Meg Wolff: Beating the Odds, Becoming Whole
May 2007 Issue
Bone and breast cancer survivor and transtibial amputee Meg Wolff looks back on her road to recovery, grateful for the unexpected gifts that came with it.
Learning to trust her instincts, Meg Wolff began a journey to heal her body, using conventional and naturopathic medicine. Wolff, now 49, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her husband Tom and two children, poignantly describes her battle with both cancers in a book that came out late last year, Becoming Whole (Flow Books, November 2006). In it she depicts intimate details of her personal and marital struggles with vivid emotion and includes a cookbook of macrobiotic recipes that she credits, in part, with her healing.
After six years of pain and being dismissed by doctor after doctor, an X-ray finally revealed a lemon-sized tumor on the back of Wolff's left knee. Her hopes soared when the biopsied tumor tested benign, and she was given only a one-percent chance of developing malignant tumors. Despite being somewhat comforted by doctors' repeated optimism, Wolff recalls a gut feeling that cancer loomed in her future. "I had all the images [of security], but none of the peace," she writes. "Fear that my cancer might return still beset me, despite [my doctor's] assurances and the apparently successful surgery."
Two years later, Wolff's fears were realized. She received the devastating news that malignant tumors had spread in her leg and that it would have to be amputated. In Becoming Whole, she describes the loss of her leg:
Now my left foot and most of my left leg were gone. And the entire world was different. Until you lose your foot, you don't realize how much it pulls you into your body and connects you to the earth. My feet were more than flat surfaces on a flat earth. They grabbed hold of the ground and felt its security. Now the ground was gone, at least on one side of my body, and with it my connection to the earth. Somehow, life was less real.
|Meg Wolff signs a copy of her book at the Community Counseling Center (CCC) in Portland, Maine. Photo by Betty McLeod.|
Life with a four-year-old son and a seven-month-old daughter was increasingly difficult as Wolff struggled with even the simplest tasks. She suffered from depression and exhaustion as she tried to reestablish her role as a mother and homemaker on crutches. Wolff became eager to obtain a prosthetic leg that would enable her to walk again. "I thought if I could walk again on two legs-even though one of them would be artificial-I would start to feel that my life was coming back under my own control," she writes. However, Wolff's hopes of regaining "normalcy" eroded as she discovered wearing an ill-fitting prosthesis caused a lot of pain. "It was clumsy, remarkably heavy, and didn't fit," she writes. She traveled to several cities to meet with specialists and prosthetists, but the quest was elusive and left her using her crutches while wearing the prosthesis.
Then, in 1995, Wolff discovered freedom and a return to simple pleasures. Despite her initial nervousness, Wolff mustered the courage to resume an activity that previously gave her joy-swimming. "I'd be making a very public display of myself in a bathing suit and only one leg," she writes. "How would people react to me? Could I swim at all?" However, in the water she felt her handicap disappear as she swam with coordination and grace.
That winter she discovered another activity, one she could enjoy with her husband and children that would bring them closer. In the mountains of Winter Park, Colorado, Wolff found that she was a natural skier. "The instructors were great. They didn't treat me like I was physically challenged," she says. Her children grew up to become champion skiers, and Wolff became a "black-diamond" skier and leading fundraiser for the disabled who want to learn to ski.
Having her leg amputated meant there was only a 10-percent chance that her cancer would reemerge somewhere else, yet just as her ten-year bone cancer remission milestone approached, lightning struck twice-Wolff was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been aware of lumps the size of quarters in her breasts and armpits since 1990, but physicians had repeatedly reassured her that she had nothing to worry about; they were only a result of fibrocystic breast disease. "Some of the doctors even treated my concerns with condescension," she writes. "On one hand, [I] accepted their reassuring statements-or at least desperately wanted to-but, on the other, could not deny my unsettling concerns. Deep inside, I knew that something was wrong." In 1998, as her mother was dying of cancer herself, Wolff was told that her breast was filled with cancer and that she would have to undergo an immediate mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, followed by tamoxifen therapy.
|Meg Wolff shares her cooking techniques with a CCC audience. Photo by Betty McLeod.|
"When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was stage 3B-advanced," she explains. "I wasn't given great odds for survival. So I decided to try alternative medicine in addition to conventional methods." She first learned of naturopathic medicine from her father, who gave her a book titled Healing Miracles by Ball State University Professor Jean Kohler in which he wrote about healing his pancreatic cancer by changing his diet, specifically by using a macrobiotic diet. "I went to a Whole Foods grocer and met a woman who taught macrobiotic cooking classes," Wolff says. "The diet consists of whole grains, beans, and vegetables that I incorporated into the way my family ate. I had hope that this was going to help me."
The diet did help free her of cancer, Wolff believes, yet she was in great pain due to atrophy of her residual limb, which left the nerves at the end of her femur rubbing against her prosthetic socket. In 2005, the pain had escalated until she could no longer wear her prosthetic leg or barely touch her residual limb without experiencing shooting pains. At the end of her rope, she discovered a video of the Ertl reconstruction technique (a procedure developed in 1920 by Janos Ertl Sr., MD, to relieve pain in amputated limbs) and made an appointment to see Jan Ertl, MD, Janos Ertl's grandson, in Sacramento, California. With a reconstructed limb, Wolff can now wear a prosthesis without pain. "Surgeries don't solve all problems," she says, "but it was good for me."
Today Wolff and her family still eat a macrobiotic diet, and she teaches cooking classes at the cancer center near her home. She says studies claim that a plant-based diet can help with the prevention and healing of cancer as well as diabetes and heart disease. She also spends her time marketing her book, which she wrote hoping to encourage others. "It gave me hope to read the recovery stories of other people," she says. "I have the chance to make a difference in a lot of people's lives; I couldn't just walk away from that." Not knowing much about computers, she created a website, www.macrobreastcancersurvivors.com , to post a compilation of survivor stories and macrobiotic diet recipes. "I'm in better health than I've ever been," she says, and explains that health isn't a static condition. "We're not just healthy or not healthy. There's so much we can do to move toward or away from health. It's very empowering to realize this. Trust yourself. If I can do it, you can, too."
Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org