My Journey to Wellness (long version)
In September 2013, six months shy of my 50th birthday, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although it was an early diagnosis – Stage 1, with only one of 13 tissue samples testing positive for Gleason 6 adenocarcinoma – I was devastated. I didn’t even know, at that point, what the prostate was (an organ? a gland? something else?) or its function in my body. This was despite my father, David Sloane, being diagnosed with the disease 12 years earlier, at the age of 63 (more on that later).
My urologist at the time (Urologist #1) wasn’t too alarmed and even told me that there was some controversy within the urology community about whether or not Gleason 6 adenocarcinoma warranted a cancer diagnosis. He therefore recommended Active Surveillance, a program used to monitor early or non-aggressive forms of prostate cancer, and that I adopt a bias toward a vegetarian diet (70% fruits and vegetables vs. 30% animal protein) and that I continue to remain active and exercise regularly. When I asked about dietary supplements (saw palmetto, stinging nettle, etc.) he all but sneered: “Don’t waste your money.”
I went home with the knowledge that (a) I was now a cancer patient and had cancer actively growing inside my body, in a place I never paid much attention to, and (b) no treatment was seemingly required at that point in time. I also now understood why middle-aged men always want to know where the nearest bathroom is.
My next scheduled lab work (in January 2014) saw my PSA elevated to 9.3; it had been 7.3 in July 2013, just before my biopsy and diagnosis (PSA stands for prostate specific antigen; it is a biological marker used to gauge prostate health; anything above a 4 is typically cause for alarm). Urologist #1 was no longer so sanguine; in fact, he recommended immediate surgery (a radical prostatectomy) and had his office begin looking for available slots later that same week. I was shattered, unable to speak or think clearly. Thankfully, my wife Lisa was there with me. We agreed to postpone the surgery and seek a second opinion.
While I was paralyzed with fear, my wife, to whom I’ll forever be grateful for acting on my behalf when I was unable to, began looking for a second opinion.
That second opinion, later that same month, came from a renowned urological surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Urologist #2 calmly advised caution and explained that he had plenty of men with my disease profile in his Active Surveillance population. Get plenty of exercise and eat right, he assured me. He sent me for an MRI, however, so we could have a clearer picture of the scope of my disease.
The MRI, in February of 2014, revealed a higher volume of cancer than Urologist #2 was expecting to see, given my biopsy results. When I pressed him for his honest assessment, Urologist #2 also recommended I go under the knife. Strike two.
The surgery to remove my prostate was scheduled for 11 April 2014, and thus began my emotional tailspin. I began to absorb what a radical prostatectomy might do to my sexual and urinary health. I’m not even 50 years old, I thought, and (a) my sex life as I know it could be over, and (b) I might be wearing a diaper for the rest of my life. I sank into the first real depression of my life.
Thankfully, this period of withdrawal didn’t last long. I began digging into the research (my wheelhouse) about the prostate and the various prostate cancer treatment options available to someone with my disease profile. I also began reaching out and confiding in my closest friends, telling them about my diagnosis and my impending surgery. It was during this time of sharing my greatest vulnerability that what could have portended the end of my life revealed itself to be only the beginning of it.
Two conversations, both in February 2014, changed everything. The first was with a childhood friend of a former college roommate, someone whom I had never met. This friend of a friend had been diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 40, over 10 years prior, and his story was similar to mine – Stage 1, Gleason 6 – and his father also had prostate cancer. Amazingly, he had forestalled the need for any treatment, surgery or otherwise, for the 10 years since his diagnosis. This was unexpected, a ray of light during a dark time. I need to know how he had done it!
This new friend pointed me to a holistic program of lifestyle interventions developed by Dr. Geovanni Espinosa, a naturopath and Director of the Integrative Urology Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Within days I had made an appointment to see Dr. Espinosa at his offices in midtown Manhattan.
My new friend also recommended a book to me. That book – Anticancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber – became the launching point for my education into the curative powers of nutrition, dietary supplements, exercise and stress management on cancer. In Anticancer, Servan-Schreiber posits that we all have cancer cells in our body but that those cancer cells need the right conditions to thrive, form tumors and threaten our health. He maintains that with these lifestyle interventions we can create within our bodies an environment that is inhospitable to cancer growth, and that even those already diagnosed with cancer can slow or perhaps even reverse cancer’s terrifying march. He calls this “cancer without disease.”
I was excited, but also confused. Why hadn’t Urologists #1 or #2 told me about any of this? And what else hadn’t they told me about?
Another conversation, with one of my oldest friends, opened yet another very interesting door. Through this door I found a medicinal cannabis oil treatment developed by a Canadian, an eccentric backwoods genius named Rick Simpson (I was particularly intrigued by the story of a man named Dennis Hill, a biochemist who claims to have used cannabis oil to beat Stage III prostate cancer in 2010). My friend urged me to come out to his state, where medicinal cannabis was legal, to get some medicinal cannabis oil to bring back to my state, New York (this was before it was legal here; New York’s Compassionate Care Act, legalizing medicinal cannabis, would not pass until June 2014). But if I was going to do the full treatment – 60 grams of oil over roughly 90 days – I would need a local source.
Thus the mission began. I decided to indefinitely postpone my prostatectomy and began following Dr. Espinosa’s program in earnest in March 2014. Dr. Espinosa refers to his program as Proactive Surveillance, differentiating it from the standard active surveillance methodology, which is really just a fancy name for “wait and see if the cancer progresses.” I’m not particularly good at waiting, for anything, so I was glad that there was a program which enabled me to take an active role in my treatment.
Dr. Espinosa’s Proactive Surveillance protocol features fairly radical lifestyle modifications, including adopting a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet biased toward foods that appear to inhibit the growth of cancer cells or are neutral to cancer growth (echoing Servan-Schreiber’s recommendations in Anticancer), either by stimulating apoptosis (the spontaneous death of cancer cells) or by inhibiting angiogenesis (the process by which cancer cells create their own blood supply). The protocol also features plant-based supplements (antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and other vitamins and botanicals designed specifically to support prostate health), exercise (which comes naturally to me; I’ve always been very active) and stress management techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, etc. (I found this last pillar of the program the most difficult one to implement, and it remains the one I have to work the hardest at).
I was blown away when I really got into the research (done in other countries, mostly) on how cannabinoids have been shown to bolster the immune system and fight some types of cancer in lab experiments and animal models. So I decided to supplement Dr. Espinosa’s program with the medicinal cannabis oil protocol (also known as RSO, or Rick Simpson Oil). I did not want to be sitting here in 10 years, prostate-less, and long after cannabis had (once again) become an accepted medical treatment, regretting that I didn’t try it simply because it was not yet legal in New York. So I had a friend, at great personal risk, ship me 3 grams of the oil from a dispensary located in one of the states where it was, at that time, in 2014, legal for medicinal use.
Once I began taking the imported oil, however, I realized that it was a CBD-rich strain, without the psychoactive components (including THC) that make the treatment controversial (Dennis Hill and Rick Simpson both recommend making the oil with a strain that has a 1:1 ration of THC to CBD, if possible). So, with the help of an amateur chemist friend (part of my very unconventional and ad hoc medical team), I began to manufacture the oil myself. I won’t go into the details of the process itself; you can find the recipe and directions on Rick Simpson’s website (should you decide to pursue this course of treatment please proceed with caution as it is still illegal in many states; you could also blow up your house).
I began taking the medicinal cannabis oil in the spring of 2014, which is also when I started following the diet, supplement and exercise recommendations outlined in Dr. Espinosa’s Proactive Surveillance program. I adopted a diet that I would (unscientifically) estimate as 95% vegan; that is, 95% of my calories came from (organic, when possible) vegetables, fruits and grains, and from foods made from those ingredients. I dramatically reduced my consumption of animal protein, including all kinds of meat and dairy (including eggs). I also sharply reduced my consumption of processed foods, sugar and bread. And I cranked my exercise regimen up to 11, in intensity, duration and frequency.
I embraced The Health Warrior Way. I was on a mission.
The results were almost immediate. Within two months I lost 20 pounds, then another 10. My PSA, which in January 2014 had been 9.36 and had me on the precipice of life-altering surgery, dropped to 5.31 by June 2015 and never got above 7.7 (my latest PSA test result, in September 2017). I was very encouraged by these results and doubled down on my program.
Unfortunately, in March 2015 we learned that my father David’s prostate cancer had metastasized into his bones, causing him a lot of pain in his hip and spine. Over the previous year I had tried to convince my dad to change his diet, to get more exercise, to try the cannabis oil treatment, and he often called or texted to tell me he was ready but would then back out, preferring to go with the more conventional recommendations of his oncologist. So, in April 2015, just after his 77th birthday, he went in for a heavy dose of chemotherapy in a last attempt to slow the metastases and get some relief from the relentless pain. Within a week he was in the emergency room; he was dehydrated, he had pneumonia, and he had suffered a mild heart attack (his third). Sadly, he never got back on his feet; the chemotherapy shattered what was left of his immune system and he suffered one setback after another, finally succumbing to respiratory failure on 28 June 2015.
Watching my father die, slowly and painfully, of the disease that we shared was the most traumatic experience of my life. I was often at his bedside while he was in the hospital and then in hospice, by turns sad, angry, terrified, confused, often all at once. Was this how it would end for me as well? Lying, helpless, in a hospital bed? And at what age? It took the disease 14 years to take my father (about the average life expectancy for a man diagnosed with prostate cancer); 14 years from my diagnosis meant that I could be lying on my deathbed at the age of 63.
Four months later, in October 2015 (roughly two years after my diagnosis), I followed Dr. Espinosa’s advice and came in for a second MRI and biopsy. The MRI showed no demonstrable progression of disease when compared with my initial MRI nearly two years prior; a huge sigh of relief.
Later that month I had my second biopsy. I nervously watched the phone, waiting for the call that would deliver the results. On the following Friday an internist from the doctor’s office called.
All tissue samples had come back benign.
So that means I don’t have prostate cancer anymore, right? I asked her.
That’s right, she replied.
Shouldn’t you be more excited to give me this news? I asked.
She replied that she was, indeed, excited, and congratulated me.
I sat at my desk, dumbfounded, for several minutes. Was this a mistake? Did they read the biopsy wrong? Was the initial diagnosis incorrect? If not, then how was his possible?
I had never allowed myself to believe that this outcome – reversing my prostate cancer – was even a possibility. The best I had ever hoped for was to wrestle my disease to a stalemate, to arrest the progression of my prostate cancer until such point that conventional treatment was required. Best case, I was trying to buy myself a few years, much like the friend of my former college roommate, until there were hopefully less invasive treatment options available, options that would leave me intact.
From all that I had read I knew that nutrition and exercise and stress management, even if they didn’t stop my cancer, would be beneficial in all kinds of ways, that they would make me healthier and more resilient in the face of other Western and age-related diseases like hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. And I was hoping for the best with the medicinal cannabis oil, that it would support my body’s own immune response and thereby slow the growth of my cancer, similar to what Dennis Hill (and others) had reported. But the idea that I could completely reverse my prostate cancer was well beyond my expectations.
I responded to my diagnosis the only way I knew how: like a Warrior. A Health Warrior. I wasn’t going to leave anything on the table; if I thought some intervention or another looked promising I was going to do it, and do it hard, all the way. Not halfway; not most of the time; not 90% of the time. One hundred percent of the time. If I ultimately had to have surgery it wasn’t going to be because I didn’t give the alternative every chance of succeeding.
Prostate cancer changed me profoundly. By barring one door – what I had thought was the only door – it revealed another, and through this door I found the Health Warrior Way and, ultimately, discovered my purpose: to help people learn how to protect and strengthen their bodies, minds and souls for the rest of their life’s journey.
The Health Warrior Way includes 8 Life Practices:
- NUTRITION: food can make you sick or it can heal you. Learn which foods fall into either category, and why. Then eat mindfully; is what you’re eating protecting you or hurting you? Don’t know? Then find out; it’s important!
- MOVEMENT: public health organizations all agree: we need at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity (brisk walking, yoga) or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (running, chopping wood) to age with vigor and resilience. These are conservative guidelines; the more you move the better off you’ll be!
- MINDFULNESS: mindfulness keeps us anchored in the present and reminds us of what’s important so we’re not buffeted this way or that by forces outside of our control. Staying present helps prevent us from obsessing about a past we can’t change or a future that we can’t control
- CURIOSITY: our brain needs new challenges to keep it elastic, vital and growing to better stave off the onset of age-related cognitive decline. There’s a great, big, fascinating world out there; pick something you’re interested in and learn everything you can about it!
- LOVE: an open heart helps us to accept whatever comes our way – including a cancer diagnosis – with equanimity, a learning opportunity, a chance to grow in unexpected ways. This posture toward life helps us make the best of any situation, no matter how bad it may seem
- COMMUNITY: surrounding ourselves with people that call forth the best in us can serve as a hedge against backsliding into unconscious (not mindful) behaviors. Also, loneliness can be just as bad for you as a poor diet
- NATURE CONNECTION: getting outside, in the fresh air and sunshine (or the rain and snow, since we can’t control the weather) reminds us that we are fundamentally biological organisms in a vast natural world with its own timeless rhythms and laws
- PURPOSE: as important as they are, a sound mind, body and spirit turn out to be nothing more than the means to the ultimate end: finding and fulfilling your purpose, the thing that stirs your soul and fills your life with meaning
My journey to wellness changed my life. Through that lens, I look back on my diagnosis in September 2013 as a blessing; it motivated me to make changes that I would otherwise probably not have made, changes which helped me to recover my physical, emotional and spiritual health. It turned me into a Health Warrior!
Even more than that, it helped me discover my life’s purpose: to help you take control of your health and well-being in order to live the best possible version of your life, for as long as you have a life to live.
You might be skeptical. You might be thinking: this won’t work for me; or, it’s too late for me; or, it will be too hard for me. I thought all these things too, and more. But those thoughts didn’t stop me; they didn’t undermine or deter me. I replaced those thoughts with action. Decisive action.
And if you open your mind and your heart you too can find a way through your doubts and fears.
The Health Warrior Way will show you how.