The following is a transcript of Season 1, Episode 2 of The ND Will See You Now, a podcast by the Institute for Natural Medicine.
What happens when a naturopathic doctor becomes a cancer patient and then moves to a different country? She learns how to be a more present and compassionate doctor and how to better help her patients stay true to their cultural heritage while addressing an illness. Learn from Baljit Khamba ND, M.PH, Ed.D(cand), about first-hand experiences with her own cancer treatments and how she uses a very personal perspective to teach naturopathic medical students, patients, and the public about the benefits of naturopathic medicine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This transcript of the podcast interview has been edited for clarity. The opinions of the host and guests on this podcast are their own and do not represent INM. This podcast and its respective transcript and social media posts do not constitute medical advice; and, are not meant to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any conditions or diseases. This podcast and its respective content are for educational purposes only. Consult your doctor before implementing any changes to your care. If you would like to find a naturopathic doctor (ND), please see our Find an ND directory. To find a naturopathic doctor who specializes in cancer care, please visit OncANP, the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians (OncANP).
Anna-Liza Badaloo (AL): Hi there, and welcome to the Institute for Natural Medicines podcast, The ND Will See You Now! In this podcast, we talk to Naturopathic Doctors all across North America to find out a little bit more about their whole-person approach to health, what patients can expect, and why their work is so very vital to patient health.
I’m your host Anna-Liza, and today I am just absolutely delighted to have naturopathic doctor, Baljit Khamba, with us. So, Dr. Khamba, you are based in San Diego, California, but you do hail from the Great North from the Greater Toronto Area in Canada, as do I. You actually teach for Bastyr University and are the Chair of Clinical Sciences. And you are a researcher, consultant, and speaker on a variety of natural health issues. But that is not the end of your story, because you are also a proud breast cancer survivor, and thriver. So, for all those reasons and more, we’re so delighted to have you here today. Thanks so much for joining us, Dr. Khamba.
Dr. Baljit Khamba, ND (BK): Thank you so much for having me here today. I’m really excited to be able to participate.
AL: Well, let me start by taking you back a couple of years from now to 2019. If there’s any Golden Girls fans in the house, I’m really going to be channeling Sophia right now and saying, “Picture it”, it’s 2019. And at that time for you, life was pretty good. You were about 40 years old. You were about a decade or so into a pretty successful practice as a Naturopathic Doctor, and just at the time, you and your husband were negotiating to teach at Bastyr—he’s in Toronto;, you’re in San Diego, all the visas and all of the things you are negotiating—in the midst of this—BAM!
And just that instant, you suddenly find yourself on the other side of the table, so to speak, as a patient. You’re thrown into this world of cancer care and associated fertility issues, might I add. You tell the story really well on your website. So, listeners, I strongly encourage you to please go to Dr. Khamba’s website, which is foodandmood.co. She really details in a very authentic, honest, and open fashion what that journey was like, from the moment I mentioned, when she first got that diagnosis to a little closer to where she is today, being a cancer survivor and thriver.
And as I mentioned, not only are you an ND that’s going through this patient journey, but you’re also a South Asian woman. And we know that sometimes healthcare can look a little bit different for us in terms of health equity issues. So, I wonder if I can take you back to that time, Dr. Khamba? Can you tell us a little bit about that cancer journey, specifically with an eye toward what did surprise you as an ND going through the cancer care system as a patient and as a South Asian woman? What health equity issues were you coming up against?
BK: I’ll never forget 2019. That was obviously a huge part of my life. Actually, today we’re just about two days shy of my three-year anniversary of being diagnosed. Just two days shy of my ‘cancer-versary’. As you mentioned, we went back and forth. My husband is from Northern Ireland, so he wasn’t able to get settled right away in the U.S.; he was still in Canada. And so, all that back and forth was going on. And we reached a point after two years of doing that where we sat down and said, “I think we need to go back to Canada and regroup and kind of figure things out to see what’s going to happen.” So at that same time, I said, “You know what, actually I found a lump in my breast. And it’s not the same sort of cyst type of lump or anything that I originally thought it might be. I think this might be a little something more sinister; I’m not sure. But I definitely know I want to get it checked.”
So, we were here in San Diego at the time. So, then my husband said, “Okay, let’s just go over to our urgent care in San Diego and see if we can at least get some imaging done” because we weren’t set to head back for another two months.
I tried to get some imaging. We went to the clinic there and, you know, it costs to get it done. I really had a good understanding at that moment of the divide between American and Canadian health care. Where in Canada, we take it for granted how wonderful it is that we all have access to care that we don’t have to think about it. But here in the U.S., your health is really a statement of what finances you have accessible to you. At that time, I didn’t have health insurance. When I tried to pay to get an ultrasound, it cost such a huge amount that I said, “You know what, I’m going back to Canada in another couple months. I’ll just wait until we go down there, knowing that I thought it might be something small.” I wasn’t entirely convinced yet either.
Then we head back to Canada. When I came back to Toronto, I was diagnosed really quickly; I was thankful I was with Trillium at The Credit Valley Hospital. They diagnosed me really quickly, and I was thankful for the care. I was appreciative of it. But I have to say that when I started at 40, I had cancer, they discovered that I had three tumors, and they were quite large. And because I’m younger, at the time for cancer, they thought, let’s try to reduce the tumor size first before doing surgery. Normally, you have that the other way around. Usually you get surgery first, and then you follow up with chemotherapy. But in my case, they wanted to try to do chemo first. So, I did chemotherapy first. And it was interesting because when I would go there for my chemotherapy—it was every other week—I would go in, and the volunteers — the people who are checking you in—they would say to me, “Well, you’re too young to be here.’ I was like, “Don’t I know it!”
So that was one part. I noticed this difference between being in San Diego versus being in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) was that when I went to go see my doctors, for the most part, the doctors that I did see, looked like me. A lot of them were South Asian, which was great. The ones who weren’t, I have to say, I did notice with them that the understanding of how to care for me was a little different. When I’d go to appointments, I’d have my mom with me, my husband with me, and people all around me. And when I was getting care, again, my family was all around. It’s just how it goes from a cultural standpoint; we’re very collectivist.
And so, when it comes to the food, and when it comes to the care, sometimes the doctors at that time (and this was just pre-COVID as well), the doctors were saying, “Eat whatever you want, have whatever junk food you want. Just get food into you. Don’t eat spicy food; don’t eat this; don’t eat that.” There were a few stipulations. But I will say (as a Naturopathic Doctor) some of those foods I would actually promote a bit more.
Also, I was taking my cultural heritage into consideration. You’re making some claims around there as well that might not entirely hold up from a food perspective. The assumption was (from my non-South Asian doctor), he looked at me, and he’s like, “Well, you’re gonna have to cut out all those spicy Indian foods.” I’m like, “Incorrect, sir! We don’t all eat spicy foods. And spices, all the different spices that we have, not just the cayenne pepper.” So you know, hearing comments like that, thankfully, they were few and far between. But, I was fortunate that I was able to go back home to Canada—be in my home, be around loved ones, and get the care that I needed. Whereas here, that was obviously not going to be something I could do. So thankful for that.
I was also appreciative of looking at things from that Canada/U.S. lens because after my treatments, after surgery and everything was done, my first bit of surgery was done in Canada. And then we came back to the U.S. after [surgery] and my husband became a Canadian citizen and was able to secure work pretty easily in the U.S. I went from being full-time. Then when I took my break, I became an adjunct. And then I came back again full time; so I didn’t leave Bastyr completely.
And so, when I came back, and he was able to get back, my care continued in the U.S. So, now my care was U.S. based. And that was different because now I had health insurance, too. And I came armed with health insurance. It was a really big discrepancy, again that I was able to see first, using my public health background and noting the differences that I saw from Canadian health care which was good health care for everybody. But then in the U.S., if you have health insurance and a good health insurance plan, which fortunately I did. you would get some luxury care, which on the one hand, I was thankful for. On the other hand, I am completely aware that this health care that I’m receiving isn’t accessible to everybody, which was a difficult sort of thing to go through as I was getting my own care. It was interesting to see those crossroads.
And then in the GTA, like I said, a lot of my doctors looked like me, which was great, but in the U.S., that wasn’t always the case. One of my oncology doctors was South Asian, where the others weren’t. When they had to do my surgery, there are different factors when it comes to a smaller, South Asian woman who’s athletic as well. When it comes to surgery, I had long 12- hour surgeries. And that also caused discrepancies because I was younger than perhaps most people that they’ve done similar types of surgery, reconstruction, preventative, and all that sort of stuff. And then further, being South Asian, my metabolism, in the way that I processed certain medications, might be different too. That was new to some of the residents and interns who were working with me at UCSD, as well. So overall, fantastic care. But some of the differences and learning about one—access to care and secondly—understanding of cultural heritage when it came to different places, it just came through
AL: Well, that’s a lot of learning! And not just even the ‘being on the other side of the table’ aspect as a patient. But as you pointed out, there are some significant differences between the health care systems in Canada and the U.S. And it’s not just a difference on paper. I think your experience really speaks to what those differences look like, not only in terms of the financial accessibility aspect, but also in terms of the appreciation of cultural heritage, from several things that you mentioned. And I can’t help but think that after going through this experience for yourself—that when it came time for you to resume seeing your own patients—I can only imagine that all of these learnings and lessons and experiences you had must have been quite in the front of your mind. So how did that look? When you did get to that point, when the majority of cancer treatments and whatnot are wrapping up—at least to the extent that you can start practicing again on a full-time basis and get into that—what was it that you found actually changed in terms of how you’re delivering care, naturopathic care to patients. This could be cancer patients; this could be any of your patients; what were you finding? How did things change?
BK: So, let me backtrack a little bit. When I got to sit in the patient chair as I was going through my cancer treatments, I got firsthand experience on what it’s like to fully need access to care. Whereas, I was pretty healthy before—nothing more than say a wisdom tooth removal, the odd imaging here and there, nothing that was really exciting. I was pretty boring; I didn’t utilize the health care system very much. And for my own health, I was barely capable of managing my own care. However, when I got sick, it was the first time that I placed my trust in not just my oncology team from a conventional standpoint, but I had my yoga practitioners, my acupuncturist, my own naturopathic doctors, nutritionists, and everyone on board.
I got to be the patient where that was a great experience for me because I wouldn’t have appreciated it, and was able to work out all the fine details. Because when you’re on chemotherapy, there’s certain things that you can and can’t be on, and certain things that you know as far as botanicals and nutrients and supplements are concerned. There are certain things you can and can’t be on. And I was on two different chemotherapy medications at two different times. There were certain ones I could take with one, certain ones I could take with the other. Different areas that we wanted to work and support the chemotherapy that I was going through, as well as to try to prevent some of the side effects of the chemotherapy so that it became tolerable.
I put my trust in my naturopathic medicine, and in my colleagues so that they could treat me. In my state of fogginess, I didn’t have to focus on ‘What am I taking? What am I doing?’ Instead, I had a plan laid out for me, which was great, and I’m so appreciative. Having gone through the program of naturopathic medicine, we were a group. We all went through everything together; we’ve gone through lots of ups and downs as a cohort. And so now, when any of us need anyone, it’s wonderful that we’re there for each other in an instant. Even if we haven’t seen each other in years, they’re still right there for you. They were there for me. I got everything from phone calls and well wishes to tinctures being delivered to my house, things that brought me to tears. So, I was appreciative.
Now, when I was back here in San Diego and starting to see my own patients, I really found a shift not just in my patients but also in the way that I was teaching as well. I noticed a key difference in those two areas. And I also triggered that to the fact that I was going through chemotherapy. Before I actually came to San Diego, I was doing my PhD. And then I stopped my PhD, and I came to San Diego. And then I discontinued the PhD; I was like “Well, I’m already here being a professor now, I’m good.” And then when I was in the midst of chemo, and I didn’t know what lay ahead for me, I said to myself, “I started a doctorate; I have to finish it. But I want to change what I want to do.” I was doing a PhD in medicine; I changed it to a Doctorate of Education because I really wanted to change the face of education from a health standpoint. And secondly, I wanted to be a leader as a South Asian woman. I wanted to be a leader in that space. I wanted to change the way that I practiced. And I was a clinician as well. When I went back and I was strong enough, I started a new doctorate program, and I’ve got about a year left now.
In addition to that, as I was getting educated through this Doctorate of Education Program, my teaching and my clinical changed. Not only was the format changing where I’m now more inquisitive and trying to listen more and hear more from my students and my patients, but I also have a different eye toward my patients where there’s that eye of compassion and understanding. When you’ve gone through something, whether it’s cancer or something like a long journey of suffering, you can really appreciate the suffering of others—whether it’s fibromyalgia, IBS, or cancer, anything else. Whereas I appreciated things before, and I felt for my patients, now I have a deep understanding and a connection with my patients that I didn’t realize I had before. And that connection goes the same for my students. I had compassion before, but now I have a deeper sense of compassion where I truly value each person and value what they’re going through and really try to make efforts to understand life from their perspective.
I think it’s quick for one to assume what someone is going through. But another question to be asked is, “How are you doing with what’s going on?” and really listen. I’m sure I asked these questions before to my patients. I liked the way I practiced before. But now, I feel like I truly do not just listen, but I take it in. it’s like it’s in here now! So, that changed the way how I treat my patients because I’m taking it from that value of what they’re saying, of how they’re doing, where they’re at, what their journey has been, and where they would like to go. My previous work was focused largely on nutrition and mental health. And it still is; but now I’m seeing more and more patients going through cancer because they heard my story, or fertility or hormones, a lot of that sort of stuff as well. Because as you read in my blogs, in the beginning, we were given two weeks to say, “We’ve gotta start chemotherapy; we can stall for maybe two weeks, but you’ve got to do chemotherapy right away. Go do whatever fertility preservation you can do.” And so, in that process, we were able to save one embryo, and it was a day seven embryo. So, it didn’t hold the highest chance, but we gave it all the hope. That was the direction of my treatment—to get to that endpoint of having that embryo.
Recently, I was finally deemed healthy enough to transfer that embryo. It failed unfortunately. So again, I was back in that chair again now, [but] not just going through cancer treatment. The last three years have been all between surgery and fertility work. And so, I’ve had these three years of fertility and failure, seeing what that means to me now. So, now going through both of these journeys, I have to start blogging about this because I haven’t really gone through that process, but know that people have been reaching out to me for that. I’ve developed such a deep appreciation for people who are struggling when it comes to fertility and when it comes to what a family looks like for them and really reinventing what families look like. Before I get off on a tangent, I’ll stop there.
AL: Well, it’s an important issue; I really appreciate that you mentioned not only how your Naturopathic Doctor role in delivering care to patients has changed. I’m really glad you brought the education side of things into it, not only in terms of your own continued studies but also in terms of how your experiences were changing how you saw the educational experience — with your teacher hat on, so to speak. So, there’s a lot in there. And fertility, you know, I think a lot of the time, people don’t realize—if there’s a cancer issue, it’s not just a cancer issue. There may be a number of other conditions, either preexisting or not, that are impacted. Or in your case, something that was maybe going to be on the horizon in the near future. And on the one hand, although I am not happy about the fact that it didn’t take with the embryo, I am delighted by the fact that they did deem you healthy enough to go through that step.
And we just have a couple of minutes left, but I do want to touch on the food aspects. When one looks at your website, one will see clearly stated that ‘a healthy mind starts with healthy foods’. And we know that you also do come to the naturopathic profession with quite a bit of mental health experience. You have a degree in psychology; you’ve done mental health research, and you’ve worked at integrative psychiatric clinics. So, what I’m wondering is, what does this look like for patients? How are you actually integrating this food as a medicine approach into your naturopathic approach? And what might that look like?
BK: A Naturopathic Doctor uses a multitude of things to help care for a patient but always with the idea of getting down to the root cause of what could be going on for that patient. When looking at that, I consider food to be foundational. It’s not just nutrients that we provide our body but also how we feel. It’s also the community around us as we’re consuming; it’s got memories tied to it, smell tied to it, so many different things. So naturally, we want to look at the mental wellness component of it.
I take a look at it from a couple of different perspectives. One, I like to see what my patients are eating. One of the first questions I ask after patients have given me their history and what they’ve come in for, is “What do you eat? What’s your diet like? What foods are you normally consuming?” Because from a cultural standpoint, I want to understand what their food intake looks like; so that when I prescribe food, I’m trying to prescribe to their culture as well. I remember when I was working in the integrative clinic (the Start Clinic for mood and anxiety disorders in Toronto), I had quite a few patients from the West Indies. They would give me cookbooks because, as we were working through their food, I would want to make sure that I was remaining within their culture as well. We would go through the cookbooks and really pay attention to that.
Now what I’m looking for from a cultural standpoint, is this: when we look at our modern foods that we’re consuming in today’s age, especially the fast foods, a lot of them are energy-dense but because they’ve been so processed, they’re nutrient poor. And our brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body, which means that it requires the most energy because it’s the one that’s doing the most work. If we’re giving our body this processed food with tons of energy but no nutrients, and our brain fuel is nutrients, we haven’t done much but increased our waistline and starved our brain. What I’ll focus on then, is looking back and seeing how we can provide some nutrient dense food for our patients.
The second thing I’m trying to do—because there’s also this gut-brain connection that we got to work on,— is making sure that we talk about the good bacteria that resides in our gut is also helpful in creating those things for our brain. Now when we talk about our brain, we talk about everything from focus and attention— for our ADD/ADHD patients, our ASD patients (Asperger’s, autistic) it could be anybody with learning issues or even things like stress, focus issues, depression, anxiety, and bipolar— all those gamuts of things. What we’re looking at is how we can provide key nutrients that will help feed the brain and help increase that gut-brain connection. And not just gut-brain. It’s also liver-brain connection, the skin, everything. But those are some key areas that you’ll hear me talking about. And like I said, with keeping a keen eye to what happens in your daily diet, so that I can make modifications that are within the realm of reason. If I go to say— a woman—a Taiwanese woman and give her a background of the Mediterranean diet, where she’s like, “Well, I don’t know those foods; this isn’t what I eat,” at least I can provide something that I can go based off of her diet and see where we can make improvements and change things.
AL: Those are some excellent examples. And just thinking about everything that you’ve spoken about today, you’ve really given us a sense of the importance of empathy and the importance of not only asking the right questions but of actually listening to the answer and really taking that on. And when it comes to the cultural considerations, it sounds like some cookbooks might be coming into play. And you might be learning some new recipes as well, maybe from your patients. Food is just, it’s the ultimate leveler, right? I mean, we all are in different cultures, different financial circumstances, but to even talk about food with a patient, just being the great leveler, is such an empathetic thing.
Well, that’s about all we have time for today because we could go on for some time talking about all of these very important issues. But thanks so much for joining us. You shared your journey from cancer survivor to thriver; you’ve talked quite a bit about how it’s really impacted the way that you’re delivering naturopathic care to patients and also how it’s changed the educational side of how you’re dealing with naturopathic students who are the next generation—so to speak—of Naturopathic Doctors coming up in the world. And you’ve made a pretty darn good case for how food can really be our medicine. And as you mentioned, the brain being that part of the body that requires those dense nutrients, that sadly, as you pointed out, we’re not seeing in those foods. And when we do give our brain what it’s truly craving, then we’re going to see some improvements in mood and really in overall health. So, for listeners, if you’re looking for a transcript of this interview and if you’d like to learn some more about Dr. Khamba’s work, please do check out the podcast notes. And all that’s left to do is thank all of you for joining us and Dr. Khamba, thanks again. It’s truly been a pleasure.
BK: Thanks for having me!