But even though she had a sore right nipple and "grainy area of lumpiness" around it, Kay dismissed her concerns.
"I'd had breast augmentations, so assumed the symptoms were something to do with that," said Kay, 52, an aesthetic nurse practitioner and mother of four from East Sussex, UK.
A few months later, though, Kay couldn't ignore the changes in her breast any longer, so she went to her doctor to get it checked out. The mammogram and ultrasound he arranged for her found nothing suspicious, but a subsequent needle biopsy confirmed Kay's worst fears: she had breast cancer.
"I was diagnosed with lobular invasive breast cancer," said Kay. It was 'grade three,' a faster-growing form of breast cancer more likely to come back after treatment, and 'pleomorphic,' a rare and aggressive subtype of lobular invasive breast cancer with a poorer prognosis and worse survival rates.1
Kay had private health insurance, so she was able to book a consultation with "the top oncologist in the country" within a matter of days to discuss her options. He told her she had the "worst type" of breast cancer, and her best course of action was to have a mastectomy—an operation to remove her right breast—followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.
Although an MRI scan showed that the cancer was confined to her right breast, Kay opted to have both breasts removed (a double mastectomy) for aesthetic reasons, followed by immediate reconstructive surgery. A date for the operation was scheduled very quickly.
In the meantime, Kay found herself asking: "Why have I got this disease?" Kay's consultant said it was "an unlucky roll of the dice," but Kay's then-husband, a scientist, disagreed.
"He told me that everything has a cause and effect," said Kay. "He began tirelessly researching breast cancer and ordered a huge number of books on the subject. I took two of them with me when I went for my surgery in London."
Read it and weep
The two books were The China Study by American biochemist T. Colin Campbell and his physician son Thomas M. Campbell II (BenBella Books, 2006)—which advocates a whole-foods, plant-based diet based on evidence from the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, one of the largest comprehensive studies of human nutrition ever conducted—and Max Gerson's A Cancer Therapy: Results of 50 Cases (Gerson Institute, first published in 1958), which outlines the American physician's nutritional, holistic approach to treating cancer.
As soon as Kay woke up from her operation—later than planned as she suffered a hemorrhage during the procedure and had to have additional surgery—she started devouring all the information in the books.
She was particularly intrigued by Max Gerson's alternative cancer therapy, known as 'Gerson therapy.' This approach involves eating a low-fat, salt-free, meat-free diet including organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables and drinking 13 freshly squeezed juices at hourly intervals throughout the day. Nutritional supplements and coffee enemas are also important features of the program.
The theory behind the therapy is that cancer is a disease of the whole organism—the result of several damaging factors that combine to cause a deterioration of the entire metabolic system—and a tumor is just a symptom of this. The goal is to bring the body back to its normal metabolic state via detoxification methods and building up the immune system.
"After I read the book, I was very upset that I had made a mistake," said Kay. "I realized the surgery wasn't going to help anything."
Kay then became very aware of her environment—the poor quality of the hospital food she was eating, the strong smell of the chemical cleaning products being used around her—and decided she would be better off at home.
"I told my surgeon I wanted to leave early, and I went home on day two after my operation—even though I still had five drains in place [to collect fluids from the surgical wounds]!"
An alternative approach
Once home, Kay decided that instead of going down the conventional route of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy—as recommended by her consultant—she would try the Gerson method to prevent the cancer from coming back.
"I was actively advised against this by my oncologist," said Kay. "And my brother-in-law, a top surgeon, told me I would die quickly."
Kay was informed that her estrogen levels were incredibly high, and if she was going to decline hormone therapy in the form of tamoxifen and goserelin (Zoladex) to reduce the risk of her breast cancer coming back, she should get her ovaries
But Kay refused the surgery, sticking to her decision to try Gerson's holistic approach.
"My family, close friends and colleagues were in shock at my decision," said Kay. "I was a registered nurse for 32 years. To be a nurse yet turn my back on modern medicine made no sense to them."
Kay had already spoken to Dr Patrick Vickers, the director and founder of the Northern Baja Gerson Clinic in Mexico, and she felt confident in her choice to turn down all conventional treatments and fully commit to Gerson's alternative therapy.
One week after her operation, Kay started the intensive juicing protocol—which includes a carrot and apple juice as well as a green juice featuring specific vegetables such as chard, romaine lettuce and green pepper—combined with a simple, organic diet of oatmeal in the morning and vegetables and a baked potato for lunch and dinner. She also drank 'Hippocrates Soup' (see box, right), designed to heal and strengthen the immune system and kidneys.
Although it was a drastic change of diet for Kay—before, she lived on Diet Coke, meat, fish, chocolate and her children's leftovers—the regimented Gerson plan suited her personality.
Kay also started giving herself coffee enemas, which are used to increase the liver's detoxification capacity.
According to the Gerson Institute, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, California, dedicated to providing education and training in Gerson therapy, "Certain substances in the coffee stimulate an important detoxification enzyme in the liver as well as dilate the bile ducts and increase the flow of bile."
On top of the 13 juices a day and five coffee enemas, Kay also started taking a number of nutritional supplements, including potassium, vitamin C, niacin, pancreatic enzymes and Lugol's iodine. In addition, although not part of the Gerson therapy, she decided to try two other alternative cancer therapies she'd read about: mistletoe injections and very high doses of vitamin B17 (also known as 'laetrile' or 'amygdalin'), which she took under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.
Soon after starting the Gerson therapy, Kay noticed a number of improvements in her health. Within days her surgical wounds had healed, within weeks she no longer had to read with the help of glasses, and within months she had lost 36 pounds (around 16 kg) and was down to a healthy weight.
Further down the line, she experienced the complete resolution of several long-term symptoms: frequent migraines, keloid scarring (an overgrowth of scar tissue) from her breast augmentations, irregular heartbeat and heavy periods. She also underwent menopause naturally two years after starting Gerson therapy, "without a single side-effect," although she says that Chinese herbs helped as well.
Kay did get a number of unpleasant symptoms initially, such as bloating, joint pain and "smelling like a nail salon," but they were all signs the body was detoxing, Kay said, and once they resolved, she felt great.
During this time, Kay made sure she had blood tests every six weeks to keep an eye on any markers of disease, and she was monitored remotely by an experienced naturopath and Gerson therapist, Kathryn Alexander.
A new way of life
Kay religiously stuck to the strict Gerson regime for two years, after which she began to gradually reduce the number of juices and enemas she had each day while continuing to follow all the principles of the therapy.
Now, six and a half years later, Kay still follows the Gerson plan, but has nine juices a day rather than 13, and one or two enemas a day instead of five. "I live the Gerson way and so do my children. We eat only organic food and drink filtered water. My kids will have a bit of cheese, meat and fish, but I'm totally vegan."
Kay is happy to report that she has remained cancer free, much to the surprise of her doctors, and often even forgets that she's had cancer at all despite what were decidedly grim odds of survival. "I remember researching my specific diagnosis at the time, and there was a 20 percent survival rate at two years and 0 percent at five years."
Kay also says she's seen a number of friends and colleagues with the same or a less severe diagnosis opt for conventional treatment and die quickly.
Kay still gets regular blood tests. Her inflammatory markers are low—at the time of her diagnosis they were extremely high—and her cholesterol levels and white blood cell count are both good. Now a qualified personal nutritionist, Kay is passionate about helping others "survive against the odds" and make truly informed healthcare choices.
Kay sees her cancer as a blessing. Not only is she living a much healthier lifestyle—one that she considers beneficial to her children's future health too—but she is also happily engaged to the first doctor she consulted about Gerson therapy, Dr Patrick Vickers.
"Only good," she says, "has come from my initial diagnosis."
1 small celery root, fibers removed, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, roughly chopped
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 small or one large leek, roughly chopped
4-5 tomatoes, roughly chopped
4-5 cloves garlic
1 medium parsley root or ½ bunch of parsley, roughly chopped
1) In a large pot, layer ingredients in the order listed above.
2) Add enough water, about 2 quarts (2 L), to slightly cover the vegetables and bring to a boil.
3) Reduce to a very low simmer, cover and continue to cook for 1½ to 2 hours, until all the vegetables are soft.
4) Pass through a food mill to remove fibers.
Originally developed in the 1930s by the late Dr Max Gerson to treat his migraine headaches, Gerson therapy is a holistic treatment involving an organic plant-based diet, fresh raw juices, coffee enemas and nutritional supplements, designed to activate the body's ability to heal itself. Used these days for a variety of degenerative diseases, it is one of the most famous alternative cancer treatments.
Although no randomized controlled clinical trials—considered the 'gold standard' of scientific evidence—have been carried out on Gerson therapy specifically for cancer, there are some published retrospective studies that have analyzed past cases.
Gerson himself detailed his success in treating several types of cancer in his book, A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases (Gerson Institute, 1958), and in a number of papers published in scientific journals.
A review of Gerson's reported cases by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1959 could find no proof that the treatment worked. However, the NCI's current summary of Gerson therapy highlights the following promising studies:
• In 1990, a study of a dietary regimen similar to the Gerson therapy was carried out in Austria, where patients received the standard cancer treatment along with the special diet. The researchers reported that the "diet appeared to help patients live longer than usual and have fewer side-effects."1
• In 1995, the Gerson Research Organization did a retrospective study of melanoma patients treated with the Gerson therapy, which reported that those with stage 3 or 4 melanoma—the cases most difficult to cure, as they involve cancer spreading to the lymph nodes or beyond—lived longer than usual for people with such severe cancer.1
• A review of the case reports of six patients with metastasizing (spreading) cancer who had used or were following the Gerson anticancer diet concluded that the regimen had "supported patients to some extent both physically and psychologically."2
If you're considering following the Gerson regime or a similar anticancer diet, work alongside a suitably qualified health professional.
Useful contacts and resources
Kay Allison Shemirani: www.fitnjuicing.com
Gerson Institute: www.gerson.org
Northern Baja Gerson Center: www.gersontreatment.com
Kathryn Alexander, Gerson therapist: www.kathrynalexander.com.au