Jeannine Walston ’95 takes an holistic approach to cancer treatment.
By Doug McInnis
The diagnosis included a string of inscrutable scientific terms. But the doctor’s translation was not difficult to grasp: Jeannine Walston had a brain tumor.
At first, the news stunned her. “I questioned my existence,” says Jeannine. “How long would I remain in this lifetime?” But she not only survived, she went on to use her own experience as a platform to help others survive as well.
Jeannine cofounded EmbodiWorks, a nonprofit organization that provides information through its website on integrative cancer resources in the United States and elsewhere. The organization, which is supported by donations and foundation grants, promotes an holistic approach to treating the disease. It is part of a broad national movement to replace the top-down style that once dominated medicine. In the old days, doctors spoke, patients listened. EmbodiWorks sees recovery as a collaborative process between patients and their health care providers.
EmbodiWorks doesn’t advocate specific treatments for patients. Its message is more pointed — that patients need to play an active role in their choice of treatments and lifestyle changes to boost their quality of life and their odds of survival.
“It’s about engaging in self-responsibility and self-care,” Jeannine says. “It’s not just about going to the health care provider. It’s also about choosing among available treatment options. And it’s about eating well, exercising, sleeping, how people are listening to their body, and much more.”
Jeannine was 24 years old when she received the diagnosis in 1998. She had spent three years as a Congressional staffer, and she thought law school might be next. Suddenly, her future felt uncertain. ”I had no construct for dealing with such a threatening diagnosis,” she recalls.
But she soon gathered the presence of mind to acknowledge her new reality and take action.
“You can’t control the outcome,” says Jeannine. “But you can influence it. I had to educate and empower myself to influence it.”
Her first move was to bypass her doctor’s suggestion for a particular surgical center and instead opt for one with much more experience in the procedure she would undergo to remove the tumor. “Studies indicate that high-volume centers have better outcomes,” says Jeannine.
She says she then chose the option to remain awake during critical parts of the 12-hour surgery. When the patient is awake, the doctor can better gauge the patient’s reactions as surgery progresses and is, therefore, less likely to damage parts of the brain that are necessary for functioning. In Jeannine’s case, parts of the brain that controlled speech and memory were bound up in the tumor’s mass, so the stakes were high.
From there, she went on to take charge of every aspect of her life and her treatments. The thing that threatened her was inside her body, so she began to fine tune her body to fight it — creating a protocol of lifestyle changes that would maximize her chances of survival. She also looked far and wide for treatments, rather than depend on a single doctor or clinic to chart her course.
Six years after the surgery, she learned the tumor had come back, so she scouted treatment options that might boost the long-term odds in her favor. Her current regimen includes periodic trips to Germany for a hyperthermia treatment that subjects the tumor cells to high temperatures. The procedure hasn’t been approved for general use in the United States, although a small number of clinical trials are under way, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The American Cancer Society estimates that approximately 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2010, and 570,000 died of the disease. Jeannine firmly believes that this is not acceptable: “Cancer care needs innovation,” she insists, through her website. “New models are required to reverse the current statistics and trends.”
There is wide variation among U.S. cancer-treatment centers, says Jeannine. Increasingly, more places are providing collaboration between doctors and patients, along with various integrative protocols that may include diet, mind-body practices, environmental awareness, and social and spiritual support.
“Times are changing,” she says. “But they haven’t changed everywhere.”