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In Sickness and In Health

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 Sallyís 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 didnít 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 deathís 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 whatís 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 (thatís 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 thatís 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 didnít 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. Itís 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 momentís 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 Simontonís 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.

Q: Apart from going to the Casa de Dom Inacio, what other spiritual work did you do?

A: The other area that I explored was Tibetan Buddhism. I was able to take advantage of the contact I'd already made with the work of the Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche (who is best known for his book "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying"). I spent time among Buddhists who believe that death is not necessarily a bad thing; it is something we donít need to be afraid of and can actually prepare to do well. Tibetans view illnesses such as cancer, not necessarily as life-threatening, but as a "wake-up call", bringing our attention to problems of spiritual neglect. Thereís also a belief, similar to that at the Casa, that it's possible for us to access a divine source of healing energy. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, there are specific practices to help encourage and achieve this: specific meditation practices, visualisations and mantras.

The Tibetan Buddhist community at Dzogchen Beara in south-west Ireland encouraged and guided me in how to use a meditation practice called "Vajrasattva" which simply employs the idea that a source of divine light, of healing energy can be brought into our bodies and can help cleanse us and heal us. (There is a lot in common between some Buddhist meditations and the sort of "visualisation" techniques advocated by many healers and doctors, including Carl Simonton. You certainly donít have to be a Buddhist to use these effectively.) While I was in Brazil the first time I spent many hours listening to tapes of Sogyal Rinpoche teaching about Vajrasattva: apart from instructing me in how to do the meditation, these deepened my understanding of the importance of feeling regret, owning up to my mistakes, then apologising and asking for forgiveness.

Q: How often did you do this meditation?

A: I did it every day, sometimes for hours, but certainly every morning and night during the time when I was most ill. And I continue to do it now. The other idea that came from Tibetan Buddhism that I found helpful was the notion of "karma". For me the concept of karma had a lot to do with accepting the interconnectedness of things within my life and seeing that, put very crudely, I could have accumulated the negative effect of my own negative acts, be they in thought, word or deed, by commission or omission. This helped me to focus, at a philosophical and spiritual level, on the fact that some of the causes of my illness lay within my own life; in my way of living and in my actions.

Q: What do you mean exactly?

A: I was forced to see the areas in which some of my actions had been hurtful to those close to me. I began to realise that, powerful as I might have become in the world, I was often failing to act with a proper sense of awareness and responsibility. A failure that sometimes led to unwitting abuse of those around me.

Buddhism is very strict in encouraging us not to hurt other sentient beings and tells us that in the act of hurting others we accumulate negativity within and for ourselves. The idea that in hurting someone else you hurt yourself, was a very important part of understanding how I'd come to wound myself so much.

What Buddhist thinking and teaching did for me was to provide a springboard into an area of emotional work, of counselling and therapy which became - together with spiritual healing at the Casa and Buddhist meditation - the third key corner at the base of a sort of healing pyramid, seeming to reach heavenwards, in which the spiritual and emotional underpinnings of my illness were tackled.

Q: So how did you tackle the emotional work?

A: It was tackled primarily through organised counselling in a support group that was created by Sally and my friend Julian and led by Robin, an experienced counselling leader and group facilitator. (Robin had responded instantly to my call for help after the diagnosis. He combined an invaluable sense of humour - "what a bummer" and "oh, thatís a pain in the arse" were his first reactions to the news - with an devoted day-and-night commitment to counselling me, often when I was in the depths of terror and despair.)

Sally, Julian and Robin joined together with a small number of friends - there were three regulars: Thom, Jacky and Renny - who met about once a week whenever I was in London, with the specific purpose of encouraging me to face the fear, anger, pain and other areas of emotional distress associated with my illness. The goal was to help me release some of this distress so that I could think and act as clearly as possible in the midst of my predicament and to help me reach again and again for a firm belief in my right to live. This was the emotional counterpart to the spiritual cleansing; the two went hand in hand, and for me this involved facing up to some very difficult and uncomfortable realities about myself.

I do realise that, for many people who suddenly find themselves very ill, the idea that there is going to be an emotional dimension to physical illness may be one of the hardest things to contemplate, to be open to, and to agree to do something about.

Q: Why?

A: Because it could very easily feel like you're blaming yourself for getting ill. Most religious practices have built into them the idea of redemption or forgiveness; so there's an immediate benefit to owning up, to repenting. But facing your worst thoughts, your failures, your demons in an emotional, therapeutic setting where there are is no ready-made offer of any redemption - beyond that which you are able to fashion for yourself - means that it can be very tough.

Q: How did the support group function?

A: It worked with a process called re-evaluation co-counselling, which was originally devised by Harvey Jackins in the USA and now has a worldwide network. It is based on certain assumptions, the main one being that we are all essentially good, rational, loving and loveable individuals and it's nothing more or less than an accumulation of old hurts, traumas, pain and distress which stops us from being fully realised and happy human beings. From this perspective the job of recovering your essential (and healthy) self starts with clearing out the mess of the painful old emotions which get in our way.

Q: How?

A: Primarily through a range of emotional expression, from crying to laughing to raging. Crying usually features first and foremost, but in the case of something like cancer there's a lot of fear and anger to be shed too. It's work that I would not have been able to do alone. And I doubt very much if I would have been able to do it so effectively even in a conventional one-on-one psychotherapy set-up. It helped me enormously with all my decisions about medical treatment: for example, after my second consultation with John Northover, one of the most eminent colo-rectal surgeons in Britain (and the last of the four expert medical opinions I sought). He had supported my first trip to Brazil but on my return refused to condone any further delay of surgery and powerfully argued his view that I was in a state of "avoidance". This forced me to look deeper into any patterns of fear and denial that were mingling with my "no surgery" instincts. That work got done in the support group.

The group really functioned at the limits of my (and the othersí) understanding of how "feelings" - and their expression or release - relate to good, healthy decision-making. I experienced, and the others witnessed, truly extreme outpourings of fear, anger, guilt and grief: each and every session leaving me that bit clearer about what to do next.

Q: Is a support group like yours something you would recommend?

A: I was lucky to have willing friends who were prepared to dive in alongside the more trained and already skilled individuals. So I was blessed with a great opportunity in which to do this very challenging emotional work. I can see that most people do not have that ready opportunity. But nonetheless I would urge three things upon anyone facing a serious illness:

One is to try psychotherapy in some form, to acknowledge the need to express the difficult emotions that come with illness. To do that needs both space and committed attention, ideally from a professional.

Second is to organize among your friends and family a support group of some kind. The people who are most intimately connected with you and your illness should have the opportunity to share among themselves their hopes and fears, as well as some of the practical information about the business of helping you to get well again. A support group, even if it doesn't function as a psychotherapeutic or counselling support group, can provide solidarity for those most intimately involved, helping them not to feel alone in the face of the illness.

The third thing is to acknowledge the needs of the principal carers: those who are involved most fully with you and your illness, to encourage them to take the time and space to release their own fear and confusion, to replenish their hope and strength and to get them to be as clear as possible about how they can help you without damaging themselves. (Sally is writing separately about the workings of the support group as part of her own account of what she sees as the key elements of my healing.)

Q: How was your family involved in all of this?

A: It was an incredibly difficult time for them. Both my father and my sister (who shares the family home) were still in deep mourning after the sudden and unexpected loss of my mother. I did not tell them immediately about the diagnosis. And I considered not telling them at all. But I quickly realised that this urge was part of an old pattern of "protecting" those close to me by concealing difficult things from them. I knew that telling the truth was now part of survival. So I told my family about the cancer on the eve of my departure to Brazil ("to see a specialist") and once I was there called my father and told him that I had opted for spiritual healing rather than surgery. He, and the whole family, were incredibly supportive although not actively involved in the things I was doing. I didnít ask them to be. I discovered later, however, that my father had got his church congregation praying for me every Sunday.

Q: What was happening with your body while all this spiritual and emotional work was going on?

A: After a while, I took the view (which I think most medical experts in the field would probably now accept) that we all have cancer cells in our bodies, which in most cases never manifest as a tumour or as a problem of any kind. If your immune system is functioning well then your body will take care of recognising and eliminating cancer cells and preventing their proliferation. My plan was to do anything and everything that would allow my body to get back into proper shape so that it could do the job that it is designed to do. As to why my immune system had gotten into such bad shape, I accepted the common wisdom that stress of various kinds can be a cause. (This includes the "toxic stress" of living a busy city life, and the effects of an improper diet, as well as the stress of emotional and spiritual unhappiness and disharmony.)

By this time I was doing everything I could spiritually and emotionally to try to heal every aspect of my system. The aim of the dietary work was to release toxic stress on my body and allow it to renew. So the next specifically physical thing I did was to seek help in boosting my body's immune system. There were two key elements to this: one was the regime of supplements prescribed by Sue Donnelly alongside the diet. But I also found a medical doctor in Ireland, Dr. Paschal Carmody, who works at the alternative end of conventional medical and practices what he calls "immuno-therapy". Alongside his general practice he runs a clinic which deals with cancer, heart disease and a lot of chronic illnesses. On my first visit to his clinic, Paschal assessed me (using, among other things, a technique called Thermography, which measures how well essential organs and the immune system respond to stress produced by a small drop in temperature) and then told me "you have the immune system of an old man".

Paschalís view is that the body has its own regenerative powers that can be stimulated and supported when you are facing a health crisis. During my two-week stay he prescribed a very heavy-duty regime which included extremely high-dose supplements given intravenously as well as supplements in pill form (derived from organically raised cows) for the thymus, the adrenals and other key parts of the immune system. He also uses things like iscador and laetrile, with reputations from around the world for helping to cure cancer. Paschal's philosophy is "if it's been shown to help then let's try it". He also prescribed a whole range of supplements, which combined with the ones from Sue Donnelly meant that for a period of many months I was taking at least a hundred pills a day. (I should say that there was an unspoken conflict between Paschalís and Sueís views on how the immune system can be stimulated. Sue works on the principle that it can be encouraged to recover by itself with homeopathic and other remedies. Paschal believes that direct supplementation of the deficient part of the body - with raw bovine thymus, pancreas, adrenal and so on - gets things going faster. Sue believes that this might delay the bodyís own recovery; Paschal that in a crisis what the system needs is a "kick". I trusted that there was not necessarily a contradiction here and decided to mix and match their approaches and their remedies.)

Q: What else did you do to help your immune system?

A: I came across a proprietary blend of Chinese herbs called SPES, which has been branded and packaged by a Chinese doctor working in the States. This had been used successfully by Dr William Fair, a top urological surgeon at Sloane Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, one of the leading cancer hospitals in the USA. When diagnosed with prostate cancer he explored alternative remedies and this is one of the things he discovered. It comes in different forms: there is one formulated specifically for the prostate and another as a boost for the immune system. I started taking SPES and later had the formula checked by Thong, my acupuncturist/herbalist. He endorsed the formula as a very good one, by no means revolutionary, but well-known within Chinese medicine and very effective.

I also discovered that some healers take the connection between stress and the immune system to the conclusion that "negative energy" of all kinds should be avoided as much as possible. This can mean deciding not to see anyone (including family and friends) who is sceptical or discouraging about your choices, telling you they wonít work (Brandon Bays is a clear exponent of the more drastic approach, as she describes in her book, "The Journey"). This can also mean staying away from newspapers, TV news and similar things which may feed you depressing messages or images. I was not able to be totally strict in this way, but I very soon reached the point where I knew that another "realistic" opinion from a doctor or friend was not going to help me. I knew that what I needed most was encouragement. Sally acted as a vital gatekeeper in this respect, soaking up a large amount of doom-laden fears and feelings from those around us, much more than I realised at the time.

Q: How's your body doing at this point in the story?

A: The one thing I always tell people who ask me about my story - and a lot of them seem to take comfort from this - is that I got a lot worse before I got better.

Q: How much worse?

A: When I was first diagnosed I had no clear-cut ongoing physical symptoms. What had alerted me to the problem was one day suddenly shitting blood. When I look back I realise that in the weeks and months prior to that there were other things that - if I'd paid attention to them sufficiently - might have given me clues that I was ill. But I didn't have any major symptoms that demanded my attention. The symptoms crept up on me in the months that followed: as the tumour grew and started to impinge upon other tissue and nerves, so the pain grew. Five or six months after the diagnosis I was in almost unremitting pain of a highly disabling order: I could hardly sit or stand, and I certainly couldn't sleep. Sometimes I could barely speak because all my attention was being sucked into a black hole of pain. I got very sick. I was doing all these things to help my healing but I was still getting sick.

Q: But this didn't make you lose faith in what you were doing?

A: No, but it brought about a crisis around my decision not to have surgery, because there seemed to be evidence, apparently objective evidence in the form of the X-ray and scan results, that in spite of everything I was doing, the tumour was getting bigger. Or so it seemed.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: There were differences of opinion between the medical doctors and some of the alternative practitioners who took the view that, even if the tumour looked bigger on the scans, this may have been be due to the body's natural defences starting to work by forming a swelling around the tumour. This could make it look bigger and feel more painful even though it was actually starting to heal. For example, according to Chinese QiGong, which I had also started doing and which understands healing in terms of energy, the energetic core of a problem can be being dealt with while a lot of the physical manifestations remain the same. There's a time lag, if you like. My QiGong teacher, Zhixing Wang, with whom I had had a number of intense healing sessions, was telling me that in his perception the tumour was shrinking, while the scan showed it getting bigger.

The split between these points of view was a difficult one to deal with, given that I was in terrible pain and the people close to me did not always share my conviction that the healing was possible without surgery. Eventually this reached a crisis point. On the night of the scan results there was an emergency meeting of the support group that lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was then that I took the decision to open myself completely to what conventional medicine had to offer - including surgery. This change of heart was an important point of surrender for me, turning around a very old pattern of rigidity. Up until then I had been quite dogmatic in my view that I was going to do things my way, and my way wasn't going to include submitting to surgery.

Q: So what did you do at this point?

A: I said that yes, if necessary, I would have surgery: I would accept what was on offer to me from the doctors. (By this stage I'd identified the right doctors for me, doctors who would respect my point of view and what I was trying to do. I opted for a surgeon, Professor Bill Heald, who is not only one of the worldís top colo-rectal specialists but also a man of extraordinary compassion, humility and patience. His response to my search for alternatives to surgery was to say "we (the doctors) need all the help we can get". My oncologist, Diana Tait at the Royal Marsden, likewise a leader in her field, also responded to my direct appeal that we proceed as a team. And my General Practitioner, Stuart Ungar, while remaining steadfast in his own belief that surgery was the right thing for me to do, was always open to my endless search for alternatives.)

By this stage the tumour was of such a size and in such a position that it wasn't operable without completely devastating and mutilating surgery. The recommended medical plan was to use radiotherapy and chemotherapy in an attempt to shrink the tumour and to make it surgically operable. So, paradoxically, the consequence of deciding to accept surgery was to grant me more time without surgery. I decided against the chemotherapy (because I wanted to avoid something that seemed to me likely to deplete my whole system, including my immune system) but accepted the proposed course of radiotherapy. That provided a focus and a time-frame through which all my other healing endeavours could be intensified.

Q: How did this work?

A: I was prescribed a seven-week course of daily radiotherapy, followed by a wait-and-see period of up to a further eight weeks to see the effect of the radiotherapy on the tumour, prior to any surgery. The decision to accept this conventional treatment became the peg on which to hang a total onslaught on the cancer. I decided to bracket the course of radiotherapy by making two more trips to Brazil, a two-week trip immediately prior to the radiotherapy and a three-week trip immediately after it. I negotiated with Diana Tait for both the dosage and area of radiation to be the absolute minimum that she considered acceptable, and I dealt directly with the radiotherapy team who were going to put this plan into effect, so that I could really see and understand the process. I wanted to maximise any benefits of the radiation and minimise any side-effects. In addition to taking the specific homeopathic and herbal remedies for this (a number of which are recommended and supplied by the Bristol Cancer Help Centre), I added three new things.

One was hyperthermia, a form of treatment that is hardly accepted at all by the medical establishment in Britain. Itís a centuries-old concept of healing lesions or tumours with heat. (There is apparently a quote from Hippocrates which goes "Whatever cannot be cured with medicine can be cured with surgery. Whatever cannot be cured with surgery can be cured with hyperthermia. Whatever cannot be cured with hyperthermia cannot be cured at all".) The particular device I used is called an Indiba (made in Spain) and uses radiowaves to produce the heating effect in targeted areas. There is evidence that this treatment helps counter the side-effects and intensifies the benefits of radiotherapy, while also having healing benefits of its own. I had first heard about it from Achim. Paschal Carmody in Ireland uses one, and that was one reason why I went to him. Through this experience together with my own research, I had a strong feeling that hyperthermia was a very important treatment for me. But I had to fight the opposition of nearly all the doctors, who were absolutely set against it, saying it was useless. In the end I decided to keep quiet about my plan for using it. I rented one of the machines and Sally and a private nurse took the responsibility of administering the treatment every day through the whole seven weeks of radiotherapy.

I also started hypnotherapy. I did this with the specific intention of encouraging my body to accept the radiotherapy treatment and to help it distinguish between the benefits and the unwanted side-effects. I went to Pamela Gawler-Wright, a practitioner who describes herself as a hypno-psychotherapist. The way she works is through deep guided relaxation rather than full hypnosis. I felt that this provided a way to start a dialogue between my mind and my body, in which I directly asked the healthy cells to "co-operate" with the radiation by making space for it to pass through my body without harming them and telling the cancer cells that it was time for them to leave: their job (of "waking me up" to the problems in my life) had been done. I recited these requests like a mantra each time I lay under the x-ray machine.

The third thing I started was cranio-sacral osteopathy with Ernest Keeling. (Osteopathy recognizes that illness can result from abnormalities in the body's structure and addresses this through gentle manipulation, which often focuses particularly on the head, spine and sacrum.) Although I had being seeing Ernest for years about back problems and other "structural" things, only now did I come across the idea that osteopathy could help heal cancer, as well as reducing the side-effects of radiotherapy. His work was based on the premise that my body could open-up and "let-go" of the tumour.

In addition to the hyperthermia, the hypnotherapy and the osteopathy, I continued with all the other things: the acupuncture, the homeopathy, the supplements, the diet, the QiGong, the meditation and the counselling.

Q: What happened next?

A: By the end of the course of radiotherapy the pain was starting to diminish. I had been on very heavy-duty painkillers, including morphine, which at the worst time weren't touching the pain, it had gotten that bad. (At this point my only source of relief was marijuana.) But now the pain started to go away, and I took the last painkiller on the plane to Brazil at the end of the radiotherapy. After three weeks in Brazil the pain had entirely gone and when the MRI scan was done back in London it showed that the tumour had completely disappeared. This was on 26 May 2000, nearly seven months after the diagnosis. (It was raining hard outside the hospital and there were no taxis, so Sally and I celebrated by taking a test drive in a Rolls Royce convertible from a nearby showroom and asking the salesman to take us home in it.)

This was seen by all the doctors as an exceptional outcome for conventional radiotherapy: it is almost unheard of that a tumour should go completely. It's not clear who or what should take the credit for this. The doctors take the view, as they must, that the radiotherapy was responsible and I was very lucky to get such a spectacular result (as Prof. Heald said to me: "I have to believe it"). I donít know for sure that my body needed the radiotherapy (it is still recovering from the unwanted side-effects), but my mind certainly needed the act of surrender involved in accepting it. And everything else undoubtedly played its part. But I do know, without any doubt, that conventional medicine alone could never have healed me.

Even with this outcome, the doctors still wanted me to have surgery, telling me rather gloomily that it was "not a cure". The conventional view is that, even if the tumour has disappeared, you can't be certain that all the microscopic cancer cells have gone too. So you still chop out the affected area: that's the best bet, in their view, of clearing up any remaining cells and so helping to prevent a recurrence. Needless to say, I refused. By this time I had formed a very determined view about what was happening within my body. There was actually a subsequent episode about six weeks later when a lymph node in my groin became enlarged. I decided to have that removed surgically by Prof. Heald, as it could be done under local anaesthetic. When that showed evidence of another small tumour of similar type I very firmly took the view that this was nothing to worry about: it was simply my bodyís lymphatic system doing its job of draining off the remaining debris in a way that could be easily dealt with. (Both Achim and Pamela encouraged me to see this operation as a "homeopathic dose" of surgery: a tiny amount of the major procedure originally proposed, that could actually help strengthen my resistance.) But I also accepted the advice that I was getting from a number of the alternative practitioners that the work had to carry on in order to complete the cleansing process, to allow my body to recover from this enormous battle that it had fought, and to continue boosting my immune system so that it could return to total health.

It was not until six months after the disappearance of the tumour (and two more visits to the Casa de Dom Inacio) that "Joao de Deus" told me I was healed, saying to me "It is finished. You can go now." It was exactly a year and a day from my first arrival at the Casa. By then I had developed the firm conviction that health and staying healthy must become a way of life. And what I feel I've now made is a life-long commitment to taking care of myself and my body.

Q: What other factors were unique in your case in helping you to recover?

A: There are two key things that underpin the whole of my healing journey: love and enough money.

Almost none of the alternative therapies that I chose to do were covered by health insurance, even though I had very comprehensive cover. It did cover all of the conventional tests and consultations and certainly allowed a lot of them to happen very quickly: appointments got booked immediately and the results came very fast. Sad to say, but if I had relied on the National Health Service, things would have been much, much slower. The path I chose was expensive and I was fortunate enough to have the resources to be able to follow it. (I should say that some friends have made the point that for someone facing a life-threatening illness the kind of treatments I chose, although expensive, would not necessarily be beyond the combined resources of a generous group of family, friends and colleagues.)

I was also privileged to have many friends who were ready to give their time and energy to help me. Although there are too many to praise individually, three particular individuals assumed decisive roles in seeing me through the illness. They are Achim, Robin and Sally.

Achim held out from the very start the belief that I could and would survive the cancer and that my decision not to have surgery was correct. He was prepared to be very unpopular in supporting me in that way, as well as being an invaluable source both of information and inspiration.

Robin responded without any reservation to my call for help in the early days. He made himself continually available as a dedicated counsellor and led the group that supported me over many months. He played a decisive role in helping me emerge from my emotional distress in order to think Ė and act - more clearly.

Above all I had my beloved Sally. Somehow Ė God only knows how - she found the courage and the strength to set aside her own pain and grief and fear to be with me night and day, whenever I needed, as a source of loving attention and intelligence. What I had from her was the intense focus of another human being: a witness, a nurse, a mate; someone who was totally engaged with the relentless pain and dirt of my illness as well as with the job of working out how it was going to be transformed and survived. She did everything from masterminding the support group to scouring the shelves of healthfood stores in search of things I could eat to laying healing hands on me when I was crying with pain in the dark of the night - all in the midst of completing her work as the director of a huge movie, her biggest yet. Hers was an immeasurable gift. (Sally also edited this document, as well as being the "friend" who did the initial interview on which it is based.) Sally and I got married on 7 July 2001, 14 years from the week we met, in celebration of survival, the strength of the human spirit and the healing power of love.

Throughout my journey from sickness to health I was blessed with incredible love and support: whenever I asked for help it came. I pray that others may be as fortunate.

Christopher Sheppard

October 2001

(Revised April 2002)

 

POSTSCRIPT

It has not been possible to include within this document absolutely everything that I did during the first year of intensive healing work. Some things I tried very briefly and then stopped because I felt they were not for me. Many of these are highly esoteric and very controversial, even among alternative practitioners, let alone conventional doctors. In general, my attitude was to try everything that was suggested to me, providing it came from a source that I trusted. It is impossible to say for sure what worked and what didnít. Among the other things I tried were the following:

Benjamin Creme is a long-established spiritual healer and medical intuitive who lectures monthly in Conway Hall in London. He does telephone consultations, maintains a "healing list" for those seeking help and prescribes something called Tlacote Water in homeopathic form. At Achimís suggestion I went on the list and had a number of consultations over the months. Ben Creme consistently took the view that I did not need surgery (although he does recommend it sometimes and, in my case, was not against chemotherapy) and urged me to continue the "cleansing" work after the tumour had gone.

Stephen Turoff, is one of Britainís best-known "psychic surgeons". I once visited his surgery in Chelmsford (an amazing place) but what he was offering was quickly overtaken by the work at the Casa dom Inacio in Brazil.

I visited Julio da Costa, a London-based therapist recommended by Sue Donnelly, who works with a technique called "bio-resonance" (using a German-made device called MORA) that, for both diagnosis and treatment, uses very fine electronic measurement and stimulation of the bodyís own electromagnetic vibrations via acupuncture meridians. This can identify specific allergies, parasites, and fungal problems (like candida) as well as assessing organ function.

Like many alternative healers, Sue believes there is a link between parasites and cancer and works with Julio to assess the progress of her treatment programmes.

I tried a hand-held device called a Zapper, using the technology pioneered by Hulda Clark in America, which uses tiny electronic impulses that can supposedly eliminate parasites, bacteria and viruses.

I consulted with Emaho, a Native American teacher and shaman who works with a "fire dance" ceremony for healing. I saw him very early on and he forcefully advised me to have surgery, telling me "the cancer knows your body better than you do". At that point I think he was right.

I tried "Meditation Water", which has appeared only recently on the New Age healing scene. It originates in Turkey (although I got it from a supplier in the US) and is potentized in a way that is believed to promote healing. I found that it had an uplifting effect. It seems that the importance of water in healing is now becoming more strongly recognized.

I used Ozone therapy, starting with an ozone generator then moving on to a supplement in pill form.

I consulted the "I Ching" under the guidance of Brent Mitton, a Canada-based psychotherapist who uses it regularly within his work. Connoisseurs of the the I Ching might be interested to know that what I got in response to the question "Should I return to Brazil for more spiritual healing?" was Number One "The Creative".

I consulted with a number of healers and therapists whom I met at the Casa de Dom Inacio (which is increasingly becoming an international meeting-place for people with a professional interest in alternative healing methods). Most important among these was Josie RavenWing an American therapist/healer who, among other things, works with shamanic practices. I had a number of intensive sessions with Josie, working to cut the "psychic bonds" of old (particularly sexual) relationships. Josieís approach is described in her book "The Return of Spirit: A Womenís Call to Spiritual Action".

RECOMMENDED FIRST STEPS

Based on my experience, these are the first 10 steps that I would advise you to take right away if you get a bad diagnosis:

  1. Take charge

  2. Trust your own judgement

  3. Put yourself first

  4. Get a second opinion

  5. Don't worry about statistics

  6. Change your diet

  7. Read Bernie Seigelís books

  8. See a therapist or counsellor

  9. Ask a friend to start a support group

  10. Check out the alternatives to conventional medicine

 

FEEDBACK, QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

I am happy to hear from anyone who has comments on what I have written or wants to share from their own experience. If you have questions, please see if they can be answered by any of the contacts listed below, as I cannot promise that I will be able to answer personal enquiries.

I am planning a series of interviews with a number of doctors, healers, therapists and friends who were most closely involved in my healing from cancer. I hope to get a deeper understanding of how their different views, philosophies and techniques combined in my case. If you would like to get copies of these interviews, please let me know.

Email: mail@Christopher-Sheppard.com

 

 

 

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