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.
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.
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.
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.