It was just three days before a long-awaited trip to India and I was feeling lousy. I collapsed on the couch and turned on the TV. This was not typical for me. I don’t watch much television. I just needed to lie down, I was so fatigued. On PBS, Charlie Rose was interviewing Ron Lauder. They were talking about the Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt’s painting that Lauder had just purchased for a record $135,000,000. It was on display at the Neue, his gallery in Manhattan. I love the work of Gustav Klimt. Although at the time it was not one of my preferred pieces, I felt an immediate obsession to see it. For some reason I thought this would be my only chance to see the “Woman in Gold.” Since I was flying to India in a few days I didn’t have much time.
The afternoon before leaving for the airport, I took the subway to the gallery. I had about 15 minutes to spend inside. I stood in front of the Adele Bloch-Bauer painting and it brought me to profound tears. I could not explain it. The painting was incredibly beautiful, very large, impressive, and sparkling with lots of gold leaf. But that did not justify my tears. I could not understand what I was feeling. I looked around at the four other Klimt paintings in the room. They were all so lovely. Klimt’s Birch Forest had me entranced. But when I returned my gaze to the Adele Bloch-Bauer, I felt an energy that pierced my soul. All I could do was cry. It was embarrassing. The room was crowded with people. I was out of time and quickly left the building. I had a flight to catch.
That night I flew to India on Aeroflot Airlines. It was a long, unpleasant flight. The flight attendants were grumpy. Still, I was excited about getting to India and it was hard to fall asleep so I tried to watch the movies on board. One of them was Ocean’s 12. I had seen it before and was barely watching it. Toward the end I looked up and saw the actor Andy Garcia sitting at his desk in the casino. I recognized the bottom portion of the painting hanging behind him. It was the same painting I was standing in front of just hours before, bawling my eyes out, the Adele Bloch-Bauer. I did not notice the painting the first time I saw the film. But now I could not help but recognize it. Why was I drawn to this painting? I was spooked.
My condition grew worse while in India. My belly was getting larger and more uncomfortable. The fatigue persisted and my legs were swelling. The problem had begun about a year before. I thought the fibroids I was told I had for many years were getting larger. I went to a new gynecologist in August who wanted me to have a hysterectomy. I had been resisting having surgery but now I was ready. I did not want to wait any longer.
As soon as I got home I scheduled surgery for a few days later. I required a blood transfusion first because of the anemia. After the operation, when I was recovering in my hospital room, my surgeon came to speak with me.
I will never forget that moment. He stood in front of my hospital bed. He spoke quickly and with a serious tone, telling me I had ovarian cancer. He had performed a total hysterectomy and an appendectomy. I was still getting off the anesthesia but his words were clear. He believed he had gotten it all. He said I would need chemotherapy and with this treatment about 90 percent of patients are cured.
CANCER? Me? What? How could I have cancer? I had been pursuing a healthy lifestyle most of my life. At fifteen, I decided I didn’t want to kill animals and stopped eating meat and chicken. I eliminated fish a few years later and when I was thirty years old I became a vegan, giving up dairy and eggs. When I discovered that humans did not have to eat nonhuman animals to live, I began reading and understanding the effects our food choices have not only on nonhuman animals, but also on health and the environment. I wanted to share what I was learning with everyone around me. Healthy plant food was my life! I ran the nonprofit EarthSave International as Executive Director for over eight years. During that time I produced the Taste of Health Food Festival, an all vegan event with lectures, food demos, and exhibits at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, for five years in a row, with 5,000-10,000 attendees each year. I hosted lectures featuring the experts in health and plant-based nutrition, read their books, and kept up with research.
I was a healthy vegan. I thought I was invincible. For most of my life, until my belly started growing, I had tons of energy and always felt great. I rarely came down with a cold. After thinking hard, I realized my problem had begun when I was a teenager, but I did not acknowledge it until now. When I began menstruating my periods were always very heavy. This led me to use lots of tampons, often three supers at a time since I was in high school. Tampons contain dioxin and I was getting a big dose, which must have aggravated the problem I had even more. Add to that all dairy I was consuming as a vegetarian until I went vegan. Dairy consumption is linked to breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers. I believe I was living with a problem for a long time and it was manageable because I had a great diet and a positive attitude toward life. But by the time I was forty-eight years old, something had gone out of balance and the cancer had grown.
During my recovery in the hospital my surgeon would call me by phone in addition to coming to the hospital to check on me. He could not help but notice during the surgery how clean I was inside, with very little fat. Afterwards, he kept asking me for advice on diet and nutrition! So, from my hospital bed, I lectured him and the nurses who were interested about healthy eating. Somehow I knew I would be all right.
Once at home, I began researching information about ovarian cancer. I contacted some of the medical doctors I was close to in the plant-based food movement. While speaking with my friend John Robbins, founder of EarthSave, the organization I worked for, and author of the best seller, Diet for a New America, he asked me if I had been dreaming. I told him I hadn’t been because I had not been sleeping well for a long time. Then, several nights later, I had a dream with John in it. There were lots of aspects to the dream but the important part for this story is that I saw a very tall, slim woman holding my one-year-old niece. She was so tall we couldn’t see the baby.
Three days after the dream, I went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering for a consultation with one of their top gynecologic oncologists. I was sitting in the waiting room with my mother and saw a woman who looked like the tall person in my dream! I got up to take a closer look. She had a purse with the Adele Bloch-Bauer pattern on it! It blew my mind. What was my connection to this painting?
John Robbins led me to the Block Center in Evanston, Illinois for chemotherapy. It was a wonderful place and almost made having chemotherapy pleasurable. I called it the Club Med of chemotherapy. I also felt lucky to have so many wonderful people on my side. My friend, colleague, and nutrition expert Dr. Joel Fuhrman recommended that I consume two green juices, two salads (one blended) and have something steamed for dinner like Brussels sprouts. So began my project to cram cruciferous veggies. The Block Center recommended a long list of nutraceuticals to take during treatment. Some were to prevent nausea; some were for fighting cancer and to support my immune system. I committed to taking the supplements, and I had a green juice every day, made with dark leafy-green vegetables combined with other plant foods like celery, cucumber, lemon, and ginger. I avoided sugar, white-flour foods, and sugary fruits. I stuck with berries. My intention was to beat the cancer and to do that I had to supercharge my immune system.
There was a small residual mass remaining after my surgery that was found on my PET scan before I started chemotherapy, giving me an ovarian cancer staging of IIIC. Everyone told me the chemo would take care of it. Unfortunately, it had grown during the treatment and now I needed to have another surgery to remove it.
The doctor who did the first surgery performed the second in March 2007 but he couldn’t find anything. He said it was possible to have a false positive from a PET scan. I wanted to believe I was cancer-free but for the next three months I did not feel well. After another scan in June 2007, the mass was still there and had doubled in size.
It was time to find the right surgeon that I felt I could trust with my life. A very close friend recommended Dr. Joel Bauer because she had known someone who had had cancer in a similar location and liked him very much. When I met with him I knew he was the one for the job. I had met with other surgeons who did not think I could be cured and that they could only buy me time. Dr. Bauer was confident that he and his team could make me well. He was the doctor I was looking for.
I had my third surgery at Mt. Sinai on Friday, July 13, 2007 and it was a success. The surgery lasted about two hours and the tumor mass was removed. My sister Lori had flown in from Florida to be with me and she stayed at my parents’ home on Long Island. She woke up with a start on Sunday morning, July 15, at about 5:00 a.m. All at once, the meaning behind my dreams and emotions surrounding Gustav Klimt’s painting, the Adele Bloch-Bauer had dawned on her. She got up and turned on the computer just to verify that the name of the painting was indeed “Bloch-Bauer.” She felt like she was going to burst. She had to tell someone, but it was too early. She waited a couple of hours and then called me. As she shared her experience, she reminded me who the two doctors were who played a big role in saving my life, Dr. Block at the Block Center and Dr. Bauer, my surgeon, at Mt. Sinai. Block and Bauer, Block-Bauer – and then I got it – BLOCH-BAUER. The painting was telling me the doctors I needed to use to save my life. It confirmed that I had made the right choice.
I returned to the Block Center for more chemotherapy from September 2007 until the end of December 2007. I was given an aggressive treatment with the intent to cure me. My doctors were amazed at how well I was managing. I did have symptoms, such as fatigue, slight nausea from time to time, and lightheadedness when my red blood cells were dropping. But overall, I did very well – “sailed through it” were the words of one of my doctors. All through the surgeries and chemotherapy I continued working, running EarthSave, and living my life, which included performing.
Finally done with treatments, I celebrated with a trip. I flew to Florida in January 2008 to visit with family and then continued on to Costa Rica. On the flight from Fort Lauderdale to Costa Rica I was intently reading a book. All of a sudden, I wondered what film might be playing and chuckled to myself that it might be Ocean’s 12. I knew it couldn’t be because the movie was too old. I looked up and it was Ocean’s 13! Just a few seconds later, I saw the scene with Andy Garcia in his office at the casino. Only this time there was another Klimt painting there, the Fritza Riedler. I remembered my life partner, Gary De Mattei, telling me that the patterns of the Egyptian eyes in the dress of the Adele Bloch-Bauer resembled the patterns and colors of the tumor on my PET scan. Fritza Riedler was wearing a pure white dress in her portrait, symbolic for me of being cancer-free and well again.
REAL Co-Founder, Caryn Hartglass is a featured author in the book 25 Women Who Survived Cancer: Notable Women Share Inspiring Stories of Hope which includes this story about how she survived cancer and her cosmic link to Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer.
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The Cancer Diagnosis: Taking Charge of Your Health and Healing