‘The cancer is not my enemy’: A mindful healing
‘I have managed to remain optimistic and simply focus on one day at a time’
Golden Wedding: In June of last year my wife and I were looking forward to a family celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary. Life was good and little did we realise that a storm was brewing that was to rock our lives
In June of last year my wife and I were looking forward to a family celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary. Life was good and little did we realise that a storm was brewing that was to rock our lives. It all started so innocently. I had a small growth on my forehead removed and within three days I was being told that the biopsy indicated I had a rare melanoma cancer in my head and possibly in my neck. I was scheduled for an urgent operation the following Monday.
Looking back on it now, I can’t believe I was so naive about the gravity of my situation, as I asked the surgeon if I could play [golf] in the captain’s prize first leg that Saturday, two days pre-operation. I played, was operated upon on the Monday and the surgeon (who did a super job) told me there was good and bad news – the cancer had been removed from my head and neck but had gone into my left lung.
I still didn’t grasp the implication and asked him if I could play in the final day of the captain’s that Saturday. As a fellow golfer he partly understood my naivety and gently told me that I had a bigger challenge ahead of me.
Within a week I transferred to St James’s Hospital in Dublin, a centre of excellence for cancer treatment. Following a series of tests, the oncologist gave my wife and me a summary of my situation and the proposed treatment plan.
There was a large tumour in my left lung as well as a number of smaller lesions. I was to be put on chemotherapy called Ipilimumab which targets melanoma cells. There would be four infusions over 12 weeks, followed by a scan to assess results.
I was warned about the possible multiplicity of negative side-effects such as problems with the liver, bowel, rashes, tiredness, glandular problems, etc. The seriousness of my illness suddenly hit me like a hurricane and it was not helped by a statistic I read that the recovery expectation was less than 20 per cent.
I was somewhat reassured by the oncologist’s positivity, but I could feel my ship heading for the rocks, as the one thing we all fear in life is to be told you have stage-four cancer.
I could feel a rush of negativity washing over me; however, a health issue the previous year had brought me on a journey that had rebuilt my mental capacity to now face the storm with a sense that I had the capacity to steer into calmer waters.
I had lost four pints of blood as a result of getting physically sick, which tore my oesophagus. It was a very frightening experience and the cause was never clearly identified. For the first time in my 78 years my confidence was shattered, as I kept getting flashbacks with lingering thoughts that it would happen again – a classic “fear of fear” syndrome.
I had a minor recurrence later that year and I was not in a good place. Fortunately, sound medical advice and a suggestion from a good friend that I take up mindfulness meditation triggered a gradual recovery that left me in a good place to face the challenge of my cancer prognosis.
Stage one of my treatment quickly put me to the test. The principal downsides were acute tiredness – like waves crashing over me – and a 24/7 body rash. I was fortunate not to be getting sick, or have liver or bowel problems.
I had been encouraged [by friends] to consider going on a vegetarian diet but I had lost some weight and my oncologist indicated weight retention was important, so I reverted to my normal diet. I have put on more than 10lbs (4.5kg).
At the end of this phase of treatment, a scan indicated that the large tumour had been reduced by more than 70 per cent, although some cancer remained in my left lung. It was very encouraging news.
Post-Christmas, I began stage two of my treatment when my oncologist got me accepted as a late entry on a clinical trial with chemotherapy called Pembrolizumab. It targets melanoma by helping the immune system to fight the cancer. I have now had 11 infusions over 33 weeks and although the tiredness continues, I have had less effects. A recent scan indicates that the treatment is working slowly but surely. The cancer is being reduced very gradually and so the treatment continues.
Once the penny dropped with me in the early stages, I accepted it for what it was. I realised I had a choice: be swept overboard into the sea of despair or apply myself to navigating my way through the storm with my own compass. I chose the latter.
Mindfulness has played a significant role and I owe a huge debt to my teacher, who has opened up another world within me. I began to realise that the more I could relax, the better chance I was giving my body to heal. I do two 20-minute mindfulness sessions per day; but, more importantly, I use my breathing as a anchor during each day to bring awareness back to the moment I am in. It is not always perfect and it requires a lot of application but I am seeing the benefits.
Part of my self-development has been to try to understand the idiosyncrasies of the mind. The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters was very informative and the recent book by Niall Breslin, Me and my Mate Jeffrey, is a great confirmation of how positive results can accrue once you begin to realise what is going on in your mind.
I now recognise that the negative chatter going on in my mind is just that, chatter, and is not based on facts. The thoughts will pass like the swirling of some dark clouds if I choose to just let them be, and by refocusing my mind to the centre of my being via breathing exercises I am able to concentrate on the process rather than the outcome. I move from my head to my heart, which I freshly rediscover is the hub of my whole self. My mind is at rest, no longer agitated by negative thoughts.
The primary purpose of sharing my journey is to actively encourage anybody who is feeling somewhat overwhelmed by whatever is going on in their lives to realise that yes, there is another way of dealing with their difficulties. There is no great science involved and the solution comes from within by understanding how your mind operates.
There is a wealth of material, in print and online, to get you started, apart from professional help if the need is there. I cannot overstate the important role mindfulness has played in keeping me as upbeat as you could expect in the circumstances.
It has enabled me to realise the cancer is not my enemy, it is part of my body crying for help and my treatment, plus my peace of mind, is giving it every opportunity to heal. It is not any easy journey, it takes a lot of concentration but it keeps me on an even keel as I ride the storm.
Throughout the months of treatment I have managed to remain optimistic and simply focus on one day at a time. The Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness had a big influence on me, helping me develop a philosophy that we should focus on what we have left, not what has been taken away.
We can’t change the past and we can’t second-guess the future. Over the years I have had an increasing sense that God was within me, walking the walk with me. I now give myself a few minutes before getting out of bed each morning to thank Him for the gift of the day and pledge to respond in gratitude by making every moment of that day a happy, spiritual, positive and mindfulness experience.
These three objectives act as anchors for keeping me grounded in the joy of the day, bringing my mind back into the moment when it begins to wander off. In spite of the amount of medication in my body I am still learning to move at a slower pace and to relax, sailing along with the ebb and flow of each day.
Clare senior hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald was recently quoted, in response to queries about whether he might retire due to a heart condition, as saying: “The most important thing in life is life.” I might just tweak that to: “There is nothing more important in life than living life.”
There is a subtle difference between the two. My journey with cancer has made me realise, more than ever, how important it is to be grateful for all I have and to appreciate the many things we take for granted, such as the beauty of a walk in the park, silence, music and the happy sound of children playing.
I am likely to continue on treatment into the foreseeable future and have to try to fit in an operation on a faulty valve in my heart (residue of a triple bypass some 15 years ago) this autumn.
In the meantime my devoted soul mate, close family friends, medical staff and fellow patients will continue to give me the strength of mind and body to continue my journey on the sea of tranquillity to wherever it leads me. The following aphorism from Ernest Hemingway seems apt to finish with: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
I shall remain anonymous as I have written my story primarily as a beacon of renewed hope for those who feel there is none in their lives and who feel submerged by the groundswell of their anguish.