Graduate story

Dawn Waldron tells us how a breast cancer diagnosis in her early thirties led her to nutritional therapy and a career supporting other women through their diagnosis, treatment and recovery

What drew you to nutritional therapy?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 33. I had been working long hours as a management consultant and although my knowledge of cancer was minimal, I knew instinctively that stress had played a part.

When I was working in the corporate world my personal and career goals were not remotely aligned — I felt like a round peg in a square hole. One afternoon I was sharing how I felt with a friend and talking about possible new career avenues. She said, ‘I’m surprised you don’t do something to do with food and health’. It had never occurred to me, but I could immediately see that it was a great fit.

Within a couple of weeks I was enrolled on the Science Access Course in preparation for the ION Diploma [now BSc (Hons)].

What did you enjoy studying at ION?

I can remember being fascinated by the science of cells and receptors and the way we absorb and utilise nutrients — I’ve still got my hand drawn diagram of the cell!

I’ve always loved learning and I guess I’ve always liked ‘being right’. Unfortunately, the desire for certainty is not a helpful mindset in the analogue environment of diet and lifestyle: there’s so much we can’t measure and so many confounding variables in any sort of nutrition research. Becoming comfortable with the unknowns as well as the knowns has been an important step in my professional and personal development.

How did your career take shape after graduating?

When I was studying we were allowed to practise under license during our third year. I was keen to get going as soon as possible, so I worked at a clinic in Sevenoaks as part of an integrated health team.

After graduating in 2004, I joined the ION academic team. I enjoyed it so much that I found it hard to make enough time for clinic so in 2009, I made the difficult decision to leave and set up in practice full time. I also added life coaching to my tool box, as I have always felt that motivating clients is an important part of our role.

I’ve been practising for 18 years — something I find hard to believe myself.

You received a second diagnosis in 2006, how did this impact your work?

While I was still working at ION I had an ulcer under my tongue which wouldn’t heal. It was a while before I got a clear diagnosis: proliferative, verrucous leucoplakia, a condition that mainly affects Indian, male smokers over the age of 55.

Unfortunately, it carries a very high risk of malignancy and [my] consultant told me that the slow spreading patches in my mouth would undoubtedly become malignant within five years. It was a shock and made me question everything I believed about nutrition. I had thought I was doing ‘all the right things’ but here I was, facing another critical health challenge.

This was the point in which my practice became my mission: I realised that there must be something about me that was predisposed to cancer.

The second time around it was a lot easier to get the information I needed. As well as looking at the research on hyperplasia, I started looking at how and why individuals might have nutrient deficiencies despite an ‘optimal’ diet. That was when I discovered the emerging science of nutrigenetics and the concept of methylation.

I put myself on a fairly radical protocol and within five months all of the patches on my tongue had reverted to normal.

What is the best thing about your job?

There are so many things; the flexibility, the lifelong learning, the nutrition community — but I’m primarily motivated by supporting people during one of the worst times in their life.

The NHS does a great job with limited resources but the medical approach to cancer is fairly one dimensional; the outlook can be very bleak and most people feel a sense of fear when the treatment comes to an end. Providing evidence-based hope to people that allows them to believe in a healthy future is a huge privilege.

What are your hopes for the future of nutritional therapy and, indeed, cancer treatment?

I’d like to see an increasing recognition that everything is genetic: the concept of gene/diet/environment interaction is enormously helpful in understanding health at a personal level.

We are correspondingly slow in the UK to embrace integrated care for cancer patients. It’s a tricky area as there are so many ethical considerations involved in changing anyone’s treatment options.

Luckily other countries are more progressive in their thinking and engaged in all sorts of research into other treatment modalities, including diet.

Getting clients involved in their own survival plans is a powerful force in itself: a positive placebo effect that can counter the negative nocebo effect that often accompanies diagnosis.

Listen to Dawn on The Optimum Nutrition Podcast

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