Immune Function Conditioning: An Experiment


I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 18, 2013.

Ten days later, I had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy, a procedure to remove the lymph nodes closest to the affected breast.  All but one node tested positive for cancer, and the cancer had spread outside the lymph nodes as well.

Although the tumor was relatively small (1.7 cm), lymph node involvement meant the cancer was Stage IIIa.

I was 47, fit and active, and otherwise very healthy.  I had no risk factors.

Six weeks later, on the day before my first chemotherapy treatment, my oncologist informed me that a full spine MRI revealed a benign but large (2.4 cm) tumor compressing my spinal cord between the first and second cervical vertebrae, just beneath my skull.


I was referred to a neurosurgeon who specializes in spinal cord tumours.

A few weeks after the nuerosurgery consult, I started losing sensation in my limbs. Each day, another part of an appendage went numb.  Chemotherapy was interrupted for life-saving neurosurgery.

Post-chemotherapy, on November 14, I had an axillary lymph node dissection, the removal of a large rectangle of tissue under the arm. As was the case with my sentinel node biopsy, all but one node tested positive. And the cancer had spread extensively outside the nodes, in spite of four months of chemotherapy. It is not a typical finding, and since I was–and still am–symptom free, I was stunned by the pathology report.

Until that point, I had been handling the diagnosis exceptionally well, convinced that if other women had beat this disease, I can.

After a week of freaking out, I thought back to a conference I had attended in May: the International Health Promoting Hospitals and Health Services Network of the World Health Organization, which took place in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The theme of the conference was Body and Mind.  One of the streams of the conference was psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), the study of the relationship between mental processes and the nervous and immune systems.

A paper on PNI was presented at the opening  plenary session.  I went to Sweden to present a paper at a W.H.O. conference–a lifetime achievement for me–but during that presentation realized I was meant to be there, to hear that message.

The connection between mind and body, between mental health and physical health, has been around for centuries, but in recent decades, researchers have confirmed that mental health status has a direct impact on immune response–at the cellular level. That is, the body’s ability to resist or rid itself of disease is impacted by one’s psychological health. Poor mental health status may compromise the body’s ability to deal with ailments from infections to chronic diseases, including cancer.

I’ve complied fully with the treatment regimen recommended by the teams at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, as well as best advice from alternative care practitioners. Nevertheless, part of my body was full of carcinoma.

My goal is to control what I can.

How to improve my mental health status?  Here’s what I’m already doing:

  • Spending time with people I love
  • Exercising
  • Having sex
  • Meditating
  • Working with a psychotherapist
  • Listening to music
  • Singing
  • Sleeping well
  • Laughing as often as possible
  • Making time for activities I love

I’m making a commitment to do much more of all of the above, and add anything else that causes endorphins to be released into my blood, or anything that makes me smile. I will also explore brain-training exercises to reduce the levels of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) and reach deeper levels of mindful meditation.

This site will document my quest to improve my mental health with an aim to condition my immune function and, by extension, optimize my outcomes.

I will also use this space to document my medical experience, which has been more of an acid trip than a “journey.”  Welcome!

11 thoughts on “Immune Function Conditioning: An Experiment

  1. Elizabeth, thank you for sharing your experiences here. I’m looking forward to following your journey back to wellness. So glad to hear that, at a minimum, you have your physical well being and a terrific attitude. I am encouraged to hear that you are following the advice of CAM research to use the mind-body connection to complement your treatment regimen.

  2. Jucelei

    Dear Elizabeth,
    I’m always amazed and inspired by your positive attitude and courage. You’re the strongest, bravest person I know.

  3. Dear Elizabeth
    The happiness I initially felt in hearing from you dissipated immediately when I realized the content of your blog. I am so sorry to hear of your trials. At the same time, it sounds as if you are managing as best as anyone can–doing all of the right things for body, mind, and spirit. You’ll be in my thoughts. Sending you a hug.
    David in NYC

  4. Leanne and Richard, Tom and lily

    We were so happy to hear from you – having no idea until we started reading of the terrible time you have had. You sound wonderfully positive and hopeful and so we join with you. We do hope you feel well at the moment – you don’t say if you are on chemo at present… Please know that all our thoughts prayers and huge hugs surround you all. Cancer is such a vile and indiscriminate captor. One day you will break through the chains. With all our love as ever. L,R,T and L xxxxxx

  5. jill

    You are a brave soul. Your openess and approach to this horrendous disease speaks volumes and certainly will open more dialogue with others who may be afraid to speak on how they would want to “capture” the best of their most intimate moments and living their life to the fullest. Thanks to you for your blog. I wish you peace and wellness to you and your family on this difficult and challenging journey.
    God bless.

    • Dear Jill, thanks so much for writing and for your positive feedback. I’ve fallen behind on my installments and hearing from readers reminds me to get back at it. If you know anyone whobis diagnosed, please share my story. Thanks again for reaching out and for your kindness. Wishing you and your loved ones all good things for 2015!

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