Kathy’s Story of Healing from Stage 4 Inflammatory Breast Cancer and High Grade Head & Neck Cancer

In 2005, Kathy Bero was diagnosed with Stage 4 Inflammatory Breast Cancer. While her doctor did not expect her to survive, Kathy chose to look adversity in the face and figure out how to heal. She followed an integrative approach using a combination of conventional treatments, dietary changes, meditation, visualization and mindfulness to fully recover. Fifteen years later she is cancer-free and thriving!



Kathy gave Connect4Hope permission to summarize her healing story, which is described in more detail in her book E.A.T.: An Unconventional Decade in the Life of a Cancer Patient.



Overview

In 2005, at age 41, Kathy Mydlach Bero, wife and mother of two young daughters, was diagnosed with Stage 4 ER/PR-positive, HER2-negative (1) Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC). Stage 4 IBC had one of the lowest survival rates of all breast cancers with an average of just 21 months and only an 11% chance of surviving 5 years. While her oncologist did not share this with her at the time, Kathy later learned his plan was to keep her comfortable until she died, because he didn’t expect her to survive. Rather than accepting her conventional prognosis, Kathy chose to be strong, “get her head right and build a strategy for success.” (2)

In 2006, an additional challenge was added to Kathy’s journey. After finishing her conventional breast cancer treatments, she was diagnosed with a separate high-grade head and neck cancer.

Kathy relied on a combination of therapies to heal herself, including conventional modalities, using food as medicine, meditation/mindfulness and reiki (a.k.a. universal energy.) Kathy’s individualized healing protocol was developed over time, through research, trial and error and in consultation with her doctors and other scientists.

By October 2007, Kathy was told she was cancer-free, and in November 2008, she was told she no longer needed CT scans. Her doctors were amazed by her full and enduring recovery, but Kathy was not surprised. She never altered the healthy lifestyle changes she made while in the midst of her cancer treatments; rather, these habits became her new normal leading to long-lasting well-being.

This is how she healed:

Conventional Treatments

In November 2005, just days after her diagnosis, Kathy began four months of chemotherapy treatments. Following chemotherapy, she had a mastectomy (during which she learned that the cancer had metastasized outside of her lymph nodes) and eventually non-skin sparing radiation. During and after these treatments, Kathy experienced most, if not all, of their typical and “rare” side effects.

Kathy’s diagnosis of a high-grade head and neck tumor in her parotid gland (a major salivary gland next to her left ear) required another surgery for parotid removal (a parotidectomy) and another 30 radiation treatments beginning in October 2006, one year after her breast cancer diagnosis.

In December 2008, Kathy stopped taking pharmaceutical medications to avoid their debilitating side effects. In their place, she committed to a regime using foods with antiangiogenic properties together with reiki and meditative practices (see below.) This routine kept her in remission, allowing her to continue healing from the cancer and recover from the build-up of pharmaceutical toxins, which had accumulated in her body following her conventional treatments. It took years to completely purge these toxins from her system.

Food As Medicine

Early in her treatment journey, Kathy learned about the benefits of eating foods with special anti-angiogenic compounds.


Anti-angiogenesis is the process of preventing the formation of blood vessels that cancerous tumors require to grow. Its benefit is based on the theory that without new blood vessels to nourish them, cancer cells will die. Anti-angiogenic foods stop the growth of these blood vessels to cancer cells. (3)


To educate herself on an anti-angiogenic diet, Kathy consulted the following resources:

  • Dr. Jack Losso, a Louisiana State University food scientist who advised Kathy to eat produce she rarely ate and instructed her how to cook to preserve food’s disease-fighting compounds.

  • Foods That Fight Cancer by Richard Belliveau.

  • Anti-Cancer by David Servan-Schreiber, MD. This book became like a Bible for Kathy as the author cited research showing how cancer stem cells resistant to chemotherapy were vulnerable to anti-angiogenic foods. She placed it on her kitchen counter, allowing her to view the chart of cancer-fighting foods so that she could eat as many as possible on a daily basis.

  • A series of books by Dr. Andrew Weil taught her that inflammation is the precursor to disease. Thus, eating anti-inflammatory foods would reduce inflammation and help her body regain health.

  • Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver taught her the importance of eating quality meat, which is loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. Quality meat comes from organic beef and chicken that graze on chemical-free pastures.


Omega-3s are the healthier fatty acids, which play a strong role in reducing inflammation and protecting against chronic disease. Too much Omega-6, on the other hand, is one culprit that increases inflammation in our bodies and consequently increases the risk of developing chronic disease, including cancer (4). Livestock raised on feedlots typically eat foods they’re not designed to eat, which can cause their meat to contain higher amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids. (5)


In February 2006, Kathy decided to fully follow an anti-angiogenic diet. Her rationale was that since she was already eating food throughout the day, she needed to make it count. Food would become another form of medicine, promoting healing without negative side effects. She committed to eat at least 10 items daily from the anti-angiogenic food list, including:

  • Fruits: apples, blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, currant, grapefruit, lemons, melon, orange, peach, pear, pineapple, plum, raspberry, red grape, red tart cherry, strawberry, watermelon;

  • Herbs: basil, chive, cilantro, dill, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, lavender, licorice, marjoram, mint, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, turmeric with pepper, sage;

  • Vegetables: artichoke, arugula, asparagus, beet, bok choy, broccoli, brussel sprouts, button mushroom, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, collard, cucumber, fennel, green beans, kale, leek, lima beans, maitake mushrooms, mesclun, onion, parsnip, peas, pepper, pumpkin, purple potato, radish, rutabaga, scallion, shallot, soybeans, spinach, sprouts (variety), squash (variety), sweet potato, swiss chard, tomato, turnip, watercress;

  • Nuts/Seeds: almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine, pistachio, chia, flax, pumpkin, hemp, sesame seeds;

  • Proteins: dry beans, grass-fed animals (limited), legumes, wild caught seafood, whole grains;

  • Other: black raspberry power, curries, dark chocolate (70+%), fermented foods, green & black tea, grape seed oil, black cumin seed (kalonji) oil, olive oil, red wine (1 glass/week).


Over time, she added the following positive changes to her diet:

  • Added cod liver oil, vitamin D3 and fish oil supplements to her “food as medicine” protocol.

  • Removed all genetically modified foods (GMOs) and foods sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.

  • Ensured all the food she ate was organic and of an heirloom variety whenever possible.


Heirloom plants are species grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation and are typically at least 50 years old. Heirloom seeds are naturally pollinated by insects or the wind and the plants are generally grown using small-scale, traditional farming techniques.

  • Removed all processed sugar from her diet, replacing it with local honey and maple syrup from her own backyard trees.

  • Had her well water tested to ensure it was clear of chemical pollutants.

  • Added probiotic-rich foods (e.g. yogurt, kefir, soft cheeses, and fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut) as well as prebiotics (e.g. asparagus, legumes, honey, maple syrup, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic and onions) to her regular diet. These items were critical to heal her gut bacteria as the constant supply of antibiotic prescriptions from her doctors had depleted the good, healthy bacteria, allowing offending bacteria to grow stronger and more resistant to drugs. This, in turn, had caused her fragile immune system and overall health to further weaken and needed to be reversed.


Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested, provide numerous health benefits, especially in the digestive tract. Prebiotics provide a food source for probiotics. Learn more about the importance of probiotics and microbiome health from our event recording: The Well-being Connection: Emotions, Gut & Immunity.


Kathy had the good fortune of living on a former 60-acre farm with plenty of room to grow her own food. Initially, she joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program and bought her food from local farmers. Then she and her family transitioned 2 acres of their land back to growing food and raising livestock so that they could sustain themselves with as much home-grown organic food as possible. Whatever they didn’t eat right away, Kathy was able to can or freeze for future consumption. This distraction gave her something besides cancer on which to focus her mind and provided her a way to physically and mentally retain control over her health.

Kathy studied everything her family put in their mouths and evaluated how it prevented cancer from returning to their house again. She says, “I was exhilarated by the thought that if I could just learn how to use it, the pharmacy right out my back door could help me heal.” (6)

Reiki

Soon after starting radiation for her head and neck cancer, Kathy added reiki to her healing protocol.


Reiki is a form of traditional Japanese healing that clears and balances the body’s energies so it can begin to heal. For more information on energy medicine, listen to our event recording: Energy Healing.


In the first reiki session, without Kathy revealing any of her health issues other than that she had cancer, the practitioner was able to list all of the areas in Kathy’s body that were ailing her. He also named every physical challenge she had experienced in her life. During her second session, the red rash on the radiated area of her head disappeared. By her third reiki session, Kathy had already endured 14 radiation treatments and was struggling to turn her head due to a scar tissue build-up at the parotidectomy site. After the 90-minute reiki session, her neck loosened up. The next day her doctor was stunned by the elasticity of her neck! Kathy continued using reiki to address cancer treatment side effects and improve her health. Eventually, she learned how to use reiki on herself and became a certified reiki practitioner.

Mindfulness

Addressing the side effects of her cancer treatments led Kathy to mindfulness and meditation. Some days, she listened to meditation and mindfulness CDs. On others, she meditated in silence by focusing on her breath. Over time, she learned to love practicing mindfulness – taking in all she could from wherever she was and whatever was happening around or inside her. Kathy described this as “the brightest silver lining of the many bestowed upon [her] during [her] cancer battle” (7). Practicing mindfulness allowed her to stop, listen, embrace and release any of her fears about cancer and her overall health.

Further, this practice enabled Kathy to become more in tune with her body. As she changed her diet, she became more aware of her food cravings and would often check them against her list of cancer-fighting foods. Frequently, her newest food craving was on the list. Kathy decided this was her body’s way of telling her what it needed to heal. She is convinced that listening very closely to her body fed her recovery.

Visualization

Visualization is the practice of seeing, believing and feeling whatever state of being you want to manifest. Kathy used this technique often to imagine the cancer cells being removed from her body. Some of the visualizations she used include:

  • When eating anti-angiogenic foods, she visualized every bite as an axe chopping away at the tumor’s blood supply as if chopping down a tree.

  • She imagined cancer melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz.

  • She visualized the cancer shriveling up and becoming too weak to metastasize, leaving her bones, lungs, and brain free from its damage.

Spirituality

Before cancer, Kathy reached out to God only when she had a problem or was worried. However, over the course of her cancer journey, she connected everyday with God to give thanks for the blessings in her life. While cancer was a very large hurdle to overcome, Kathy reminded herself “to trust that every challenge was an opportunity to grow” (8). She fully believed that God had provided resources for her to heal; it was her job to find and engage them. Anytime she slipped into depression, prayer and meditation would help her adjust her attitude. The more she practiced, the easier it became.

Gratefulness & Social Support

Kathy also kept a cancer notebook, in which she documented all of her medical information, doctors appointments, etc. In the back, she kept a list of people to thank. Each time someone helped her or gave her a gift, she wrote a thank you note. As she says, “Doing that really helped me understand that I wasn’t alone… Without that notebook I would’ve lost track of the huge network supporting my recovery.” (9)

Kathy’s successful cancer battle wasn’t easy. After her treatments ended, she continued to battle depression and negativity as well as lingering, debilitating side effects from the conventional cancer treatments and continued medication. She says, “Medical protocols took me to rock bottom like an addict, stripping me of everything I knew and then inadvertently cleared the way for me to find a deeper way of healing” (10). During these difficult times, she increasingly turned to her gardens, cooking, prayer, mindfulness, meditation, reiki and exercise to focus on living one day at a time. Cancer taught her the importance of taking the good with the bad. Keeping a journal allowed her to maintain perspective, focusing on and documenting what was good about each day and made it easier to manage the bad.

Paying It Forward

In 2008, Kathy participated in an 8-day cancer retreat at Commonweal in California. The retreat included yoga, meditation, counseling sessions, as well as anti-inflammatory, organic foods. For the first four days, she cried off and on as she released the fears and worries from the previous three years. By the fifth day, she felt better than she had in years and then realized that the arthritic pain she’d had for 25 years had suddenly disappeared without any medication.

As Kathy reflected on her experience and her life’s transformation, she contemplated how to share her knowledge about using food as medicine along with energy healing to beat cancer. Prior to cancer, advocacy was one of Kathy’s passions. After her cancer diagnosis, she abandoned it. While Kathy had been practicing eating with the intention to heal, she knew most cancer patients were not. She became as interested in their survival as she was her own. She focused her meditations on teaching others to do what she had done. After 8 days of reflection at Commonweal, her entrepreneurial flame had been lit and she decided it was time to offer hope and strength to others. Several months later, Kathy started Nugenesis, a non-profit organization which concentrated on food as medicine and supported a farming education center focused on scientifically-confirmed foods that fought widespread chronic illness.

Conclusion

Now, 15 years after her cancer diagnosis, Kathy remains cancer-free. She continues to live according to her “new normal” lifestyle filled with meditation, mindfulness and a truly integrative approach to health.

According to Dr. David Rakel, MD, FAAFP, Chair, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, “There are three human characteristics shared by those who do well with cancer: a strong social support system, the ability to roll with the punches, and an ability to never take no for an answer… Proactive patients always do better than passive ones. [Kathy was] proactive, able to recognize the self-healing abilities in her body and acted upon them” (11). She dug deep to discover healing resources, including the innate ability to question, challenge and insist that no stone be left unturned when searching for a cure.

Looking back, Kathy says cancer provided “a framework by which to make better choices in my life and balance my energy in a way that could serve myself and others. Through it all, I garnered an understanding of the power I had within and how to tap my God-given ability to self-heal. Cancer helped me to understand that even with so much loss, there would always be peace. It was not a wonderful experience, but since I had it, I had to make the best of it and I think I did.” (12)


Additional Resources

E.A.T.: An Unconventional Decade in the Life of a Cancer Patient by Kathy Mydlach Bero

Foods That Fight Cancer by Richard Belliveau

Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, MD.

Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Endnotes

(1) Kathy’s HER2 test results came back inconclusive, so her oncologist had to make his own call and treated her as if it was negative, which meant fewer doses of chemotherapy.

(2) Bero, Kathy Mydlach. E.A.T.: An Unconventional Decade in the Life of a Cancer Patient. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016, November 11, 2005.

(3) William W. Li, MD, “Angiogenesis: How We Can Starve Cancer with Food,” //www.drwilliamli.com. Full text available here.

(4) Ruairi Robertson, PhD, “Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids: A Complete Overview,” //www.healthline.com (January 15, 2017). Full text available here.

(5) Artemis P. Simopoulos, “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity,” //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov (March 2, 2016). Full text available here.

(6) Bero, March 2007.

(7) Bero, October 2013.

(8) Bero, September 2014.

(9) Bero, November 11, 2005.

(10) Bero, October 2007.

(11) Bero, December 2013.

(12) Bero, October 2013.

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