Something Old, Something New
A famous poem used at weddings says, “ Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” This poem was derived from an Old English rhyme in the Victorian Era from Lancashire, England. The idea of continuity in “Something Old” is balanced by the idea of a new chapter or optimism about the future in “Something New.” The circle of life is apparent in this example.
Mary (name changed) was twenty-five years old when I met her. She had a very large, aggressive brain tumor called an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor. The tumor type was rare in childhood and almost unheard of in adults. Therefore I was her oncologist since the adult oncologists had no experience with this rare pediatric brain tumor. Mary had surgery across the country at a hospital in the city where she was living and working after graduating college. The surgery saved her life. However, the large tumor had drastically changed her physical abilities, memory, and cognitive functioning. Therefore her parents were again caring for Mary, just like they did when she was a young child.
Mary needed to undergo chemotherapy and radiation; even with these treatments, the prognosis was grim. All the while, Mary needed to learn to walk again, read, and perform the activities of daily living. It was a long, arduous journey for Mary, but one thing was consistent - Mary was always exceedingly optimistic. She would greet me with a bright smile and compliment me on how she liked the scarf I was wearing, or she would tell me I had a pretty smile. From week to week, Mary often didn’t remember that she had already met me or that I was her doctor, so each visit was delightfully engaging and fun as we “met” each other repeatedly. She didn’t remember her independent young adult life as the memories of the last several years of her life had been wiped out after her surgery. Mary seemed content with her new lot in life, however. She didn’t express loss or disappointment but only seemed to take each day as it came with a very sweet innocence and optimism.
Due to her poor prognosis, Mary’s parents inquired if they could use alternative treatments besides conventional chemotherapy and radiation. Since Mary was an adult and the prognosis was so poor, we worked out a treatment plan that could be safely done by combining both alternative and conventional approaches. Mary’s parents added Chaga tea, vitamins, Essiac tea, and a strict diet to Mary’s routine.
Instead of having the clinical course of rapid progression and death that I had anticipated, Mary continued to get better and better. She stayed in remission month after month, year after year. I was so amazed at how well Mary had done that I investigated alternative treatments more seriously. I had always been interested in foraging, gardening, natural herbs, and treatments for my own health. Still, Mary’s phenomenal progress sparked my curiosity to explore this more on a professional level. With each check-up visit, Mary and her parents were overjoyed at the success of their treatment approach. We would share pictures of new mushrooms we had foraged, and we discussed what we were learning about plants in our environment that could be consumed to promote health. I even decided during this time to enroll in a formal training program in functional medicine to gain more knowledge on holistic health.
Mary continues to be a long-term survivor who has beaten the odds as she passed the five-year remission mark several years ago. She continues to improve and make progress in regaining her ability to read, walk and gain strength and coordination. Mary may never live fully independent; however, she keeps moving forward with her upbeat attitude.
Many things have changed for Mary because of her brain tumor. The memory loss, lack of balance, and struggle with reading are all new challenges for her since her cancer diagnosis. She has to be flexible and creative with her current limitations in order to do her normal activities, but she is finding ways to thrive. Mary’s optimistic attitude persists despite these challenges. Her family informed me that this optimism was a primary characteristic of Mary before the brain tumor, and it grew even stronger after the cancer experience.
My experience with Mary helped me gain a new appreciation for alternative and holistic treatments. Just as Mary was learning to walk and read again, I also learned new skills as a holistic provider. I started a new path in my career by adding formal functional medicine training. At the same time, I retained my “old” optimism and appreciation for research and scientific studies that are so beneficial for patients. Mary and I started on this journey together, and we are both keeping the best of what we have that is old and adding on new skills to thrive moving forward. After caring for patients like Mary, staying inspired in this journey is easy.