The Cancer Whisperer: How I've healed my life despite cancer
Taking illness lying down wasn't an option for author Sophie Sabbage, she tells Suzanne Harrington
In 2014, when psychologist Sophie Sabbage was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer - there is no stage 5 - it was accompanied with words like 'terminal' and 'incurable'. It was in her lungs, lymph nodes, bones and brain.
An oncologist talked about making her comfortable, and quality of life - the inference was that there wasn't much life remaining.
Medical professionals gave her leaflets on the ins and outs of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and how to apply for a disabled parking badge for her car, but none on how to deal with the terror she felt.
Her only child was just four at the time, an IVF 'miracle' for Sophie and her husband John.
"I nearly died of fear," she says. "There were no leaflets on how to deal with the terror, despair, grief."
Two years later, and Sophie is alive and well - the cancer is still there, but inactive and much reduced.
She has written a book called The Cancer Whisperer: How To Let Cancer Heal Your Life, part memoir, part self-help, about how she approached her own dying body, and how she approached her own frightened mind.
Given how almost one in 2.5 of us will have cancer at some point in our lives, it's an important read.
"It's the leaflet I wish I'd found," she says.
"It's for the cancer patient who wants to remain a dignified empowered human being when your doctors and diagnosis are scaring the sh*t out of you, you're so shocked you can hardly put your shoes on in the morning, you're caught in the crossfire between orthodox and complementary medicine, and disturbingly, the medical system treats you like a disease, not a human being."
For a start, there's the language we use around cancer. We fight cancer, we battle it. We use the gladiatorial language of a warzone, which means we are going to war on our own bodies - this is reflected in the 'cut it, burn it, poison it' treatment paradigm.
"We need to take cancer off the battlefield and reframe it," she says. "What if it's a symptom rather than a disease? What can it uncover?"
On diagnosis, one doctor gave Sophie advice which resonated: "Don't become a patient, Mrs Sabbage. Live your life." Yet at the time, she was dying - her eyesight was going, she was coughing blood. In the six-week wait between diagnosis and treatment, she realised she had to "stabilise my body before I could fully focus on clearing my mind." She did this by radically overhauling her diet. This is an area of health she believes is shockingly overlooked in conventional medicine, as anyone who has survived hospital food will attest. Eat a balanced diet, they said vaguely, even as bowls of sweets were placed in chemotherapy treatment rooms.
"My complementary practitioners are convinced that cancer feeds off sugar (among other things) and implored me to cut it completely from my diet," she says.
She did - along with dairy, red meat, gluten, wheat, alcohol, caffeine. Overnight.
"I needed to do something for myself instead of waiting for my oncologist to do something for me," she says.
Her new nutrition plan was 80pc vegan/20pc chicken and fish. Within weeks, her overall condition had improved - her coughing eased - before conventional treatment began.
What makes The Cancer Whisperer stand out amongst the many non-medical self-help books which address the disease is Sophie Sabbage's psychological reaction to her illness.
It is not about the obligatory positive attitude referenced by US sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in Smile Or Die, Ehrenreich's account of her own breast cancer. Nor is it all about solely embracing alternatives (I personally knew two women who attempted to treat their cancer with complementary therapies alone - both are now dead).
No, Sophie Sabbage suggests that we make friends with cancer.
That upon cancer diagnosis, we feel our feelings, face the full facts, ask for help and establish boundaries.
She says that cancer patients need to ask questions about everything, do lots of research while avoiding statistics (which she says are psychologically harmful) and attempt to trace the roots of the illness.
Assess your reality, she says, know what you really want and why you want it, and choose what to do.
And beware the negative powers of your own thinking - if you are told that you have three or six or nine months to live, this is a powerful mental trigger that tells you when your time is up.
Not knowing how much time you may or may not have is far more freeing, she says.
It's not about denial, however.
She makes very unambiguous plans - Plan A is remaining alive, and Plan B is dying. It's entirely matter of fact.
"Few of us have been taught how to handle fear," she says.
"So we fight it, suppress it, deny it, control it, put a brave face on it, or anaesthetise it with a few glasses of wine. But it is vital to feel fear, not detach from it. And the only way out of fear is through it."
Your friends and loved ones will also be shocked and fearful.
"Shifting your mindset takes practice and experience," she says of adjusting her own attitude to having cancer.
But what if your friends are either crying, avoiding you or just smothering you with good intentions?
"You can help your friends to help you," she says.
And pragmatically, she's made two lists - helpful and unhelpful.
Helpful includes empathy, acknowledging the cancer, practical stuff like childcare and cooking, allowing her to express negative feelings, emailing before visiting, not visiting if you have a virus, and talking to her about normal stuff.
"I am still Sophie," she says.
"My being ill does not mean your lives are no longer important to me."
Unhelpful - even with the best of intentions - is sympathy, suggestions to stay positive, giving advice, sharing cancer survival stories, complaining about one's own non-life threatening ailments, expecting her to operate at a normal social level, or pretending the whole thing isn't happening.
Also unhelpful is "eating chocolate cake within a 100 mile radius of me," she says.
Don't, she adds, "put on a brave face" around having cancer, no matter how conditioned you are to not being a 'burden' on others. By engaging with cancer as a transformational experience - whether you live or die - you will not become its victim, and will therefore not become victimised. This is probably the key idea in the book - that cancer can teach us about ourselves, and what we need to change in our lives, what we need to re-examine, and redirect.
We need to kill our killer beliefs too, she says.
"We pile unnecessary suffering on top of natural suffering with our inaccurate, unsubstantiated and dramatised meanings."
To deconstruct her fear and unhelpful thinking, she wrote down her own beliefs, then adding true, false, or don't know.
For instance, "I can't bear this" is false, because the reality is "I can bear this. I am bearing this."
"I want to live a long life" is true, and "I'm going to die soon" is don't know. "I can't leave [my child]" is false, because "I can, even if I don't want to. And I may not have a choice."
It is this emotional nitty gritty which those with cancer have to confront, and yet the medical profession often deals only with the mechanics of the body, ignoring the emotional fallout of the disease.
In terms of dealing with the medical profession, Sophie is superb.
Rather than allowing herself to be processed as a lump of cancer with a human attached, she retained her personhood with dignity and determination.
"You are in charge," she reminds us.
"Create your own plan." By which she means support your body with complementary treatments - massage, colonics, nutrition - as it receives conventional cancer treatment.
"And don't be dictated to by well-meaning but depersonalising people in white coats.
As someone who has had cancer (stage 2b) and pre-cancer (preventative surgery three months ago), Sophie Sabbage's book is an invaluable read.
It's an integrated approach, brave and honest and practical, one which sees beyond tumours and looks at the bigger human picture.
It's empowering, even at the most frightening time of your life. It acknowledges all the feelings you will inevitably be feeling, and walks you through them. It is the missing piece of the jigsaw in terms of our response to this terrifying, astonishing disease.
"I'm not qualified to help you overcome your condition," she writes. "I'm qualified to help you overcome your conditioning."
* The Cancer Whisperer: How To Let Cancer Heal Your Life by Sophie Sabbage, (Coronet, €18.99)
Health & Living