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Page 18 - SASKATOONEXPRESS - February 10-16, 2014

From brain tumour to saying what’s on her mind


Tammy Robert Saskatoon Express

t was the summer of 2012. Saskatoon woman Alix Hayden was a healthy, busy executive and stepmom. A month later, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. For a period of time prior she had been experiencing loss of motor control on one side of her body, which lasted anywhere from one to three minutes. For the six months it took Hayden to get the MRI which led to her diagnosis, she joked about her brain “tumour.” Today Hayden considers herself a healthy woman living with cancer. And she’s turned to blogging to share her thoughts on her diagnosis, as well as the lifestyle and diet changes she’s made on a quest to heal herself. At only two months old, — a combination of brilliant writing and startlingly frank selfreflection — is already getting noticed by the likes of the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. “I work for a metabolic research company; every day we look at cancer as a health disorder affected by, even caused by, underlying biochemical factors,” said Hayden. “I knew the depth of research out there that shows that lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise impact health as much as any medical intervention, and they have as much value and right to a place in a treatment regimen as any other modality.” The changes didn’t come immediately. Due to the shock, grieving and anger of the experience, Hayden said her “mental machinery” ground to a halt after her diagnosis. “It wasn’t about going outside of something traditional to look for an alternative. It was just waking back up to what I know and being able to articulate it and apply it to my own situation,” she said. “One of the founders of my company told me I should think about and really internalize how rare it is to be in the position to both work in the abstract, reduce that work to personal practice, and how difficult that really is.” Hayden has turned to a ketogenic, or low carb/high fat diet, as part of her treatment. “There is a large body of research going back to the 1920s that focuses on the concept that one hallmark of cancer cells is that they stop using oxygen as the beginning of energy production, like normal cells do. Instead, they ferment sugar,” she said. “Many people have heard that cancer loves sugar. It is complex, but the underlying principle is that if you remove sugar as an energy source, that really puts tumour cells under stress. You still need an energy source for all your other cells. Normal cells can use something called ketones for energy in the absence of sugar, but cancer cells can’t. Ketones are produced in your liver if you eat high fat and no carbohydrates.” Hayden is eating as much fat and saturated fat as she wants: oils, fatty meats, fish, butter, full-fat dairy and cheese, nuts and avocadoes. “Think of a cup of coffee supplemented with oil, butter and whipping cream (35 per cent fat), all blended up creamy, with a plate of bacon, eggs, fresh avocado and

Alix Hayden considers herself a healthy woman with cancer (Photo taken at Collective Coffee on 20th Street by Sandy Hutchinson)

a dollop of sour cream. That’s the perfect ketogenic meal,” she said. “I eat as much leafy and green veggies as I want. A rule of thumb is that if the veg grows above the ground, it’s good. No breads, pastas, sweets or treats, rice, fries, chips, or starchy sides like potatoes. No root or sweet veggies like beets, which are evolved to be sugar storage machines.” After emerging from the mental fog that initially came with dealing with her diagnosis, Hayden reflected on one thing that did not come with the news when the doctors broke it to her — the word cancer. In fact, the first the word was placed in front of her was via a package she received unexpectedly in the mail from the Cancer Centre. “I was upset. I knew pretty well what I was dealing with,” said Hayden. “I didn’t want it. I was trying to get my equilibrium back, home from work and thinking about making supper. I wasn’t at the doctor’s office and armed for it, so I was nakedly unprepared. I felt it was uninvited, infringing on some kind of boundary system I was trying to build. I didn’t want those blue folders with the kind people pictured on the front to even be in my house.” While her background and education in health led Hayden to ponder the possibility of a neurological condition, the news was still a blow. “I was 37, never a day in the hospital, never sick,” she said. “I honestly never truly believed for a second that I was going to get this news. In retrospect, I can’t believe I was that naïve.” In tandem with oncologists and her neurosurgeon, Hayden is in a “watchful waiting” pattern as long as her seizures can be controlled through medication. Surgical removal, chemotherapy and radiation therapy have all been reserved for a time when the tumour changes or advances. In addition to her dietary changes, Hayden also uses visualization to manage her condition. “One of the things I visualize before I

go for another monitoring MRI is the cover of my book which will be entitled The Girl Who Starved Her Brain Tumour to Death,” she said with a laugh. “If I go for an MRI one day, and they say that thing has shrivelled up, you bet I’m writing that book.” With her blog gaining momentum, a future in writing is a very viable goal. “To take something that is outside someone’s experience and make it experiential for them is every writer’s dream,” said Hayden, who really started blogging as a work-related experiment. “What the attention did first is literally scare the pants off me. You don’t write a blog and have any expectation of privacy. But I wasn’t prepared for actual attention, to be frank. I still don’t think my experience is different or unique. So I just thought it would be one of many. I experienced stage fright; perhaps we can dub it blog panic.” Hayden took a step back and talked it over with her husband, who is her anchor. “I found the panic came down to the continuing struggle to come to terms with how much of my life I want to give over to

this experience,” she explained. “I always thought I’d be the person who would fearlessly read and research and want to know everything in a situation like this. Turns out I’m not. I have to be careful. Reading too much, seeing too much media about related subjects, seeing movies where people are dramatically dying of cancer, it throws off some kind of balance for me, where it’s harder to feel ‘normal’ and not obsess over all of it. So my blog getting some attention felt like something backfired for me that I never even perceived was a risk. “My husband settled it for me. He said, ‘When you write it, do you feel good? Do you enjoy it?’ Yes. ‘Then let that be all you do if it has to be; just write. Worry about everything else as it comes. You don’t have to answer everyone’s questions, find information for them, or even respond to them. Be selfish in this. That’s OK,’ “I think that’s good advice. So I think I’ll keep writing and worry about everything else as it comes.” Read Alix Hayden’s blog at

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Saskatoon Express, February 10th, 2014  
Saskatoon Express, February 10th, 2014