Mar 18, 2023
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Jill Alphonso
(Photo above) A cancer diagnosis is least served by feelings of shame and self-blame. Yet many patients question if the disease is their fault. Although Ms Jill Alphonso could check many “cancer risk” boxes, she also “did things right”. She has been a vegetarian and an active yoga practitioner and teacher for years.
Learning you have cancer is confronting. Emotional. Soul-destroying. Adding to the shock, there’s the matter of getting on a bullet train ride to try to understand it all — so you can deal.
To steady myself in the time right after diagnosis when I needed to make rational decisions in an emotional time, I reached for lifelines.
First, the mental shift: I had to accept that having cancer is not a death sentence. Though stigmatisation and negative portrayals linger around the disease, many advancements over the years have been a game changer.
Patients are not victims. I did not have to get totally unhinged.
This is still my life. I could control certain things, and — even better — create my own experience with the cards I’d been dealt. Ultimately, having the right frame of mind and information are critical. To buoy my spirits and tackle the fight ahead, I started speaking to survivors, voraciously researching and reading, and treating myself with love and kindness.
As I selected medical options to target the disease, I could — and would — concurrently do more to support that scientific approach with radical lifestyle changes.
Personally, I chose an integrated approach, employing a mix of conventional medicine — using Singapore’s hospital system — and natural therapies as treatment. I knew that if I wanted to win this fight, I needed as many weapons as possible.
The following realisations and learnings gave me air at a time when I was gasping for it, allowing me to select my treatments with the right mindset. If you’re in a similar tight spot — your mind reeling over the doctor’s news, I hope what I found can help you too, exposing the difference between perception and reality.
(Above) Although a common perception is that getting cancer means there is nothing a patient can do for herself, Ms Alphonso chose to see things differently. She regards breast cancer as the discovery of abnormal, cancerous cells in the breast tissues. “To me, they are still my body’s cells, gone astray. My thinking is: My body created my cancer. My body can heal it.”
Perception: Breast Cancer Equals Death
Reality: No one likes hearing the word “cancer”. But it shouldn’t go straight to “death is imminent” in your head. Today, breast cancer, depending on the severity of the tumour involved and whether it has spread, is often seen by doctors as a chronic illness rather than a disease.
Choosing a personal treatment plan is still fraught. Patients have to figure out if their path includes surgery, and/or radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Those decisions, for me, felt overwhelming to make while I was still in shock.
Nevertheless, billions of dollars poured into research over decades have yielded progress and today, breast cancer is one of the most-studied cancers.
As I began considering what was right for me, I realised just how intensely today’s conventional medicine protocols have been developed in response to results of the many, many breast cancer patients before me.
In particular, early-stage breast cancer is considered relatively “easy” to treat. For example, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), referring to the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast, has a low risk of becoming invasive. (Read more about the various stages.)
Perception: It’s All in the Hands of Fate
Reality: To take an active role in my own cancer care, it was important for me to understand as much as possible about the specific type of cancer or cancer-related syndrome I had. As a former journalist, I started by asking questions and consulting all good resources available to make informed treatment decisions.
Stanford Medicine points out that the biology of a cancer can dictate the course of events whatever a patient’s fighting spirit, taking it beyond anyone’s control. But patients with positive attitudes and a good mindset can more ably cope with cancer-related problems, and may respond better to therapy. I kept that in mind as I moved forward.
Perception: Cancer is about genetics
Reality: Genetics isn’t everything. There are women diagnosed with breast cancer who have zero risk factors. Meaning, no family history.
Yes, some breast cancers are hereditary, genes are not always the “cause”. They can set the stage for susceptibility. But while everyone develops pre-cancerous cells, only a certain percentage of them develop malignant tumours.
My take-away is this: Genetics plays only a minor role. These are most likely triggered by our lifestyle and life choices of the past, and exacerbated by what we continue to do in the present.
A whopping majority of cancer mutations are — here’s some news — random. A 2017 study provided evidence that random, unpredictable DNA copying “mistakes” in cells account for nearly two-thirds of the mutations that cause cancer. Specifically, 66 per cent of mutations are random, about 29 per cent are due to the environment, and only 5 per cent, heredity.
Even so, a breast cancer patient may want to take a genetics test to determine gene mutations, as this can influence your treatment choices. (Think Angelina Jolie, who had a family history and was found to have a gene mutation. She had not been diagnosed, but underwent a double mastectomy and had her ovaries removed as a preventative measure.)
But even if your BRCA markers come up as mutated, science is increasingly finding that lifestyle plays a part as to whether cancer actually develops.
(Above) Ms Alphonso switched to a diet that is plant-based, gluten-free, low salt, low oil, and devoid of refined sugars. She gets at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, even if it is just walking. She sleeps eight to nine hours a night, and gets enough sunlight and fresh air — at least 10 minutes within an hour of waking up. All this, to make her body as inhospitable as possible to cancer. ”While doctors could treat me with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, only I could do this lifestyle bit for me,” she said.
Perception: The Blame and Shame is Mine
Reality: Shame is pointless. Blame doesn’t help anything. But immediately after the diagnosis, a million questions will plague your brain: Did you smoke? Did you drink? Did you get enough rest? Did you eat the right things?
These are good questions to ask. But not every case is straightforward. (Nevertheless, if you haven’t already, stop smoking and drinking right now. Also, you’ll have to make some radical adjustments to your diet and exercise, as part of an active anti-cancer regimen.)
In my case, while I can check many of the “cancer risk” boxes, I can also check off even more of the “did things right” boxes. I’m a former hard partier. But I have also spent years as a vegetarian and an active yoga practitioner and teacher. And yes, I do have cancer in my family — but the BRCA1 and 2 genes (breast cancer genes) in me were not mutated, as per a genetics test I took.
Ultimately, cancer is multifaceted. My thinking is: Had I not been as healthy and fit as I was, the cancer could be worse.
What was quite clear was that how I was living still contributed to the growth of my tumour. I therefore took massive, radical action. Whatever I wasn’t doing right concerning my diet and rest, as well as concerning my spirituality and my psyche, I needed to fix. I wanted to address my internal environment, as I believe it would give me the best chances of ensuring the cancer does not return.
So as I unburdened myself of criticisms about what I did or did not do “right”, I also fully believed that I could help my own body heal.
“What I can do now” would determine my win conditions.
Perception: Once I Get Cancer, There’s Nothing I Can Do
Reality: I regard breast cancer as the discovery of abnormal, cancerous cells in the breast tissues. To me, they are still my body’s cells, gone astray. My thinking is: My body created my cancer. My body can heal it.
Now I realise not everyone will agree with that way of thinking. But if you can get on board with this, it will also free you up to see that what conventional doctors offer you isn’t your only hope.
For me, this philosophy expresses my will to live in terms of personal responsibility. As the master of my own body, I sought to create an internal terrain that would be completely inhospitable to cancer.
While doctors could treat me with surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, only I could do this lifestyle bit for me.
So I took absolute and full responsibility for my health, no excuses. After all, research puts 75 to 95 per cent of cancers down to lifestyle — including diet, exercise, and stress. Therefore, I believe, given the right nutrition and internal environment, cancer can be healed.
Of course, I realised this part would be the toughest part of my fight.
It calls for a deep and abiding commitment to a total life change; an overhaul of habits built over an entire lifetime. But I wanted to accept full responsibility for how I had been living, and how I wanted to live in my fight against cancer.
We all deserve good health. If we can identify cancer-causing habits, we can work towards eradicating them, and reverse their effects with the right course of living.
Perception: Only chemo can save me now
Reality: Not true. Every bit counts. I joined countless other cancer survivors in taking charge of my lifestyle choices, by switching to this new protocol:
- A healthy diet — many cancer doctors define this as plant-based, gluten-free, low salt, low oil, and devoid of refined sugars
- Getting enough exercise — at least 30 minutes a day, even if it’s just walking
- Get sunlight and fresh air — at least 10 minutes of this an hour after waking
- Get adequate rest — many top athletes sleep around 9 hours a night; at least from 10pm to 6am.
It’s pretty simple. But I am committed to following this lifestyle, unreservedly, for a minimum of two years after diagnosis. Why? Because cells regenerate. It will take time and consistency in practising these health-promoting habits to create that total health body that is inhospitable to cancer. (And by the way, even if your environment is toxic, the right lifestyle can be preventative.)
Pre-diagnosis, I did not follow all the rules above to a T. But now, I have a deep “why”. I needed to flood my body with nutrition that can help the healing process. So I will not eat anything that I cannot define as “medicine”. So now, I can’t tell myself “ice cream is good for the soul”. No “fun foods” like fries and cakes made with refined sugars — whole foods only.
Plenty of science backs this whole approach, from going plant-based, to the effects of one’s emotional and psychological states on cell function.
I’m not saying that eating ice cream and hamburgers will cause metastatic cancer. But the effects of consuming such foods does increase the odds, in the same way that stress and inadequate sleep have negative effects on a body’s immune function.
I had to listen to my instincts and intuition, while being honest about what I could immediately change. I asked myself: “What will it take to stay alive?” then listed all possibilities. Then, I took action. And I found true power.
(Above) While cancer patients may be compelled to believe they have to be “strong”, “serious” or “sad”, Ms Alphonso believes everyone should forge her own path. As she got used to dealing with medical protocols, she began to see her upcoming mastectomy as a milestone. “I wanted my whole cancer journey to be filled with love, laughter, kindness, and joy. I’m so glad I did.”
Perception: I Have to be Strong / Serious / Sad
Reality: All your choices on how to “be” are valid.
In fact, you get to make your experience as big of a deal as you need it to be. I did, and I did not regret it for one bit.
I went through a period of processing. I kept things to myself for several days before I told various loved ones and social groups about my diagnosis. But one thing kept playing on my mind: This is my life. I get to decide how to live it, no matter the circumstances.
I started getting used to the idea of fighting cancer, and dealing with medical protocols. After the initial days of mental and emotional processing, I realised this battle would be a milestone in my life. I wanted to make it a happy one, just like (don’t laugh) my wedding. I wanted my whole cancer journey to be filled with love, laughter, kindness, and joy. I’m so glad I did.
I began to share, quite openly, first with my inner circle, then the people I saw almost every day (such as my colleagues) about the diagnosis. But after I broke the news, I’d quickly follow up with my intentions to make this a positive journey. This created a positive loop for me, and it swiftly shifted people from reacting with shock and fear to love. They recognised that I wanted positivity, and offered to support me with anything I needed. And I loved that they allowed me to make this time “all about me”.
For instance, I decided on a “pre-surgery party” in my hospital room right before my mastectomy. I asked my friends and family to help me fill my room with blooms, candles with scents I enjoy, crystals, and decor I love. I communicated the “vibe” I wanted with them, and entrusted myself to their care. They did not disappoint.
My mother, husband, cousin and closest friends showed up at 7am on a Tuesday morning to decorate my room and wish me well. Some took leave from work and stayed to greet me when I returned from the operating theatre. Theirs were the faces I saw as I was wheeled to the theatre, and the faces I saw when I returned.
Those who couldn’t be there in person called me on video to send me love. They were my light in what could have been a dark time. They remain that light now.
Because of them, when I look back at this time in my life and all that happened, I do not think of sorrow or fear. Because of them, I may be one boob less, but my heart has never been more full. Because of them, I have never felt so loved and treasured.
(Above) Accepting that she did not have to walk an emotional tightrope alone, Ms Alphonso rallied a strong support network of loved ones and close friends to herself. She and her husband, Mr Justin Noreikis, mentally and emotionally prepared themselves for the challenges ahead post-surgery, working with a therapist. Stress over a diagnosis can persist long after the initial shock, and over the course of treatment.
I already only think of the friends who rallied around me, family members who provided unconditional support, and colleagues who constantly reminded me of who I am as a person. I’m glad I chose to let them in to shape that part of my journey.
If you do not have a strong support group already in your life, reach out to various survivors and thrivers. I leaned on my mother’s friends who had gone through breast cancer, as well as my loved ones who had. They had faced up to the disease, and had much wisdom to share. Or speak to your doctor, who will know where to start.
For instance, my doctor under the Solis Breast Care Group has a support group and befriender program (email Sister Eleanor Wong at email@example.com for help).
Breast cancer thrivers and befrienders under organised support programs are often volunteers. Lean on them, for they are experts who have taken many different paths and approaches to their own diagnosis and treatment. They have nothing but love and essential tips to share with you.
Never feel shy about reaching out, or asking for help. The breast cancer community is one that will embrace you and hold you tight. As my doctor lovingly told me: Remember always that you are not alone.
I am fully aware that I had early breast cancer, and a strong community to lean on. I have a best case scenario, in which distress can be dealt with. I have a therapist to aid me with that. For many others, stress over a diagnosis can persist long after the initial shock, and as treatment progresses.
- Part 1 of Jill’s Journey: When Breast Cancer Upturns Her Life, Jill Alphonso Fights Back
Follow Jill’s Journey as she deals with her diagnosis of breast cancer and ensuing fight to beat it with WhatAreYouDoing.sg. Singaporeans and PRs above age 50 get subsidies for mammograms and screenings. But as breast cancer is on the rise in those even younger than that, getting screened is key to early treatment. Visit the Breast Cancer Foundation or the Singapore Cancer Society for advice and more. Private practitioners such as Solis Breast Care And Surgery Centre, where the author received treatment, also are a good place to start for information on mammograms, screening options and advice.