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Alison's Book Helps People Be Stronger Than Before

Life-changing experiences can prompt authors into writing heartfelt novels or self-help books, for Henley resident Alison Porter breast cancer led her to writing the book she had been looking for when diagnosed.

Stronger Than Before is more than a practical handbook to help anyone with breast cancer, it offers invaluable information, guidance and tips as well as tools and techniques to help readers emerge from this life-changing experience healthier, more purposeful and, indeed, stronger than before.

Originally from Australia, Alison came to London in the 80s and moved out to Henley-on-Thames five years ago where she loves the quieter pace of life, but also the many festivals and the fact that there's “always something going on here”.

After an eclectic career that included film production and running the press office for the Channel Tunnel, Alison started focusing on coaching and writing about 15 years ago. Working mainly from her Henley home she's often abroad working on events or producing videos. She says: “Thankfully, that has made it a lot easier to continue to work at my own pace after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.”

What's the story behind writing this book?

It's a testament to resilience. When my long-awaited reconstructive surgery was postponed just as I was about to go into theatre, I decided to do something that couldn't have happened if the surgery had gone ahead as planned. That was a writer's workshop hosted by Hay House – a leading health and well being publisher – which included a competition for a book contract. My proposal for Stronger Than Before won, and finally I could write the book I went looking for when I was diagnosed. There's so much information out there, but I wanted to create something that would offer a complete overview of treatments plus a roadmap for self-care and healing all in one book.

Who is it aimed at?

Breast cancer affects one in eight women, so all of us are touched by it in some way – whether it's us, our friends, or our family. There's key information in Stronger ThanBefore for the newly diagnosed, as well as self-care techniques for those going through treatment, approaches for dealing with life after cancer, and advice for family and friends on how to be truly helpful. There's something for everybody, at whatever stage of the breast cancer journey you're on – or if you're looking to support a loved one going through it.

What does the book cover?

It is a three-part guide to dealing with breast cancer. Firstly it covers the various types – and there are several different ones – and outlines what to expect from standard treatments as well as alternatives. Then the middle section looks at all the ways you can support yourself with self-care – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – throughout treatment and beyond. There are lots of practical tips on diet and exercise, coping with emotional stress, dealing with fear, and finding purpose in life to carry you through. Finally, there's a comprehensive review of breast reconstruction options, support for facing the unique challenges of life after cancer, plus advice for family and friends on what to say – or what not to say!

The statistics for breast cancer are scary. We are all at risk from it, but are some more at risk than others?

While women with the BRCA gene mutation have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, it's important to know that studies have found no significant difference in their survival rate compared to BRCA-negative patients. Genetic risk is, in fact, very low. According to Cancer Research UK, fewer than three percent of breast cancers are caused by an inherited faulty gene. More recent research is focusing on the metabolic causes of cancer, immunotherapy to boost the immune system to do its job of disposing of mutating cells, and epigenetic studies on how cancer-protective genes can be sw itched on and off by lifestyle changes.

How can diet and lifestyle changes help someone with breast cancer?

Getting well again means looking at the bigger picture of your life. Chronic inflammation from poor diet, lack of exercise, stress or toxic exposure all negatively impact the immune system. The actions we take to improve our diet, stress and environmental factors support the immune system and make positive epigenetic changes, all affecting our capacity to fight disease. Around 70 to 80 per cent of your body's immune cells are in your gut, so good nutrition is paramount. Exercise is crucial too: 150 minutes of exercise per week has been found to reduce breast cancer mortality by around 40%.

How can a stronger or calmer mind-set help someone cope?

A cancer diagnosis is a body blow in more ways than one. What no-one prepares you for is the constant fear and lifelong uncertainty that is now your daily companion. There is no cure for cancer, only remission, so it hangs over your head like the sword of Damocles. You're in a whirlwind of treatments and tests, with constant anxiety.The only way off that treadmill of terror is the mindfulness to stay in the present moment, focusing on the here and now. And there are strong biochemical reasons to stay calm too, as emotional and mental stress both contribute to chronic inflammation, adversely affecting the immune system.

You talk about a “toxic load” in the book. What is it and what changes can we make to reduce this?

We need to support our immune system to return it to its healthy functioning by reducing what causes it stress. Creating a non-toxic environment means looking at what we eat, the water we drink, the cosmetics and body lotions we apply, the cleaning products we use, the air quality in our homes and the chemicals in our furniture. All of these contribute to a toxic load that our bodies are struggling to overcome. For food, think organic and non-processed, avoiding canned items due to the hormone disruptors in the tin linings. Make sure your drinking bottles are BPA free, avoid non-stick cookware as it can leach chemicals when the coating is scratched, and use glass food storage rather than plastic. Check on the toxicity of your makeup and skincare (the Environmental Working Group's online Skin Deep® database rates 80,000 products). The EWG also publishes annual Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, highlighting foods with the highest and lowest levels of pesticides, which will help you to prioritise which produce to buy.

How did writing the book help you?

Oddly, I didn't find writing the book particularly cathartic. As I was recovering from my own reconstruction at the time, it was a bit of a battle to balance post-surgical fatigue with impending deadlines, so my focus was more on just getting it done. But when I spent a couple of days recording the audiobook I found it quite emotional to revisit it all. What has really helped me is to turn my research into something that will make the journey easier for the women who follow me down this path. The most wonderful aspect of having the book out is hearing all the stories from the women it has helped. That makes everything I've gone through worthwhile.

Where is the book available?

You can find Stronger Than Before on Amazon of course, but if you have a local bookseller, do ask for it there. If it's not in stock, they can order it for you. As a writer and lifelong booklover, supporting independent bookstores is an issue close to my heart.

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