When handbag designer and shamanic healer Amelia Powers was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of brain tumor, she rejected conventional treatment in favor of treating her cancer with CBD. Ruby Warrington hears her story. Portraits Philip Volkers.
Next Sunday, it will be 18 months to the day that Amelia Powers underwent “debulking surgery” for the aggressive brain tumour that had manifested, seemingly overnight, on March 28 2012. She had gone to bed alone that night, sobbing, “that deep, quiet crying that you don’t do very often,” upset after an argument with her then boyfriend. Waking in the middle of the night with what felt like a migraine coming on, she discovered, to her distress, that she had vomited in her sleep.
The sickness persisted, along with the headache, both of which she attributed to the “migraine.” It wasn’t until she woke up in an emergency room in Bologna, where she had travelled on business for her luxury, bespoke handbag line (despite having difficulty reading the departures board at the airport) a few days later, that the full force of what might be happening to her hit. Confused and alone, she travelled home to face the worst possible prognosis – this was a grade three anaplastic astrocytoma, the most dangerous form of brain cancer, from which the median survival time – with treatment – is 18 months.
And yet, here we are on Skype, where we have been meeting regularly across time zones since March this year, for me to document her story, and; “there’s nothing wrong with me!” she cries. “I do the Royal Ballet workout every day, I eat no meat, sugar, wheat or dairy. No alcohol. My body is rocking. I was told 100 percent I would die from this, but I feel in perfect health, perfect alignment. I feel…” she drags a hand through her shiny black hair, cropped short after her first round of chemo “…beautiful. According to them, I should be at death’s door.”
Instead, she is up late, preparing to display her latest collection of handbags in the window at Fenwicks for London Fashion Week – alongside names like Rupert Sanderson, Preen and Richard Nicoll. The bags are starting to really take off, but; “I just want them to be a platform so I can talk about this,” she turns her head to show me the bald patch she refuses to cover up. “I want to be able to talk about how we really heal.”
Because, having repeatedly refused further chemotherapy and radiation to treat her illness, Powers is the latest figurehead in a groundswell movement towards alternative therapies for cancer. In the States, “cancer thriver” Kris Carr has built a mini empire on her story (she is winning her fight against a rare strain of liver and lung cancer through diet alone), while here in the UK Lord Saatchi presented the House of Lords with his Medical Innovation Bill in December last year. Following the sudden death of his wife Josephine Hart from ovarian cancer, he described chemotherapy as “medieval, degrading and ineffective”, and wants doctors to have the choice to offer alternatives.
At present (speaking about his wife); “what you have is a situation where a woman is first tortured and then dies. Why? Because that is what’s required by law.” Not that it’s the doctors’ fault. “Everybody’s doing their level best. But they are inhibited by the prospect of a trial if something goes wrong.” This despite the fact that one doctor admitted to him that an estimated one in 10 people are killed by their cancer treatment.
Powers says she knew “their way” would kill her after one round of chemo. “My skin crawled like it was alive. I lost my hair, had two epileptic reactions. They also put me on steroids because my brain was swelling through my skull.” Met with only more of the same from her doctors, she decided to seek her own alternative. “I found a video on the Huffington Post of a man whose eight-month-old had the same tumour as me. He had treated it with Cannabis oil, and the tumour shrank in four months. Side effects? All it did was make her sleepy.”
More internet research led her to a man she calls the “Wizard of Woodacre,” a 70-year-old healer based in California manufacturing the cannabinoid tincture CBD (the psychoactive constituent THC has been removed) which she’s been taking daily since. Over email, her “Wizard” explains the legality of what they are doing; “In the State of California it’s legal. However, it to the Feds it remains a schedule 1 drug, in the same category as heroin – and supposedly with no medicinal value. Hopefully I’m a small enough operation that I’m under their radar.”
With over 500 clients, including one 37-year-old oncologist, the Wizard says inquiries rocketed after Sanjay Gupta’s CNN documentary on medicinal marijuana aired last month. He has faith that his treatment – which is harvested and blessed in the light of the full moon – “we work on an energetic and spiritual level in addition, and give thanks to the spirit of the plants in the Native American tradition” – will be made legal in his lifetime.
On a very practical level, nutrition is coming to be seen as key in cancer treatment – and prevention. On the Wizard’s recommendation, Powers has switched to a completely alkaline diet, while Laura Bond, who’s blog, Mum’s Not Having Chemo, is being made into a book that’s out in November, says that all her research has shown quitting dairy to be “the final piece in the healing puzzle” for many people. Having interviewed over 60 experts around the world for the book; “sugar and dairy are known as the ‘cancer accelerators.’ Your doctor won’t necessarily tell you that, which really shocked me, but it’s just not in their remit.”
“It can be difficult, because most physicians do not have specialist knowledge of alternative medicines and so may not feel able to supervise,” says Professor Susan Short, one of the few oncologists who would talk to me for this piece (Powers’ own doctors declined to comment). Again, this leads to “fear of litigation,” says Bond – meaning it’s safer to stick to the company line, despite the fact; “the standard treatments we offer are not as effective as we’d like,” admits Short.
She thinks only around five percent of patients refuse chemotherapy, and that while “alternatives provide hope for a better outcome, few have proven benefit. But this approach can make patients feel more in control.” And yet, as ever, she wants me to know that “the agents we use offer the best known approaches to treatment.” People like Powers and her Wizard would disagree. “About 25 percent of my clients have complete healing, 40 percent a moderate healing. These are approximate numbers, but I think they are better than the numbers for most chemo treatments.”
Of course, very limited clinical trials into medicinal marijuana have been done. Conversely, according to Cancer Research in the UK, any type of chemotherapy is tested for ten years minimum before it’s used on patients, while they also point out that the reason clinical trials of medicinal marijuana are limited is because its effectiveness can’t be proven.
But after an MRI back in April appeared to show that her tumour had been stabilized (i.e. there had been no further growth) Amelia was positively floored by her doctor’s reaction; “her answer was, ‘if you’re not going to take our treatment, then please carry on with what you’re doing. I’m really sorry that I can’t give this to you’.” In her eyes, this represented a major victory.
But when a further scan, in July this year, suggested that perhaps there might have been some growth, the prognosis left her reeling. “My doctor said; ‘in our opinion the chemo and radiotherapy didn’t work. But we think you should have a proper go with it.’ Here I am, with my hair gone, my teeth in a mess, periods which are just coming back. They all agree with me – the chemo is palliative. He even admitted; ‘Most patients chose it because they panic’.” Rather than upset, she seemed angry. “In hospital all I hear is negatives; ‘this isn’t working, it’s growing, you are not going to live from this, nobody does, we can’t do anything for you, we don’t know what to do…What the hospitals offer isn’t healing – it’s fear.”
Watch Amelia’s video diary. By Charles Bayliss.
Following an abusive 14-year marriage, Amelia has done extensive research into the theory of quantum healing – in simpler terms, the power of positive thinking. And this represents another important aspect to what she is still convinced is her recovery (she has decided against any more MRIs, preferring to base her decisions going forward on how she feels). Working with the Shamanic healer Wendy Salter (“I call her my Yoda”), she has developed her own connection with spirit and says she has undergone deep energetic healing of this and past lives to try and treat the root cause of what she believes now has been a self-inflicted illness.
“I know that this was my body’s reaction to the negative emotion from my marriage, as well as unresolved issues with my family. My brain exploded from it,” she states. And it was only finding the strength to contact her ex-husband (“I hadn’t spoken to him since I walked out”) and send a “stream on consciousness” plea to her family to stop sweeping their issues under the carpet (“they have since all started coming forward”) that she feels the deep healing that needed to happen has begun. “I need love to heal,” she tells me, awash with emotion. “And what I’ve also realised is that this love is in ME. It’s not the love that comes from a man. Here I am, alone at 40, no children, dealing with all this, and I feel like I’ve found…nirvana.”
And it obvious to me that the woman I have come to know in some ways intimately over the past six months, embodies her next statements fully; “I’m not afraid of anything. I’ve accepted death. I don’t know how long I’ve got, but I’m at peace with that, I’m not in a desperate place.”
When Laura Bond was doing the research for her book, she found several common traits among the people who had managed to beat cancer on their terms – the ability to overcome the fear around death and dying being one of them. “Which is easier said than done,” she admits. “There are practical steps, like mindfulness, being rooted in the present and not getting caught up in catastrophic thoughts about the future. Also, being out in nature, where you always feel part of a bigger picture.” She also found one doctor who told her that the simple faith that what they were doing was working “creates a sense of relaxation, and that’s when healing occurs. If you’re living in a place of fear, being pumped full of adrenalin and cortisol, these conditions just aren’t conducive to healing.”
Essentially, many of the alternative therapies people are experimenting with (and let us never forget that this is only experimentation, a personal choice, taking your life in your own hands), are not about the same “military measures” we find in hospitals. More often, it becomes a case of learning to live with cancer, but to build up the immune system to manage it – the opposite of chemotherapy, where the immune system is destroyed along with the malignant cells, to be rebuilt again.
This also means that many of these measures – from changes in diet, to the massive doses of vitamins that help some people find relief – can also been seen as preventative measures. “Cancer is presented to us as such a shot in the dark,” says Bond, “but there are so many thing you can do to lessen the risk – meaning your genes don’t have to determine your destiny.”
Last week, the morning after our last Skype session, Powers sent me a text message; “Bergdorf’s and Neiman Marcus want to buy my bags. Guess I will be seeing you in New York!” And I remember the other thing that linked all Laura Bond’s cancer thrivers. “It’s unbelievable the pressure people have been put under, and so a lot of survivors share a tendency to rock the boat. They were unafraid to question what the doctors were telling them, and not be intimidated.” To the doctors who want to tell Powers there’s no proof what she’s doing will work, that there’s no way she’ll be coming to visit; “they also told me I shouldn’t be here now. So I’m your proof, aren’t I?”
This story also appears in the UK Sunday Times Style magazine.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the people quoted. Do not seek an alternative course of treatment for cancer or any other illness without first consulting your physician.