Health and healing

By Barbara Aggerholm | Photography by Alisha Townsend

There was never a Twinkie to be found in the school lunch bags of Rebecca Cannon’s daughters.

Nor did they get the other sugary stuff they envied in some of their classmates’ lunches in elementary school. They tried asking for it, but no go.

“It was always veggies, every day,” says Madelaine, now 20 and the second-oldest of four daughters. “And something with protein, maybe cheese, yogurt,” adds Lily, 22, the eldest.

They’re not complaining today.

“Twinkies, I tried that later,” Lily says with a laugh. “Mom saved us from those.”

Growing up as the daughters of Rebecca Cannon, a fourth-generation naturopath, a busy doctor of naturopathic medicine practising in Elmira, Lily and Madelaine have enjoyed good health and learned good habits. Not that they didn’t buy the occasional junk food themselves, but it had lost its appeal.

“It wasn’t good,” Madelaine says.

On this day, Lily is eating nuts and trail mix while she studies for the Law School Admission Test, known as the LSAT. Madelaine is heading into her third year at Wilfrid Laurier University and hopes to continue into social work. They live at home with their mom and dad and their sisters, Isabelle, 18, and Caroline, 16.

The daughters believe their mother and father, Jon Cannon, have helped prepare them well, in all ways.

“I think my Mom has taught me how to be steadfast and be willing to hear people out and be open and care for people and not compromise who you are and what you believe,” Lily says.

Rebecca Cannon’s great-grandfather started practising naturopathy 99 years ago; her grandfather began his practice in 1947 and her father, Jim Farquharson, retired in 2018 from his Ayr practice after about 30 years in the profession.

The eldest of five children, Cannon was raised with the guiding principles of naturopathic medicine as outlined on her website: First, do no harm; identify and treat the underlying root-cause of disease; treat the whole person through individualized care; trust the healing power of nature; teach as well as treat; focus on preventing disease.

Naturopathy, a regulated and educated discipline, is all about treating the whole person, not just the symptom.

“I’m a healer that likes to treat the person as a whole person, that understands there are so many parts to us and they all work together,” Cannon says.

Her father explains. “Naturopathy relies upon the healing mechanisms of the body, the innate healing mechanisms that are there,” Farquharson says. “Its purpose is to fortify the body and identify things in the way, and help the body help itself, using everything – nutrition, counsel, botanical, diet and plants, elements, heat, cold – whatever can help the body restore itself.”

Cannon’s grandfather was involved in the profession’s regulatory board and helped establish the then-Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine, originally located in Kitchener. The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto emerged from the Ontario college.

“That was important to the credibility of the profession,” Farquharson says. “The regulating agencies for all health professions in Canada were anxious to see quality of education of trainees.”

Her great-grandfather helped create the Drugless Practitioners Act of 1925. Later, Farquharson, who has also provided humanitarian naturopathic care in poor townships in Kenya, South Africa and South America, would help bring naturopathy under the Regulated Health Professions Act, which established a regulatory college to govern members.

Under the rules, no one can call themselves a naturopath without the required undergraduate university degree and a four-year program of medical training at the Canadian college. Practitioners are doctors of naturopathic medicine and use the initials ND after their names.

Like her own children, Cannon, who became a naturopathic doctor in 2000, grew up with an approach to health care that differed from that used by some of her friends’ families.

She was one of five children who needed no trips to the hospital, unless there was something like a broken arm. There were no major illnesses.

With five kids, that’s not luck. “That’s a blessing” and education, says Cannon, who also has a strong Christian faith.

“We didn’t have a family doctor,” says Cannon, now 47. “We grew up with homeopathy,” whose remedies are made from plant, animal and mineral compounds. If she needed something for menstrual cramps, it would be homeopathic magnesium phosphoricum. A bee sting would get Apis, made from honey bee, which takes away the heat, swelling and pain quickly, she says.

It might not surprise you that Cannon would follow in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, grandfather and father. Certainly, there was no pressure from her family to do it, she says.

But as a teenager, Cannon was determined to study law. She was interested in social justice issues and she was a defender of those bullied in school. She figured she didn’t need to take a lot of science courses in high school.

She changed her mind after working with her father and grandfather in their practices.

“At the end of high school, it was like a light bulb went off,” Cannon says. “It is kind of deep in my DNA and I enjoyed watching people being cared for.”

It meant a deep dive into the sciences that she had ignored in high school. She knuckled down to catch up at Wilfrid Laurier University where she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and pre-med sciences. She married Jon after her second year of university when she was 21.

First-year chemistry was a killer. “I think I’d have asked Dad for help, for sure,” she says, smiling. “I just had to study my guts out. Biochemistry made more sense to me.”

She had her first child, Lily, in her third year of the four-year program of naturopathic medicine. She and other women in class traded notes and supported each other. In her fourth year, Cannon’s mother, Patricia, looked after Lily during the day while Cannon doubled her clinic shifts. She was pregnant with Madelaine while studying for her licensing exams. She practised with her father in 2000, then opened her own practice in Elmira in 2001.

Compassionate, outgoing, fiercely independent, with a sense of humour and a friendly manner, Cannon is in demand as a naturopath with a general family practice, sometimes putting in 12-hour days.

Half of her patients are Mennonites, and women and children are a natural focus though she sees male patients and people of all ages. Issues might range from infertility to chronic or acute illnesses to patients who just don’t feel well and want to do something about it. Parents bring their sons who are struggling with ADHD (Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) or Attention Deficit Disorder.

People often ask Cannon for help with chronic headaches, bowel issues and heartburn. Some have seen other health practitioners without success.

“For some people, I am their last resort, and the beauty of that is patient compliance is always good. It leads to increased success,” she says.

During the COVID pandemic, more patients are asking Cannon for help in boosting their immune systems. “They want to make sure they stay well or get well because they have a better chance of surviving the pandemic.”

Some are struggling with anxiety and sleeplessness during the anxiety-inducing weeks of lockdown.

“I believe there are many more people now in the population who are open and desire an alternative or complementary care than years ago,” Farquharson notes.

A naturopath’s services are not covered by OHIP. But more insurance companies are starting to broaden their recognition of health services and are offering better coverage, Cannon says.

It’s particularly rewarding when a patient, after years of trying to become pregnant, succeeds with her help. “That’s huge. That’s awesome. They come and tell me, and I’ve met their babies,” Cannon says.

But she’s not infallible. “You can’t have success in all cases. I have my limitations as well. There are times when you miss the mark in a person; maybe they’re not doing what you ask or it’s too daunting.” Sometimes they just want a quick solution.

“You have to know some people. The scars they carry from difficulties in the past can sometimes get in the way of getting well. I’m honest with people. You can try every supplement in the book but until you reconcile some old wounds,” healing is difficult, she says.

For the first appointment hour, Cannon listens and writes. “I just let them tell their story. My great-grandfather and grandfather and Dad did the same thing. I’m putting the pieces of a puzzle together and I want to make sure the puzzle fits.”

She then orders blood work to be done at a lab and she does a physical examination. “From that, I put together a treatment plan.”

Her services include nutrition help; botanical medicine, an age-old practice of using plant substances and herbs to improve health; lifestyle counselling; allergy and sensitivity testing; hormone testing; hair analysis and homeopathy.

Homeopathy is a system of medicine “that operates on the idea of like cures like,” Cannon says. “A substance that produces diseases in a healthy person is made into a homeopathic medicine. It cures the same disease.”

She collaborates with medical doctors, chiropractors, dieticians, other health professionals if need be.

“I refer for anything that will enhance the person’s ability to heal. It does happen when you see people with some of the different diseases. You’re not a one-man show.”

Usually, medical doctors are willing to collaborate. But “some doctors want nothing to do with us. Some would say that their advice is the advice to be taken and there are no alternatives.

“I’d say I don’t encounter a lot of difficulty with other professions.”

Each day before heading to the Elmira Wellness Centre where she has her practice, Cannon goes to the backyard coop where she greets their five chickens.

“I come here in the morning and I say: ‘Good morning, single ladies,’ then I feed them,” she says, laughing. Following that, she runs five kilometres every other day.

The chickens are quiet as we chat in the backyard of Cannon’s brick home in Elmira on a cool spring afternoon. It’s a long lot that allows a small above-ground pool, a garage and tidy chicken coop with outdoor pen for the hens, a gazebo with a gas fireplace that’s throwing off much-needed heat, and raised beds where Cannon plans to grow vegetables. There are raspberry bushes and herb gardens.

Gardening and running help balance her life. Family, friends and her faith support her. She likes a good game of Dominoes or badminton with her daughters and she enjoys the spirited conversations around the dinner table. She loves animals, especially their dogs, Lucy, a chocolate lab, and Roscoe the cocker spaniel. “I’m very fortunate.”

She’s the kind of person who doesn’t mind when people stop her at a grocery store to ask a health question.

It’s part of being a member of the community, she says. Her husband, who grew up in Elmira, works at Ontario Drive & Gear in New Hamburg, building custom transmissions for motorized products, including Argo amphibious vehicles. Cannon was born in Sault Ste. Marie and lived in North Bay before her family moved to southern Ontario for her father, a self-employed insurance broker who sold his two brokerages to pursue a career in naturopathy.

Mary Goerzen-Sheard was at her wit’s end when she met Cannon.

“I was miserable,” says Goerzen-Sheard, a psychology consultant at a school board.

In May 2000, a serious car accident had left her with a broken humerus and beat-up body. A driver had put a wheel on the shoulder on a hill, went off the road a bit, overcorrected and entered Goerzen-Sheard’s lane. Goerzen-Sheard, who had just dropped off her one-year-old daughter to the babysitter, swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but the car hit a corner of her Dodge Caravan, causing her vehicle to roll at least three times. She gained consciousness screaming for her daughter, who was safe at the babysitter’s.

Goerzen-Sheard, then 33, believes the Dodge, which had side impact beams, helped save her life – the family had just replaced their old car.

She did not need surgery, but the shoulder had to be immobilized and she needed physiotherapy. Five months later, she went back to work.

“But the trauma of the accident messed with my immune system,” she says. “I got sick and sick and sick again, flus and colds, and I just couldn’t get rid of a sinus infection. I was on multiple rounds of antibiotics.” She’d sampled every antihistamine. She was having “unbelievable, out-of-control food cravings.”

“This went on for two years. I was so depleted.”

She doesn’t fault her medical doctor, “who was trying and as supportive as possible.” When an MRI showed her sinuses were half-filled with liquid, doctors were prepared to do surgery.

In 2002, when a flyer advertising Cannon’s naturopathic practice came to her mailbox, she took a second look.

“I thought, well, it can’t hurt. I didn’t know much about that practice.” But she knew her health insurance covered it for a certain amount per year.

After assessing her, Cannon concluded Goerzen-Sheard likely had Candida overgrowth, a full-body yeast infection. “My gut was out of balance from all the antibiotics,” Goerzen-Sheard says. “My nasal infection was a yeast infection in the sinuses.”

She says Cannon recommended a strict diet that included eliminating foods such as sugar, yeast, wheat and dairy. She took supplements, had homeopathic medicine and focused on vegetables and proteins.

In four months, she had lost weight and felt better. “I did this regime and it worked really fast for me partly because I was young and I was very determined. I felt like a new woman at eight weeks.

“I finally felt like I had some energy.”

Goerzen-Sheard returns to see Cannon when an illness flares up, as it did after the birth of her son. She was keeping a good diet, she says, but she was older, had a high-stress job and a newborn.

“I have continued to see her off and on for almost 20 years,” says Goerzen-Sheard, now 53. “I personally appreciate having a balance of a medical doctor and Rebecca, a naturopath, and I feel I can get the best of both.

“This is my health, my body, and I’m doing what I feel works for me.”

Back in their sunny backyard, Lily and Madelaine muse over the question of whether one of them might have considered becoming the fifth generation of naturopaths in their family.

It would be a lie to say that the idea hadn’t crossed their minds, they say, though they’ve had no pressure from their parents. As the eldest, Lily says, “I thought I had the burden to carry. It’s my responsibility.”

But naturopathy wasn’t a good fit, Lily says. She’s not gifted in science, and Madelaine says chemistry was not her best subject.

They’re happy with the choices they’ve made and believe that law and social work share some of the same goals as naturopathy.

“Mom shows us how being available and caring for people and being passionate pay off in the end,” Madelaine says. “We share a love for people and a desire to care for others.”