osteoporosis. I‘ve had reduced bone density since my mid-forties, so that means making sure I get enough calcium (Fish, cheese, yogurt, various seeds – you can find information on the web) and Vitamin D (supplements and going out into the sunshine).

People affected by inflammatory arthritis need a lot of protein, which is contained in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and pulses. Some of those foods may promote inflammation, as I explain below.

If there are foods that promote inflammation, then people like me should avoid them, and eat more foods that are anti-inflammatory. That’s where the Mediterranean food comes in. As is well-known many Western diets contain high levels of Omega-6 fats, in particular arachidonic acid. These are considered to promote inflammation and are found in meat, eggs and high fat dairy products. Our Western diets contain a lot of arachidonic acid. So according to the advice I received, these should be reduced as much as possible. The anti-inflammatory „good“ foods contain Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish – so cod-liver oil really is good for you! – and certain oils. Oils that are particularly good are Linseed (we had that at home when I was a child, but it was only used to grease Cricket bats), walnut oil and rapeseed oil. To my disappointment olive oil is good, but not amongst the very best.

The last advice is to eat things containing something called Antioxidants because they scavenge „bad guys“ called oxygen radicals (who would think that something with the word oxygen in it would be bad for you?). You get your antioxidants if you eat lots of fruit and veg, and whole grain products, and nuts and seeds.

I was delighted with this advice, except it described quite well the way I eat anyway, and I‘ve still got active AS. What can I change?

I suspect that I still eat a lot of unhealthy food, even when I think that I am eating healthily. Ten years ago I visited Japan for 2 weeks.

Vegetable seller in Japan
Vegetable market in Japan
Pasta chef in Japan
Fresh pasta chef in Japan

The food was absolutely amazing, lots of weird greens and freshly made pasta. It was before my AS diagnosis, although I‘d had symptoms already for many years. I remember well how astonishingly energised and healthy I felt. I had no idea why but vowed to eat Miso soup for breakfast from then on. My promise to myself didn’t even hold a week! In the rural area in Switzerland where I live it was hard to find Miso for the soup, and my family preferred to start the day with traditional Swiss breakfasts…

Brunch bei Marlene und Sämi Wyss Rubi, Hagiboden
Traditional Swiss farmers’ breakfast

Maybe writing this blog will motivate me to try again and report in more detail in a later blog, on what I discover. The whole subject of diet is huge, and I find it quite complex.

Recently I went on a alpine trip collecting wild herbs. In the evening we prepared a wonderful 5-course meal with these plants. It was delicious, and again I felt marvellous afterwards. I’ll leave you with a picture of our starter.

Herbs from mountain meadows are delicious
Mountain meadows are a source of delicious herbs

Do I believe that I can be healthy?

The short answer to this question is “Yes, biologicals gave me back my life”. I’m lucky that I can give that answer, but that topic is for another blog.

But many people, including myself, who suffer from chronic disease feel that their medication is not the only important thing. Tragically, for others there is still no medication that really helps. So we search for other ways to find well-being. In my last blog I named four things that help me: diet, sport, managing stress, experiencing beauty and joy.

Healthy Vegetables alexandr-podvalny-unsplash
Healthy vegetables

These are all important for happy living. But do I think that these things can make a difference to my AS? One thing is for sure, I would like to believe that I can influence my own health. I want to feel empowered and to control my disease.

Western medicine is responsible for the administration of medication. We have specialist doctors, who we hopefully trust and confide in. But, with health choices outside our medication they often can’t help us much, because they don’t know. The knowledge is simply not there, and good clinicians will not engage in unproven theories. It is understandable that a doctor who is trained in Western medicine will generally not recommend treatments, which are not scientifically proven to work. In fact, if a doctor believes that an alternative therapy is harmful, which some quack remedies undoubtably are, then she will try to stop her patient using them.

Most of us know lots of people who offer advice about “alternative treatments”, or eating differently,  which sports are best, or how to reduce stress, and so on. And there is no shortage of stuff in the internet, about people who claim to have “cured” AS. We search through the jungle of literature, different alternative treatments, perhaps finding things that really seem to help, but maybe wasting precious energy and money with things that don’t work, or even fall for a Charlatan and make ourselves worse with something harmful.

At the end of the day most of us believe that we have found some things that work for us. One friend with AS drinks a whisky every evening. That’s his tonic. My belief is that I feel worse the next day, if I drink alcohol. But, I still drink a glass of wine occasionally!

Not so healthy processed vegetables! christin-hume-unsplash
Not so healthy processed vegetables!

If there is any serious research on the subject of whether an evening whisky helps reduce AS symptoms, it would probably say it doesn’t, or at best that the evidence is inconclusive. What makes many therapies work, is that we believe in them. I think this is true of many alternative treatments, such as homeopathic pills, which contain no measurable therapeutic substances. It is belief when patients react positively after receiving placebos in clinical trials. Indeed sometimes they even know they are receiving a placebo, and still feel better.

People suffering from serious or chronic disease need hope. They don’t want to feel helpless. They need to believe that they can influence their health.

Alternative therapies, which are not scientifically based, can give this hope. They can harness the power of belief in cure or at least improvement. They don’t have to keep within the boundaries of scientific knowledge, which may make believing in recovery harder. And many people who offer these treatments, do indeed have great powers to make people feel better: about themselves in their body, mind and soul.

A treatment that harnesses both the powers of belief and of science, and gives patients hope would be the best therapy in my opinion. Until the biologicals worked I had no hope; in a state of despair I could not mobilize any healing powers. Shamans give belief and hope, and there are many documented examples of how they can work wonders. But science is not the focus of shamanic healers, and when it comes to HIV/Aids for example, anti Retroviral therapy prevents a lingering death, and nothing else reliably does.

Can medical doctors also harness the power of belief and hope, without losing the science? I believe that they can and should, but that needs a view of the patient as a whole person in a system and in her environment, and not letting the insights of technology and science reduce a patient to a sick organ. Only a person seen in their entirety will respond to hope.

Finally, medicine starts with scientific health research, so that also needs to broaden its perspective. One way in which that is happening will be the subject of my next blog.

And by the way, my TEDx Talk is also finally online. Please do watch it and pass it on to anybody who might be interested.

Thanks to Dr. Jody Staehlin for feedbacks and helping me to clarify my thoughts… and I would welcome your comments on what I’ve written, please feel free to start a conversation about these subjects close to our hearts.

What keeps me healthy?

In Switzerland we believe that foxes are clever. Near the village where I live there is a family of foxes living on the border between the woods and a corn field, and in Spring the young foxes come out and play in the evenings. Last year I managed to get a picture, which I’d like to use as my feature picture for this first blog about being clever and keeping healthy.

Being and keeping healthy is the most precious, valuable thing that I can think of.  But let’s be honest – a lot about keeping healthy is luck, or maybe it’s more scientific to say that it’s about genes. So does it pay off to live healthily? I see a lot people around me who – how can I put it? – seem to ask a lot of their bodies. But they still seem to be very bright and cheerful, hold down a job and earn enough, have an intact family – in all, manage their lives quite successfully.

Much of my adult life I didn’t feel very well, I was exhausted, or had pains. Despite living my life a in very “healthy” way, I was often ill. Shortly before I started on the treatment with TNF alpha blockers in 2015, I couldn’t “tick off” any of the above life successes. I wonder what my life would have looked like if I’d lived like Winston Churchill, for instance? He began the day with whisky or brandy, and ended it with the same. In between he was very fond of Champagne and of course “Churchill Martinis” which is essentially a glass of gin. He liked good and large quantities of food as well, and is estimated to have smoked or chewed his way through 200’000 cigars. He didn’t think much of sport either, and lived to be 91. I would feel just awful, if I’d lived like that. How did he do it? Genes were probably pretty important.

But if your genes have passed you a disease like AS, or any other chronic ailment. It’s probably a good idea to live as healthily as possible. It should improve the quality of life, as long as you have it, and maybe give you some extra time as well. I believe that my health depends on the medication I take, on what I do for my body, on what I eat and drink, how well I can keep stress out of my life, and how much beauty and joy I manage to keep in.  That’s 5 things. In the next blogs I will address each of these five factors and reflect on how I bring them into my life. In a sixth blog I will make a guess about how much each factor contributes to my total well-being.

I’m looking forward to it, and hope to learn from the experience, and maybe give others some ideas as well.

It’s snowing outside, but Spring will come again. I leave you with a picture of the woods and the fields where the clever foxes play.

View of poppies and Swiss mountains in summer
View of poppies and Swiss mountains in summer