If you have heard the diagnosis "cancer," if you are in the midst of tests or enduring the effects of treatment, or if you are searching desperately for hope when none seems to exist, Vickie Girard understands only too well.
"Illness intensifies the small child in all of us," Girard tells WebMD. "You feel so vulnerable. You feel so out of control, out of your element, and you run to people who you hope know more than you do. But somewhere in that process, you lose the fact that you are in control."
Chances are, you've seen Girard in TV commercials espousing the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
In 1992, she was diagnosed with terminal stage IV breast cancer -- it had spread to her bones. She was told to go home and get her affairs in order. But she chose to become an active participant in her own wellness, seeking out second, third, and fourth opinions from specialists, and embracing spirituality and nutrition to boost her immune system and improve her quality of life.
Girard has lived nine years longer than her early doctors thought possible.
In her newly released book, There's No Place Like Hope: A Guide to Beating Cancer in Mind-Sized Bites, Girard shares the wisdom she's garnered from eight years of working closely with cancer patients and survivors.
Her book is a guide for patients and their loved ones caught up in the daily struggle of living with cancer, filled with tips about dealing with hair loss, insurance hassles, the importance of nutritional and spiritual support combined with traditional therapies.
It is also a message of empowerment, of hope.
"There's so much that people can do to empower themselves, to give themselves hope, to beat this ugly thing," says Girard. "They must surround themselves with people who can give them a fighting chance."
The book's publication is bittersweet for Girard, who early this year was diagnosed again -- this time, with cancer cells on her heart. Never a Pollyanna, but always a trouper, Girard has chosen to attack her illness with realism and optimism -- controlling what she can, choosing to live each day fully.
When WebMD caught up with Girard, she was in Seattle sharing her message with others.
Confronting the Bully
"Cancer! In the space of time it takes to utter the word, it tries to steal your way of life and your peace of mind. We must begin our fight against cancer here first, in our minds. Your mind and your heart will be either your greatest allies or your most formidable foes. They will never, ever be ignored."
In her fight against cancer, Girard has survived much, against the odds. "I want to stand here a minute and look at a miracle," her Cleveland Clinic cardiologist told her recently.
But hers has also been a battle to give herself -- and others -- more hope than the medical establishment generally gives those with advanced cancer.
Too many doctors give up on cancer patients all too soon, Girard tells WebMD. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her bones, she was told several times to go home and die. The strongest chemotherapies would not work, she heard.
"What other illness," says Girard, "would a doctor say just go home, get your affairs in order, because death is coming and there's not a thing you can do about it? This is the only disease where you hit a certain statistic and it's good-bye. It's very hard, very discouraging."
She went to academic institutions -- some of the largest in the country -- looking for clinical trials, studies of new treatments. "I thought, 'They'll be happy to have me because I'm willing to try anything,'" she tells WebMD. "It wasn't long before I realized that all the trials and studies didn't want me. I wasn't a good bet; I would skew their numbers, and they wouldn't get their study published.
"That's when I got discouraged," Girard says.
Adding further poignancy, Girard's mother-in-law was also diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. "It was very difficult, watching the path right ahead of me," she says. "She didn't do well, not at all. She went very, very fast. I thought, 'These people aren't kidding, this is seriously what could happen to me.'"
How Girard got through it: "I tried not to spend any time on would of, should of, could have. I knew that if I let that eat me up, that I would be lost ... that it was stealing the goodness out of the days that I had."
"What I had been searching for was hope. So many doctors had been so busy telling me what I couldn't do. They had been so concerned about protecting me from "false" hope, that they had done the worst imaginable thing -- they had left me with no hope at all."
Hope is the foundation on which we build our wellness. It is our most vital emotion.
In the wee hours of the morning, she says, she found her strength. "I thought: they don't know me. They have all the statistics in the world, but they were not giving me any advantage for my willingness to fight. That's when I decided something's wrong with this picture."
Thus began Girard's quest for a different approach to medicine -- one that would give better quality to her life, keep her spirit alive, ease the increasing bone pain she felt -- regardless how long she had left.
She talked with her cancer specialist: "'I feel like my bones are falling apart. Isn't there something I could just take to strengthen my bones, even if I'm going to die? I have an immune system; couldn't we get that working for me?' I was dropping weight like crazy."
His words: "Well, take a One-A-Day if you want." She laughs. "I asked them what should I be eating. They said, 'Anything caloric ... eat chocolate cake.'"
"Taking vitamins and eating right was empowering for me. Each time I did so, I felt that I was fueling my immune system to fight back. I felt like my poor immune system had been trying to fight cancer with sticks and stones because it had been so weakened by poor diet and nutrition. Mind you, I wasn't eating any worse than two-thirds of America -- that is what is really frightening.
A New Battle Begins
Two days after her mother-in-law's funeral, Girard had her first appointment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ill.
"The pain had gotten incredibly bad in my shoulder," she says. "My hip was really bothering me. It hurt to wear a bra. I was beginning to think it really was too late, that there was nothing available out there. I went there just so my family would feel we'd done everything we could."
But doctors there gave her the hope she needed. "Instead of quoting the negative, he started pointing out the positive ... that I was an otherwise healthy woman."
Sure, she had been told she had a 1% chance of beating the disease. But her new doctor didn't buy that statistic, he told her. "You put 100 people in a room, how do you know you won't be the one that wins? You won't be if we don't do something about it. I thought, wow, he's talking about me as an individual."
From that moment, says Girard, she had a new motto: "Today I believe I can win. And today I choose to fight. Today I'll fight with everything in me. But I reserve the right to quit tomorrow if I choose to, without feeling guilty or without feeling like I've let anyone down.
"It was such a freeing feeling for me," says Girard. "That's when I became an empowered patient, the moment I realized I didn't have to do everything the doctor said. I was in charge, and this team was here to work with me and for me. I was not just being passed along like some piece of furniture to have the next leg put on. Everything was my call. And if it got to be too much, I could stop it."
Pain control was her highest priority at this point, along with treating the cancer. She also was building her immune system -- taking vitamins, eating right, exercising.
After doing her own research on bone marrow biopsy -- a typical procedure before bone marrow transplant -- she vetoed it. It was unnecessary, she told doctors, because they had no doubt she had bone cancer. And it would cause her more pain.
"Why would I go through a test -- a painful test -- to assure you of something you already know?" she told doctors. "Pain never kept me or stopped me from doing anything I had to do. But they had to prove to me this was something I needed to do. I didn't see that I needed any more pain needlessly."
Taking it all in "mind-sized bites" -- that's how we beat cancer, says Girard. "We cut it into everyday life, and then we eat it bite by bite in recovery. If I had known going in what the battle would hold, it would be immeasurable."