The Right Arm of Darkness

Yesterday I read a heartening news story of a 45-year-old woman who had earned her PhD in spite of a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Her university was so impressed by her determination and stick-tu-itiveness that it arranged an early graduation ceremony for her, in case she couldn’t make it to the regular grad scheduled for the following month.

The pictures were all big smiles by the new PhD and her family. She looked to be still in glowing good health. No doubt that determination to get the dissertation done–not an easy task for the healthiest of us–contributed to her extraordinary survival. I wanted to call out to her, “Don’t give up yet! There have been remissions, even in fourth-stage. Even when doctors say there’s nothing they can do. There are ways….”

What was her history? I wondered.  The story said only that two years earlier she had sought help for fatigue and pain in an arm. The usual diagnoses of advancing age, overwork or perhaps injury were given, but somehow she did get some extra tests, one of which showed a dark shadow up near the shoulder, whereafter mestastasized cancer was found and she was given a six-month prognosis.The original cancer was said to be biliary cancer.

I’ll bet it was the right arm, I thought, reflecting on my own theory about the meaning of arm pain which at times has been so bad that I would willingly have had that limb amputated.

Our livers are on the right side, inside the ribcage, with the gall bladder and the connecting biliary duct tucked underneath. If your liver is in trouble, apparently you can experience all sorts of interesting pains in the upper right quadrant of your torso, right up to the neck and down the right arm. I’ve learned that, if a chiropractor can’t fix the screaming pain in your right arm, it’s time to check out the gall bladder and liver functions.

When I saw my family doctor seven years ago about the persistent pain in my right arm, I didn’t know anything about the possible connexion with dysfunctional innards, and I guess my doctor didn’t either. I emerged from the clinic, annoyed that no attention had been paid to the symptom I came to see the doc about. Instead, I’d been referred for a poop test, because I was over 55 years of age. As it turned out, that was a lucky fluke: the test discovered colon cancer at an early stage.

If the poop test had not fallen into my life, would my body’s fate have played out like that of the PhD student? Was my right arm signalling that a darkenss was inexorably creeping through the body? Would I, too, have been struggling to finish my dissertation before my demise five years ago?

Instead, a few months later, the post-surgery patient, minus a third of my colon, was declared cancer-free.

That was nonsense,of course–the “cancer-free” bit.

True, the colon was, temporarily, clean as a whistle but the human body does not consist of unrelated boxes labeled “colon cancer”, “liver cancer”, “heart failure”, “pancreatitis” and so on. Yet that’s the subtext of diagnosis by many MDs. Rare is the doctor who expresses interest in the cause of the patient’s symptoms or even in signs. “I’m not here to have you make me feel better,” I’ve said more than once in a doctor’s office.”I’m here to ask you to help me figure out what’s wrong.” The hand holding the prednisone prescription slowly withdraws and the doctor looks at me as if I’m crazy.

In the intervening seven years my body has been busy proving I’m not the crazy one. Five years ago my legs turned painfully elephantine (and the right arm was singing country-and-western songs, too). TSH was sky-high and my thyroid was pronounced dead as a doornail. Okay…fixed that in five months without drugs. TSH came back to normal. No doctor asked so much as one question or did one test related to possible underlying factors.

I published a book about that lovely experience. The brisk sales tell me my experience was not at all unusual.

Then two years ago I collapsed again. Symptoms? Lethargy and pain (guess where?). The most stunning signs? Hardly any red blood cells and those that were left were tiny. CRP, the inflammation factor, read 80 instead of one or two. Low ferritin (iron). Normal heart. I was sent home with a diagnosis of polymyalgia rheumatica, a meaningless b.s. appellation for a bunch of symptoms that do not include anything to do with blood cells of any color, and a prescription for prednisone, pharma’s favorite little kidney wrecker.

I was unwilling to join the small army of people in my town who are taking prednisone for this fake disease without any idea of the side effects.

My family doctor did do one thing about the perilously low red-blood count–prescribing iron. I took the best bioavailable iron for four months, as the CRP crept up to 104 and the pain in the right arm went crazy.

Then I read that metastasizing cancer cells love iron. What if there was a bout of cancer going on? I quit taking the stuff and the CRP began to fall. My family doctor has been less than happy about my refusal to take iron until we are sure there’s no cancer feeding on it but has not suggested any tests that would prove that cancer is not currently affecting me.

One MD did refer me to an internist, which initially seemed like a good thing—this specialist came highly recommended by patients. Not by this patient: she wouldn’t see me a second time because, her snippy receptionist informed me, I wouldn’t take prednisone or accept the diagnosis of PMR.Heaven forbid a patient should question the off-the-cuff diagnosis of an MD! Take your pills and shut up–you’re just the patient!

It took eight months to get a doctor to agree to refer me to an endocrinologist, who, supposedly, could order comprehensive thyroid-function tests. Twenty-two months after my collapse, we received…less than comprehensive tests. At twenty-six months, I am still waiting for a thyroid scan.

Meanwhile, no MD has paid the slightest attention to the red-blood cells which were out of whack on five counts (now fixed without drugs, by the way). No MD has expressed any interest in the right-arm pain, which continued despite a good chiropractor’s best efforts. No MD has acceded to my reqeust for liver or gall-bladder tests, either. Is there cancer in the liver, gall blader, or thyroid? Who knows?

My family doctor is half my age, very smart and at least twice as lovely as I ever was. “You’re a healthy woman,” she says, patting me on the (right) shoulder as if I’m her auntie.

“And you’re a complete idiot,” I refrain from saying although I suppose, if the definition of “healthy woman” has expanded to include a twice-too-high CRP score, a thyroperoxidase score 61 times the normal maximum, and persistent right-quadrant pain, she may be right.
Am I alive today, instead of dead five years ago, because of a lucky poop test and obstinate self-reliance? I gaze at the lovely face of the terminal lady with the freshly minted PhD and think, There, but for the grace of internet research, go I. Dr. Berg, an online DC, provides computerized responses to a detailed health questionnaire. I took it and the responses mentioned gall bladder and bile salts several times. I toddled down to the health store and bought bile salts. Make just one gall bladder happy. A week later, guess what? Bye-bye, right arm pain. Wow!

Of course my body is still doing cancer. It’s not over and the fight will never be over, even if the MDs never find that dark shadow in the shoulder. A vast proportion of the present population will die of cancer. But it’s not about the cancer. We don’t have cancer–we are cancer.

Cancer cells develop in us all the time. That’s normal. If they’re having so much success that MDs would call it cancer, however, there’s a problem throughout the body and the problem is not the cancer cells. Those ugly little dysfunctional bastards are partying. Don’t even give them a thought, as the medical intuitive and naturopath Dr. McLeod (the Dreamhealer) suggests. Send your thoughts to the immune system–it needs your helpful thoughts because that’s where the essential problem is.

Pain is the note your desperate body throws over the wall. “Help! Something’s terribly wrong on this side of the skin!” It’s too easy to step around such notes as if they were throwaway candy wrappers at a bus stop bench: I’m just feeling my age; I’ll feel better at home with a nice hot cup of tea. Slowly, I’m learning to pay attention to even the smallest scrap of pain. Every headache, any sore little bump, every twinge in the right arm is a supplicative love note to your awareness and conscious mind from your mitochondria, your gut, your organs: Please read. We’re trusting you. Love, your immune system.
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