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Kate Figes: ‘Cancer felt like being hit by a train — now I want my life back’
From cannabis oil to oxygen therapy: author Kate Figes will try anything to stay alive
March 1 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Her friends were urging her to write it anyway, but for the author Kate Figes a book about midlife was an obvious next project. For more than two decades the journalist and novelist had written highly successful non-fiction books that navigated the course of women’s lives, about equality in the workplace, new motherhood, later motherhood (The Terrible Teens), adultery and, conversely, how to get love to last (Couples). Now, as she approached 60, she felt she had found a more personal subject, yet one with a wide potential audience: how in late middle age to make sense of the past to face the future.
Then, suddenly, On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions, which is published this week, became about something else: not midlife, but, very likely, the end of life. Just before her 59th birthday in September 2016, Figes was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Her oncologist — charming and charismatic, but nothing if not direct — told her it was “treatable, not curable”.
Her descent to “Planet Cancer” began with the arrival of a miniature wire-haired dachshund called Zeus. He was the family’s new pet, a squealing bundle, but not, for her, of joy. Instead he brought anxiety and exhaustion. Perhaps there had been an omen, a hint, of something wrong a year earlier, when as a family mediator she was suddenly overwhelmed by memories of her parents’ break-up and her powerlessness as a child to heal it. She realised, in an oncological metaphor, that “divorce had entered every cell of my being”. She needed an urgent break from the work she had always enjoyed as complementary to her journalism.
Her physical symptoms, when they came, were muscle pains round her ribs and back. Although she had had regular mammograms, none of them indicating a lump or change in the breast tissue, a bone-marrow test eventually revealed triple negative breast cancer, its most aggressive variation.
Triple negative cancer is so called because the three most common engines of cancer growth are not present in the tumour. That sounds good, but it means that common treatments such as hormone therapy and drugs are useless. The good news was that there would be no need for surgery and the cancer was not in any of the five vital organs. The bad was that it had entered her bones, the best she could hope for was to keep it there and there was no cure.
“I was in a lot of pain because I had three fractured ribs from the cancer,” she says as we talk in the sitting room of her terraced family house in north London. She is small and, despite all the treatment, a young 60 with hair, familiar from book jackets, that’s dark and shoulder-length.
“It had gone straight to the bones and was just eating away at them. The oncologist said I lit up like a Christmas tree when I was first scanned: cancer all over my ribs and back. So at the beginning it was the combination of the pain, the chemo and the shock. I kept thinking, ‘If I could just not have the pain I might be able to cope with the chemo and with the shock. Or if I didn’t have the chemo, I might be able to . . .’ All three was overwhelming, like being hit by a train.”
It was not only chemotherapy — ten capecitabine pills every day — that she endured. Every three weeks a nurse came to administer a 30-minute drip of Avastin to prevent the cancer from creating its own blood supply. Initially, it sent her blood pressure spiralling, so she took another drug to bring it down. Before the nurse left she jabbed Figes’s stomach with a bone-strengthening drug, Denosumab. Meanwhile, every day she took eight tramadol and eight paracetamol to contain the pain sufficiently so that she could move.
The pharmaceutical onslaught left her curled up on the sofa nursing a death wish not quite strong enough for her to act on (although she had sufficient morphine in the house).
“I was always determined to fight it. I remember thinking, ‘I just want my life back. I don’t need anything else.’ I mean there was a moment with the first cycle with the chemotherapy . . . They tend to give you the highest dose they think you can cope with because you need to really whack the cancer hard to begin with. That first cycle, with the pain, I did think, ‘If this is what it’s going to be like, then actually I would rather die.’ ”
She refers me to a book by an American surgeon called Bernie Siegel called Love, Medicine and Miracles in which he divides cancer patients into three groups. One group, between 10 and 15 per cent, have lives so unhappy that they give up. A large chunk in the middle, 60 to 70 per cent, just follow doctors’ orders. “And then there’s the 10 to 15 per cent he calls exceptional patients, who do their research, who ask questions. He says they’re the ones who do better on the treatments and tend to live the longest.”
Figes, firmly of the exceptional gang, made cancer her new journalistic assignment. A health journalist friend advised her to contact Patricia Peat, a former chemo nurse who believed that chemotherapy and radiotherapy patients who used complimentary methods tended to cope better and live longer. Peat recommended that as soon as she was mobile again Figes should seek out oxygen therapy.
So a year ago her husband, Christopher Wyld, a former BBC journalist and director of the Foreign Press Association, who retired to spend more time with Figes when she became ill, began driving her to outer London where, between a Screwfix and a Photomart, the multiple sclerosis charity MS Action runs an oxygen centre. Here Figes regularly sits in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, a large metal dome that, complete with portholes, simulates a deep-sea dive. The theory is that with reduced pressure, blood vessels expand and oxygen is more easily absorbed into the body. Her health began to improve. Christoph, as she calls her husband, has become a volunteer at the centre.
The oxygenation was only part of her self-medication. There was heat therapy, giving up sugar and taking up vitamin supplements. Her oncologist was uncensorious, but cautious. “B12 is good for neuropathy too,” he told her, but under his breath added: “But it won’t do any good.”
She was caught between extremists. Those who thought chemotherapy a scam promoted by Big Pharma, and a medical establishment that refused to recommend anything not based on peer-reviewed trials. Peat told her that if she stayed off the sugar and kept pummelling her cells with oxygen and heat, the cancer would not come back. The oncologist said it would, eventually. Just once, he conceded to her face that for some people it did not — but no one knew why.
Now a third of Figes’s day is taken up with “anti-cancer activity”, beginning with a 90-minute morning regimen of yoga, meditation, body oils, supplements and juicing. And then it’s dope last thing in the evening? I ask this because I have seen in her kitchen the paraphernalia that (illegally — as if she cares) extracts cannabis oil.
“You may laugh, Andrew, but it is a really powerful medicine. A couple of drops and you’re out. I mean, basically, the policy I’m pursuing is anything that is said to kill cancer cells I do as much as possible. Green tea, broccoli sprouts, heat and oxygen. You see, nobody knows.”
Is it a bit like advertising: 50 per cent of it is useless, but you never know which 50 per cent? “Exactly. What do you give up? So rather than give up, don’t change it.”
And something is working. She has just had her fourth clear scan in a row. She looks well. She is no longer on painkillers, although her ribs and back ache when she does too much. Since the diagnosis she has shrunk from size 14 to size 8, not from the cancer, but because the chemo prevents the gut from absorbing nutrition.
Yet within this tough account of her cancer — reading it made me feel as if I were ill myself — is the book she originally wanted to write, the one about coming to peace with her childhood. Until later in life Kate had a fractured relationship with her mother, Eva Figes, a leading feminist novelist who died six years ago. Eva’s marriage had ended when Kate was five. Kate left the family home when she was 17, after a “blazing row”. Eva was a German-Jewish refugee who lost her grandparents in the Holocaust. “Holocaust damage ran through my family,” she writes and you can almost discern, in invisible ink, the words “like cancer”.
“As I began to get better, I looked back at what I’d written and I realised it was still about midlife because what cancer does is crystallise all the same anxieties and losses and griefs.” I say it seemed to give her an insight into her mother’s unhappiness. “She did a lot of good with her life, but I think she was very unhappy. I do think the Holocaust runs through families and perverts and distorts relationships.”
A year ago she and her brother, the historian Orlando Figes, became German citizens in a ceremony at the German embassy. For Orlando it was because he did not want to be a “Brexit Brit”. For Kate it was another way of “drawing a line under the past”.
She has no praise high enough for Christoph, to whom she has been married for 30 years, nor for her two grown-up daughters, although one, forgivably, broke down just before the first post-diagnosis Christmas, fearing that it might be her mother’s last. Figes wrote the book, she says, mainly because she wanted them to know who their mother really was. Friends have been incredible, but they too needed to weather the shock. One burst into tears before her. “I wanted to tell her to get a grip. ‘I don’t need to see you upset, I need you to be loving and kind.’ ”
She makes only short-term plans, regards every two months free from chemotherapy as a bonus and works on the assumption that it is unlikely to matter much that her pension is weedy. Whereas for years she saw her job as helping others, she is unashamedly putting herself first. What she has learnt, she says, is the power of love. “I never knew I was this loved by so many people around me. It was a very wonderful feeling.”
A gift then, but a costly one, I suggest soapily. She turns on me. “Not a gift! I don’t know why people call cancer a gift. A box of chocolates is a gift. It’s not a gift. It’s more that whatever happens, you have always to go to the good. Only by going to the good, seeing the positive stuff in what has happened to you, can you then cope with the negative.”
On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions is published by Virago; £14.99
The CancerIFA Service
….is an administrative service for individuals who have a terminal illness, or their employers.
Buried in the Finance Act 2004 is a provision that allows undrawn pension funds to be paid out tax-free up to a generous £limit, where life expectancy is 12 months or less. This is the “Serious Ill-health Lump-sum Payment” provision, and is not affected by recent Budget changes.
Provided a doctor confirms the medical situation, the whole fund can be paid out once the paperwork is completed.
But pension paperwork is of little interest to most people at the best of times, so the CancerIFA service has evolved to help with this. With the pension monies paid into their bank account, this allows the person concerned to sort out their own financial affairs now. Sometimes we are approached by other financial advisers to handle this.
We do not provide regulated financial advice – for two reasons.
Firstly, the founder has retired from giving regulated financial advice. Secondly, with less than 12 months to live, most of my clients don’t need it.
Regulated/professional Advice when needed can be given by:
i) Solicitors/will writers – nearly always the case. This might be for writing a will or setting up an appropriate trust where there are young children.
ii) Financial advisers where regulated investment advice is needed.
iii) Both the above where bad advice has been given previously.
We provide a sympathetic ear for anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness based on my own direct experience of cancer in 2007. And indirectly, from family members, friends and clients who have had to face this – not to mention my 20 years as a financial advisor.
Dealing with the pension paperwork lifts a huge burden from someone diagnosed with a serious illness and their families. This allows them to spend more time giving comfort and support.
A large lump of money from a pension scheme usually alleviates any immediate money worries.
George Emsden ACIB, DipPFS
To find out more please visit :
In October and November 2015 Heather began to suffer from headaches, blocked sinuses, a swelling on her forehead and short, frequent nosebleeds. This led to her being diagnosed with a heavy bout of Sinusitis at the GP’s and prescribed several different Antibiotics.
Heather was taken into hospital on Christmas Day 2015 with a nose bleed that wouldn’t stop and to her shock and horror she was diagnosed with a substantial nasal and sinus tumour that had already cracked through her skull and was pushing against her brain. Five weeks later it was confirmed as malignant and inoperable. There was nothing they could do they said, with the expectation being that it could not be cured …. The following is an account of Heather’s journey in her own words….
After accepting the palliative radiotherapy on offer I, along with my husband, began to research alternative and supplemental treatments.
It quickly became clear that here are two approaches to treating Cancer, firstly the conventional ‘destroy’ approach – radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, and also the ‘body healing’ approach through complementary and alternative elements. Without a doubt a combination of both is the best approach, providing the greatest chance of successful overall treatment. However the amount of information available to us on the internet through blogs, documents, videos, and social media was literally overwhelming. What to do … where to go …
Through a very fortunate turn of events we were introduced to Cancer Options and Patricia Peat. It was to turn out to be one of a few key introductions for us that ultimately influenced my fate.
When receiving a prognosis as desperate as the one I received, a lifespan of three to twelve months, two key things get lost in the emotion that follows; control and hope. These were the things that we needed to get back and Cancer Options was instrumental in helping us to do just that.
So, following our initial consultation with Patricia, and the production of an Integrative Care Plan, a substantial bespoke plan of action just for me, the first thing that Patricia advised was to have further tests to look into what might have caused the tumour. Wow, looking at what caused this thing with the accompanying logical extent of stopping its growth and potentially reducing it, made such sense. But we had only been talked to previously at the hospital about how best to ‘attack’ the tumour. Patricia made it so clear that a healthy, functioning immune system is equally, if not more important, than conventional ‘treatments’ when it comes to cancer.
These tests were very revealing. We were able to determine that my body contained too high a quantity of certain metals and toxins but more significantly a key gene that helps to detoxify the body was not apparent at all! The good news was that all of these deficiencies could be ‘supplemented’ out. So, along with positive changes to my diet and exercise regimes I started on an extensive programme of supplements and ‘alternative’ treatments to support the radiotherapy that I had already received. This programme was designed to;
- Repair any damaged tissues following radiotherapy
- Heal and optimise the immune system
- Continue to kill the malignant cells – particularly stem cells that are often the cause of recurring secondary cancers
After a few months of being on the Cancer Options programme it was D-Day! It was time for a rescan, and to see what happens next from a conventional treatment perspective.
The scan showed reduction in the tumour causing the hospital to declare the disease as stable. This was in itself great news but the surgeons local to us said that it remained inoperable, which left us feeling that we still needed to continue with our journey. So now we reviewed the supplements, added some, stopped a few and then we took my case to London for a full second opinion. We went to see a professor of Oncology on Harley Street. He was a wonderful man, immediately identifying treatment options that hadn’t been discussed before with us, but more importantly introducing us to a surgeon, who said he could operate and remove 100 percent of the tumour. We could hardly believe it!
So at the end of September I went into Hospital, and underwent a five hour operation to have the entire tumour taken out. It was successful and three subsequent scans post operation have shown me as being clear of all tumours!
So, whilst we are still very much on the ‘cancer journey’ we can look forward with far greater hope and a comforting feeling of control.
Patricia is now working with me to realign the supplements to focus even more on optimising my immune system in a programme designed to minimise the chance of anything untoward returning!
As a final word from me I would like to leave a few key pointers for anyone diagnosed with cancer;
- Take control of your own treatment plan.
- Always, have a Complimentary and Alternative Medical Practitioner (CAM) on your ‘team’ – this is what Cancer Option does so well.
- Look at what could have caused the cancer – tumours do not appear at random. There will always be an underlying reason.
- Do not be afraid to seek a second opinion.
- Take back hope and control because with these you can do what I suggest in the next, final and most important bullet ;
- Think positively all the time! A positive outcome can be as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as a negative one.
Catch up with Patrica’s latest radio interviews by following the links below:
The Cancer Revolution has been awarded a Platinum Award in todays Janey Loves 2016 Platinum Awards. Pick up your copy here : http://thecancerrevolution.co.uk/
All profits from this award winning book go to the Janey Loves Charity of the Year ‘Yes to Life’.
The Cancer Revolution represents the fruition of a long-held dream to pull together the best information on the broadest range of approaches to cancer. We want this book to act as a catalyst for individuals to empower themselves, and to become part of a revolution that promises to change the experience of cancer treatment completely.
This revolution, Integrative Medicine, has the power to cut deeply into the devastating survival statistics and the desperately poor quality of life experienced by many following treatment for cancer. Even more importantly, it will help to promote a cultural revolution: the increasingly obvious sources of the ever-rising tide of cancer in the UK point clearly to where the solutions lie.
To order your copy please visit : The Cancer Revolution website
Post by Patricia Peat
I have worked with many people over the years in many different circumstances.
So many have become my heroes because they have achieved so much on so many levels. The medical profession do not make it easy at the moment for people to empower themselves with wider approaches. It often takes an enlightened person to begin to think outside the box and embrace that there is more to achieving and maintaining health than just drugs.
People who do become my heroes and they are the people leading the way in teaching the medical profession that:
Yes! nutrition matters
Yes! managing stress matters
Yes! I am an individual and I want to know what underlying influences may have contributed so I can correct them
I refuse to believe that the only person who can influence my recovery is you and if you cannot there is nothing more to be done
I do have the intelligence and capacity to evaluate what makes sense to me and what may help my recovery
I believe in me and I believe in my ability to maximise my chance of recovery