Shaking Hands with Death

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.   

FACING DEATH   

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.   

THE TREATMENT.   

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.   

THE MIRACLE   

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.   

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.

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About Tom Godfrey

I am an ELT teacher and teacher trainer. I am Director of ITI, Istanbul a training institute in Istanbul. I am also founder of Speech Bubbles theatre which performs musicals to raise money for children and education.
This entry was posted in Whole Person Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Shaking Hands with Death

  1. Lale Inceoglu says:

    Dear Tom,
    What an amazing story. Your strength of spirit is an inspiration and I believe that your attitude to life and the holistic healing you undertook did indeed overcome. Such positive stories about cancer are rare and I will share yours. Nature does provide both the poison and the cure and the human spirit has a strength and power that we are only just beginning to recognise.
    I wish you all the best, and here’s to a ‘Whole Person Learning Approach’!

  2. Tony GURR says:

    Dear Tom,

    It was great to see you the other day. We didn’t have much time to chat but I wanted to say a big thank you for sharing such a personal and uplifting string of thought. Truly inspiring! I wish you well in the future.

    Tony Gurr

  3. Mike Carver says:

    Tom,

    That’s a truly inspiring story (and so well written!). I’m so glad it worked out. It also confirms my long-held opinion that you can’t trust doctors; there’s just too much they don’t know.

  4. Nick Fallows says:

    God Tom, that is an amazing story. I am so happy you recovered. Someone working here who knows you said she thought you’d been I’ll and I’ve been thinking of you.

    Nick

  5. meyen quigley says:

    Thanks for posting Tom – I am sure the experience has given you enough to think about for the next many years!!! Keep sharing!!!

  6. dhang says:

    Hi Sir!

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing story of your battle against cancer. 🙂

    My mom was diagnosed with stage2B cervical cancer and wishing to have a good fight as yours.

    God bless.

    • Tom Godfrey says:

      Sorry to hear about your Mom. I didn’t find perceiving the cancer as a fight or battle helped me. I think you need to accept the cancer cells as part of the body and try to come to terms with why they are there.

  7. Natalia Donmez says:

    Dear Tom,

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    It is an amazing and such a moving story.
    Really happy you recovered!!
    Wish you all the best in everything you do!

    Natalia

  8. Elena Voronova says:

    Dear Tom,
    While meeting you at ITI for Delta interview, receiving feedback on my EA and e-mails about Speech Bubbles, I couldn’t have imagined what you were going through at the very same time! You are a living proof that courage, determination, inner strength and faith can work wonders.

    Thank you for this post. I’ll pass it on. As you said, it should give hope to others.

    Elena

  9. Michael Varley says:

    That’s amazing Tom heard you had cancer a while ago now just found this on the web looking for the name of your training school for an application form – really cheered me up great news!

  10. Andrea Edwards says:

    Thank you for your honesty Tom.
    Death and dying isn’t really talked about, is it? Your straight talk about cancer will definately help others. I am looking forward to seeing you around.

  11. Deniz KILAVUZ says:

    A truly amazing story..and very encouraging..thanks for sharing such a personal and important thing from your life. But, actually this is the aim of teaching I guess. That is why teaching and learning is a never-ending process and does not recognize any certain place or identity.
    Best wishes

  12. Ian Hawkings says:

    Hi Tom

    Congratulations on your terrific fight and success. We all send you are best wishes for the future

    Ian

  13. bruce says:

    Hi Tom

    I often wondered if you were still around in Istanbul to inspire, and probably be inspired by, the next batch of trainees. Your words provide me with an answer. The power of positive thinking – in the classroom and beyond. It’s a powerful story. Thank you for sharing.

    Bruce

  14. Fife says:

    Tom

    I had no idea that you had been through such an experience. This is an amazing story with a fantastic ending. The power of our thoughts is not to be underestimated and is something that I’ve become very interested in over the last couple of years. You are living proof of such power. Thank you for using it and still being here today – it’s an inspiration for us all.

    Fife

  15. Peter brandt says:

    Hi tom, wow, I didn’t know anything about this. I am rather shocked and also full of admiration. It certainly looks like your own attitude which got rid of it. As the Greeks say, Many years more! Peter b

  16. E. Tunc says:

    Hi Tom,
    Lost my father last week from lung cancer and it was very hard. You are a magic and inspiration for all seriously ill patients.
    Love…

  17. Aisha Ertugrul says:

    Tom,

    I liked your realization of the importance and lack of coincidence that in all cultures the first thing we do when greeting someone is ask, “How are you?” “Being aware of the fact that you are doing fine enhances our sense of well-being.”

    I also appreciated the way you tied it into teaching the whole person.

    But I got a bit emotional when you said that being ill gave you time to talk to your wife, realizing you hadn’t for a long time, and that you love each other.

    “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus (c.AD 55-c. 135)
    You and Cheryl are extraordinary examples of grace, integrity, and the possiblilities of raising the standard of our own human existence.

    All the best,

    Aisha Ertugrul

    • Tom Godfrey says:

      I love the quote. I know illness and death is not something openly discussed but in my case once the operation was over and the results confirmed I had an overwhelming need to tell people my story. I felt it was important.

    • Tom Godfrey says:

      I love the quote. I know illness ad death is not something openly discussed but in my case once the operation was over and the results confirmed I had an overwhelming need to tell people my story. I felt it was important.

  18. Hanieh says:

    Dear Tom,
    When I saw the post for the first time and started reading couldn’t imagine how it would end (Usually the big C doesn’t have a happy ending), I was crying and I became deeply disappointed with life and cursing it for being unfair…
    well…these feelings didn’t last long, when I read the last paragraph and now I am so happy that everything is just fine! Fantastic determination Sir! Change the title to Waving Hands to Death! 🙂
    Thanks for the post.

  19. Beth Grant says:

    You’ve forgotten who I am but I’ll never forget the happy days I spent in Istanbul XXXX years ago, assessing some of your Delta candidates. Back in touch via Stephanie Vogel who I trained up as a Delta candidate here in Saigon two years ago. I just love the way ELT keeps us all connected. Totally inspired by your story, wept, then laughed with joy alternately all the way through. I will keep in touch. All love to you and your wife and (?) little boy who must be grown up by now!
    Beth

    • Tom Godfrey says:

      Hi Beth
      Thanks for your comments. Of course I remember you. Not sure I remember how ‘happy’ the assessing was as we made assessors travel all over Istanbul.

  20. Anne Ingemann says:

    Hello Tom,

    We haven’t met, though we spoke on the phone when I had my telephone interview for the CELTA course in Istanbul.

    Like many others, I found your story life-affirming and very moving. It made me happy. Exactly how much of your recovery was due to your own personality and the way you tackled the problems is impossible for me to know, but it obviously had a great deal to do with it.

    I am delighted for you and for all your nearest and dearest.

    My father died in the most dreadful pain and weighing only 34 kilos, after badly managed bladder cancer which spread….He was 80 when the first symptoms arose, but very active, including playing (not very good, but very active) tennis with my daughters….

    None the less, we have a lot to be thankful for: he decided, when he was much more dead than alive, that he wanted to come and spend a last few days with us in our house in Brittany, and survived the trip against all odds. He hadn’t eaten any solids for several weeks.
    We wrapped him up in a quilt and put him on a sun-bed in the garden. He enjoyed being with us, and the next morning, not having slept at all, I finally got up at 6, afraid of finding that he had died in the night…. but he was sitting up in bed with a sheepish grin, and telling me he had eaten most of a packet of “Madelaines”. He had, too!

    We had him with us for another, miraculous, 16 months, most of it with a pretty normal life (in spite of renal drains), so we were much more fortunate than many.

    I hope I am not out of line here and being presumptuous – please forgive me if I am:
    I can imagine that you might be reluctant to write your story so that it is accessible to as many people as possible, knowing that the stories of so many cancer victims end very differently from yours, but I hope none- the- less that you will consider doing so; I think that it would help to save some who otherwise might lose hope and die of dispair when perhaps cancer alone would not have killed them.

    Anne Ingemann

  21. Kris Ochedowski says:

    Totally moving. Take care Tom. Love to your family – God bless.

  22. secil says:

    Hi,
    I was searching about Drama in ELT and found that page, then I happened to read everything on the site.. This one was a truely amazing story. I read it wondering the end, hopefully you recovered! I liked the way you describe language teaching together with your recovery, and I appreciated the whole person learning approach. I am an one-year-experienced instructor, and I ll keep it in mind.. BTW I found out your Speech Bubbles, another congrat!! I hope to visit your institute when I visit Istanbul in October!
    Best,
    Secil

  23. Janet Hair says:

    I just read this story to my husband age 70 with stage IV cc with large liver tumor doing chemo at this time. It is very inspiring, we both enjoyed it and gleaned from it that we are doing things right. He is also very positive, works out, spends a lot of time in the bible and meditating as do I. Thank you for taking the time to write your story as it will be a help to many. Great book out “From incurable to incredible” another one I like is Prayer of Jabez and Cancer and the Lord’s Prayer.

  24. Janet Hair says:

    by the way, I posted your line on the colonclub.com also.

  25. Ayda Manukyan says:

    Dear Tom, I just read your story. I didn’t know. I share the same feelings expressed above. I’d like to add that I also liked your comment about not calling the process “a fight” but rather a period of reflection on the reasons you got cancer, acceptance, and how much you learned through this process. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I shared it with my sister whose friend is terminally ill with lung cancer. I was wondering whether it was all right with you if I shared it on Facebook to inspire more people. I was not sure if the Facebook logo below this box meant we could directly post it there. I’ll wait for your approval.
    Thank you again for spreading your inspiration.
    Ayda Manukyan

  26. Merve Oflaz says:

    Hello Tom,
    This a very sincere story. Thank you for sharing that. I believe everything happens for a reason and we all are here in this world for an “aim”. I feel so lucky to get to know you and to be one of your trainees. Thanks to the “reason” that brought us together:)
    I will definitely follow your blog and add you in my blogroll.
    Best,
    Merve OFLAZ

  27. Saeed Ahmed says:

    It was very eye opening to learn about a person who fought relentlessly with cancer and ended up with success in eliminating it totally. Of course, positive attitude and optimism are exceptionally instrumental in bringing about any change we hanker for. This man who won the war against cancer really did wonders with his holistic approach and determination. I am one of those shocked individuals whose mother dies of lung cancer a few months before. Let us not loose our hope and let us see the life with optimism.
    Thanks
    Saeed

  28. Julietta Schoenmann says:

    Hi Tom

    Found this by chance and was first shocked, then delighted and relieved to read your account of what happened to you. I wish you all the very best of health for many years in the future and for you to be able to continue inspiring teachers and students in Istanbul and beyond.

    Love from
    Jules
    (Did my DELTA with you way back in 1992! I think we’ve met subsequently when I came back to Istanbul to present on behalf of OUP at a conference a few years ago)

  29. Frieda says:

    Thanks for giving your ideas on this blog. Also, a misconception regarding the banking
    companies intentions any time talking about
    property foreclosures is that the bank will not take my repayments.
    There is a certain quantity of time that the bank is going to
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  30. I too was shocked but then relieved at the outcome. Not in teaching any more, but translation, but still remember well those inspiring early sessions which set me off on the long road of my first career…

  31. Forgot to reintroduce myself. Class of 1992 🙂 And member of the same glorious football team, along with Ghee et al…

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