Waking Up from Cancer

By Tim Baker on Wednesday October 31st, 2018

Image: Tim Baker

Cancer, My Teacher

The image on the left was taken a year ago when I had to renew my driver’s license, so I am stuck with it for the next 10 years. I don’t mind so much as it reminds me how far I’ve come. The photo on the right is me today. I’m still waiting for a traffic cop to pull me over, look at my license and go, “That’s not you!”

How have I undergone this profound metamorphosis? Well, my secret is perhaps not one you ought to try at home. The photo on the left was taken just after I finished six cycles of chemotherapy. See, 18 months ago I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer–advanced because it had already spread to my right femur, or thigh bone, and a left rib bone. It’s difficult to describe the sheer, surreal terror of receiving a diagnosis like this, out of the blue, when life is otherwise going along swimmingly.

A Wakeup Call

I can actually recall thinking not too long before my diagnosis, “I have the perfect life. I don’t need a wakeup call.” Apparently, I was wrong. I did need a wakeup call. And cancer has certainly provided that. In those 18 months, I’ve gone through chemotherapy, turned vegan, lost 15 kg, put six of it back on, lost my hair, grown it back (thicker than before! Who knew?), undergone a form of hormone therapy with its suite of charming side effects, established a daily mediation practice and got back into my yoga and pilates.

Cancer recoveryThese photos of before and after chemotherapy remind me how far I’ve come.

I’ve attended two residential retreats at the Gawler Cancer Foundation in Victoria, Australia, and learned about the plant-based diet, meditation techniques and emotional healing strategies that its founder Ian Gawler used to heal himself from cancer. I’ve sat through a silent 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat in the Sunshine Coast hinterland until I felt like I was a vibrating field of energy and not solid matter at all. I’ve snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef with my kids, been on a family ski trip to Japan, shed work responsibilities and vowed to take on only work that feels meaningful and beneficial to society.

I don’t think of myself as a cancer ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ or ‘patient’ engaged in a ‘battle’ with cancer, but rather it’s student, learning deep life lessons. My hope is that when those lessons are fully learned the teacher can move on. That is not to suggest that anyone who succumbs to cancer has somehow ‘failed’–every form of cancer is different and every individual’s experience of it and response to it is as unique and individual as they are. For me, this just feels like the most healthy and useful way to frame it. We seem to hear only of miraculous cancer survivors or fallen cancer victims, and I suppose I am interested in filling in some of the mundane space in between–what it is like to get on with the business of living with cancer.

Cancer has re-designed my life in ways nothing else could have. Amidst the fear and freakouts have been moments of profound euphoria and deep appreciation for the most mundane aspects of daily life–a cup of tea with my wife, a family dinner, a surf with my son, my daughter’s poetry, hugs, sunrises, full moons, the kiss of the ocean, a bird in flight. Things that once passed me by are now savoured and cherished. While my prognosis remains uncertain, I feel the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever felt in my life and am determined to remain that way for as long as humanly possible.

Cancer as a teacherCancer has re-designed my life in ways nothing else could have.

A Middle Way through Medicine

My condition has responded well to treatment–chemotherapy greatly reduced the cancer and the hormone therapy seems to be keeping it at bay for now. I’m seeing a naturopath, taking herbs and supplements, eating a healthy plant-based diet, exercising and meditating daily. I feel like I’ve found a sensible ‘middle way’ through the maze of mainstream and so-called ‘natural’ or complementary therapies. I feel equally frustrated with the worlds of modern Western medicine and alternative or complementary medicine, which both seem more interested in demonizing the other than finding a useful common ground that would most assist their patients.

While I’m grateful to modern medicine, I think one day we will look back and regard the current generation of cancer treatments as barbaric and primitive. Poisoning your system to kill cancer is an exercise in diminishing returns that I am in no hurry to repeat. I’ve had people tell me I’m crazy to have chemo, and others say I’d be crazy not to. I made a pragmatic decision based on the evidence that it was the best course to follow to stop the cancer in its tracks and buy me more time to learn how to manage it naturally.

I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that evil pharmaceutical companies are suppressing effective cancer treatments so that they can flog off dangerous and ineffective chemotherapy drugs. To believe that hundreds of thousands of oncologists, researchers and medical staff around the world–many of whom would have friends and family with cancer–are all in on this global conspiracy seems a bit implausible to me. And there’s a fortune just waiting to be made by anyone who comes up with an effective cancer treatment. But I do think a kind of cultural groupthink prevents mainstream medicine from recognising the powers of diet, lifestyle, attitude, emotional healing and support, and meditation.

Finding joy in lifeI try and wake up each day determined to find joy.

What’s in the Way is the Way

Lying in savasana at the end of a yoga class recently our teacher said quietly, “What’s in the way is the way”. Those few words struck me powerfully and became a kind of personal mantra. This experience is not an obstacle to be climbed over to resume my old life. It is my new life. And though I would wish the cancer gone if I could, I would not wish away the learning.

My hope is that my experience might help others enjoy the benefits of that wakeup call without having to confront the dire diagnosis, and perhaps offer some small comfort to those going through a similar experience.

So, hug your loved ones, heal an old rift, do what makes your heart sing, marvel at the play of light on the ocean or the meandering of clouds across a twilight sky. Eat your veggies, get some regular exercise, drink plenty of water and try and reduce stress and conflict in your life.

Life is jaw-droppingly beautiful, frighteningly fragile and sometimes seems surprisingly brief. Who knows what lies beyond? I’m anticipating many years of good health yet but that next step in our great cosmic journey holds fewer fears for me now than it did 18 months ago. Buddhists say our life’s work is to prepare for death, and having to confront our mortality is something we will all have to do sooner or later.

I feel like I’ve passed through a furnace of knowing that awaits us all ultimately, one that hopefully equips me to deal with this challenge with less fear and anxiety, and more wonder and joy. I’m not always this Zen. This is me having a good day. A bad day looks and sounds quite different–blubbering uncontrollably, unable to sleep, pacing my bedroom in the middle of the night like a death row inmate looking for an escape route. But I try and wake up each day determined to find whatever joy and learning another rotation of our planet may offer. I’ve already lived a blessed life that has delivered joy and adventure beyond my wildest youthful imaginings. Everything from here on in is a bonus I intend to savour.

Words By Tim Baker

Tim Baker is a best-selling and award-winning author who specialises in surfing history and culture. In July 2015, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and has taken a holistic approach to his healing and recovery.




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16 Responses to Waking Up from Cancer

  1. Life changes in an instant. Cancer and the subsequent treatments affect not just the patient, but everyone in the patients life. In some cases, it was difficult to see friends and family at a loss of how to handle themselves around me. How they had a difficult time engaging in conversation with me about my condition. My cancers were a great catalyst for positive personal change. Like Tim says, not something one would recommend to try at home.

    • I can only imagine how difficult it must be to watch your loved ones struggling with your condition on top of dealing with it yourself Steven. It’s heartening to hear that you view your cancers as a positive though. I hope you are well now 💜

      Thanks so much for commenting.
      Team UPLIFT

  2. Presently in a similar situation diagnosed with stage 3 aggressive prostate cancer that’s migrated outside the prostate into some surrounding tissue. Radical prostatectomy, hormone therapy, and coming down the home stretch of 38 radiation treatments. Tim, I resonated with your take on the need for those involved in conventional medical treatment to join forces with some of those who’ve dealt deeply into a holistic/natural course to healing. In my journey so far, I had that same wake up call having to take a hard right turn as it concerns diet…processed foods, white sugar, dairy, meat…all having to be considered from the standpoint of being loaded with chemicals, hormones, pesticides, etc. that overload our immune systems. Prayer, family support, and embracing the idea of management rather than a quick fix is what I’m working on as I’ll begin getting followup blood tests to determine the effectiveness of this first round of treatment…then more decisions to be made. In the mean time, as you stated, rediscovering the “magic” of God’s creation all around us and making an effort to absorb all I’m blessed with is of utmost importance.

  3. My wife was diagnosed with Endometrial Cancer in 2010, Stage III. So I’ve had the cancer experience vicariously as the primary caregiver. While I appreciate the panoramic perspective, the disease itself is something no one ever needs to experience. She had multiple surgeries, 2 rounds of serious, never-ending chemo, radiation, 2 DVTs, and the list goes on until she died of a stroke in 2013 at the age of 55. Her oncologist said the about 1/3rd of people respond to treatment and are cured, about a 1/3rd die regardless, and about 1/3rd are in that middle zone where response is experienced but the disease is never resolved. It sucks, and whatever path you need to follow to get through the night- do it. It was a miserable 3 years for us. I did not see it as a time of transcendence and wonder. That had something to do with 25 ER visits in the 2nd year and the installation of a colostomy bag when the cancer spread in the final 3rd year. Whatever misery that could be poured onto her, it happened. I wish everyone luck in their battle with this disease.

  4. As a 20 year old survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, I completely agree with this and relate to it so much. I’ve been given a boot up the ass so young I consider myself lucky to be able to live the rest of my life with this amazing perspective

  5. Thanks for sharing so generously about your experience.Your ‘Middle way’ approach to caring for yourself has obviously been a healing one and seems to have brought you to a place of deep appreciation for life and those you love. I really do wish you well with your return to health.

  6. This is such a cool article and resonated so deeply for me. It is exactly how I feel after a recent breast cancer diagnosis. Having had surgery and currently undergoing radiation therapy I am researching a more natural and holistic approach to preventing any further recurrence. I have heard and read so much bullshit from both conventional and non conventional practitioners and this article is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you Tim and good luck with your journey 🙏💖

    • Thanks Esther, I’ve very pleased it resonates – like so many issues where society becomes polarized I believe the answer, as Buddha advised, is in the middle way.

  7. Hi I read the wonderful write up by Tim. I agree with him on many points since I’ve been through it all. Am still under the surveillance of docs though at times I feel the treatment is all hit and trial method. I’ve been into cancer world since my first diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006. There was relapse in sternum bone in 2013 and again in lung in 2017.
    So to some extent I’ve accepted / come to terms with the guest who’s so comfortable in MY BODY (WoW!) that it doesn’t want to leave.
    Like Tim I tried everything as in meditation pranayama Ayurveda. Continuing with yoga. Of course all this helps to keep your mind on the right track.
    Recently I’ve also joined Buddhism and chant every day.
    Cancer is definitely a good teacher- it has shown me my own different self !

  8. Cancer is perhaps the worst disease one can get..it kills slowly over about 24 months to 36 months. Medical intervention can only help that much. The body immune system must take over to recover. And personal efforts are essential. The cancer victim dies slowly, shrinks down to bones, the pain, the suffering, the fear… I fight “cancer” each day with my immune system. And my plan B will be to adopt such therapies as in this article and others. However, prevention is better than cure…and if we are not diagnosed with cancer, start today to fight it…

  9. Splendid progress..cancer is perhaps defeated. For me, it is Urine Therapy. Have been on it for 18 years with the past 16 years having not been to a doctor for treatment. The occasional colds are knocked off quickly. Prevention is better than cure…my UT is to keep my immune system strong to ward off cancer, strokes, diabetes, AZ, Parkinson and thousands of other illnesses. Of course I eat sensibly (but not vegan), do not smoke, occasional light drink, exercise daily, sleep well, manage stress. Nothing is a cure-all but there are plenty of natural therapies around.

  10. I have been through a very similar diagnosis and treatment over 15 months. My chemotherapy is popping one tablet each morning after breakfast and I had a course of very high dose radiation to be told by my Radiation Oncologist that I have gone into full remission…
    My wife has also been fighting cancer for over 2 years. We have been using modern western treatments combined with ancient eastern remidies.
    We are both learning from this journey and life experiences are handled and appreciated very differently…

  11. Everyone has their two sense worth of advice to those who are fighting Cancer, when they have not a clue of whats going on in someones life that is fighting cancer. I thought I knew how my husband felt when we together was fighting his cancer. I had know idea what it was like for him until I myself was diagnoses with cancer, that’s when I felt what he was feeling at that time.I had not a clue how alone you feel after being diagnoses with this terrible diaereses. Either people run away from you like they can catch from you or they try to tell you how to deal with it or what you should do. When all they need to do is be there just to listen to what you yourself have in mind to do and how you are feeling about what you are dealing with. Just being supportive to what the person that is dealing with the cancer is telling you.

    What aggregate me is that there is a cure out there and that the only way you can receive the cure is if you have the money to pay for it.

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