When breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in American women only after skin cancer what can you do to prevent it for the first AND second time?
If you’ve already had breast cancer you’re at a higher risk of getting another breast cancer, or another type of cancer according to the American Cancer Association.
Two-time cancer survivor Kirstin Nussburger knows first hand how important an integrative and functional medicine approach is to preventing and healing from breast cancer even when you are leading an otherwise healthy life. She is a cancer nutrition expert, empathetic mentor and best-selling author of Confessions of a Cancer Conqueror – My 5 Step Process to Transform Your Relationship with Cancer where she offers a roadmap to begin healing from cancer, based on both her professional and personal experiences.
Here’s what Kirstin has to say about preventing breast cancer for the first AND second time:
Kirsi Bhasin: Tell us about how you first got diagnosed with breast cancer and what followed after that.
Kirstin Nussgruber: When I was diagnosed at age 39, that was the exact same age my aunt actually passed away from metastasized breast cancer. She was first diagnosed at age 34 back in the ’90s and then it reoccurred and metastasized to her liver. I kept thinking I’ve got to make it to 39 and boom, I was diagnosed at 39.
At the same time I got diagnosed, my mom was going through her second round of breast cancer and had just started chemotherapy.
I was slowly coming to terms with all this and had all sorts of questions running through my mind like,“is it really my turn?”
For me it was always clear that I have to really tackle this from all angles. It seemed that breast cancer was in our genes, but I soon found out that I did not carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes.
I took an integrative approach right from the start. I did conventional treatments and looked at other factors like nutrition. It was important to me, as I was studying it at the time.
In my case, I wasn’t overweight and I lived a pretty healthy lifestyle, but there are so many other things that possibly contribute to cancer. It’s the reason why I wrote my book to share my story and the important areas you need to look at.
Kirsi Bhasin: It sounds like for you it was a real wakeup call both times you got diagnosed to go deeper and think about what is going on and why?
Kirstin Nussgruber: Yes, absolutely. And to realize that we’re all different. We make different choices in terms of how to fight this and we can have different outcomes. There is no direct right or wrong path, but rather the right path for you at the time. I can list people, who went on the journey with me who chose different methods, and some survived and some did not. There are so many different scenarios.
What I would say is understand that we need to tackle this from different angles and we need to listen to why this comes up.
To give an example of why my diagnosis was a wake-up call for me, at least the first time around, is the fact that I had a very difficult relationship as an adult with my mother.
It lingered in the background. It wasn’t really something that could be resolved by just meeting up and talking. That was never ever going to be a possibility. Every now and then, there would be an incident between her and me that would upset me emotionally, but also affected me physically.
If you are emotionally upset, tune into your body and figure out where you are hurting and what is happening in your body. For me, it was the area where my heart Chakra is. It felt like it was on fire whenever I had an incident with my mother.
My wake-up call was that I needed to figure out how to deal with this. I needed to make it my main responsibility. We all have scenarios like that. Whatever is the most painful for you emotionally is exactly what you need to focus on.
I believe that a chronic disease like cancer and other chronic diseases as well sprout up because we’ve ignored these emotionally upsetting situations. We need to focus on treating that just as much as we focus on treating cancer. With the same vigor, dedication and commitment to treating cancer we need to focus on the other pieces of the puzzle, one of them being emotional self- care and releasing emotional trauma.
Kirsi Bhasin: Could you talk a little bit about what your top tips are for preventing breast cancer for the first and second time?
Kirstin Nussgruber: We know that what can cause breast cancer can be caused by the lack of true nourishment, meaning physical nourishment of the body in terms of food and the ability to digest and absorb food. We could be eating as healthy as possible, but we’re not absorbing nutrients for various reasons. We need to focus on not just what we eat, but also on our gut.
There are lots of preventative functional tests that can be done if we think we have an issue. We should not ignore signs that indicate something is going on with our gut because it is the foundation of our immune system. We need to focus on how to best support the immune system. It’s not just about eating right, but also about digesting and absorbing our food properly.
That takes me to the second factor we have to manage – stress. If there’s one thing that most people are suffering from in the western world, it’s stress. We always feel stressed and we just accept it. It’s not going to go away easily, not with the types of lives that we’re leading, with the types of expectations that we are placing on ourselves, but we have to understand that we need to find coping mechanisms. It needs to be a priority and not constantly say I don’t have time for that because, the next thing you know, you could be diagnosed and then what?
Let’s not let that wake-up call happen. We need to make time for stress management and figure out how we best de-stress. For some, it’s a hobby. For others, it’s meditation or going to the gym. Let it be something that you enjoy doing that also allows you to switch off the outside world.
We have to learn to set boundaries for ourselves and stick to them. If we don’t set these boundaries, most of us will get diagnosed with some form of chronic illness. It seems to be a very straightforward and very obvious pattern these days. We need to wake up and realize that there are preventative steps that we need to take to manage stress.
You need to tackle the stressful situation. Sometimes, it means a career change, breaking off a relationship or dealing with a teenager. For me, it was about how I could de-stress from the interactions I had with my mother. She wasn’t going to change, she would still say hurtful things to me. Now I only have forgiveness for her because of the work that I’ve done. There was a time when it was very, very difficult, but I learned how to cope with it and forgive.
Lastly, I want to mention environmental toxins. There are so many studies out there showing what people are finding in biopsies of breast tumors, such as the chemicals we find in our cosmetic products and in our cleaning products. We should not underestimate the degree that these toxins accumulate in our bodies. If our detoxification pathways are compromised or if our system is just overloaded, it can lead to problems like hormonal imbalances and cell damage. This can happen over the course of many years. We slather products onto our bodies to look good, to feel good, to smell good, but they contain toxins and chemicals that mimic estrogen. So many of the breast cancers that are diagnosed are estrogen receptor positive, meaning that they are fueled by estrogen.
Even some pesticides mimic estrogen. We need to buy clean, toxin free products. They might cost a bit more, but are worth it in the long run. We are constantly using products on our skin every day. It’s our largest organ and easily absorbs what we put on it. Why would we want to put on a particular lotion that contains certain preservatives that are found in samples of breast cancer tumors?
Kirsi Bhasin: How do you talk to people about breast cancer as a patient? And what would you recommend people who find out they have a family member with cancer talk about it with the patient? I certainly felt at a loss when I first heard my sister had breast cancer. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I was saying the right thing and if it would upset her. I’d love to hear your perspective on this.
Kirstin Nussgruber: Its a normal process of shock and grieving, which is necessary. Otherwise, it could lead to a form of post-traumatic stress disorder if we don’t allow these emotions out.
Treat the patient like a human being. Say something like, “you tell me exactly what you need because I want to help you and I don’t want to do the wrong thing and I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” Be very upfront about it.
From the patient’s point of view, be very specific about the type of help you need and the type of reactions you want people to have. Be honest. People don’t know and you need to be vocal about it. Ask them to treat you like a normal human being. They may empathize with you or pity you, or are likely in a state of in shock themselves. You may want to tell them, “In order for me to gather myself again and be strong, I need you to just be yourself and realize I’m a human being. I’m alive and kicking and sometimes I’ll need you to just be there for me and listen.”
When you’re diagnosed, you carry some guilt of asking other people for help. You may think they’re too busy and you can’t ask them to do this or that. But you can, because people actually want to help. Give them an exact list of instructions. Say, “can you make a meal tonight and I want the meal to be this exact recipe.” The last thing you want is for well-meaning people to flood you with things that you can’t use. It can cause a form of resentment because your gratitude is going to be tinged with a certain type of regret. And the giver will pick up on that. So, just be very specific about what you need and want.
Talking about it as a newly diagnosed cancer patient, I think, depends on family dynamics. So I’ve had patients say to me, I absolutely do not want my immediate family to know because that would cause a lot more stress. Generally, my recommendation is understand that you are putting an emotional burden on yourself if you don’t tell them because you’re not going to receive the type of support you need if they don’t know. Sometimes, the family situation could be that you are bombarded by family members who would judge you and want to make decisions for you. You can then decide if you need the space and time to make the decision before you tell them, and that’s perfectly okay. There is no right or wrong. As the cancer patient, figure out the main type of support that you need, and if it means extra time so that you can make decisions without the influence of well-meaning, but maybe too-dominant family members, then that’s how you do it and you can tell them afterwards. That’s okay.