Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Natalie Holland was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer in 2012. Other people’s survival stories provided her with much-needed inspiration as she faced cancer, so she is excited to share her own story of healing with the Connect4Hope community. Natalie is an incredibly upbeat person who radiates contagious, positive energy. During her interview, she quickly glossed over her diagnosis and treatment, focusing instead on the steps she took to regain her health following treatment, as this is something she discovered on her own and it’s where she believes she can help others the most.
In October 2012, Natalie Holland was diagnosed with stage 2B ductal and lobular ER/PR+ HER2- breast cancer. She says, “Breast cancer came into my life unannounced and uninvited. I was 36 with no family history, three young daughters, and an often deployed husband.” The shocking diagnosis led to two years of treatments, including:
A bi-lateral mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection (the removal of lymph nodes from her right armpit);
Breast reconstruction with implants and tissue expanders;
Multiple follow-up surgeries, which are still ongoing, to reconcile various complications related to the breast implants;
Four rounds of chemotherapy over a 12-week period;
Hormone therapy to reduce estrogen in her body. (This continued for a couple of years until Natalie became allergic to the treatment and needed to stop.)
A complete hysterectomy to (i) permanently stop estrogen production by her ovaries and (ii) counteract the increased risk of uterine cancer caused by one of the breast cancer drugs.
Support During Treatment
Natalie relied on various types of support during her two years of cancer treatments and surgeries:
Family: Natalie’s spouse, who was stationed in Afghanistan during this time, was incredibly supportive and traveled home to be with her during her treatments. In addition, her out-of-state family members came to stay for a week at a time to help her manage the roughest side effects from treatment.
Medical Team: Natalie’s medical support included kind, knowledgeable and competent providers with good bedside manners – both locally and at MD Anderson, which was 3 hours away.
Support Group: Natalie attended a young adult cancer group sponsored by the local Methodist Hospital. This group provided much-needed emotional support by connecting her with other cancer patients her age.
First Descents: She also joined this non-profit group, focused on helping young adults with cancer. With First Descents, Natalie participated in an all expense paid rock climbing trip to Colorado. She found the trip very healing, because the focus was on living, being adventurous and trying new things; not on cancer. Natalie explained, “Cancer tends to take, but there are some things that it can’t take. We have a choice in our attitudes about it, in letting it change us in positive ways. The negative is going to be there no matter what.”
Visualization: Natalie used visualization techniques to make her chemotherapy treatments as positive as possible. Specifically, she visualized the chemo as little soldiers slaying the cancer cells so that her body could be restored back to good health.
In 2014, Natalie's active cancer treatments were finished. While she continued to see her oncologist for routine check-ups until 2017, she was ready to return to her “normal” life. However, this was not as easy as she hoped it would be. For two years, cancer took things away from her: peace of mind, time with family, body parts, time off from work and things she loves. Natalie found it very difficult to go back to her old life as if cancer had never occurred.
After her treatments ended, Natalie discovered a lot more healing was needed to adjust to her new normal, because there was “no pretending [cancer] never happened.” Beyond her physical healing, there were also mental, emotional and spiritual wounds that she needed to heal. Natalie looked deep within to learn how to heal holistically so that she didn’t feel sad or anxious.
As Natalie reflected on how she rebuilt herself, she describes the steps she took as the “4Rs”:
During her cancer treatments, Natalie experienced the trauma of feeling separate from her body – due to physical pain, feelings of being unwell, believing that her body betrayed her and losing autonomy over her body. According to Natalie, these traumatic memories were stored in her fascia (1, 2), an interconnected layer of connective tissue that weaves through the entire body. She explains, “Talk therapy is wonderful…but without physical movement it’s hard to completely heal, because we’re holding onto those memories like a reservoir… [The reservoir] has to break open for those [memories] to move through the body and be released.”
Purposeful body movement enabled Natalie to open her reservoir, reconnect and become one with her body. While all exercise helps, Natalie found Pilates and yoga were especially powerful for her.
A consistent mindfulness practice also helped Nathalie reintegrate with her body, enabling her to treat her body with compassion and forgiveness. She accepted and let go of her anger about being sick. Over time, her anger has transformed into gratefulness for still having a body. It may be changed, but it is her body and continues to support her even though it is physically different.
Rest is imperative for repair and rejuvenation of mind, body and spirit (3, 4), especially when recovering from cancer and cancer treatments. Natalie used sleep and meditation to give her body the rest and relaxation it needed.
However, this was not something that happened overnight. While Natalie used rest to heal after each chemotherapy treatment and cancer surgery, her sleep habits changed for the worse shortly after her cancer treatments ended. Instead of resting when tired, she would push through her body’s fatigue. As she continued to heal, anxiety and hormonal changes from hysterectomy-induced menopause negatively impacted her. At this point, she realized the need to continue prioritizing rest. Natalie created a healthy bedtime routine by reducing electronic use and practicing Yoga nidra (yogic sleep). Today, Natalie practices Yoga nidra once per week as it allows her to continue connecting with her body years after her cancer treatments ended. (Natalie's YouTube channel contains her favorite Yoga Nidra practices.)
Yoga nidra is a very powerful meditation technique that promotes deep rest and relaxation more so than typical meditation practices. One hour practicing yoga nidra is said to provide as much rest as four hours of conventional sleep. It has specific cancer-healing benefits, including: release of repressed matter, support of pranic (or self-) healing, stimulation of mental healing and promotion of hope/optimism (5).
Restoration of Digestive Health
Natalie studied nutrition and dietetics in college so she was aware that her cancer treatments, specifically chemotherapy, antibiotics and anti-fungals, had wiped out her healthy intestinal flora necessary for a strong immune system (6, 7). She realized it would be very challenging to regain her health without first restoring her healthy gut bacteria. She says, “When your gut flora is wiped out, you may be eating nutritious foods, but if the good bacteria isn’t there or the intestinal lining isn’t healthy, then your body is not digesting and assimilating the vitamins and minerals from the healthy food you’re eating.” Until she restored her gut, she wouldn’t get the full benefit of the healthy foods in her daily diet.
To restore her gut, Natalie:
Began taking a probiotic that contained many different strains of bacteria, as well as pre-biotic and digestive enzymes. This combination aided her digestive tract in breaking down the nutritious food she was eating.
Began following a PEGAN diet, which is a combination of the Paleo and vegan diets (8). This diet includes a lot of leafy greens, vegetables and fruits with a little bit of meat. Natalie found that without the iron in animal products, which is absorbed at a much higher rate than the iron in vegetables, she becomes anemic. She only consumes meat that is sustainably raised, grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic-free.
Drank a lot of bone broth, which is full of collagen and gelatin, both of which are extremely beneficial in restoring the gut (9).
Chemotherapy can cause leaky gut (10), where the lining of the intestines becomes very spacious with little holes in it. Microscopic particles of food can slip through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, causing a hyperactive immune system and inflammation throughout the body. The collagen and gelatin in bone broth is very sticky and helps to close these holes in the gut lining, resulting in a tight intestinal container that holds all the beneficial food as it continues through the digestive tract (11).
Natalie believes that “Food can be the most powerful healer or a very slow poison.” As such, she encourages anyone with cancer to meet with an integrative nutritionist in order to determine a customized, healthy dietary protocol. Everyone’s body is different, which means the protocol used to heal through nutrition is unique to the individual. Through appropriate testing, an integrative nutritionist will determine how to best support each individual body.
Reducing Body Burden/Toxic Load
When harmful chemicals overwhelm a body, a lot of energy is needed to detoxify and clean them out of the body. Eventually, the body becomes overburdened and can’t rid itself of all the toxins to which it has been exposed. At that point, the toxins circulate in the body causing even greater harm. Reducing this burden provides a better chance of restoring health. There are a lot of things we can control in our immediate environment to minimize the toxins to which our bodies are exposed on a daily basis.
In order to reduce exposure to toxins, Natalie began doing the following during her cancer treatments and continues to this day:
Eating only organic food and avoids GMOs.
Drinking filtered, reverse osmosis water. This is very clean water, which does not contain the many endocrine-disrupting chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other toxins present in unfiltered water.
Using “clean” cleaning supplies, including lemon oil and vinegar. Since there is a lot of “greenwashing,” Natalie uses the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living app to scan cleaning products while shopping. That way she knows which products are the “cleanest” and why.
Swapping out her old personal care products for new ones. Natalie learned to stay away from the many personal care products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. She now buys most of her beauty products from Beautycounter, which bans over 1,500 harmful chemicals from their products. (By comparison, the US FDA bans only 30.)
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) interfere with the body’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones, healthy development and function of the body. EDC exposure has been linked to “alterations in sperm quality and fertility, abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, early puberty, altered nervous system function, immune function, certain cancers, respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, growth, neurological and learning disabilities, and more.” (12)
None of the aforementioned lifestyle changes occurred overnight. Rather, the changes were implemented gradually over time. A few years following her cancer treatments, Natalie realized she had emerged much healthier. She reflected on her sweeping lifestyle changes and began to refer to them as the 4Rs. According to Natalie, “Not only did the 4Rs help me heal; they now serve as [my] framework for ongoing sustainable wellness.”
Paying It Forward
Natalie experienced great support during her cancer treatment, but found that support system waned once her treatments ended. This is a common occurrence, but is rarely discussed. Natalie is trying to change that. In order to help others, she wrote a book about her cancer experience entitled Scarred But Smarter: A Cancer Memoir. She also manages YourHouseofHealing.com, a blog dedicated to wellness through the four key components she discovered were imperative for her healing (The 4Rs).
Natalie says having cancer has deepened her appreciation for life and health. Worry still enters her mind occasionally, but now she has the tools to deal with it. She says, “If I’m taking control and doing what I know I need to do, it gives me peace of mind knowing that there is nothing else I can do… That’s what allows me to let go of the rest, because I know that I’m doing everything in my power to prevent this disease from coming back.”
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