Gilly Bertram ~ My Brain Cancer Recovery
Today Linden Staub talks to Gilly Bertram, who was diagnosed with an aggressive stage 3 (out of 4) brain cancer called Anaplastic Astrocytoma at the age of 31. We find her positive attitude in facing her diagnosis and illness an inspiration, and we would like to share her story to help young women facing equally frightening diagnoses.
Where are you at now in your recovery?
I was diagnosed in September 2015 so I am coming up to 2 years since diagnosis. I had my brain tumour surgically removed two months later, so by November 3 of this year I will be able to say I am 2 years in remission, which is very exciting considering the prognosis of my type of brain cancer is typically 2–5 years (that’s WITH conventional treatment). I finished chemotherapy last July (2016).
How did you feel when you found out you had brain cancer?
I was not in a good place when I discovered my brain cancer. I had just lost my father suddenly to a heart attack three months prior, so I was in the midst of massive grief. Luckily I was in Hong Kong at the time of my diagnosis so I was with my mother and brother. Apart from the immense shock of discovering I had a huge cancerous brain tumour, I also felt a slight element of shame because for so many years I had been preaching to friends, family and colleagues about how to be healthy! I was also angry that I was being rushed into cancer treatment so soon after my scheduled brain surgery. I wanted more time to explore alternative cancer treatments before deciding which route I wanted to take.
What treatment was recommended by your doctors for your cancer?
My doctors gave me two options, one was to "watch and wait” which meant to do nothing and have a scan done after 3 months to see if the tumour had grown and if it had, then to do a biopsy (an operation whereby a tiny piece of tumour tissue is removed and sent to be tested to see what type of tumour cells they are, whether they are low grade (benign/slow growing) or higher grade (malignant/fast growing).) The second option was to schedule brain surgery to go in and remove as much of the tumour as possible. My family and I decided to go for the latter brain surgery option. The doctors also suggested that after the brain surgery, I undergo “preventative radiotherapy and chemotherapy” for 6 weeks, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy. This is the “SOC” (standard of care) for most forms of higher grade brain cancers. Tests were done before my surgery which confirmed that my tumour was a grade 3 (high grade) glioma called Anaplastic Astrocytoma.
What treatment did you end up deciding on?
For about 3 weeks after my operation, I was frantically researching as much as I could on all types of healing, from books and documentaries on alternative cancer therapies to the research papers and statistics of the standard conventional treatments I was being recommended by the doctors. I was met with extreme criticism by both doctors and family for wasting valuable time. My family, who were naturally only concerned with my survival, only wanted to consider what the doctors were pushing: chemotherapy and radiotherapy. During this time I endured excruciatingly stressful fights with them. I think everyone likes to believe that they know what they would choose if they got a cancer diagnosis, but when the time actually comes, it really isn’t as simple as you think and what you end up choosing could surprise you. If you’d told me a few months prior to my diagnosis that I would end up doing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I wouldn’t have believed you for a second! But the reality of it was much more complicated than just a matter of choosing one over the other. Looking back I am happy about the choice I made to combine conventional with complementary therapies and to integrate massive lifestyle changes into my life. It did not make sense to me to continue living the way I had been if a tumour had resulted from it!
But even today when I explain to doctors or my oncologist about the lifestyle changes I've made to support my immune system, all I get is a big roll of the eyes.
What are you doing these days?
When I was diagnosed in 2015, I had been working for a fashion-model scouting network called Star System since 2009, and I had played a major role in setting up the company and assisting the CEO. I became International Coordinator whilst we opened scouting offices in a dozen countries around the world before I became Director and eventually Vice President of Model Placement. Looking back, I see that it was an extremely stressful job! Well, extremely stressful for me in any case, as I have now learnt that each individual responds to stress in different ways – some more than others – and I suppose I was very sensitive to the stress of that particular job. I also did not know how to manage my stress well, which I have now learnt to do as that is one of the most important parts of cancer recovery.
I am now studying again. I chose to study Nutritional Therapy part-time at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) in London. My goal is to graduate in the next three years before going on to specialise in Nutritional Oncology (basically cancer nutrition). I was so inspired when I met my nutritionist (who continues to monitor my progress to this day) that I knew I finally had to make the leap and go back to school so that I could change career paths and follow my passion of supporting patients to use nutrition and natural therapies as medicine.
I am also currently working on converting my >video blog< and >YouTube< channel into a website, one I hope will benefit future cancer patients and their friends and family, allowing them to gain valuable knowledge from my experience so that they can find their own path to healing, which is very important for each cancer patient. Please watch this space for when it’s ready to go online!
Another project I’ve embarked on is a collaboration with the >integrative health clinic< in Hong Kong which handled the complementary side of my cancer treatment.
How have you found the services available for cancer patients in the UK?
In the UK, as in most parts of the world, there is very little nutritional and lifestyle support provided for cancer patients once they are given a cancer diagnosis. I think this is such a shame, and I would like to do all that I can to help change this reality. I am confident that the reason I have come out so well after my cancer diagnosis and treatment is because of my commitment to the complete lifestyle overhaul I undertook after I discovered I had cancer. I was not going to just sit back and let it take over my life, and I can honestly say I’ve never had so much energy and lust for life than I do now!
Many patients are unaware of all the things they can do to make the whole chemotherapy and radiotherapy ordeal a great deal easier on their bodies, and I am really happy to now be in a position where I can help UK patients access the same complementary cancer support as I did.
The worst thing for a cancer patient is to not feel in control of their health and their cancer. I want to encourage and help empower those patients, so that they can also face their cancer without fear.
There are actually a lot of things us patients can do to help ourselves live out great active and healthy lives whilst having cancer or having gone through cancer treatment.
How did you get interested in nutrition?
It was my mother who first brought my attention at a young age to the importance of food and a balanced diet for optimal health. But of course, like any rebellious child and teenager, I did the exact opposite of everything she suggested.
Once I was far enough away at boarding school in the UK that she could not see what I was eating, I was drawn to the unhealthiest options we were given in the school canteen. I was not at all the girl lining up for the salad bar, but the one eyeing up the (all-you-can-eat) roast potatoes and the dessert bar. I think a limit was even put on the number of roast potatoes we could take because of me. I remember winning a dessert-eating competition at one point too.
After I finished A levels I moved to Paris during my gap year, where I took up the “ever so cool” detrimental habits of smoking, not to mention drinking and the like. I kept up these unwise lifestyle choices until the second half of my 20s, until finally one of my best friends and I decided we wanted to try to turn our lives around and lead a healthier lifestyle. It was after I read a book on the importance of nutrition in cancer management that I became hooked on all things nutrition and anti-cancer-related.
This was back in 2011, long before I had any idea I would be diagnosed with a serious brain cancer four years later. What’s even stranger is that the author of the book also had brain cancer, and he was suddenly diagnosed at the age of 31, the same age as me when I was diagnosed! Looking back it all seems so crazy, but I can still vividly remember the moment I closed that book and thought, “Oh my god, I don’t need to be scared about getting cancer now! I’ll know what to do!!” It was the biggest revelation of my life, and from that moment on I literally became obsessed with reading about anti-cancer foods, the cancer industry, and all types of alternative and natural healing methods and therapies.
From 2012 onwards though, that’s when my real passion for nutrition began. When I wasn’t working, I was reading about the latest amazing superfood discovery or the next nutritional supplement or alternative cancer therapy, or I was watching yet another health documentary. Not far off from what I still do today in my spare time...
Can you tell us a bit about what you do to stay healthy and positive despite your diagnosis?
Wow, okay, well it is definitely a constantly evolving process. I’ve tried a few different diets to find what works best for me, but inevitably I have come back to almost the same diet I was prescribed when I was first diagnosed: one which is as nutrient-dense as possible, meaning lots and lots of fruit and vegetables, minimal animal products and reasonable amounts of nuts, seeds and healthy fats. I make sure to drink my own cold-pressed vegetable juice every morning. I take A LOT of supplements every day, the supplement program has been totally customised to my nutrient levels in my blood which I get checked every few months to make sure I am still on the right track to optimum health. I exercise every morning for around 30 minutes. I make sure to surround myself with people who are into doing positive healthy things, or who have a positive outlook on life. The closest people to me are ones who make me laugh since there’s no better medicine than that! I’ll try to only watch comedies and I try to get out to dance as much as possible as I’ve always loved dancing since a young age. I’ve had a few weddings this year where I’ve been able to dance my ass off which has been great! Living in the moment and taking each day as it comes has taken a lot of learning and practising.
My main priority is my quality of life and living each day to the fullest. If I can wake up every day with no pain anywhere in my body, with an abundance of energy and an excitement for life – to me that means so much. I try to focus on that when I have my moments of “scanxiety” leading up to my bi-annual MRI scans! I have decided that if feeling this good means that I have to sacrifice certain things so that I stand by my commitment to doing literally everything I can to be in the utmost good health, then so be it! Anyone who wants to laugh at me or criticise me is free to – and free to do whatever they choose to do with themselves when they get cancer! (I always say when and not if, since cancer rates are only going up and up and up. By 2020, apparently it will affect 1 in every 2 people!!
Fitting all this into my life has not been easy, and it has taken two years to get to the point that I’m at now – where I feel like I’ve got a good routine going which keeps me feeling positive, energised, and excited for life and the future.
Have you thought of what you would do if you ever were to have a recurrence?
Yes, I have a few “back-up” plans in case everything I am doing is one day not enough and I do have a reoccurrence (God forbid). I would definitely focus more on immune boosting cancer treatments if there is a next time. The point is not to compromise your immune system but to assist it. I am continually reading about what's out there and constantly learning about new approaches to healing so I'm sure I will have it covered if the time comes.
What advice would you give to someone who has received a malignant cancer diagnosis?
Despite my bias towards alternative cancer therapies, I have always believed that whatever a cancer patient truly believes will heal them – that is what will work for them. If they really believe and have 100% faith that chemotherapy and radiotherapy is the best treatment, then I think in those cases that conventional treatments are the best choices for those patients. But when the patient starts to have doubts about whichever treatment route they’ve chosen and is not radically changing their lifestyle at the same time, that is when things can go downhill fast. It’s a really tricky situation and I wish there was a sure way to get through it for everyone, but cancer is such a complex disease.
I would advise that you do your research, on both conventional and alternative approaches to tackling cancer, and see which approach makes the most sense to you – and to follow your gut. Make sure to have a good support system and be ready to face criticism! This is true no matter which route you decide to take ... If you go the conventional route, you’re going to have alternative health fanatics coming at you saying you shouldn’t poison your body with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, that they’ll only make the cancer come back. And if you go the more alternative route, you’ll encounter even more resistance from people, even those closest to you. So you just have to do what you have worked out is best for you, and shut out everybody who opposes your decision. I gained a lot from reading up about what other cancer survivors did to restore their body’s capacity for self-healing and I would suggest anyone else diagnosed to do the same.
There are a few extremely vital books to read immediately if you or a friend or family member has been diagnosed, no matter the inclination towards the conventional or the alternative route: these book recommendations will be available on my website along with all the other products I have found to be extremely useful during my path to recovery.
The internet is an amazing resource which was not available to cancer patients a couple decades ago. So anyone diagnosed with cancer today is actually very fortunate! Use the internet wisely for your research is all I can say!
What have you learnt so far in your studies that you’ve been able to apply to your life?
So far I’ve only completed the first year, which focuses on chemistry, biology, and finally anatomy and physiology. But already, it has been a real eye opener to learn in depth how the human body works down to the cellular level! Now that I have more a scientific knowledge and understanding, I am able to fully grasp the concepts in the cancer related medical journal articles that I have been reading for years. I have 3 more years to go until I quality as a Nutritional therapist. Ultimately, though, I would like to go on to further study, so I can specialise in treating and supporting cancer patients in particular. I would certainly recommend my course to anyone interested in nutrition or in working in the wellness industry. The way the course is put together has made it a highly motivating experience – even for someone who doesn’t come from a science background like me.
Thank you for coming to talk with us, Gilly!
If you’d like to read more about Gilly’s journey, you can find a previous interview with her which focuses more on the beginning of her diagnosis up until she finished the first part of her cancer treatment at the end of January 2016 here: https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/what-is-it-like-to-live-with-brain-cancer/
You can sign up and follow her blog at www.gofundme.com/gillysbraincancer or find her videos on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLh5d2gpOKMS2q6mk5BOeU2tKJeFo4gZBl
LS will proudly announce when Gilly’s website is up and running, so that you can share it with friends and loved ones affected by cancer.