How can I survive terminal cancer?
In this blog I describe my experiences living with cancer and my reflections on being just a few moments from death. Since being diagnosed with terminal cancer I have realised that I am far from alone and many people have confronted ‘near death’ experiences. As a teacher and educator I believe we learn much by sharing ideas and experiences and it is in this spirit of sharing that I offer my story, hoping that it will prompt comments and the sharing of experiences and opinions.
As a language teacher I often do an activity with my students in which I write significant dates from my life on the whiteboard and invite students to guess their significance: for example, 12th September 1959, September 1980, 30th June 2009. The activity practices question forms and proceeds like this:
“Were you born on 12th September 1959?”
“Yes, I was”
“Did you start teaching in 1980?”
“Yes, I did”
“Did you get married on 30th June 2009?”
“No, I didn’t. I got married much earlier in 1997.”
Students can never guess the significance of this last date. In fact 30th June 2009 is the date I was confirmed as dying. My surgeon declared me inoperable, terminally ill (riddled with cancer) and with at most six months to live. It is on this day my story starts.
I felt very cold, I was shivering and I had a burning sensation in my bowels.
“Toilet! I need to go to the toilet.” I stammered incoherently (although I realize in hindsight, given the circumstances, this must have sounded a most bizarre thing to say). A green masked face loomed into my vision and a torrent of words I barely recognized as Turkish snapped in my direction. I was briskly wheeled to the surgical ward of a private hospital in Istanbul.
Gradually I was coming round from the anesthetic and recalling the events that had brought me to this painful prostrate position in a Turkish hospital. Three months earlier, March 2009, I was enduring my overloaded existence trying to make ends meet as the owner of a teacher training center in Istanbul, desperately struggling with piles of marking, reports and other administrative forms for numerous training courses while trying to optimistically find time to complete my Doctorate by the fast approaching summer deadline. My life was a mess! It was only when I was elbowing myself into position to relieve myself at the toilet urinals of a busy bar in Beyoglu that I realized something was really seriously wrong. Furtive glances triggered me to gaze down and see bright red urine splashing into the toilet bowl. A scan the following day revealed a suspicious lesion in my bladder that was pronounced, a few days later, to be a cancerous tumor by Teoman Bey, a rather short stocky urologist who wore a shiny suit several sizes too small and slicked back gelled hair giving him the appearance of a cross between a 1950s Chicago gangster and Count Dracula. A series of ultimately futile cystoscopies eventually revealed that the cancer had spread from another part of my body to the bladder. I was transferred to a surgeon, Turker Bey, who conducted an operation to surgically remove the tumors. It was the effects of this operation that were slowly beginning to wear off.
I knew immediately, as I caught my sister’s worried gaze, that the operation had not been a success. There were whispered conversations behind the door between my wife Cheryl and the surgeon. The cancer had spread throughout my body and was inoperable. I knew my condition was terminal before the oncologist confirmed I had stage 4 colon cancer and had maybe six months to live. As far as the medical profession was concerned and indeed everyone else, I was dying.
When told that I had six months to live, I was naturally overcome with fear. I was afraid of death but also afraid of life with a terminal illness. There were only two responses: either fatalistically accept my fate and make plans for a graceful exit or convince myself that as an individual with ‘free will’ I have the power to control and change my destiny and actively set about healing myself. The weight of medical opinion, logic and society dictated the first course of action and I diligently wrote my will, applied to liquidate my life insurance policy on the grounds that I was dying, told my business partner I wanted to sell my share of our expanding business and half-heartedly discussed the possibilities of buying medicinal opium and booking a hospice for my final moments. However while doing these tasks I also strongly believed that my life journey had got seriously confused and that the plot definitely did not end in this manner. I had too much to learn and too much to give. Surely there were many episodes and experiences yet to come. So I also actively tried to change my life, my attitude, and to learn to live with cancer.
I began to realize that having cancer, surprisingly, had some positive aspects. On a practical level it gave me much-needed time. As I was recuperating from the operation. I completed writing my Doctorate thesis. It also gave me a day every fortnight to lie down while having chemotherapy to talk to my wife. I realized that we hadn’t really talked for a long time and that we still loved each other. Having cancer made me feel special, after all not everyone has cancer and when employees are moaning about lack of time, work pressures and so on, a simple put down along the lines of, ‘I wish I still could worry about such crucial things.. but with only a few months to live…’. This would tend to have the desired effect.
I began to conceive my treatment as being conducted on three levels: physical, mental and spiritual. Physically I was paying attention to my body. Initially my body was racked with pain and fear, especially before the operation. My wife gave me massages with oils and guided me through breathing exercises that helped reduce the pain and panic attacks. Later I was swimming and walking regularly. I was also eating more natural foods especially fruit and vegetables and the so-called “wonder food’ dried apricot seeds that reputedly combats cancer naturally (fortunately available in Turkey but not widespread in the West!). I briefly researched special diets. These typically proclaimed banning staples such as sugar and salt but in the end I just ate what I felt like. The rational treatment (mental) was provided by medical science. I was prescribed intensive chemotherapy over two days every two weeks over a six-month period: a cocktail of Avastin and FOLFOX 6. Being aware of the horror stories of chemotherapy involving hair loss and gradual disintegration of the body, I was relieved to merely experience bouts of tiredness, diarrhea and a tingling sensation in the hands and feet which were not severe enough to stop me from continuing to go to work. It was on the spiritual level that I believe much of the important healing occurred. Even the medical profession, the paragons of empirical science, accepts that a ‘positive attitude’ to treatment is an important factor in a patient’s recovery. How can you have a ‘positive attitude’ to terminal cancer and chemotherapy? And more worryingly, if I accept that I have the power to influence my healing process and the course of my life, then by extension I also have to accept the horrifying thought that I am also, in some way, responsible for the cancer being allowed into my body in the first place. I meditated once a week, with the help of an instrument called a Zapper, which gives off an electric pulse for 7 minutes three times in twenty-minute intervals. The theory is that the cancer is a parasite that clings on to the cell tissue; the vibration causes them to dislodge from the cells and disappear. I did not find this explanation very convincing but the discipline of sitting still for an hour and grasping electrodes became part of my meditative routine. I also used a technique I refer to as ‘affirmations’. When I was swimming I would mentally chant the following affirmation to myself:
“My body is healthy and clear of cancer
Cancer cells go to the light
I am starting a new life free of cancer”
Later I discovered a technique called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which is reputedly related to acupuncture. You tap certain pressure points on your body while chanting positive affirmations. While swimming and meditating I also used visualization. I would visualize my cancer as black flies clambering around my colon and throughout my body, then I would visualize them forming a swarm and flying down my arm and out of my body and through a nearby window. Undoubtedly the greatest influence on my health and well-being was the incredible love and support of family and friends. I remember tears of gratitude at the amazing response when friends (and also complete strangers who had heard of my condition through the grapevine) filled the hospital’s blood bank with their donations of blood. Unquestionably the greatest positive influence on my health was Cheryl, my wife, who supported me with love and energy at every stage along the journey. Fortunately, for me, Cheryl is a holistic health practitioner who was able to introduce and guide me through the healing processes.
On 17th February 2010, eight months after the aborted operation where I was declared clinically inoperable and terminally ill, I was admitted into Capa, a Turkish University teaching hospital, and anxiously operated on by the same surgeon, Turker Bey. This time after the operation it was smiles all round.
The main primary cancer tumors in the colon and the tumour in the bladder were successfully removed along with 30% of my intestines. Subsequent analysis of the intestines in pathology revealed, to the incredulity of the medical team, that they contained 0% cancer cells. The cancer had gone! The surgeon admitted that in the space of 8 months I had gone from terminally ill to cured and was at a loss to explain how it was possible! Other doctors, who I have spoken to subsequently, either do not believe my account or question the accuracy of the original diagnosis. However I have all the medical reports and radiology scans to verify my experiences.
REFLECTIONS ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
I do not know which, if any, of the treatments I conducted had any effect. I cannot explain what happened. Explanation is not the point. The meaning of my experience is not how the journey ended but the lessons learned on the way. Reflecting on my experiences of living with cancer I realize that there are many parallels with the learning processes I am familiar with as a language teacher and teacher trainer and that these processes can also be encapsulated into the same three levels: physical, mental and spiritual. Taking the physical level first, the human body is a highly effective learning organism that can frequently operate autonomously without conscious effort: performing complex tasks such as driving or teaching. Indeed not consciously considering every word I utter when teaching allows me to conduct the lesson effectively. Second, mentally humans are distinguished from other beings on earth by their capacity to think about their own existence. I am aware for example, as my pet cat presumably is not, that my existence is finite and my life is perpetually in the shadow of death. Equally, because I have language, I am capable of abstract thought. We can distance ourselves from our immediate contexts, free ourselves from our bodies, and speculate on life in its totality. Like fire, however, the power of abstract thought is an ambiguous gift, at once creative and destructive. It allows us to conceive of joy and health as well as fear and death.
Finally there is no doubt that humans are spiritual creatures who strive to make sense of their individual and collective existence. Indeed inquiring after our meaning, is part, indeed, of what makes us the kind of creatures we are. Self-reflection is integral to the business of living. It is no coincidence that in all cultures the first enquiry when greeting someone is; “How are you?” Being aware of the fact that you are doing fine enhances our sense of well-being. Awareness of physical, mental and spiritual well-being is an aid to health and happiness.
THEORIES OF LEARNING
I now believe after my experiences, that Nature has homeopathically and considerately provided us with both the cure along with the poison. We can consciously focus on the cancer cells on a physical, biological level as a malignant neoplasm. Alternatively we can focus our thoughts on a spiritual level assigning our cancer cells and our life with significance, value and purpose considering spiritual and life-giving issues such as why the cancer has appeared in relation to our sense of self and life purpose. These ‘spiritual thoughts’ can too easily be dismissed as mythology and not true from a scientific viewpoint. However I believe, and my experience suggests, we have bowed too readily to an omnipotent concept of scientific truth, assuming it is the only brand of truth available. Fact is not always more valid than opinion. The human spirit contains its own truth, one which perhaps lies more in the experiences encountered on life’s journey than in the propositions scientists’ advance about the features along the way. Spirituality provides value and purpose without which a life journey would flounder. If life has any meaning then it is not solely a proposition but also a practice. It is not solely a scientific truth but also an experience. As such, it can not be articulated in language alone but can only really be known by living and experiencing through body, mind and spirit.
A holistic approach to my health experiences with cancer has many parallels to my professional experience as a language teacher and teacher trainer. Language teaching too has experienced epistemological shifts that have panned through a focus on the physical body (Behaviourism); the mind (Cognitivism) and the spirit (Humanism). Each approach has had its camp of followers and positive influences and effective methodologies can be identified in each approach. However, now surely it is the time to raise the standard for a holistic approach to education (and medicine) incorporating and encompassing all of these levels of learning to fully maximise our potentials; indeed A Whole Person Learning Approach.