Color & Control:

Rock bottom is further down than you think

By Dr. Diva Nagula

I didn’t hit it when I was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—at that point I was optimistic, if afraid of the unknown. I didn’t hit it when the oncologist told me I needed chemotherapy—at that point, I was furious with God. I hit rock bottom when I went into remission.

After completing my last round of chemo treatment, I was completely depleted. I was so fatigued that my daily exercise goal was just to walk to the mailbox and back. I had gained weight because I’d been sedentary. It wasn’t just my body that was a wreck.

During my cancer treatment, I’d become so angry that I’d alienated everyone. I’d exited my business just before my diagnosis and, within the same year, I’d divorced and moved to a different city. I’d stopped reaching out to friends, who didn’t know what to do with someone who was so sick. I had no willpower, no drive, no reason to get up in the morning.

What was worse was that, in remission, I didn’t have the cancer to be angry at anymore. My cancer journey had changed my identity. Before cancer, my identity was being a doctor. I had helped thousands of patients in my lifetime. With the news I needed chemo, it was official: I was very sick. My identity had switched to that of a patient.

Other physicians and oncologists cared for me, but I looked everywhere for answers about how I could recover. I didn’t feel I could lean on anyone for support; one by one I’d crossed everyone off my list. I isolated myself. It wasn’t just my physical body that had cancer. It was also my relationships, my mind, and my spirit. After my diagnosis, the cancer and I became one and the same. Then, after five rounds of chemo, I’d beaten it. I had been elated for just a moment when the doctor told me I was cancer-free. In the next moment, I wondered, “Who am I going to share this with?” Except for my parents and my immediate family, I was alone.

A few weeks later, I was in a parking lot, out of breath from the walk from the store back to my car. I looked up from the keys in my hand and saw a familiar face coming toward me. Holy crap, I realized, it’s Adam. Adam was a personal trainer and a good friend of mine. I’d moved to North Carolina for the summer, and after my diagnosis, I just lost touch with him. I had never reached out to him, even when I got sick. Adam has such a positive disposition that seeing his face instantly lifted my spirits.

Help from the past

As we exchanged pleasantries, I remembered how great, I felt working out with Adam in the past. We would work on strength training and conditioning, but Adam also had boxing pads. Suddenly I said, “You know what? I want to do that again. I want to beat the crap out of those pads.” I wanted to beat up on the cancer and on everything I’d just gone through. I needed physical exercise, and I needed to release the emotions that had built up over five months of chemo and isolation. I needed to let go of the anger and animosity and mistrust I’d been harbouring. I was ready to fight for my well-being.

My chance meeting and reconnection with Adam started a transformation in my body, mind, and spirit. My friendship with him allowed me to remove my distrust and begin to heal my relationships. As we trained, week after week, my body transformed. Endorphins finally flowed freely to my brain, which improved my mood. I lost weight and my clothes fit nicely. My self-esteem grew as I saw positive changes in my body. I was filled with hope. Maybe there was a reason I’d run into Adam in the grocery store parking lot. Maybe there was a reason the cancer hadn’t killed me.

I was being given an opportunity to make something of my life again. My journey had taught me so much about caring for myself, and I realized my story and my knowledge was now a gift I could offer to others. In remission, cancer no longer defined me. I began to connect with something bigger than me.

Cancerous choices

Chronic inflammation is the root of many diseases and illnesses. In my case, it led to the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,
a blood cancer. For me, chronic inflammation stemmed from poor lifestyle choices such as improper diet, insufficient exercise, high stress levels, and the lack of a support network of friends and family.

As I looked back at all the factors that had led to my diagnosis, I realized I’d made myself sick. As a doctor, I always looked out for the
best interest of my patients. But I was also an entrepreneur, stuck in the stresses of growing my business. My lifestyle was unhealthy. I ate poorly. I rarely exercised. I wasn’t fully present with my friends and family—in fact, I wasn’t always fully present with my patients. I was often somewhere else, trying to get to the next patient, the next procedure, the next development that would advance my business. I never took time for self-care. I was incredibly hard on myself, constantly pushing myself to succeed and achieve. I never showed myself the love and compassion I needed.

My lack of care ultimately destroyed my spirit. I saw the same lifestyle stressors in my patients, and I now have no doubt that these influences had a negative impact on their health—and may be having an impact on yours—as they did mine. In a typical medical school, doctors are not taught the healing elements of food, positive thought, and spirituality. These are elements I began to learn as a patient and continue to learn throughout remission.

As a student of osteopathic medicine, I was fortunate to have learned to look at each patient’s disease or problem from a holistic perspective. Most schools of thought focus on symptom management only. From the start of my practice, I took a global view of each patient’s physical health. And yet, when I got sick, I realized there was still more to learn. I looked for alternative ways to tackle my cancer and support myself while taking traditional chemotherapy drugs. I came across a lot of research that wasn’t presented to me during medical school. There was much more to learn about health than what I had been taught in medical school.

While researching my diagnosis and various treatments, I discovered a relatively new field of medicine that seemed to answer a lot of questions for me: integrative medicine. I applied for a fellowship in Dr. Andrew Weil’s integrative medicine program, which incorporates elements of Western and Eastern medicine. I was accepted and the program opened my eyes to the healing powers of diet, mindfulness, and spirituality and the fact that if doctors used the tenets of integrative medicine early on in patients, it was possible to heal people before they developed symptoms and disease.

I realized I could heal myself through my own educational training and personal research. As I looked for ways to support my health, I also discovered deeper influences that needed healing, from my suffering relationships and Type-A workaholic lifestyle to my mental health and spirituality. I’ve been through a number of transformations in my physical, mental, and spiritual health since my cancer diagnosis. For the longest time, I thought I simply needed to eat well and start exercising again. The solution seemed simple. Eventually, I learned that healing also needed to take place in my connection to others and to my spirituality.

I’m still evolving. Through sharing my personal experiences of transformation, I hope to offer a reflection that allows you to develop an awareness of the positive and negative influences in your own life. My cancer is not the only one that began this way. Likely there are disconnections and habits in your own life that are eroding your health.

Doctor’s orders

In the wake of a cancer diagnosis, doctors and oncologists give advice on the patient’s medical condition—but the patient is left with endless questions about how to support their overall health. Physical symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg, and underneath are all the influences on the patient’s well-being: from diet, exercise, and stress to the quality of their connection with themselves and others. A cancer diagnosis isn’t just a personal health crisis. It’s a call to develop the unhealthy areas of your life into a more authentic well-being. Positive thoughts have the power to uplift others. The purpose of my book—and my life’s purpose now—is to share the tools. My suggestions are not a replacement for visits to a primary care doctor, oncologist, or psychologist. Instead, they’re a prescription for awareness, meant to open your eyes and ears to the processes of being healthy.

Dr. Diva Nagula has been a physician for more than twenty years. His training with Dr. Andrew Weil in the field of Integrative medicine and his battle with cancer led to the recent publication of his book, From Doctor to Patient, healing cancer through mind, body and spirit.

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