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Editor’s Note: Hong Kong-born Gillian Bertram was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2015 at the age of 31 years old whilst visiting her family who live here. Her real life in Paris was put on hold overnight, as she came to terms with this life-altering news. Since then, she has endured brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in order to fight the malignant tumor in her brain. She has also changed almost everything about her lifestyle and embraced alternative therapies. She began chronicling her battle with cancer and her quest to become the healthiest she has ever been on her Go Fund Me page, and has since inspired thousands with her grace, dignity and hopeful outlook. During her last appointment with her Hong Kong oncologist before she returns to her life in Europe, the doctor expressed surprise at how strong her body was after reviewing her most recent blood work! We are incredibly lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Gillian and share her story on Green Queen.
As told to Sonalie Figueiras, Green Queen founder and proud friend of Gillian Bertram by Gillian herself on January 27th 2016.
What is your diagnosis?
I have stage 3 anaplastic astrocytoma brain cancer.
I was diagnosed mid-November 2015. What was originally thought to be a benign brain tumor that was discovered in September 2015 was finally confirmed as malignant stage 3 brain cancer- more clinically known as anaplastic astrocytoma [from Wikipedia: “a rare WHO grade III type of astrocytoma, which is a type of cancer of the brain.”]
Were there any warnings prior to your diagnosis?
Prior to discovering the tumor, I had suffered two partial seizures. The first one happened in London at a cafe in Putney, where I was sitting with my aunt, uncle, brother and boyfriend. It felt like my eyes were jumping out of their sockets to the left in such a strong manner that it forced my whole head to jerk to the left as well. I was fully conscious throughout the 45 seconds of the seizure but I had no control over my head. It felt like an eternity. The cafe staff immediately called an ambulance while I was having the seizure. By the time the paramedics arrived, the seizure had stopped and I was just in a state of shock. My boyfriend held me tight throughout, calming me and helping me focus on my breathing, until the seizure passed. The paramedics tested my reflexes and pointed a torch behind my eyes to check if there were any problems with my optic nerve. They concluded that all my reactions seemed normal but I still went to A&E in the ambulance for further testing. I wanted to know more and what might have triggered the seizure.
In the end, the doctor did not feel it necessary for me to do an MRI scan to see if there was anything wrong with my brain, as I hadn’t suffered any previous headaches or dizziness or blurred vision or any other symptom which might suggest a brain tumor. She simply tested my reflexes again.
I left the hospital still shaken up from the seizure but somewhat comforted by the doctor’s ultimate conclusion that the seizure was stress-related and understandable given the recent passing of my father in a month prior.
I flew back to Hong Kong at the start of August to prepare for my father’s memorial alongside my mum and brother.
One week after the memorial I had my second seizure. This time it was longer, almost a full minute long. Also different: I was fully unconscious, as it happened whilst I was asleep. I actually thought I was dreaming that my right arm was throwing itself across my body uncontrollably. I was sleeping in my mum and dad’s bed that night to be close to my mum, and she felt the bed moving and woke up immediately to find me in a fit. She tried to wake me unsuccessfully, so she called an ambulance. The paramedics came very quickly and apparently I managed to get up from bed, walk to the living room and answer questions they were asking me in order to check my level of consciousness. I do not recollect any of these events. I only remember the feeling of my arm jerking in my dream. The next thing I remember is coming to in the ambulance and then again in the hospital bed. As it was my second seizure, the doctors were obliged to request brain MRIs , as well as CT scans and an EEG test (which tests the electrical activity in the brain.) It was at that point that they discovered the large mass in the right side of my brain. Below is the CT scan from the beginning of September 2015 after my second seizure. At that point, the doctors didn’t utter the word cancer. They suspected a benign tumor, a Stage 2 glioma, a type of brain tumor that arises from the glial cells in the brain.
Tissue specimens from the tumor were sent off for pathology testing during my craniotomy [the brain surgery to remove the majority of the tumor] on November 3rd 2015. I got the results back one week later as I was released from hospital. The surgery was a huge success with a full resection [from Wikipedia: “the surgical removal of part of an organ or structure“] of the tumor but the diagnosis was more serious: stage 3 anaplastic astrocytoma AKA brain cancer.
What did you decide on in terms of treatments, and why?
My biggest fear, more than the cancer itself, was the thought of undergoing the cancer treatments advised by the oncologists I was consulting with. For years I’ve been reading books and watching documentaries detailing the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, about how they destroy the body’s natural defense mechanism: the immune system. It has also been reported that the treatments themselves are carcinogenic! I was wrought with fear at the idea of hurting my body that I was working so hard to get as healthy as possible after a decade of debauchery!
I went back and forth a few times between the different treatments and which one to choose and I read as much as I could on alternative and holistic cancer treatments but in the end, I failed to find enough studies to have 100% faith in going 100% alternative, even though I knew that those treatments would not intoxicate or damage my cells. I decided to practice alternative therapies whilst undergoing chemo and radiation.
I faced intense criticism from a lot of people, including some of my closest loved ones, for my belief in alternative, non-toxic therapies. I knew that they were coming from a place of care and concern, fearing the worst would happen If I were to make the “wrong” decision. I understood all that but I felt alone in my search for an answer. I wanted to explore all options available to me before making my decision on what to do to my body.
In my search for an answer and amongst all the confusion surrounding treatments, I decided to re-read the book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan- Schreiber, a French psychiatrist who discovered his own malignant brain cancer at the age of 31 during the height of his professional career. This book inspired me so much and completely changed my perspective on how I wanted to live my life from that moment onwards. I first read the book back in 2011 and it had inspired me to learn more about alternative treatments for chronic illnesses and cancer. I spent most of my free time researching the many topics the book introduces in much greater detail.
The crazy thing is that everything Servan-Schreiber talks about has now become my own reality. The book is a highly influential tool in my life, and I have come to regard the author as an incredible mentor for somebody in my position. He has always upheld that surgery, radiation and chemotherapy saved his life BUT, in order to continue surviving and thriving, he had to change the way he lived his life. All the survivor stories I’ve read conclude pretty much the same thing so I choose to follow their footsteps and do my best at combining conventional and alternative therapies together.
What’s it like living with cancer?
I’ve been in the very fortunate position of not having suffered any serious physical pain due to my cancer as yet. Apart from recovering from my brain surgery, which took me about 2 weeks from a physical point of view. The mental and psychological side of living with cancer since my diagnosis has been the biggest challenge.
Even though I feel healthier than I’ve ever felt in my life, knowing that I have stage 3 brain cancer with dismal survival rates, especially if it reoccurs at a more aggressive stage (stage 4 glioblastoma), has been the hardest thing for me to get my head around.
Are you scared?
There is so much fear circling around cancer and however strong you are, it’s inevitable to be scared. How are you supposed to plan for your future when the doctor’s official prognosis is a 30% chance of not surviving past five years? And that’s after undergoing the conventional treatments like chemo and radiation they have recommended for you. I was shocked that none of the allopathic doctors I consulted with gave any credit to, nor recommended, any lifestyle changes as a way to increase my chances of survival.
What about the marriage you’ve dreamt of your whole life, what about having the children you weren’t even sure you wanted until now, that you’re not sure you’ll even be around to see grow up? How are you supposed to go on living with no plans for a future? Yes. I won’t deny that I’ve had all these painful thoughts and fears. But having these thoughts has only brought me down, lowered my morale and worse, made me feel sorry for myself, filling me with self-pity for my diagnosis and my situation. I quickly realized that this kind of negative loop thinking would not get me anywhere and I put it out of my mind as much as possible. I do feel I have many things to be grateful for and that’s what I focus on.
What has surprised you most about life post diagnosis?
Having to face the fears and upset that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and then working through them to get to where I am today has been incredibly rewarding, which in itself is surprising. I have come to believe that cancer is an imbalance between mind, body and soul. It is not simply a disease or a tumor found in your body. I have been doing a lot of inner work to bring together my mind and soul, and through this, I am already feeling huge positive changes. This is the part where most people start yawning and rolling their eyes, but given my current state of mind and my overall strong bill of health considering that I do have cancer, I find myself amazed. I am practicing meditation, EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), positive affirmations and mindfulness. I wholeheartedly believe that this mind/soul connection is crucial alongside the more functional side of treating the body holistically that involves dietary changes and supplementation of nutrients the body is deficient in.
Can you tell us more about the alternative treatments and the therapists you have worked with in Hong Kong?
I was very fortunate to find Miles Price, Director at Nutrition Upgrade and Clinical Nutritionist at Life Clinic, who introduced me to the four tiers of holistic healing. The bottom tier is diet. The second tier is supplementation: I supplement what my body is deficient in. The third tier is detoxification: coffee enemas and infrared sauna therapy. The fourth and final tier is emotional support and wellbeing: meditation, mindfulness, affirmations, EFT and autogenic training [from Wikipedia: “a form of relaxation therapy involving auto-suggestion.”]
All of this as a whole is a Functional Medicine approach to cancer. This approach addresses the imbalances, deficiencies, toxicities and organ weaknesses occurring in the body. By conducting various functional medicine tests, I was able to identify various anomalies which needed correcting through supplementation. For example, I was very deficient in Vitamin D and this needed correcting straightaway.
Correcting the imbalances in the body will help create an environment that will make it difficult for the cancer to take hold: cancer will only develop in the body when its physiology is compromised.
Everything about my cancer treatment was customized: Miles introduced me to a test with a laboratory called RGCC, based in Europe, where they can extract the cancer cells and test them against natural and chemo based agents and see which ones are effective at killing the cancer. I’m hoping to do this test when I am back in the UK. This will help me select which natural substances are best for me.
Miles also recommended a very specific diet and detoxification regime.
Can you tell us more about your diet?
The dietary elements are catered for cancer patients, with optimal nutrient density and foods that have a low allergic response. My diet consists of organic vegetables, seeds and nuts. The only animal protein I eat at every meal are free-range organic eggs, wild salmon and grass-fed cow’s liver, which I get from Gonzalo Kosher Meat & General Food. I also try to drink a can of coconut milk every day for the high fat content. Absolutely no processed foods or poorly sourced ingredients, and nothing that spikes the glucose level in my blood, such as white rice, white bread, pasta… most things containing wheat basically. I snack on organic nuts and dried cherries mostly.
What about the detoxification side of things?
On the detoxification treatment side of things, I look on YouTube for EFT videos to do at home, and Caroline Rhodes of The Body Group was recommended to me for in-person treatments. I also use some amazing iPhone apps for like MindSpace for guided meditations and and Beyond Affirmations and ThinkUp for positive affirmations. I do infrared sauna myself at home, 10 minutes front and back on my torso using a lamp I bought from Life Clinic. I also do coffee enemas myself in my bathroom, I got the coffee enema kit from Life Clinic as well. I actually find it quite a relaxing exercise although I expect most people would find it a weird and uncomfortable experience!
What are your most valuable resources in Hong Kong?
As I mentioned earlier, Miles Price has been a huge pillar of strength and support. I could not recommend him highly enough.
Green Queen has also been a real help, giving me access to all the information and resources I needed on where to find the foods I can eat, what holistic health centers I can go to and how to stock up on natural health products.
The HK Cancer Fund has been a great support for me too, with all their activities and openness. They introduced me to fellow brain cancer patients who provided me with great comfort. I have been able to speak to them about the latest in cancer research and therapies. It is incredibly gratifying to have someone be as genuinely interested as you are in all of this and of course they are, since their lives are directly affected.
You have such an inspiring attitude. How do you stay so positive?
I’m very lucky to have a supportive family and a wonderful network of friends. A special mention goes to my incredibly caring boyfriend who dropped everything in his life to see me through this. Many close friends have flown to Hong Kong to be with me either for the surgery or while I’ve been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy these past 6 weeks. I’m happy to say as of today I have taken my final round of chemo pills and I’ve already completed my radiation treatments too. I still have another six months of chemo when I get back to Paris, but I’m confident I can make it through with as much energy as I’ve managed so far.
Find our more about the incredible Gillian on her Go Fund Me page, where she posts daily treatment updates, videos and photos of her recovery journey. You can also donate to her cause: she is raising funds to be able to go to a special cancer clinic in Germany. The general prognosis for her diagnosis is 2 to 5 years.
Images courtesy of Gillian Bertram.