Out Past the Breakers: Surviving and Thriving Beyond the Western Medical Approach to Cancer

Karen L. Kisslinger.

The first time I went to the beach was in Hawaii in 1967. I walked up to the edge of the water and almost immediately got washed away by a gigantic wave. My teeth were full of sand, and my body strained to hold it’s own inside the overwhelming force. As the wave pulled away, I was left lying limp and astonished on the beach. Soon I learned to dive under waves so that they wouldn’t knock me down. That lesson…about working with nature instead of being swept away by it’s brutal forces was surely the beginning of my healing story. It taught me to get out past the breakers, where the rhythm of the waves was slow and rolling and easy, and well-being and safety could reside.

When we think of a story, we think of a beginning and an end, but when I was asked to write my “healing story”, I knew that I was unsure when and where it had actually started and completely uncertain how it will end..for healing goes on day to day as a dance in our lives.

It is natural, when you’ve had a cancer diagnosis, mine was breast cancer, to try to think of clear reasons and discreet causes. My mind filed over and over again through a childhood in Midwestern America replete with nuclear fallout and DDT. During the summers of 1956-8 we spent hours dragging dead fish off the beach, and burying them the day after DTT had been sprayed for mosquitoes.. It was only after my cancer diagnosis that I realized that we had spent the rest of the summer eating the surviving fish. As children we were excited and proud when scientists wanted to study our baby teeth to see how much “strontium 90” we had absorbed from nuclear test fall out. It was only after my cancer diagnosis that I really understood the meaning of that study.

Later came the high dosage birth control pills of the 60’s, so convenient in those pre-AIDS days, but I stopped taking them after 11/2 years because of medical concerns that they could increase cancer incidence 20 or so years down the road. And the abortion, so “routine” when the diaphragm failed; but certainly a shock to those perfect hormones and to the breast tissue they effected.

And the list can always go on. There is no one answer, no one factor. A few weeks after my cancer diagnosis I was standing in my kitchen cooking and was overwhelmed with the feeling that I (having cancer) was ruining everyone’s life. This seemed such a sad and inappropriate feeling, and I suddenly realized a connection: that as an unplanned and unexpected baby ( I was a second “undiagnosed” twin in an unplanned pregnancy, a surprise), that ever since I was a baby I may have had a vague feeling that I was ruining everyone’s (i.e. my mothers!) life. No matter how accomplished or achieving or “perfect” I was as a child, student, woman and mother, I could never fix that big slip up in my mother’s life. I know that I felt an unspoken sense of disappointment from my mother as a child, despite loving and being loved by her, long before I consciously knew what had happened.

And then when I was four, my Mommy had a stroke when she was pregnant, was paralyzed for a time, during which I didn’t know what was going on or where she was. Though she survived the stroke, she was never the same again, and as an adult I have known deeply that I experienced her stroke as losing my Mommy. After “losing her, I changed too. I had to become the Mommy, of myself, of my baby brother, of everybody. I took it all on, and worked my way with enthusiasm into a very successful professional and personal life with too much to do, too much chaos and too much responsibility. I think this is a pretty common kind of story.

After accepting fully that there was no discreet cause of my cancer, I still felt compelled to consider causes carefully, because I felt that only by taking responsibility within the pattern of my being for the development of cancer could I possibly accept that I could take responsibility and power in healing from cancer. Twenty three years ago my acupuncture teacher taught me the depth and the power of healing that is possible, and my studies of macrobiotics with Michio Kushi in Boston structured my faith and understanding of food and way of life practice as the basis for healing and health maintenance. After my cancer diagnosis when I saw my acupuncture teacher, JR Worsley, for treatment, he asked my why I hadn’t had chemo-therapy. I said: “JR, if I don’t believe in healing, then what has my life been about?”.

The question then became one of what my program would be for nurturing a “closed for reconstruction” renovation of everything from my colon flora to my spiritual orientation toward life and the universe; and everything in between.

Essentially, though I had many carcinogenic exposures, I was just another supra-individuated, busy, stressed out, chaotic and neurotic person with fairly unrealistic expectations, pre-disposed, like almost everyone to developing cancer.

Healing from cancer meant healing my relationship with everything…… with food, with time, with work, with myself. I thought often of the maxim I had heard in the 70’s: Civilization is the disease: cancer is the cure.

Years ago I took a workshop with Joseph Chilton Pearce who defined “love” in the broadest sense as “right relationship”. Whatever healing is, for me it has involved coming toward “right relationship” with life. It has been macrobiotic teaching which has been at the core of my developing understanding of what this might mean and how to live in right relationship………in love.

Though I studied macrobiotic theory with Michio back in the 70’s, I never studied the cooking properly, and it wasn’t until my cancer diagnosis that I really studied macrobiotic cooking and the practice of healing diet and macrobiotic healing program.

Studying and practicing macrobiotic cooking, for myself and my family has given me the nourishment and the rhythm necessary for healing. As much as the actual physical nourishment, the way of cooking and the rhythm of cooking is the HEARTBEAT OF HEALING.


The plan I eventually put together was a program of cellular and spiritual rejuvenation which I have come to call “macro-plus” and involved the factors described below.

The first wonderful step in adopting my healing program was accepting the hopeful way that macrobiotics offered. I’ll never forget the cold and frightened feeling I had sitting in the office of a prestigious oncologist in New York City, squirming and trying to look interested as he described heart damaging chemo therapy to me and told me that my statistical chances for recurrence went up 5% for each of my positive lymph nodes.

This numbers game was insulting and harassing; it also didn’t feel like it had anything to do with me! I was so frightened and disoriented, but this man really only seemed to be offering me a good chance of dying sooner than later.

How much better and safer I felt going to see Michio, sitting in his comfortable living room in Brookline, hearing positive, hopeful and life affirming encouragement for healing. Sitting in on my consultation was a woman who had survived a 4 month prognosis for inflammatory breast cancer 12 years before and who was now assisting Michio and helping compile documentation on cancer healing. She was of course, a true and living inspiration to me. My gratitude at being given this sense of hope is immeasurable. I’m also grateful for the warning given to me by both Michio and Shizuko Yamamoto, after the first year, that though I no longer had cancer, I had to do the practice and do the work, or I could get sick again at any time…..which puts me in the same boat with everyone else.

At the core of my healing practice was the macrobiotic healing program as prescribed to me in detail by Michio Kushi, including food based remedies and of course, the healing diet.

What fascinates me most about this diet is not simply the quality of fine, organic ingredients, but the proportion in which they are cooked and eaten.

PROPORTION. It’s fine to eat some brown rice and some aduki beans and some hijiki and bok choy, but how much of each do you eat, complemented by what condiments? How are acid and base balanced, expansive and contractive, sweet and salty, warming and cooling, protein, fat, sugar, starch?. The proper proportion of each nutrient, dietary elements and even state of mind leads directly to the formation of healthy, harmonious tissues, organs and glands. With different proportions, different things happen. I found and continue to find my evolving sense of proper proportion, which changes subtly with the seasons, with the kind of work I’m doing, or with travel. This is an essential and fascinating treasure of macrobiotic practice.

As a follow up to my consultation with Michio in Boston, I took a series of cooking classes with Sarah La Penta in nearby Litchfield, Connecticut. This not only rounded out my knowledge of macro cooking, but added the La Pentas and their beautiful children as friends in my life.

Then came the parasite cleanse and colon rejuvenation. I decided that my colon needed attention and treatment immediately to allow me to benefit more from the macro diet and to stop any damage or stress that was occurring to my immune system from parasites, candida overgrowth and food sensitivities.

The macro diet itself eliminated sensitive foods, except for corn which I seem to be sensitive to in any form. I still occasionally indulge in fresh sweet corn in late summer and have to endure itchy elbows as a result. I also find wheat, even in good sour dough bread, to be mucus producing for me, and I eat only a minimum of wheat. This has actually been a convenient way to continue to minimize all flour products. After almost 10 years, eliminating most flour products is still an element of the healing diet which I stick with and believe to be highly beneficial. The macro diet also added kudzu and other elements which seemed to soothe the bowel and also added enzyme rich condiments such as fermented vegetable “pickles” and sauerkraut, which remarkably enhance bowel flora and function.

I used an herbal formula called Para Cleanse, which is a mixture of encapsulated Chinese Herbs used morning and evening (6 capsules) for ten days and repeated again ten days later. I had a dramatic reaction to the Para-Cleanse, eliminating parasites within two or three days and immediately started to have more normal bowel movements and stronger bowel tone. I also used pro-biotic micro-organisms, such as bifidus and acidophilus, and feel that this also helps normalized flora. Currently I rely more on enzyme and micro organism rich condiments and do not use supplements as I did in the past.

As for the issue of Candida imbalance or overgrowth, it seems that the macro diet along with bowel work (above) helped bring the ever present yeast into balance with other intestinal flora. . Yeast overgrowth has not been a problem except for occasionally when I overdo the “yin” dietary factors, such as raw fruit. It doesn’t take much fruit sugar for a little reminder itch to develop, and in the end I’ve become thankful to the yeast for being my “Yin” barometer.

Though it’s been said in many places, I re-emphasize for those who may not have heard it enough: Don’t think of your colon as just an eliminator, unrelated to overall organ and body health. The health and integrity of your intestinal wall (both large and small), your colon flora and the expulsive tone of your elimination are vital to maintaining immune function and a non-toxic body, and therefore have to be central factors in a healing program for cancer.

Also central for me has been the use of herbs and therapeutic grade essential oils, which I see as the gems and crystals of the nourishing plant world. I’ve used herbs in two different ways. First as a constitutional support for weakened organs and weakened chi, and for this I have used primarily Chinese herbs which support the liver, kidneys, heart and “spleen”. The herbs effect the spiritual as well as the physical aspects of chi and have been another factor in my growing awe of the healing available from the plants of the earth, from the MACRO-BIOS…the great life.. Over the past several years I have expanded my gardens to include many medicinal herbs, and of course this means that the herbs “heal” me twice: first in the gardening work and secondly when I use them in teas and food.

The second way I have used herbs would have to be described as “anti-cancer”, to discourage any cancer cells or tendency to redevelop cancer. Although Michio did not recommend any particular such herbs, he did not object to my using herbs like Cat’s Claw, both because it is a powerful anti-oxidant, has many beneficial properties, and because, it gave me a psychological edge that I still find valuable, living as I thankfully continue to do, in the toxic and stressful world. I also use WTTC, a Wisteria based herbal formula specifically designed to help prevent cancer recurrence. The energy of this formula feels very neutral, not extreme, but nourishing. I still use it, though I go off it for a month once in a while.

In the early period of my cancer healing I worked with an anthroposophic doctor who had a great respect for macro biotics. He suggested two additional components for a healing program. The first was PRO-GEST, a transdermal cream containing natural progesterone. Dr. Incao had been in touch with Dr. John Lee who had been using Pro-gest for years with breast cancer patients and who claimed that in 14 years with hundreds of patients he had never had a case of cancer recurrence. I was skeptical; 100% success was a little unbelievable to me. Doctor Incao informed me that in the 5 years he’d been using it, he also hadn’t seen any recurrences. I looked him straight in the eye and asked if he completely believed that it was a beneficial thing for me to do and that it could not hurt me. He said yes. I checked in with Michio who said I didn’t need it, but didn’t object to my using it. It seemed to be very beneficial and also gave me another “psychological edge”, which not being fully enlightened I’m not at all adverse to admitting that I needed. I have been using it ever since, though lately in smaller doses. Between the macrobiotic diet and the Pro-gest I have experienced an almost unnoticeable “mense-cease” (usually called meno-pause, but I don’t foresee it starting up again!) and have come to feel strongly that the macrobiotic diet heals imbalances which can otherwise make menopause an ordeal.

The second suggestion Dr. Incao made was ISCADOR, a mistletoe based remedy which has been used in Anthroposophical medicine for many years to treat cancer. I have come to call it my homeopathic “chemo”, and I used it for three years. It is given by subcutaneous injection and the dosages increase within each series of injections. It is given with homeopathic additives specific to each patients particular needs and cancer. I really liked the Iscador, though I hated the injections at first. It made me feel calmer, and I also had the distinct experience of feeling that I had been surrounded by supportive and healing forces. It was only after I had this experience that I read about Iscador as supporting the “formative forces” within the patient.

The healing work involved being more orderly, more formed, in every way. I spoke to a wonderful Dr. in New York while I was still in the “research” phase: after my diagnosis, after going on the healing diet, but still putting the overall program together. He pointed out that the average modern intellectual neurotic person has a HARD TIME DIFFERENTIATING: wants to do everything well, be everything well, wants to keep up the “five-heavy-reading-courses life style well past the college years. He believed that such superstar individuals are much like a cancer cell, not differentiating properly, not necessarily working well to serve the whole social and biological organism, possibly selfish and uncooperative with their own body, family and natural environment. This isn’t as much a judgment as an observation.

I took this idea to heart. I am not a very differentiated person, I “do” many different kinds of things, and I do them very well, but I believe it has been at the expense of building up a tremendous amount of inner tension. Whether my style of being was the result or the cause of what, in Chinese medicine, we call “constrained liver chi”, I have no doubt that my high level of drive, inner friction and tension was part of my predisposition to developing cancer. My current reputation as an expert in relaxation came directly, and of necessity, out of my life as an “expert” in tension.

Meditation, chi-kung yoga, walking, and gardening have all been an essential in my healing work, teaching me how tense I have been and still tend to be if I don’t do the daily work of quiet, slow focused awareness and natural chi movement. Recently I was thinking about the much debated fact that macrobiotic teachers have not typically put a lot of, (some people think not enough), emphasis on emotional factors in dealing with cancer patients It occurred to me that even though great oriental medicine teachers such as Michio Kushi, T.K. Shih and John Shen see thousands of American patients and witness their dis-ease, imbalance and degeneration, that they can not possibly know how it FEELS to be as tense and heart-hungry as most Americans tend to be.

Ironically, it may be that I (and others) have something valuable to share because I really know how it feels to be wound up extremely tight with grasping heart , the typical psychic structuring of the clever American intellectual. I have also had the honor and the good luck to live and to work with teachers and healers in a way which has allowed, and continues to allow, some of that tension and pain to be released. Inherently, this has not only involved my personal healing but has connected directly to my work in the treatment room. My work with macrobiotics and healing is something that I can share daily with my acupuncture patients, not just theoretically but in the power of the treatments, in the openness, love and connectedness I can share. It’s so much fun!

Another major way that I have been involved with service and slowness is in my garden, tending the soil and the plants which feed us. Gardening is surely one of the greatest of the healing arts and puts us right in the middle of life where we should be, working it out with slugs, flea beetles, cucumber beetles and cabbage moths. From early July through December, our garden supplies our vegetables; a great luxurious variety, freshly harvested.

In addition to all the home based aspects of my healing program, asking for and accepting treatment from chi masters, such as T.K. Shih who did external chi healing on me after my surgery, and Dr. John Shen, who prescribed powerful Chinese herbs for me, was a privilege and a humbling experience. I can’t possibly express the extent of my gratitude to them. Working with master healers from a completely different culture, including Michio, gave me the helpful experience of seeing how ego centered and sentimental our cultural reaction to illness is. Working with Oriental masters gave me the refreshing perspective of unsentimental acceptance of destiny, disease and imbalance. Both the Anthroposophical and Oriental perspectives aren’t particularly concerned with whether the healing takes place in a particular life time or body, and so I was left with the sobering realization that my personal little story was relatively unimportant and typical, just one more blip on the great yin and yang. The basic message was: go home and heal, or not, no one can do it for you.

Vipassana meditation, in which I have been heart inspired by Sharon Salzburg and Joseph Goldstein, from Insight Meditation Society, and by the leader of my sitting group, Jose Reissig, has also allowed me the perspective of quiet necessary to notice the patterns of chaos and delusion which I, like most people, tend to fall into.

The healing of this tendency involves humility. A diagnosis of cancer is of course a very humbling experience. I remember sitting talking to my very overweight toxic looking would-be surgeon as he munched on handfuls of small “red-hot” candies. As I sat judging him for his dietary indiscretions, I reminded myself not to judge him or anyone: “Karen, you’re the one with the cancer here!”

In experiencing humility and mortality, it is easier to accept serving ourselves and others through the time consuming and undervalued art of cooking. Home cooking is surely undervalued in our culture. Yet it is through full acceptance of the rhythm of macrobiotic food preparation that the steady beat of healing can overcome chaos. We simply can’t just do anything anytime we want to and still live balanced harmonious lives. This is particularly true if there are children to feed.

In many households today, an absolute minimum of time is given to food preparation, just enough to get something on the table so that everyone won’t go hungry. The planning necessary for procuring and preparing fully balanced, non toxic and artfully prepared meals seems a fantasy luxury and an overwhelming demand to most people.

Recently, I served a lunch to four people, three of whom I had never met before. As we sat down to the table my new acquaintances were overwhelmed by the beauty, balance and plentifulness of the food I had prepared and remarked all through the meal that they couldn’t remember when they’d had such a wonderful meal. Sometimes as we sit down to a beautiful medicine meal together I say to Rob, Nobody gets to eat like this”, and though not entirely true, it is said with complete gratitude that we have had the resources, time and the opportunity to learn to grow and cook food which daily gives us beauty, healing and true sustenance.

As part of my practice of preventive medicine, I run a home-enrichment program for parents of pre-schoolers in the town where I live. The subject which spurs the most interest and the most questions is FOOD and how to prepare and present healthier food for children. The parents I work with say they have no idea where to begin. I know this is true. To really begin doing what I knew I needed to do took my cancer diagnosis.

Sometimes I ask my acupuncture patients if they’re waiting to get some terrible disease before they start taking good care of themselves. No one has ever really been offended by this question. Daily, I watch the crumbly, cranky, toxic, achy bodies, the stagnant chi and diminished essence, as these wonderful people wend their way inexorably toward degeneration. The downward spiral is often masked by prescription drugs which support completely unreasonable expectations.

The biggest of our cultural unreasonable expectations or desires is for a cure for cancer: a substance, a cartilage, a shot a pill, something simple, something a person can just take and keep on with their busy life. But of course, it’s not a matter of a simple cure in a bottle. In the years since my cancer diagnosis I have seen a great increase in the public acceptance of coordinating conventional cancer treatment with complementary healing practices. Though is a hopeful sign, cancer establishment politics is too skewed toward profitable conventional treatment without enough acknowledgment of the possibility of prevention and healing without toxic therapies. Many who have worked to heal from cancer have said it, and I join them: To have had the inner and outer resources to carry on and carry out an overall healing program has been a life giving privilege

My husband Rob, who has faithfully loved and accepted me throughout everything, and who has honored and loved and eaten the food I’ve made for us daily, has really been the heart of my healing. When I first become ill, he also was in a crisis time, suffering burn-out and chronic fatigue after years as a busy family physician. We have been healing together and today he too is healthier and more resilient despite his own overwhelming work load at a busy family medicine clinic. Our work together has also involved cleaning up our physical environment to make it less toxic and less electro-magnetically challenging ( though we weren’t able to stop the radio tower on the other side of our mountain). It has also involved humor and keeping our senses of humor as much as possible.

Though I always felt a lot of love and respect in my life, it has been profoundly healing to experience that love and respect would still be there even if I didn’t do and accomplish all of my usual headliner list of projects, activities and creations. What a relief! I’ve always tended to work too hard and do too much, and I still tend to do this. One of my daily healing mantras is “do less, be at ease, do less, be at ease!”

Rob and I continue to work together. Are we done healing? Is healing ever “done”? Aren’t we always healing, learning to be more sensitive to the vibrations and effects of everything in our mental and physical diet so that we can eat peacefully, live peacefully, work peacefully, and, as Shizuko Yamamoto said to me when I first went to see her for Shiatsu….”so that some day we may die peacefully.”

My deepest experience of healing has been what I’ve come to call “coming home from my ego trip” This is a daily challenge. As much as a healing diet, I feel that macro-biotics has helped me start living my belief in a life of gratitude, service and wonder. Having a well established and successful acupuncture and healing practice offers the daily challenge of egotism, but offers even greater opportunities for humbling before the energy (chi) which preceded us, forms us, and will heal us, if allowed to move freely.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a feeling of slight anxiety and tightness in my body. I’ve come to know that this is the physical equivalent of an inner feeling that I have so much to do, to accomplish. I’ve been able to release that feeling through the simple practice of metta meditation, starting with myself: “May I be at ease, may I be happy, may I feel loved, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be loved.” The experience of finally knowing that I don’t have to DO so much to be loved and lovable has been the greatest healing liberation. Sometimes it’s still a struggle for me to believe it, but I’ve had the luck of feeling that the best reason to get up in the morning is to be aware of opportunities for loving kindness in each moment of life.