When One of Our Own Gets Cancer: An Interview With Suzanne Friedman DMQ (China) LAc
Dr. Suzanne Friedman is an acupuncturist, herbalist, and doctor of medical qigong therapy. She received her doctorate degree (D.M.Q.) in Medical Qigong Oncology from the Beijing Western District Medical Qigong Science and TCM Research Institute in Beijing, China. Dr. Friedman is the first non-Chinese to be inducted into her teacher's Daoist family lineage as a qigong master. She is the Chair of the Medical Qigong Department at AIMC Berkeley, and the founder and director of the Yangsheng Center for Qigong at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.
Suzanne was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer February 25, 2010.
Toby: Let's start at the beginning.
How did you first know that something wasn't right?
Suzanne: I knew something wasn't right when I had a cough that wouldn't go away no matter what herbs I took. Normally, herbs work on me within one to two days. This time, when I took herbs they didn't help at all. I had a cough that started in early December which I thought was just the remnants of a cold. Weeks later, and a few formulas later, the cough remained.
This went on until January, when I saw my Western doctor who gave me antibiotics, which did nothing. He then gave me Advair (fluticasone and salmeterol) for two weeks, during which I became much worse. Advair is a steroidal inhaler, so the steroids must have depressed my immune system for that two-week period—not good. I coughed so much and for so long that I broke one rib, and then about a week later, I broke another.
I finally got an x-ray and then a CT scan, both of which looked horrible. They thought I might have had a massive fungal infection or some type of co-infection. A bronchoscopy confirmed Stage IV lung cancer.
Apparently my right lung had collapsed from the cancer (which made it difficult to walk and breathe and 1 could no longer go up steps comfortably without coughing).
They found cancer in the adjacent lymph nodes and left lung.
Toby: That's intense.
Can we back up just a little bit?
When you were still in the just chronic cough stage, did you have any Chinese medical signs that this was serious?
I know that you've trained in the Shen-Hammer pulse reading system; did you have any pulse qualities indicating what might be coming?
Did you have any strong premonitions or did it appear just to be a stubborn cough?
Suzanne: Actually, my pulses did show what appeared to be a massive infection and even co-infections; likely fungal, which is usually very hard to treat. They did show it was serious, but they also were consistent with a bad fungal infection, as were the initial results of my CT scan and x-ray.
Both Eastern and Western possible diagnoses were fungal in nature. It was a tumultuous year filled with change, and so I figured that I was just run down. I had no idea how serious it was until slowly and steadily my ability to walk declined, and I became shorter and shorter of breath.
Toby: Let's go back to the collapsed right lung and cancer in the adjacent nodes and left lung.
What did you do next? How were you emotionally?
Suzanne: After the CT scan showed occlusion of the right lung, my bronchoscopy was the next day. The following day, Friday February 25 at 12:04pm the pulmonologist called and told me I had Stage IV lung cancer. He also told me that he and my primary care doc agreed that I should see a particular oncologist they both respected. He was also kind enough to set up the appointment for me for 2 p.m. that same day.
I went with my partner to the oncologist at 2 p.m. He told us that I had 7-8 months to live if I didn't do chemo, and up to two years if I did.
In other words, my cancer was terminal. He wanted me to come in that Monday for my first chemo. I needed time to think about it, as I did not want to do chemo, especially if it meant such a short survival time in the end.
1 essentially decided that it was likely I was going to die (and given the success rates of conventional treatment for lung cancer, the statistics pointed in that direction).
I left theoncologist's office and called my friend Ed, a Buddhist chaplain, and told him that I was going to die and that I would be needing him. I then called my parents, who were already scheduled to fly out the next day, and told them that I was preparing for my death, and that they too should begin the process.
I wasn't afraid, and I believe I was able to feel quite peaceful in the face of death because of my long-term qigong and meditation practice. However, I was terribly sad at the prospect of leaving my partner, whom I had been with for only about a year.
I decided not to do the chemo, and called two experts in cutting-edge cancer treatment; one local, one not. I had phone consults with both and each agreed that I should get my cancer tested for drug sensitivity by finding a surgeon who was willing to remove a lymph node and break hospital protocol by giving it back to me to mail to a doctor in Long Beach, California.
My pulmonologist told me that I could take up to a week before I started some type of treatment, and not to delay because he was afraid I could get sick and then be unable to get any type of treatment due to the fragility of my lungs. So, I had less than a week to find a surgeon, but I did find one, and we Fed Ex'ed my lymph node to get tested to see which drugs my particular live cancer responded to.
Toby: Not being afraid and feeling peaceful in that situation is a powerful testament to your long-term qigong and meditation practices.
Can you briefly describe your practices?
How did you find the two experts in cutting-edge cancer treatments?
Suzanne: My teacher once told me that the purpose of all meditation is to "learn how to die." What he meant was that we get to a place where we are calm and centered in the face of any adversity or challenge, especially and including our own death. My qigong practice includes standing movement exercises (daoyin) and standing and seated meditations (neidan).
My focus is on both the breath and the visualizations appropriate to each exercise or meditation. The practice can run from 20 to 50 minutes, depending on the morning (and it is almost always morning). I noticed that after my diagnosis, I found myself doing qigong between 3-5pm every day without planning to do so, which made sense.
After the diagnosis I tailored my practice towards healing my lungs, and began to practice two times a day.
I knew of the experts because I've been treating cancer patients for almost ten years. Years earlier I completed a week-long integrative cancer training program with the Center for Mind Body Medicine, and I learned a great deal from that training.
Toby: What did the Fed Ex'ed lymph node tell the oncologist?
Suzanne: It told the oncologist that my live cancer responded best to a combination of Tarceva and Avastin, two non-chemo drugs. Turns out that my cancer was resistant to (in other words, did not respond to) the chemo that the first oncologist wanted to give me. This means that my decision to drop the first oncologist and not do his protocol
very likely saved my life.
I found a doctor here in San Francisco who was willing to give me these two drugs, even though Tarceva isn't approved in this country as a first-line treatment medicine. A couple of days before I got the results, I was informed that I was EGFR positive, which means that I have a genetic mutation that makes Tarceva work 100 times better, so I was hoping to do the Tarceva even before the lymph node results, and the results confirmed my decision.
Meanwhile, I got a pulse reading from Brian LaForgia and herbs based on that reading from KW Botanicals, and they were starting to help me get my energy back.
Toby: That is amazingly fortunate.
What did your pulse reading show at this stage?
What herbs were in your formula?
Suzanne: My pulse showed massive heat in my lungs, especially the right lung (which had collapsed). The formula contained and still contains true Tibetan cordyceps, various other mushrooms, and luo bu ma as the chief ingredients.
Toby: How did you deal with the collapsing lung?
How did you respond to your herbal formula and the Tarceva and Avastin combination?
Suzanne: I didn't know my lung had collapsed, although I was acutely aware of the fact that I could walk less and less comfortably without coughing or losing my breath. My ability to go up and down steps was also impeded. Still, looking back, because I couldn't have imagined that it was more than a serious infection, I wasn't even worried about it, as I figured I'd start to feel better "any day now."
The herbs had already started to give me some energy back before I went on the pharmaceuticals. My oncologist told me that if I responded as well as my cells did to the meds, I should feel 50% better in two weeks, which would have been phenomenal.
I actually felt 50% better in days, and about 85% better in two weeks. It was amazing.
Avastin 's side-effects are high blood pressure and nosebleeds, both of which I have avoided due to my herbal formula. Tarceva's side-effects are a rash and diarrhea. I had strong Spleen qi before this, so I've been able to maintain my digestive strength. However, I got the most intense rash imaginable on my face, back and chest. I essentially turned purple with thousands of whiteheads all over Not pretty.
The good news is that a study from a few years back showed that the worse the Tarceva rash, the better the prognosis. I kept focusing on that and staying away from mirrors during that time. The rash stayed bad for months, but now I am left with what looks like a sunburn.
Toby: Aside from the rash, how are you doing now?
Suzanne: Well, my energy has been amazing, likely due to the mushrooms in my formula and my very low carb diet, along with daily exercise and qigong two times a day.
My herbs have also effectively prevented the other side effects from the meds, such as high blood pressure, nosebleeds and diarrhea. That means my vitals are good and my digestion remains strong.
However, I believe the most important thing is my outlook or attitude, which can help or hinder healing, and I have been in a state of gratitude, humility and appreciation for a long while now.
Toby: I know you had a scan 2 months ago.
What were the doctors expecting?
What were the results?
Suzanne: My doctor knew that my chemosensitivity results showed that my cancer would respond exceptionally well to the medicines, so he said that if all went that well, then the absolute best I could hope for was between 40-50% of the cancer gone.
However, that didn't take into account the Chinese medicine (qigong, herbs, acupuncture, diet, lifestyle) that I was also doing.
The scan results actually showed 70% of the cancer gone. My doctor told me that there is no Western cancer medicine that could have gotten such great results.
Toby: What are you doing at this stage to support your healing?
Suzanne: I spend all day every day with a focus on healing. I closed my clinic so that healing could become my full-time job. Every day consists of qigong twice a day, meditation, exercise, eating well, taking herbs and supplements, playing the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute-great for the lungs), and being surrounded by loving, supportive people.
Essentially, I do something if it helps with healing, and I abstain from anything that I feel takes me further from healing.
In addition, I have received weekly acupuncture and medical qigong therapy treatments since my diagnosis, both of which have been amazing and invaluable.
Toby: Thanks for taking the time to tell your story.
Anything else you want to add?
Suzanne: Just that everyone's cancer journey is unique. What works for one person won't work for everyone. I've found that the key is to trust and follow your intuition and never compromise your integrity.
Western medicine has much to offer, just as Chinese medicine does. When used together properly, they are able to enhance each other. How lucky we are to have access to both!
On September 28, 2010, Suzanne wrote the following in an email to friends and supporters: "I just got the results of my PET scan, and they show that all of the stuff that appeared on the CT scan is actually dead tissue.
My doc said it was a PERFECT scan, and that I am in remission!
Suzanne was interviewed by Toby Daly, a fellow ACTCM alumni who is now pursuing a PhD in classical Chinese medicine at the American University of Complementary Medicine.
He maintains a private practice in Cloverdale, California.