In sickness and in health

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One Man’s Experience of Healing from Cancer

In November 1999 I was diagnosed - out of the blue - with rectal cancer. I am now healthy again. Within a year, the tumour had completely disappeared, without needing the surgery that the doctors had urged upon me. Many people have asked me what I did to make this possible. To help record some of the things I have learned about sickness and health, I asked a friend to interview me. I hope that what follows may be of help if you, or someone close to you, is facing a health crisis.
Q: What are the most pressing questions people ask?
A: The most frequent one is simply "what did you do in order to heal yourself of cancer?" Uppermost in my mind when I'm trying to answer this question is the need to emphasize that what worked for me will not necessarily work in exactly the same way for anybody else: because we are all different. That's a key starting point in any healing journey, the recognition that you are unique. While I can give some clues about specific things that I did, more important may be some of the attitudes that seem to underpin the way I tackled being ill.
Q: What were these?
A: Asking questions, being open to suggestions, being prepared to be unpopular with doctors, therapists, family and friends about my choices, and, above all, trusting my own judgement: accepting that I was at the centre of my own healing process.
I also knew that I had to put myself first, sometimes quite ruthlessly so. As soon as I got the diagnosis I stopped work completely. I knew instinctively that all my energy and resources needed to go into healing the cancer. The diagnosis came mid-way through producing a big movie, and I was very fortunate that Sally (who is both my professional and personal partner) was prepared - on top of everything else - to cover for me at work while I concentrated exclusively on getting well.

Q: What was the first thing you learned after your diagnosis?
A: I learned that it's a good thing to question those in authority. The first piece of concrete advice came from my friend Richard, who advised me to get a second opinion from the top person that I could find. That was a very sound piece of advice, based on the correct view that medicine is not an exact science: there's a lot of room for different interpretation and judgement, and there are different degrees of wisdom among doctors, surgeons and medics of all kinds. So my first piece of advice to anyone facing a major health crisis is to insist upon a second opinion, if not a third and fourth opinion, from the best people you can find; acknowledged leaders in the particular field of medicine relevant to your condition.
Q: How do you find out who to go and see?
A: Inevitably that involves some research. The best way to do this is through a sympathetic doctor or a friend who has got some understanding of the way that the medical system works, perhaps has some connections into it, and can ask the right questions. Apart from Richard, I was very lucky to have Thom, an old friend of Sally’s and an ex-doctor, who did a lot of research for me, particularly when I was feeling too ill to do it myself. I know that the internet is also a useful tool.
Q: What would you say to somebody who neither has a sympathetic doctor nor a medically informed friend?
A: Well, I think you have to find a sympathetic doctor. It's absolutely essential to have a doctor or a specialist in the front line of your case who you feel you can talk to completely openly, and feel that you are being listened to and respected. If you don't have that feeling then I think you need to change your doctor. (Feeling free to hug your doctor is one of the tests that Dr Bernie Siegel suggests.) It's absolutely vital that you have a doctor who is sympathetic to what you're trying to do.
Q: In your case what were you trying to do?
A: I was trying to make sense for myself of what was happening to me - and why I'd got sick. I knew I didn’t want surgery and I was looking for alternatives.
Q: What was the premise that your thinking about this was based on?
A: I intuitively believed the causes of my illness were to be found within my own life and that I hadn't got sick because of an accident of fate or genetics or bad luck; I believed that there would be causes within my own life that I could understand and unravel and then put straight. In the case of having a tumour, as I did, it seemed common sense that my body had made it and that therefore my body could un-make it.
Q: Was this a belief you had from the first moment of diagnosis or was it something that gradually evolved as a point of view?
A: It was there almost immediately and just got reinforced as I went along, both through what I experienced myself and through the books I started to read (foremost among these were "Getting Well Again" by Carl Simonton and "Love, Medicine and Miracles" by Bernie Siegel, both written by doctors whose first-hand clinical experience forced them to change their views on healing). I became absolutely convinced that body and mind are intimately linked when it comes to sickness and health, and that your mind can be your most powerful tool in healing from cancer.
But I must repeat that what may have been true for me and worked for me won't necessarily be the correct course of action for any other individual. One of my points of biggest disagreement with the medical establishment is that it often has great difficulty in seeing a sick person as an individual, rather than just a set of symptoms with a particular prognosis based on statistics. The same applies here: you are an individual, different from me, so what was true for me will not necessarily be true for you. When I read the standard medical review on colo-rectal surgery (published by the Royal College of Surgeons) I found the statistics showed that the average age of someone diagnosed with the problem I had is 72 years. I was 47. I was obviously different from the norm. And so, perhaps, are you.
Q: In the case of cancer, statistics get used a lot. What's your view of statistics?
A: I think that when it comes to you, the individual who is ill, statistics are useless. Okay, they may have some relevance for the medical experts in arriving at generalities about what works and what doesn't work and what happens and what doesn't happen with particular drugs or treatment regimes. But you as an individual are not a statistic; you're a human being, a unique person who has arrived at this place in your life and in this state of illness because of what has happened to you uniquely.
The use of statistics to determine courses of treatment and, in particular, to predict what is likely to happen can be very harmful indeed. Such a prediction or "prognosis" can take on the status of a negative prophecy or a kind of voodoo curse; particularly the practice of saying "you've got X-months or X-years to live, or X-percent probability of surviving this particular operation or procedure". I think the use of statistics like that is almost always a bad thing. My only hesitation about this is in a case where someone is definitely going to die (if there's ever a case in which there can be complete certainty about this). Then I suppose I do believe that it's a piece of knowledge that it's best for the dying person to have because that gives him or her the opportunity to prepare for death.
Q: And do you believe there is ever such a moment of certainty?
A: I think there can never be complete certainty that someone is going to die at a particular time. I don't think anyone ever knows that. There are so many examples of individuals who have confounded the expectations, not only of the doctors around them, but of their families and friends, by appearing to be at death’s door and then surviving. There are so many examples of this that it's clearly never possible for any doctor to predict with complete certainty when someone is going to die, even in the case where organ failure may eventually make it inevitable.
Q: So even in the case of an extremely poor statistical prognosis, your view would be that the person themselves should be the authority on what to do and respect their own self-knowledge about what’s happening to them.
A: I think there always has to be room for hope and for faith; room to turn things around.
Q: What was the next step for you? So far, the first step was about trusting your own judgement, the second was about getting further medical opinions and the third was deciding that statistics were irrelevant.
A: What you learn by getting additional opinions is that there is very rarely a universal consensus within the medical profession about how to treat a particular illness or condition, or about the probable outcome. In my case I got widely differing opinions and advice as to how urgent surgery was: varying from absolutely needing to have it within a few days, to it being fine to wait a few months.
Q: But they were all urging surgery at some point?
A: Yes. But what I learned from the second opinions was that I had time to explore other options, time to give due consideration to my immediate instinct that it was wrong for me to have surgery at all. The first surgeon I saw (and who gave me the diagnosis) had tried to terrorise me into having surgery immediately with the heavy implication that if I didn't have it then I would die, sooner or later, and that it wasn't my place to challenge the medical wisdom and authority of the experts. If I had doubts about what he was advising me to do then - according to him - I needed to put myself in the hands of my general practitioner, who would weigh the choices for me. I was actively discouraged from thinking independently, from asking questions, from taking responsibility for my own life. I believe that is a bad thing, not just in my case but in any case. There's plenty of evidence to support the fact that, for someone faced with a serious illness, informing yourself about decisions that affect you and taking responsibility for them is a healthy thing to do. In my case, having got some medical support from an eminent surgeon for taking time to research and to reflect upon my options, I was able to do that.
Q: So what did you do then?
A: I very quickly checked out what was on offer from the fields of alternative medicine that I already had some experience of, which were homeopathy and acupuncture. With homeopathy I found that, even at the top end of the profession, the medical homeopaths (that’s the people who, within the British system, are qualified both as medical doctors and as homeopaths) were reluctant to hold out any kind of hope or expectation that they could do anything other than provide palliative help alongside conventional medicine. They basically said: "Look, if the surgeons and doctors have said you've got to have surgery, then you've got to have surgery. Maybe we can help with the side-effects or the speed of your recovery, or just help your general constitutional health. But we can't offer you an alternative form of treatment."
The problem with a lot of the alternative practitioners is that they're afraid of getting it wrong. Many are simply regarded as quacks by straight doctors; they're in a very difficult position if they're seen to be discouraging people from having surgery, taking certain drugs or chemotherapy or whatever. If the alternatives they propose don't work then they're wide open, not just to criticism, but also to legal action. Their professions are in a delicate position. It's difficult for most alternative health practitioners to take a very strong affirmative position against the views of medical doctors, because that’s where all the power lies, including the legal power.
Q: So what did you do to find a way through this minefield?
A: I found that there wasn't going to be an easy solution in choosing one alternative therapy that was somehow going to do the job. In the end I did find a sympathetic and helpful doctor at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, but the process of exploring that as an option led me to feel that this was not going to be the mainstay of my healing.
As for acupuncture, Tinh Thong Nguyen, the Vietnamese practitioner who I was already seeing regularly, very soon told me he thought I should have surgery. He was willing to treat the cancer, but thought refusing surgery was too big a gamble for me. Nevertheless, he remained a strong ally.
My conclusion was that alternative therapies like homeopathy and acupuncture can play a major part in keeping the body as a whole in good shape and supporting what else is being done. But for me it was clear they were not going to be enough.
Q: So what did you do instead?
A: What came to me, bit by bit, was the realisation that something was going to have to guide me through the plethora of choices. Cancer, along with some other illnesses, has become such big business: there are so many treatments, therapies, regimes, devices and belief systems; so many things on offer that it's impossible to make a purely logical, rational choice. For me, deciding to do one thing rather than another became an intuitive process. I had to use my instincts and trust my judgement. And I allowed myself just to be open to suggestions that I received, from wherever they came. For example, in the case of my diet I went to a particular nutritionist, Sue Donnelly, because I was given her name by someone I was working with. I didn’t shop around; once I had the name I went straight to her.
Q: You had an instinct that diet was going to be important for you?
A: There is so much evidence and such widespread belief among an increasing number of conventional doctors (as well as alternative practitioners) that diet makes a difference with cancer, it was something that I decided upon very quickly.
Q: What kind of diet did the nutritionist advise?
A: I'd already got the basics from the Bristol Cancer Centre, which, in a very responsible way, has assembled all of the suggestions that have some medical authority behind them. They recommend a diet which cuts out red meat, dairy products, sugar, alcohol, tea, and coffee. It’s basically a low-fat, high-fibre diet, favouring lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Q: How did your diet differ from this?
A: Sue Donnelly calls herself a wholistic nutritional therapist, and has worked with a lot of people with cancer. She has connections with the British affiliate of the Gerson Institute. The Gerson Diet is a well-known but very radical form of dietary therapy, particularly for cancer, which not only involves taking a lot more things out of the diet, but also adding in fresh juice (usually carrot, beetroot and apple juice, taken throughout the day) together with a regime of coffee enemas, which are designed to assist the liver in eliminating toxins. Sue recommends a modified version of the Gerson regime, together with a lot of supplementation with vitamins, minerals and so on. My diet was very strict indeed, cutting out additional things such as salt, wheat and any fermented foods like vinegar or soy sauce. I lived mainly on fresh organic juices, brown rice and vegetables. Maintaining a diet like this takes a lot of effort, particularly if you are not feeling well. Sally shopped and cooked every evening when I was at home, but as she was still working full-time we had someone come and make lunch for me while I was particularly ill.
Q: In your view has diet been a very important part of your healing process?
A: Yes, a detoxification diet made complete sense to me right from the start. Clearly my body had a big battle on dealing with this illness and it needed to focus all its resources on that battle. By eliminating anything that was going to stress the system, anything that was going to be difficult to digest, the energy that would otherwise be used by the digestive system could be liberated for healing my body.
Q: Apart from diet, what else turned out to be really important?
A: The biggest and the single most radical step that I took was to pursue spiritual healing. I decided very shortly after my diagnosis to go to Brazil to see a spiritual healer called Joao Texeira, popularly known as "John of God", who is renowned (and reviled) in Brazil, increasingly known internationally, and has a reputation as a kind of "miracle" worker who can help people deal with very serious illnesses and physical disabilities. The place where he works is called the Casa de Dom Inacio, which is in a small town called Abadiania in the state of Goias, near Brasilia.

This was a very radical choice because spiritual healing was not something I'd ever been involved in, not something I knew very much about. It emerged as a choice because I was aware that I needed to do something extreme. In deciding not to have surgery, the stakes were raised considerably and I was getting a lot of messages from those around me - therapists, healers, family and friends - that I was in a precarious position and that strong action was called for. The suggestion of going to this particular place in Brazil came from two places simultaneously, but primarily from my friend Achim, who works as a therapist and healer. (Achim also gave me a series of individual healing sessions throughout the period of my illness, and for many months was part of a trio, with Sally and another friend, Diana, who did nightly meditations for me.)

Three weeks after my diagnosis I was on a plane to Brazil with my friend Robert, who dropped everything at a moment’s notice in order to be my escort. Sally joined us two weeks later. I stayed for six weeks, returning to London in the first few days of the new millenium.
Q: So in what sense was this a spiritual journey? You said it was spiritual healing.
A: It started by me accepting that the cancer I had was more than just a physical illness: it was an energetic thing too, an expression of an emotional and spiritual malaise. In addressing that malaise and trying to heal it, I came to feel that it was possible for me to call upon a source of energy outside myself, that for want of a better word I'd have to call "divine" energy. I started to believe that it was possible to access a source of healing power that was greater than me, although it still relied on me as the ultimate instrument of my own healing.
Q: So this work in Brazil proved to be a central part of your healing process?
A: It absolutely clicked with my feeling that the task I was facing was that of trying to heal my whole being. This corresponded with my more reasoned judgement in deciding not to have surgery: the belief that the surgery might remove the physical symptoms but would do nothing about correcting the causes (which also seemed to go some way to explaining the conventional wisdom that following any surgery for cancer there is the threat of spread or recurrence: the symptoms may have been temporarily removed but the underlying causes may remain). Going to Brazil on this spiritual journey opened up the space for me to start to understand that there was a very complex set of causes within my way of living and my way of being which lay deeply at the source of my illness and which I had to address.
Q: Such as?
A: I realised that for years I had been neglecting myself as a spiritual being and was in denial about some difficult realities in my life. I was deceiving myself and those around me about what was really going on inside me. Put bluntly, without realising it I had become a liar, capable of betraying not just myself but my loved ones too. This was compounded by the sudden death of my mother (six months before the diagnosis) coming in the middle of enormous difficulties at work. My life was in a mess: a mess which I was neither fully aware of nor able to face up to. All this resulted in a split within me; a psychic, spiritual and emotional split that was both an expression of, and in some ways also a cause of, the splitting at the deepest cellular level in my body. Cancer cells were splitting away from normal, healthy cells to the point where one type of cell could not recognise another.
Q: So in that sense the illness seemed like a metaphor for what was happening in your life, manifesting in your body?
A: Yes. And the message that this gave to me was that the real work, the deepest healing work that needed to be done was both spiritual and emotional. (This seemed to correspond with what I learned later about cutting-edge research in molecular biology showing that individual cells have an emotional memory which can make them "sick". Deepak Chopra makes a similar argument in his book "Quantum Healing". And Candace Pert offers a scientific explanation in “Molecules of Emotion”.)
Q: So how did you do this spiritual and emotional work?
A: Well, the first thing to say is that my life became a rollercoaster. This was not the cool, calculated process that an account like this may make it seem. Terror and rage and grief all played their part and my life was lived continually at the edge, often in a tempest of uncertainty and conflict with those around me. I was afraid of dying - and there were those around me whose private view was that I would die. And at times the tearful, sometimes heartbreaking repercussions of all the truth-telling in my personal life merged inseparably with the fight for life. But again and again these dramatic struggles returned me to the spiritual and emotional work which I firmly believed was at the heart of my healing.
The spiritual work I did in two ways. First, using the opportunity that was provided by the Casa de Dom Inacio in Brazil. Although it calls itself a healing centre, it is a cross between a sort of clinic and a church, where two important things happen. The "shop window" of the place, the sensational side of it, is the demonstration of extraordinary, almost paranormal healing phenomena where actual surgical operations are undertaken by Joao without anaesthetic or proper instruments (he works as a spirit medium incorporating what are referred to as "entities", which appear to manifest the persona and healing abilities of particular deceased individuals). But behind this is the belief, that is central to the work there, that you must heal the energy (or the "soul" or the "spirit") before you can heal the body, and that a lot of this healing work is done through meditation and prayer. One important function of the Casa is to provide a context for intensifying a force field of belief, of faith, and of concentration among the people there, which magnifies the possibilities of using healing energy, whether it's "divine" or however one describes it.
The other key thing about the Casa is the emphasis that it puts on each individual taking responsibility for his or her own healing. A favourite refrain of the spirit medium when people come and ask to be healed is "vai trabalho" which translates as "go and work". The conviction here - and the instruction - is for each individual to take responsibility for his or her own healing: and that involves work, not miracles. These were the main things that I got from being there, together with the opportunity to work in an extremely focused environment which is blessed by a feeling of optimism and faith; a belief in the possibility of healing, even in very extreme circumstances. Quite the opposite to many hospitals, which I often found to be places filled with fatalism and despair.
The Casa provided a place where I could go and spend hours and days and weeks: I was fortunate to be able to go five times during the year after my diagnosis and I spent a total of about eighteen weeks there. I went to the Casa determined to have one of the “visible” operations; something concrete that the rationalist in could experience as proof of the healing power of the place. I tried to insist, but was told no. This was my first lesson at the Casa: to start believing in the invisible. There was no "miracle" healing for me; I was told on my first visit that I would be healed, but could never get an answer to my questions about how, when or where this might be achieved. (Did it mean returning to London for conventional surgery? I was never told either yes or no.) Not everyone experiences things at the Casa in the same way. Some people visit only once for just a few days: a tiny minority do experience an apparently "spontaneous healing". Others stay for months and months and show no improvement.
A lot of serious work was done while I was staying in Brazil. During my first six-week trip I made a key decision: not to hide behind the cancer, or to use it as an excuse for denying responsibility for my feelings or actions. I was encouraged in this by Carl Simonton’s book which includes a very telling exercise that asks you to list the possible "benefits" of having cancer. My list included: avoiding work I found difficult; getting myself looked after; and escaping punishment for my wrongdoings. Simonton encourages you - as a matter of survival - to find ways of addressing these issues that do not depend on having (or keeping) the cancer.

For me, the decision not to use cancer as an excuse paved the way for some huge, soul-searching fights with Sally as we started to unravel the painful legacy of my secrets and lies.

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