Nobody tells you how hard the months following cancer treatment are. And I’m one of the lucky ones: my triple negative breast cancer was diagnosed in time to be treatable. Chemotherapy was effective in shrinking the tumours and, after mastectomy surgery and radiotherapy, followed by a bit more chemo for good measure, I’m out the other side. But a doctor’s warning that I’m at high risk of recurrence, so must be “extremely vigilant”, hangs over me like a dark cloud.
My mission now is to future-proof my body. So I sign up for a week at Lanserhof Sylt, Europe’s most luxurious and modern medical spa, and the latest outpost of the brand beloved by the likes of Victoria Beckham. Their ethos is about adding healthy years to your life, with a claim to help you “live better for longer”. I’m in.
I reach the German island of Sylt by train from Hamburg, across a causeway lapped by waves at high tide. Under an enormous thatched roof (in keeping with the Sylt architectural style), a sweeping spiral staircase is the centrepiece of the curved glass Lanserhof building, inspired by the landscape of the island (known as The Hamptons of Germany).
The Lanserhof clientele are – judging by what I hear over dinner – mostly German, English, French and American. And they all look like cast members from Succession: there’s Adrien Brody’s character in stealth wealth leisurewear, and there’s Kendall Roy breaking the digital detox rules to take urgent calls on the terrace.
After an excellent sleep in a room that is (of course) spacious, comfortable and the perfect temperature, I have my fasting blood glucose levels tested, and am weighed and measured before breakfast. When I say “breakfast”, it’s not what you’d expect from a luxury resort. The plain porridge comes with dry toast and, when I ask for something to put on it, I’m told that’s only an option if you don’t have the porridge.
Fasting is a key element of The Lanserhof Cure, based on the work of Franz Xavier Mayr, who was ahead of his time by working on gut health a century ago. My doctor, Perpetua, is direct and efficient, but warmly so. (Not to stereotype Germans, but everyone is direct and efficient here.) She tells me that Mayr believed the gut is like the roots of a plant, and no plant can bloom without healthy roots.
The idea is to give your digestive system a rest. So, counterintuitively for a health resort, there is little in the way of fruit and veg, and no raw food at all, because it’s harder to digest. What is on the menu? Well, there are three levels and, since my goal is to get stronger and optimise my health, I’m on the one with the most food. Others whose aim is weight loss, gut issues or detox have less to eat, with some on a liquid-only diet of broth and tea.
Even my menu is sparse though, with that aforementioned breakfast and just soup for dinner, but mercifully lunch is more satisfying: smoked cod or tofu with locally sourced fennel or potatoes. And it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it, with advice to focus only on the meal (although I do sneakily read the news on my iPad) and chew each mouthful at least 30 times.
By day two, I’m blaming caffeine withdrawal for my headache, and a fellow guest whispers that I can request a “therapeutic espresso”. But, when I ask in the restaurant, I’m told they can’t provide coffee without talking to my doctor. I’m so embarrassed by my need for caffeine being escalated to a medical issue that I quickly say I’m actually fine.
Instead, I throw myself into the programme, taking yoga classes and swimming in the saltwater pool with the sun (and sometimes rain) on my face. Futuristic biohacking technology here includes CellGym, which involves breathing pure oxygen to aid cell renewal. And the tests are thorough, including wearing a heart rate variability tracker for 24 hours.
Since the food is minimal, they give nutritional supplements through infusions and tablets. At my first infusion, the nurse struggles to find a vein so goes to get a doctor. I glance at the tourniquet on my arm, and then up at the bag of nutrients about to be pumped into me, and have a horrible flashback to chemo. I try to hide my tears as the doctor finds a vein and hooks me up to the infusion, but she sees and holds me firmly by the shoulder. “It’s good to cry,” she says. “After all you’ve been through. Crying is transformation.”
Breast cancer recurrence is most likely in my brain, bones or lungs, so the symptoms that I should be looking out for include headaches and pain in my neck or chest. Yep, those are all symptoms of anxiety too, so predictably I have all three.
A focus of my treatment here that I didn’t expect is to manage the stress in my body. I have psychotherapy, massages, reiki and energy healing, which feels as though my mind is being lifted out of the cancer quagmire and given a rinse. Perpetua explains that what I’ve been through is a trauma, and I need to deal with it, instead of expecting to go back to normal and throwing myself into work and an obsession with super-charging my health. She hugs me as I cry some more.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that warm hugs are a part of the Lanserhof cure. Cutting-edge diagnostics are the main draw for billionaires and tech bros, but empathy and natural healing is at the heart of what they do. And teaching how to take the benefits home with you is part of the process. I’m given lifestyle advice as well as psychological tools, such as visualisations and breathing techniques, to help me manage my dark thoughts about recurrence.
Towards the end of my stay, just as I’m really missing my husband and kids, they move me onto the “active” menu. Suddenly I’m eating incredible three-course meals. Yes, even dessert – although it’s still super-healthy and my chocolate pudding contains hidden courgette. Food has never tasted better, and it gives me a real lift.
On the last day, I join the “beach awakening” walk at 7am. A small group of us trudge along rosehip-lined paths to the beach and, after restorative stretching and breathing exercises in the sea air, we stroll back feeling energised, chatting about our kids and enthusing about the sunrise. I realise that my headache, sore shoulders and chest pains seem to have dissipated. Perhaps the state-of-the-art medical interventions and energy healing made a difference, but maybe also I just needed to cry for a week.
What have I learned? Wellness is about more than how physically strong your body is. Rest and connection are two hugely important, and often overlooked, elements. And you can’t ignore past trauma or current fear, you have to confront it in order to feel better. It isn’t a linear process, and I’ll still have bad days, but now I feel better equipped to cope. As psychotherapist Claudia tells me: “It’s not easy, but it is possible.”
I came to Lanserhof to future-proof my body. I didn’t expect them to heal my soul.
Rosamund Dean was a guest of Lanserhof Sylt (lanserhof.com). The Cure Classic treatment including accommodation costs from €7,000 for seven nights.