How Alternative Medicine Took One Woman From Illness to Wellness

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Wendy Shanker, author of , had finally come to terms with her plus-size body when disaster struck. She was diagnosed with a series of illnesses and placed on chemotherapy drugs (among others), all the while searching for the right treatment plan. Here — and in her book, — she discusses her search for wellness.

Q: Tell me about your diagnosis — how it happened and what was going on in your life at the time.

A: It was the Christmas holidays of 1998. I was living in New York City, working on a TV series and performing in comedy shows at night. I got a sinus infection that simply would not go away. The pain kept getting worse. Finally a scan revealed a tumor in my sinuses. The docs did a biopsy and diagnosed me with Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare vascular autoimmune disease that generally tangles with the sinuses, lungs and kidneys. I was like, “Weghahana what?” I was so sure they were going to tell me I had brain cancer. The doctor ordered me not to go home and look up Wegener’s online, but naturally it’s the first thing I did.

Q: Tell me about your forays into alternative medicine — when were you inspired to move beyond conventional treatments?

A: The treatment plan for Wegener’s is pretty concise: a steroid to relieve the inflammation in the blood vessels, usually prednisone. Plus a chemotherapy drug like methotrexate or cytoxan to destroy the bad cells. The chemo drugs were pretty old-school — they seemed to keep the disease under control but had devastating side effects. I swelled with about 40 pounds of edema. My hair fell out. My skin shredded. I was a lunatic with steroid-induced mood swings. And I was still suffering from sinus problems and joint pain, another signature of Wegener’s. A friend of mine who was into alternative medicine basically scooped me out of New York and took me to an Ayurvedic detox clinic in New Mexico. I had never even taken a yoga class, let alone tried a weeklong ancient Indian medical detox. But it did wonders for me and set me off on a road of exploration — Ayurveda, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, colon therapy, craniosacral massage, esoteric approaches like Zen Buddhism, astrology, even the spiritual side of Judaism — always hoping I’d find the one modality that would fix everything. What I discovered was that at least for me, there was no one-guru-fits-all philosophy. I had to piece together a little bit of each, plus conventional medicine, to get well again. This is the story I tell in my new book.

Q: How has yoga become central to your healing process?

A: With yoga, I really like the attention I have to give each little bit of my body, the appreciation I have to focus on as I’m in the process of each pose. I’ve stopped worrying about being good at it and instead try to focus on being present and aware, which are two good qualities to bring into every mundane moment of life. “I am aware of this delicious French fry. I presently would like to eat another one.”

Q: How did treatment affect your diet, and your persona as a “fat girl”?

A: Oh, treatment really messed me up. I had struggled with my weight for most of my adult life, and built a serious hate-on for my body. Then I wrote a book called The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life and finally came to peace with myself. I can’t say I was in love with my body, but I certainly found a way to respect it. But the Wegener’s raged and I got really sick right when that book came out. So I wasn’t plus-size and proud; I was plus-size and sick. My whole theory was that you could be fat and fit, fat and healthy. But now I was unhealthy — only my illness had nothing to do with fat. So I retreated for a bit, partly because I physically had to, and partly because I was really concerned about those messages getting conflated. Then, as fate would have it, my liver starts to fall apart and I lose weight. Lots of weight, very quickly, like 40 pounds in a couple of months. I’m sure that I have liver cancer. I’m getting compliments left and right for losing weight. Meanwhile, “I’m like, I’m dying, and I’m YELLOW!” When the dust settles, it’s not cancer; it’s misdiagnosed hepatitis C, likely contracted from a medical procedure.

I’m now 80 pounds lower than I was at my highest steroid/sickness weight. I’m still fat, but not fat “enough.” I’m basically an average size American woman, a size 14. When I tell people I wrote a book called The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, they look a little confused. My biggest concern was that readers would think I sold out. I said I felt confident about my body, and I did. Then it changed against my will. Now I need to embrace this body at this size, and try to be healthy and happy in it. But I also feel like I could weigh 110 pounds and still feel like a fat girl — in the best way possible. It was a good lesson about not judging other people by what they look like — you have no idea where they are coming from.

Q: How has this autoimmune disease changed your perspective on how to live?

A: My goal was to avoid becoming one of those goofy people who say, “This challenge really forced me to appreciate life…” but guess what? This challenge really forced me to appreciate life. I wanted to be the same person I was and do all the same things I did, but if I stayed the same, I wasn’t going to get better. I had to change the way I worked, the work I did, who I hung out with, how I ate, how I slept, how I spent my time. It’s a struggle every day to eat well, sleep well, exercise, meditate, shake off negative influences, but I try. Being well is a full time job. It’s about spending less time focused on instant gratification and putting more effort into long-term benefits. Totally uncool, but totally true.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone coping with illness?

A: I’d say: each one of us walks into the doctor’s office with an essential diagnostic tool — intuition. It’s important to assess all available diagnostics, but pay attention to the voice in your head, the message from your gut. Because your doctor might be the expert in your disease, but you are the expert on you.


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