By Peter Cutler
I received my diagnosis of cancer six years ago in June 2004. But my story really begins ten years earlier. I was at my first Buddhist retreat with the Vietnamese Zen Master and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh. It was being held at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. It was late September and raining heavily. Many people camped out in tents on the front lawn of the sprawling Omega campus.
As I was soon to find out, the first few days of any retreat are a bit disorienting as people begin to leave the outside world behind and settle in. I watched the campers stumble into breakfast, soaking wet and grumbling. Among those soaking wet Buddhists, shinning like the sun against the damp grayness, was a joyful seventy-seven-year-old woman grinning from ear to ear. She was a camper too and just as wet, but rather than complaining about her wet clothes and the damp and dreary weather she was bursting with joy. And she was just like that the next day too.
I was intrigued. A little later I met a young woman who was her friend and tent-mate. I asked about this joyful Bodhisattva who seemed to be happy no matter what the situation. She assured me my perception was completely accurate. Then she told me a remarkable story.
She said her friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fifteen years ago, her doctors told her she probably would not live to the end of the year, even with extensive chemo and radiation. Up until her cancer diagnosis, this woman, who now seemed to glow like the sun, was an extremely unhappy, critical and cynical person. Her bitter and scathing remarks had alienated her husband and her children. She was bitter, lonely and miserable.
But something happened after diagnosis. Realizing she only had a few months left on this earth, she decided she didn’t want to spend them the way she had for most of her adult life. If she only had six or seven months to live, she damn well was going to live each one of them as fully as possible. Instead of struggling through life, she was going to start living it. And live it she did.
Seemingly overnight, her entire attitude changed. She began to greet each day, upon waking, with the same phrase she used fifteen years later to greet each of those rain-soaked mornings in her little yellow tent on the Omega campus. “This is the most wonderful morning of my entire life. And I’m so grateful for it. Thank you.” That became her morning mantra. And as time went on she began to feel it and believe it and live it more and more.
Instead of the bitter criticism, she spewed at her husband and children, she began to see them as the most precious gifts in her life. And they responded, a little tentatively at first to be sure. But when they realized that, by some miracle, she really had changed, they accepted this new wife and mother with open and grateful arms. And she responded by pouring all her pent-up and buried love onto them in abundance. She had transformed from a person who inspired only fear to one bursting with joy and love. And from then on she inspired love and affection wherever she went.
Many other things changed in her life too. She developed spiritual interests. For a woman who had few friends, she attracted and nurtured many different friends and of all ages. Her life changed from one of bitterness and suffering to one of incredible joy and love. And, as she later told me, “I’m so grateful for my cancer. It woke me up. If it wasn’t for getting cancer and thinking I was going to die, I never would have realized how incredibly beautiful life is.”
I remember thinking how lucky she was to have had that cancer diagnosis. Few healthy people go through life with a fraction of the love and joy that she lived every moment of those past fifteen years. I was envious. Most of us sleepwalk through our lives. This woman had woken up. And what woke her up, incredibly, was cancer.
I met this woman and heard her inspiring story over ten years ago. I lost touch with her soon after the retreat as I returned to my “normal” life. I don’t even remember her name. But her story has stayed with me to this day. And I have no doubt it always will.
Since that time, I’ve heard many other stories just as inspiring. Some you will read in the book I’m writing When Cancer Heals. But this was the first one. This is the one that started it.
Not only did this remarkable woman live far longer than the doctors predicted, without chemo or radiation (fifteen times longer at the time I met her to be exact), but her diagnosis of terminal cancer set her entire life on a new course. Cancer healed her life. And her new life healed cancer.
I didn’t know it at the time I met her, but that was the beginning of the book When Cancer Heals. Other events that followed brought that vividly to my attention.
Five years after hearing that remarkable story, I found blood in my urine. The diagnosis was bladder cancer. It was in a fairly early stage and mostly on the surface of the bladder. Still, the treatment involved several surgeries and some exquisitely painful treatments after the surgeries. I’ll spare you the intimate and gruesome details for now.
I’d love to say I had the same inspiring reaction to my cancer diagnosis as the woman I met on my retreat, but that would be a lie. Mostly I was just scared. Or in pain. Or both.
At fifty-five years old, this was my first experience with western medicine for a serious illness. The only other time I’d been in a hospital as a patient was when I had my tonsils removed at age nine. The only thing I remember from that experience was coming out of anesthesia and promptly throwing up on my mother’s shoes. It was probably an omen of what to expect this time.
I’d visited relatives in hospitals. I’d watched medical dramas on TV. I had good friends who were doctors and nurses. I even met with the author of the best selling book on preparing yourself for surgery. But none of that prepared me for the experience I was about to have.
I went to the hospital with the naïve expectation that hospitals were places of healing, doctors and hospital staff were warm and caring people and I would be treated with care, respect and possibly even affection. I told you I was naïve. I’m not sure where I got that idea. Maybe from the movie Patch Adams. Robin Williams is so warm and cuddly, like a big teddy bear.
Maybe those thoughts flickered through my mind because only the day before I had just returned from a retreat where I had basked in the powerful energy of love and affection for an entire week. Maybe it was because my wife and three of my children came to the hospital with me and showered me with their love and care. I was ready for the best.
I was soon to have a rude awakening.
The admitting nurse exhibited what I later learned from a nurse friend is called “gallows” humor. It’s a way some nurses use to remove themselves emotionally from uncomfortable situations, such as being a nurse in a stressful hospital setting. I’m assuming she thought it might help relax me. It didn’t. The first thing she told me was to “Remove your watch and wedding ring because you can’t trust people around here. As soon as you go under, they’ll rob you blind.” Then she told my youngest daughter, “Better say your goodbyes now, Sweetheart. It may be the last time you’ll ever see him. You never know what’s going to happen once they go through those doors.” That was possibly true. But it caused all three of my daughters to spontaneously burst into tears.
I did pass through those doors after hugging my daughters and wife with as much reassurance as I could muster. Which was decidedly less than when I first came in – and falling rapidly.
In this particular hospital, they don’t allow family members to wait with the patients as they lie waiting on the hospital gurneys, in my case for several hours. The gurneys themselves I found interesting. Each one had a large traffic light hanging over it with red, yellow and green lights, just as you’d see at any street intersection. I was beginning to feel increasingly less human and more like a piece of automobile machinery waiting for the shop mechanic.
The staff helped to reinforce this feeling by repeatedly asking me the exact same questions only minutes apart while exhibiting the emotional connection of someone dissecting a frog in a high school biology class. I tried to make conversation and even add some light humor to the situation, but they weren’t buying it. The frog was not supposed to speak. I was beginning to get worried.
I remembered a friend telling me about his surgery for mouth cancer. He said he had his surgeon play his favorite music during the surgery and asked them to only say positive, helpful, healing, and loving things while they operated. It sounded wonderful. I wondered if it was too late to call and ask him what hospital he went to. It clearly wasn’t this one. Before I could make my escape, they attached an IV to my arm and I was soon under.
Later I came to find out that the things discussed in many operating rooms are anything but positive, helpful, healing and loving. The problem is, even though the patient is “out”, that conversation enters the patient’s subconscious mind. And, if the conversation is particularly troubling in some way, often so is the patient’s subconscious when the surgery is over. This was certainly true for me. This isn’t something most surgeons seem to care about, or even believe. I was told this by Peggy Huddleston, the author of the best selling book on preparing for surgery. I did talk to my surgeon about it. He seemed annoyed. In retrospect, I should have used this and several other clues to prompt me to shop for another surgeon. But I didn’t know any better at the time.
And it gets worse. Although my conscious mind was in la la land, research has shown that our conscious mind is only 10% of our active brain. Most of the active brain is unconscious to us. And this is the part that is deeply connected to our bodies. As I learned later from tapping into my unconscious through methods like hypnosis, EFT (emotional freedom technique) and deep meditation, my body held memories of everything that happened during that surgery. It was painful to relive those memories when I was able to bring them into my conscious mind. I could remember and feel each painful cut and the burning of my bladder wall with a laser to cauterize it and stop the bleeding. To the surgeon, I was unconscious and he might as well have been operating on a piece of meat. But my body was still very much alive and storing painful traumatic memories that have taken me years to uncover and heal. Without healing this painful trauma, I don’t think my cancer would have been able to heal.
When I started to come out of anesthesia, I found I was in another room. A nurse was there and she handed me my clothes and asked how I was feeling. I told her I was feeling pretty woozy and couldn’t really focus yet. She asked me to get dressed. As I clumsily attempted to put on my pants I noticed that I had a long tube extending from my penis which seemed to be attached to a large plastic bag. She explained that this was a catheter and something about emptying the bag and using a smaller bag when I went to work. I told her I didn’t really grasp what she was telling me as I was still feeling very spacey from the anesthesia and asked if maybe should wait until I could understand her or tell my wife the information I needed to know. She said this was probably a good idea, but there wasn’t time now as she had other patients and my surgery took longer than expected.
This created some problems because neither my wife nor I could really figure out what to do with the catheter when we got home. Eventually, after several frustrating and embarrassing attempts, I finally figured out how to empty it. I never did figure out how to exchange it with the smaller bags.
Since the surgeon had told both my wife and me that this was a very routine surgery and I would be back at work in three days, my wife understood that she could travel to an important legal meeting after the first few days. And I assured her I would be fine. Unfortunately, after the fourth day, my bleeding, which was supposed to have stopped by then, increased dramatically.
By the sixth day, I was bleeding even more and the bag was mostly filled with blood. The catheter had created an infection even with the antibiotics I was taking. I later found that this was not unusual. Recent studies show that over 80,000 people a year die from “nosocomial infections”, infections caused by medical treatments. I was feeling extremely weak and feverish. This didn’t seem good. I called the surgeon to explain what was happening and ask what I should do. He was in surgery, but the head of the department was filling in and taking calls. When I told him what was happening he barked, “That’s what emergency rooms are for. Drive to the emergency room of the closest hospital.” At this point, I explained it was about all I could manage to walk to the bathroom to empty the catheter. I didn’t see how I could get myself to an emergency room and wait to be seen. This seemed to anger him further and he replied, “Listen, I’m the only one on call now and I’m getting other calls. I can’t talk. I have to go. Drive yourself to the emergency room. That’s my advice.” Then he hung up.
I had never met the head of my surgeon’s department before. After this call, I was grateful for small favors. I also began to realize why his staff seemed so unhappy whenever I went to their offices. The attitude of the boss ends up filtering down to all the employees. I understand that surgeons are under a great deal of pressure, have far more patients than they can comfortably handle and that hospitals are pressure cookers, but still, I wasn’t expecting that level of rudeness and lack of caring from a doctor, particularly the head of the department. My instincts tried to tell me something at the time, but I ignored them as I usually did. Doctors know what they are doing I thought. And I don’t.
At that point, I didn’t have the strength to go to the emergency room. I hoped I would recover, but I also felt there was a possibility I would bleed to death. I was so tired and weak at this point I no longer cared.
By the eighth day, the bleeding slowed, my fever stopped and I started to regain some strength. I slowly recovered. I had the catheter removed by the second week and the infection began to heal.
The biopsy they took during the surgery showed another type of cancer in my bladder that they could not remove through surgery. At this point, I was clear that I wanted to find another surgeon and I asked around for recommendations. Based on several recommendations, I found one at another hospital, which proved to be much better than my first experience. He performed another biopsy. Then I went through 6 weeks of a treatment called BCG, where live tuberculosis is put into the bladder causing the immune system to go into overdrive and start killing all the cells in the bladder lining, including the cancer cells. It’s painful and I had a lot of bleeding from this too. But it worked and I was cancer free. My urologist explained that this was only a temporary remission and that cancer usually recurred within a year and then a stronger round of six to eight treatments was called for.
Speaking with several other people who have undergone this treatment seemed to verify this. They had repeated treatments every year or two as cancer continued to return. As the damage to the bladder wall continues from cancer and the treatments, eventually the bladder has to be removed permanently. A tube is inserted through the navel which leads to a large plastic bag taped to the outside of the body, very similar to the catheter I had struggled with earlier. And, as I had experienced with my catheter, infections from this are common. Not a very encouraging scenario to look forward to.
I remember asking my new surgeon and urologist what I should eat during these treatments that would help them be successful. As you can imagine I was highly motivated for them to work. He told me, “Honestly, I don’t have any information on that. We were only offered one class at Harvard Medical School on nutrition and that was an elective.” Even then, from my limited research, I understood that diet played a large part in causing cancer and that changes in diet had been proven to cure it in many cases. Doctors at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine www.pcrm.org and the Cancer Project in Washington www.cancerproject.org had been studying this for years. So this confession interested me. When I asked him more about this, he agreed that it was probably important and that if he had the time he would learn more about it. He suggested finding a nutritionist. He didn’t know of any himself. What was especially interesting to me is that he is one of the leading doctors in his field, specializing in cancer of the bladder. Yet he knew nothing about nutrition, one of the leading factors that cause cancer and one of the most efficient ways of preventing it and even healing it.
From all I’ve written so far, you must think I have a terrible impression of doctors. I really don’t. I live in Boston, Massachusetts, America’s medical center. We are surrounded by the world’s largest and most prestigious teaching hospitals. Many of my friends are doctors and nurses. And I would be hard pressed to find more caring and compassionate people anywhere. But, as they are the first to admit, the current medical system in America makes it very difficult for them to treat their patients with the care they feel is necessary. There is too much focus on profit over the patient.
In fact, one of my good friends, a wonderful doctor, has given up practicing medicine in the United States completely. He says there is no way he can give the care his patients need under the current system. Instead, he set up a medical clinic in Nicaragua where he practices with Doctors Without Border. There he says he is free to treat patients as they deserve to be treated. So it’s not doctors that I have a problem with. Most of them have only the best of intentions, a truly noble breed of human. But the current system of medicine makes it very difficult to give the type of care they want and need to give.
I learned several invaluable lessons from these experiences.
- One, make sure you’re familiar with your surgeon and the hospital beforehand. Get more than one referral for both. Take a good look at your doctor’s waiting room and the happiness/unhappiness level of the staff. I trusted my primary care doctor’s recommendation and didn’t think I needed to look further. I now realize that was a mistake. He was only familiar with doctors working at that particular hospital since that was where he had interned.
- And two, I never wanted to go through that kind of surgery or have those treatments again and I was willing to do anything to avoid them.
To satisfy number two meant I needed to make sure I didn’t get cancer again. If I didn’t want my cancer to come back, I could no longer give away responsibility for my health to any doctor, even a good one. I had to take responsibility for it myself. After asking my primary care doctor and my urologist for tips on preventing a recurrence of cancer, I quickly realized I wasn’t going to get any help from them. Preventing cancer didn’t seem to be in their line of work. That was my job. It was up to me.
I read everything I could get my hands on from wise and compassionate doctors like Bernie Siegel (Love, Medicine and Miracles) and David Servan-Schreiber (Anti Cancer) to alternative care providers. I talked to everyone I knew. I quickly found there is an abundance of great information out there just waiting for you. I’m happy to share the best of this with you. Just call or email me.
I managed to find a very healthy diet where much of the food, common things like raw broccoli, are actually filled with cancer-fighting nutrients. They’re not just food; they’re medicine, healthy medicine that doesn’t harm you or your immune system. In fact, rather than destroy your immune system as chemo and radiation do, they actually make it stronger. And that’s incredibly important, as your number one protection against cancer is a strong and healthy immune system. No drug or technological approach yet discovered can even begin to approach the effectiveness of a strong and healthy immune system. I began a very healthy exercise program every morning and reinvigorated my dormant yoga and meditation practice. I also did a great deal of emotional work, opening my heart and freeing and transforming long-repressed emotions. Within a year I felt better than I ever had. I was healthy, vital, alive, and, most importantly, loving life. I lost forty pounds. I now weigh the same as I did in my early thirties. And even more amazing somehow I’m stronger and more energetic than I was back then thanks to the healthier lifestyle. I seemed to be aging in reverse.
My urologist was pleasantly surprised when he checked me a year later and I didn’t have any sign of a recurrence. As he had told me, this was highly unusual. With this type of treatment, cancer comes back fairly consistently each year and the painful and invasive treatments need to be continued. But I knew I was on to something. And I seem to be right. Six years later, as I write this, there is still no sign of cancer. As of now, I don’t expect it to return at all. Now that I was taking responsibility for my own health and not relying on doctors and pharmaceutical companies to do it for me, other long-term health problems were also miraculously healing.
For years I suffered from a severe hay fever allergy. Every year from August through September I was in misery. The medications my doctor prescribed would temporarily reduce the symptoms, but each year the allergy got worse. And the medications were causing sinus problems that were more uncomfortable and lasted longer than the allergy itself. Since taking responsibility for my own health, I found that I had a low-grade allergy to milk products. In addition to my new healthy vegetarian diet, I simply cut all dairy products out (which now only amounted to a small amount of plain organic yogurt in the morning) during allergy season. After fifteen years of suffering, my hay fever allergy is now just a bad memory.
My doctor had been insisting I take a statin drug to lower my very high blood cholesterol. He said it was the only way to lower it and prevent heart disease. I had asked him about diet and exercise and he replied that Americans almost never stick to those programs so the statin drugs were a better solution. He was wrong in my case. My blood cholesterol is back to a healthy normal with no drugs at all.
I also had a long-term periodontal problem, bleeding, and receding gums. My periodontist insisted that surgery was the only way to prevent losing my teeth. In my research into preventing a recurrence of cancer, I stumbled across information on an ancient Indian form of medicine called Aryuveda. An Ayurvedic doctor recommended I do a process called “oil pulling” to cure my gum disease. I tried it. In six months the gum disease that had plagued me for ten years was cured. For the first time in ten years, my gums were pink and healthy and no longer bled. My dentist and periodontist were amazed. I told them what I had been doing and they were both very interested. As my periodontist said, “You can’t argue with the facts.” My dentist said I was the new “poster boy for dental health”. This simple process is so effective and so common in India that it’s advertised on television, yet I was amazed to see that neither my dentist nor my periodontist had ever even heard of it. I was slowly beginning to lose my dependence on western medicine.
Yet I don’t think I would have done any of these things without the wake-up call of cancer. Cancer prompted me to take charge of my own health. The scare that I got from having cancer and going through experiences that were traumatic not only to my body but to my mind and spirit as well shocked me into realizing that if I didn’t take responsibility for my own health, I had a lifetime of these experiences to look forward to. That nightmare was all I needed. But the results couldn’t be better. I’m now healthier at 61 than I was at 30. Not only my cancer, but my hay fever, high cholesterol, and gum disease have all been cured with no more drugs or medical interventions. And I look and feel great. After experiencing such miraculous health results in my life, I had a powerful drive to give back and share the benefits I had received from so many. I became a Health Coach to share the gifts I was given, to help others avoid the suffering I went through and to help those with cancer recover and regain a healthy, joyful and loving life that I now know is possible.
Buddhist practice teaches you to be aware of the impermanence of all things, including your life. But for me, this was a purely intellectual understanding. I never really felt it deep in my bones. Cancer changed that. For the first time, I came face to face with my own mortality. That may sound terribly frightening or depressing, but it’s actually just the opposite. When we know, beyond any doubt or rationalization, that our time on this earth is very limited, we appreciate every precious moment we have left. It makes our life come alive in ways we never dreamed. We savor each bite knowing it really might be our last. Our relationships become infinitely richer, deeper and more loving. The smallest things, a bird’s song, a smile, the feel of the sun on our face evoke the most profound joy.
“I and others have learned, however, that the side effects of cancer may not all be bad ones. Yes, cancer can kill and we tend to think of side effects as problems, but there are good side effects too. An awareness of one’s mortality can lead you to wake up and live an authentic, meaningful life … These side effects also produce a longer life as a byproduct.”
Bernie Siegel, M.D. – Love, Medicine and Miracles
That’s my story. That’s how cancer healed my life. But this is not about me or my story. It’s about you. And we’re looking for more stories just like these. If you have a story you would like to share, please share it here with us. I’m going to be creating a blog as well as the book. If you would like to share your story, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone me at 617-718-1753. As you can see, stories like these can help many people. Research now says that one in two of all Americans either have now or will have cancer in their lifetime. Over one million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year. Almost every American family is affected. I know how difficult cancer is. I’ve been through it. I’ve lost loved ones to it. It doesn’t just affect the elderly anymore. People in their thirties are dying of cancer right now. Children are dying. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. We need something that will give us hope when all we are offered is fear. We need to know that there are alternatives to the violent, damaging and aggressive treatments our doctors tell us are our only choice. If we are to survive cancer and live well with it, we need to learn that we can take responsibility for our own health and make intelligent choices. I hope the stories in this blog offer that to you. And I hope you will share your stories with us.
Our stories are of pain and struggle, of the terrible loneliness of illness, of fear and of eventual salvation, transformation, and healing. When we keep our stories to ourselves our loneliness and pain can be overwhelming. But when we tell our stories to each other, when we read the stories of other people like us, we come together in a sacred circle of healing. And this is very powerful medicine indeed. It combats the immune-suppressing fear and loneliness that most cancer patients feel. My hope is that this becomes a place of healing. And that your view of cancer can be transformed from one of fear, pain, and suffering to one of healing, peace, and love. This is my wish for you.
“I thought about the health record of doctors. They have more problems with drugs and alcohol, and a higher suicide rate, than their patients. They feel more hopeless than their patients and die faster after the age of sixty-five. No wonder many people are reluctant to go to mainstream physicians. Would you take your car to a mechanic who couldn’t get his own car to run?”
Bernie Siegel, M.D. – Love, Medicine and Miracles
“The fundamental problem most patients face is an inability to love themselves … The ability to love oneself, combined with the ability to love life, fully accepting that it won’t last forever, enables one to improve the quality of life.”
Bernie Siegel, M.D. – Love, Medicine and Miracles
“I and other have learned, however, that the side effects of cancer may not all be bad ones. Yes, cancer can kill and we tend to think of side effects as problems, but there are good side effects too. An awareness of one’s mortality can lead you to wake up and live an authentic, meaningful life … These side effects also produce a longer life as a byproduct.”
Bernie Siegel, M.D. – Love, Medicine and Miracles
Editors Note: You can buy Dr. Siegel’s book on Amazon – Click Here.