When I first started my academic training in herbal medicine, I was working in palliative care and it was the first time I cared for a woman dying of breast cancer. My heart continually ached.
The physical pain of the woman, the emotional pain of her family and friends, the cancer’s hunger that devoured her breasts, spine and brain, made me feel hopeless, vulnerable and scared.
During this time, I was writing 250 plant monographs. A monograph describes the hows, whys and what’s of a plant’s medicinal uses.
It was a spring morning, when I wrote Viola odorata’s monograph, noting that a tea of the flowers, as well as a poultice, was a traditional remedy for breast cancer. The image of the flowers overlaying the ulcers on the woman’s breasts appealed to me. While at the same time, the idea violets to ease this cancer seemed quaint and irrational.
That afternoon, my lab, Gracie, dragged me from my studies and took me out to the field that grew wild. The spring sun was warm on my skin. Last years tall brown grasses were still standing, the green of this year’s plants were poking up through the matte that covered the earth.
Where shadows lingered all day, the ground was still cold and moist. My mind, as it often did in quiet moments, turned to the woman who I cared for. Her pain was visceral.
I sat on the cool earth. It was then that the violets showed themselves, reaching for the warmth of sun through last year’s matted dead undergrowth. Wild violets unabashedly celebrated spring. They were the harmony of strength and fragility, boldness and vulnerability, sweetness and determination. The violets offered up a gentle scent. Their presence opened the door to the ache I guarded in my heart. Joy leapt in.
It was then that I realized plant medicine was more than chemicals, more than teas and tinctures, formulas, and traditions. Plant medicine is about the rich relationship between humans and plants. It’s about a relationship as old as humanity. Plant medicine is about life.
The next day, I took her African violets. She loved them. The violets certainly did not cure the cancer. They did however, for a moment make it bearable.
When I see young women raising money for breast cancer research selling hot dogs and soda pops, while wearing bikinis in the bright sun and smoking cigarettes in the parking lot of a mall, I cringe. For all the effort to cure breast cancer there is so little awareness of prevention. So here are a few things every woman can do to help her self and other women.
• Teach your daughters to eat well. A diet high in fat and low in fibre is a risk factor for both breast cancer and colon cancer. Recent studies suggest that dietary changes in later years help reduce the changes of cancer, but the foundation health is laid down during earlier years. Eat well and learn to cook with whole foods.
• Rates of breast cancer are highest in black women and northern women. Some suggest this is due to a lack of Vitamin D. Most of Vitamin D is received from the sun. Blacks require prolonged exposure to the sun to absorb adequate Vitamin D. Northerners simply do not get enough sunlight from late fall to early spring to the sun’s metabolise Vitamin D.
• A glass of red wine a day is good for health and reduces the risk of cancer. However, two glasses of red wine several times a week enhances the risk. Alcohol increases estrogens levels in the blood. Most breast cancers live on estrogens.
• Avoid environmental estrogens. Many chemicals, including pesticides and plastics, turn to estrogens by the body. This again, increases estrogens levels and feeds cancer.
• Buy bras that fit and do not pinch. Continued irritation of the breast results in inflammation of breast tissue, cancer loves inflammation.
• Avoid foods, such as soda pops, that are high in sugar. Sugar shuts down the immune system. Your immune system constantly hunts down cancer cells and eliminates them. If your immune system is weak, it cannot do this important job.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca.