The most urgent task for the week was to learn what I should eat and how to prepare it. I brought bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried and canned legumes, black olives, varieties of seaweed, shiitake and portabella mushrooms, dried rosemary, olive oil, tamari sauce, pork from our meat CSA, white fish, Job’s tears (coix lacryma-jobi), and nuts and popcorn for snacks. I also brought an intimidating new juicer.
Class notes had outlined mostly what I couldn’t eat: no sugars or artificial sweeteners, dairy, red meat, seafood with legs… In April I had consulted with Cissy Majebe, founder and president of the Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville. Cissy specializes in cancer treatment. She urged me to eat, every day, mung beans, asparagus and rosemary for their detoxifying properties. These meager guidelines obviously needed fleshing out, so to speak. First Step (9/5/12) sums up how that project went.
After each morning’s hike, I made vegetable juice to accompany my daily bowl of cooked mung beans (yum). Some juices were more successful than others. I experimented with blends of kale, celery, cucumbers, and other gifts of the garden. I tried to learn to like juices that contained no fruit to sweeten things up, but, no joy there.
I had bought this machine because juicing was so helpful to Kris Carr in Crazy Sexy Cancer, even though I had been a bit unsure about juicing, since too much raw food–according to Chinese medical theory–injures the Spleen. Cooking starts the digestive process, thus sparing the Stomach and Spleen’s energy to do what they do best–“ripen and rot the food”, and sort out and distribute the “clear and turbid” components to their proper organ systems. The general guideline in Chinese medicine is 80/20–no more than 20% of your food should be raw, and people with weak Spleens should avoid raw food altogether. But Kris Carr’s results from juicing were so compelling, I ignored my own doubts and gave it a go.
(Seven months after this retreat, I attended a Jeffrey Yuen class about treating cancer with diet. Chinese medicine uses basically two strategies to treat cancer: “induce latency” and “clear fire toxins”. I learned in class that raw foods–especially juiced foods–induce latency in cancer, cooling down tumor activity to buy time for the body to rebuild its immune system and basic qi until there’s enough strength to advance to the “clear fire toxins” phase. Raw foods, even at room temperature, are “Cold” and “Dampening.” These two qualities act like water around nuclear reactor rods to contain the toxic fire of the cancer. This works for Kris Carr and others, but it isn’t the best treatment strategy for me, since Brendan judged my qi to be strong enough to work on clearing the tumors. I rarely juice foods now.)
That week I learned how to prepare mung beans and Job’s tears (which dry Dampness). Not so hard, as it turns out. Soak mung beans overnight with a 2″ square of kombu, then rinse and cook in plenty of water for about 30 minutes. Job’s tears also cook in 20-30 minutes but don’t need to be soaked. Job’s tears, by the way, should be purchased from Chinese herbal pharmacies (it’s called “yi yi ren”). “Job’s tears” sold over the internet often is pearl barley, which it resembles but actually isn’t. These accomplishments in the kitchen don’t sound like a lot for a week’s effort, but I had much resistance to overcome concerning my diet. Sequestering myself in the woods, far from grocery stores and restaurants, with limited ingredients to work with, forced me to grapple with the inevitable food issues that came up. The diagnosis was recent enough to motivate me to make radical changes in my diet, and that was a good start. Tweaking the food plan and recipes could, and did, come later.
The qigong portion of the retreat went less well. I liked Nan Lu’s DVD (Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Woman’s Guide to Healing from Breast Cancer), but I preferred the more meditative version of guolin qigong that Jeffrey Yuen teaches, “Huff Puff Qigong” (http://daoisthealingarts.com/Huff%20Puff%20Qigong.html). Nan Lu’s video is “one size fits all”. Jeffrey Yuen’s video offers modifications for gathering qi (when you’re weak or tired) or dispersing qi (when you’re feeling strong enough to get rid of the fire toxins or if you need to expel unwanted energy, such as anger). My problem with learning qigong that week was my confusion about where I was energetically. Clearly I had enough qi to take long walks, but was I ready to clear the fire toxins? My overthinking on this question left me spinning my wheels, so I shelved the project for the week. Food seemed the more pressing task to work on.
After lunch I worked on my stack of 3 x 5 cards, a card for each fruit, vegetable, legume, spice, etc., discussed in my books on Chinese dietetics, noting the different qualities each food possessed (such as “Heating”, “Dries Damp,” “Tonifies Qi,” “Tonifies the Liver”…). As I’ve written earlier, complete consensus among the authors was rare. I had hoped for a definitive list of foods to eat and foods to avoid; I settled for a list of foods that probably are good for me. I can live with a lot of ambiguity, but it took the whole week for me to accept that, even with intelligence, diligence, and high motivation, I would not end up with a food plan in which I felt completely confident. To muddy the waters further, there are excellent and totally unambiguous books on cancer and diet written by biomedical researchers. The best of the lot, Anticancer; a New Way of Life, (David Servan-Schreiber), has charts of foods that help fight different types of cancer. The breast cancer list looked great, and probably will be useful to me someday when the tumors are gone, but many of those foods messed with my current treatment strategies.
I spent the remaining time each day writing in my journal, meditating, pretending to do qigong, and reading my “for fun” books. Cissy Majebe had also recommended a daily three-part regimen for detoxifying the body and for boosting the immune system: dry brush the skin, soak in a hot bath (“as hot as you can stand”) with epsom salts and rosemary essential oil (for at least 20 minutes), then shower off in tepid water. A hot soak was a lovely way to end each day.
I was busy!
Though an introvert, I’m not much of a loner. I surprised even myself when I conceived this retreat. I think it was a brilliant move. Without the usual distractions and temptations and busy-ness of my home/work environments and social life, I was able to focus and think deeply about the big issues of my life, celebrate my strengths and assets, and make peace with my shortcomings. I know that such celebrations and peace-makings are fragile states, but I left the woods feeling fundamentally certain that I’ll do just fine.