Surviving Stage 4 Cancer

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There she was – on-stage – in a wheelchair. Jimmi-Ann Muse relished the standing ovation for her opening night performance as Dolly Levi in the classic stage musical, Hello Dolly! It was a full house at Greenville Little Theatre and the wild cheering was a dream come true for the 54-year-old art and drama teacher.

Just a year earlier, Muse was told she might not live another year. Cancer in her colon required immediate surgery and lifelong chemotherapy. If she did nothing, she would live perhaps six months.

Doing nothing was not the Jimmi-Ann Muse way. She’d been a fighter since she was born more than two months premature and she was going to fight this, too.

She had to get back to her kids – her students at Camperdown Academy. She was passionate about her work with these bright, dyslexic kids. Students would line up to take her 8th grade class hoping to star in the annual production of Romeo & Juliet. The draw? They get to learn fencing, which Muse mastered in college.

Muse and her husband of 13 years had big plans. David Muse had bought a motorcycle – Jimmi-Ann planned to ride with him. They’re both student pilots and had plans to build a small plane. And, the couple had spent years designing and building a country cottage in the woods together. The home that serves as a canvas for Jimmi-Ann Muse’s many artistic creations.

They met after a student came to her and said “Miss Carnes, I have someone I want you to date.” Kids had said that before and nothing happened. But, not wanting to dampen her student’s enthusiasm, she excitedly replied “Oh Boy! Who is it?” The student said it was her daddy. “I nearly fell over. I didn’t want anybody’s daddy…daddies aren’t for dating.”

David Muse called Miss Carnes repeatedly and she finally agreed to a date “so he’d leave me alone.” Both describe their first date as “disastrous.” Not wanting to transport her to downtown Greenville in his beat-up truck, Muse borrowed his brother’s old, but more impressive, sports car. The transmission blew up before they got out of Laurens.

Muse called the only person he knew nearby… his ex-wife, who rescued them and loaned her car for the evening. Dinner and the movie Tootsie were planned, but time permitted only a late dinner. Both agree it was love at first sight. They saw Tootsie the following weekend and “we’ve been laughing ever since,” Muse says.

In spite of being busy and active, Muse acknowledges she was seriously overweight for many years. In fact, she had hip replacement surgery in 2003 because of her excessive weight. “I had to concentrate on every step I took…walking had become so difficult,” she says.

Muse says her immune system was a mess and she just didn’t treat herself well. “I’d gotten several kicks in the butt from God to get my act together, but it took a death threat to make me do something about it,” she said.

David Muse was with his wife when they heard her diagnosis. “It felt like I stepped off a very tall step and was falling in slow motion,” he said. He wasn’t really surprised, though, when she displayed an inner strength and determination to beat this. Muse shared his wife’s resolve. He adopted a new diet with her; he waited on her, and supported every step of her journey.

During surgery to remove part of her colon, several tumors were also found on her liver. She was sent home to recover strength enough to endure another surgery and chemotherapy.

“I would have gone anywhere to find hope for her,” said Barbara Brinson, Muse’s best friend. When Brinson heard about a food coach whose cancer clients experienced astounding results using her customized nutrition programs, Brinson took her friend to Arden to meet Roxanne Koteles-Smith, chef consultant and author of The Cancer Cookbook. Brinson remembers “driving up the mountain with a dead woman in the car and then I saw her life light turn on” after talking with Koteles-Smith. “I grabbed onto it like a lifeline and didn’t let go,” Jimmi-Ann said about her new diet.

Koteles-Smith committed to helping people find health through foods in 1997. Her mother suffered from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension for more than six years and died weighing 47 pounds. The doctors told the family to feed her foods she knew and liked. “Those were the things that had made her sick,” Koteles-Smith said. She believes if she knew then what she knows now, her mother would be alive today.

Koteles-Smith attended the New England Culinary Institute and was their first student to qualify for the famous Escoffier Society Competition (similar to Food Network’s Iron Chef) at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The first female to place in this event, she then apprenticed at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, where she learned about macrobiotic eating, and her interest in the health and food connection began.

She studied macrobiotics and how to combine foods to strengthen the immune system at the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts. She says she saw an almost immediate difference in cancer patients who came there. “At first, coming from my black and white corporate world, I was skeptical,” she says. Then she realized that by changing her own diet, she had lost 28 pounds, gotten rid of a stomach ulcer, and cured her critical hypoglycemic condition.

Since a macrobiotic menu is typically bland and boring, Roxanne committed to make it tasty and exciting by incorporating all she knew about delectable French cuisine. Her Vegan Chocolate Mousse tastes like rich cream, butter, and sugar – not tofu and agave nectar. She makes sautéed organic kale delicious with garlic, toasted sesame oil, plum wine vinegar, and sunflower seeds.

Koteles-Smth is writing a new book and Roxanne’s Organics fresh and frozen meals will soon begin production.

At first just coaching and cooking for cancer patients, Koteles-Smith says she can now she look at someone and recognize if they’re getting a chemotherapy treatment that’s too strong for them. “I give them foods that help kill off the cancer and make them feel good…they’re not retching all the time.” Her Food Wisdom program is modified macrobiotic, a transition diet from heavy animal fats and protein to lighter protein, more vegetarian. “Animal protein helps cancer grow, no matter how clean it is,” Koteles-Smith warns.

Within five weeks of starting the Food Wisdom plan, Jimmi-Ann Muse’s blood test results were where they were supposed to be. “This meant I could take chemo knowing my body was in the best shape to fight the disease,” she says. She believes her healing came from eating organic foods and not ingesting the hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides that she learned are in conventional foods. She also eliminated dairy, sugar, beef, and pork from her diet and she ultimately needed only six chemotherapy treatments instead of the lifelong course originally prescribed.

One of Muse’s doctors told her “if prayer worked, I wouldn’t have a job.” Nevertheless, she prayed. Everyone prayed. And, she created her Wall of Hope where she artistically displayed the notes and blessings from friends and students on her kitchen cabinet doors (see photo.) The kitchen remains a permanent tribute to love and healing.

She even fashioned a patch (e.g. nicotine) to wear over her heart, which said “The tumors are gone – no reason for surgery – CT scan baffles doctors.”

The prayers worked. Before surgery to remove the tumors from her liver, Muse had a CT scan. Her doctor called to announce there were no more tumors – just a tiny cyst – no reason for surgery.

Today, Jimmi-Ann weighs 112 pounds less than a year ago. “I quit thinking about weight and started thinking about being healthy,” she said. Her doctor has confirmed that she is cancer free and tells her “…you’re a miracle…keep doing what you’re doing.”

Muse is committed to telling people how important nutrition is for the body, mind, and spirit. She speaks to groups and encourages hope in cancer sufferers. “I hear wonderful stories of people who come through cancer with flying colors but that’s not what we hear about from the media,” Muse says.

She plans to write a book and call it From Stage Four to Center Stage. Muse says her life is better than ever. Now that she’s lost weight – and has a new hip – joining her husband on his motorcycle will be easy.

“Everything’s just coming up roses…now THERE’S a role I’d like play,” she says.

Muse’s stage debut in a wheelchair came when she decided to pamper herself with a bubble bath before opening night. Preparing to dress, she bent to the floor and her hip disjointed. In agonizing pain, she called best friend, Brinson, screaming “I’m lying in bed, I have no clothes on, my hip came out of place, can you come over and pull my leg?” Brinson raced to Muse’s aid but the doors were locked. She found a neighbor to help her get in. Muse laughs when she says “never ask an honest man to break into your house…it took him 20 minutes.”

During the painful, bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital, Muse exclaimed “Thank you, God, I feel the pain.” There were no broken bones and when she heard the doctor mention morphine, she quickly announced “No! I have a performance tonight!” The doctor said “most people want MORE – you want NONE?!” He also told her there was no way she would be on stage that night.

“It never occurred to me not to do the show,” Muse said. There was no understudy. Greenville Little Theatre’s artistic director, Allen McCalla, found an authentic, period wheelchair and the choreographer was costumed so she could wheel Muse through her performance. The cast adjusted to changes in staging and choreography moments before curtain. Muse performed three nights in a wheelchair and then completed the month-long run in her dancing shoes.

“The show goes on because of the spirit of the performer…if anybody has spirit, it’s Jimmi-Ann,” McCalla said.

Muse learned a lot about a lot this past year. Most of all, “I’ve learned compassion for myself. I loved everybody else and gave it all away, but I was so hard on me.”

write by Wendy Carter

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