In 2012, Bev Michael found a large lump in her breast. This discovery started a medical odyssey that led to a cancer diagnosis and ultimately unraveled the mystery of a variety of health issues that had plagued her for more than eight years.
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Following up on the lump with a mammogram and biopsy, Michael got the startling news that she had cancer. The West Chester, Pa., resident immediately jumped into a grueling chemotherapy regimen, undergoing six sessions of chemo and two lumpectomies—only to find later after genetic testing that her type of cancer, lobular breast cancer, doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. She then requested and underwent a double mastectomy, hoping to ensure the cancer was gone for good. But the cancer recurred in 2016—near the nodes. So she again had surgery, this time to remove lymph nodes that she later learned were benign.
Michael felt there had to be more to her troubles, and she went to her general practitioner for guidance. “I told her how I was always tired, and how much my joints ached,” Michael recalls. “She ran a couple of blood tests, and when she received the results she didn’t believe them. She said my iron levels were sky-high, so she retested them. They were even higher.” Michael’s doctor diagnosed her with hemochromatosis, a metabolic disorder that leads to abnormally high iron levels in the body.
The mineral deposits itself into organs like the heart, liver, and pancreas, and in the joints; it can trigger cancer and other diseases. A normal human absorbs about 8 to 10 percent of the iron they get from their diet; people with hemochromatosis absorb four times as much. The condition is inherited, and people with Northern European ancestry have an elevated risk. Experts estimate that 16 million Americans have elevated iron levels. Michael’s genetic makeup all but sealed her fate: “My mom died of breast cancer, had macular degeneration, and heart issues—which are all signs of the disorder. When I had genetic testing, my results showed that both of my parents had the gene mutation, so of course, I would, too.”
Here, doctors reveal the rarest conditions they’ve ever diagnosed. Michael was told she would need to donate blood every few weeks for the rest of her life, as giving blood regularly helps reduce iron levels. The prospect of this sent her to the internet to research other possible treatments. She tells Reader’s Digest, “What I found was that high iron is correlated to cancer, and I’m convinced it’s what caused cancer for both my mom and me. I found a doctor at the University of Maryland, Abulkalam M. Shamsuddin, MB, BS, PhD, who had studied the use of something called IP6 for treatment of cancer and iron overload.” IP6 stands for inositol hexaphosphate: It’s basically a carbohydrate substance that behaves like a vitamin, and it binds with extra iron in the body, explains Michael.
“Once I began taking it, I haven’t had a blood draw in two years, and my cancer has not recurred. My doctors are amazed,” Michael says.
Through her journey, Michael has found a passion for educating others about this common yet underdiagnosed disorder. “I think there needs to be more open-mindedness among the medical community regarding treatments for conditions like this. Instead of treating only symptoms, look for the cause,” she says.
If you have suspicious symptoms and you’re not finding answers, Michael advises you be direct: “Ask to be tested for hemochromatosis. It’s not an expensive test. If you have cancer, look for a possible correlation to your iron levels. If you test positive, then consider genetic testing for your children’s sake. If you have it, they might, too.” Don’t miss the 50 everyday habits that reduce your risk of breast cancer.
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