Tips from a Four-Time Cancer Survivor
Cancer Survival: The #1 Tip for Survival—Employ the Mind/Body Connection
You are diagnosed with cancer. After the initial shock and feelings of panic subside, you decide you’re not going to be a victim. You’re going to do everything in your power to be a cancer survivor. You owe it to yourself—and to the people in your life, whether they are your spouse, children, parents or friends. You’re going to fight for survival.
What do you do? Here are some tips gleaned from my experience fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma four times in the early to mid-nineties (I’ve been clear of cancer for 17 years):
- Find the best oncologist possible. If you live in a small town near a local hospital—don’t go there for treatment. Make the trip to a hospital in the nearest major city. Why? Doctors in major metropolitan areas treat far more cases of cancer than those in regional towns. They have far more experience with the best treatments. Also, they tend to be better-trained oncologists.
“Bob has produced a literary and personal gem which is intuitively plotted with the sure-footed stealth of fiction, pitch-perfect in tone, sinuous of language and not in the least bit repetitive for the tale of his having to overcome cancer four times over. It is a diamond—a blood diamond.”
--Tim Roux, The Blue Food Revolution, Shades + Shadows
Why? People with a great deal of money live in or near cities. They can pay for the best treatment, and demand the best doctors. The best oncologists, who are educated at the best schools and train at the best cancer centers, will practice at major hospitals. When I was diagnosed in 1991, I lived in a small rural town in Connecticut, a few miles from a local hospital. I didn’t go there for treatment—I made the one-hour trip to Hartford. My oncologist had been trained in Boston at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and had professional relationships with the doctors there—and thus access to the latest and most effective treatments.
- Fire up the Internet, and look for treatments for the specific type of cancer you have. Be an informed patient. Know what types of treatments are being used for your specific cancer. Survival is the key, and knowledge is power. Discuss these treatments with your oncologist. Your doctor may resent it, as he or she has all the training. Too bad—you’re fighting for survival—he or she isn’t. Let oncologists know you want to be involved in the fight.
- Ignore anything you read about survival rates for your type of cancer. When I was diagnosed with Stage Four lymphoma cancer in 1991, it was a death sentence. According to statistics, I had six months to live. I ignored them. You and I are human beings—we are not blips on a chart. At the end of six months of chemotherapy—and employing the mind/body connection, which I discuss below, I was cancer-free.
- Ignore the idea that somehow you caused your cancer. You will come across this idea in New Age books that litter the bookshelves. It is based on ancient ideas from societies that didn’t have any knowledge of bacteria, viruses, or of the dangerous effects of chemical and radiation pollution. In ancient times, people thought that repressed or negative feelings could cause diseases. Or somehow it was punishment from God.
That’s bullshit. Every person on earth represses feelings against family members and friends. If we expressed them, no one would ever get along—we’d be at each other’s throats. Everyone has negative feelings, and many have depression. If these feelings caused cancer, we would have no need of psychiatrists and psychologists. We’d need thousands of more cancer clinics.
And honestly, do you think the tens of millions of people who died of bubonic plague in the 14th century or of influenza at the turn of the twentieth century were negative thinkers? It’s absurd. Some researchers today believe that 80% of all cancers are caused by chemical or radiation exposure or poor diet—and the remainder is genetic.
It’s not your fault—don’t feel guilty--get over it and get busy in the business of cancer survival.
- Don’t let a relapse of cancer destroy your fighting spirit. I initially beat cancer in 1991, but in the following five years it relapsed three times. I never lost hope—I figured the longer I hung in there, the more likely new treatments or a cure would be developed. All over the world researchers in labs are working feverishly to discover cures for cancers. These scientists aren’t motivated by money, but by passion. They want to be the ones to win Nobel prizes, and get their likenesses on postage stamps for discovering cancer cures. Hang in there. New treatments are being developed all the time.
- Take care of yourself. Clear the playing field of substances that weaken the immune system and the body’s ability to heal. Cut out tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, and limit caffeine.
Eat a proper diet. Avoid junk food. Eat lean protein and green, cruciferous vegetables. Avoid taking mega-doses of vitamins like C and E—in some studies these anti-oxidants have been shown to protect not only normal cells, but cancer cells as well. Get your vitamins naturally from a well-balanced diet.
Avoid fad diets that promise miracle cures. Many exist; you will find them all over the Internet. Most don’t have any scientific evidence to support their claims—just anecdotal evidence of one person in 10,000 who was miraculously cured. They don’t tell you about the other 9,999 who didn’t make it.
- Find someone in your life—besides yourself—to live for. This may seem like a strange statement—isn’t it enough to want to survive? You will find that after large doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation you will sometimes be so sick that you will feel like quitting. That’s the time to remember that other people need you to survive.
For me, it was my two-year-old son Geoff and my infant son Dylan. I swore an oath that I would survive to be a father to them and see them grow into men. Even through the high-dose chemotherapy and sickness of two stem-cell transplants, when I felt so sick I didn’t know if I could go on, I never forgot my oath to live for them, too. That sustained me through my six-year ordeal of chemotherapy.
Today Geoff is 21 and in Special Forces, due to be deployed. Dylan is 19, a gifted artist attending art college. Because of them, I didn’t quit. I kept my oath.
The Number #1 Tip for Cancer Survival: Employ the Mind/Body Connection
Let’s say you’ve taken the above information to heart. Have you done everything you can to put yourself in the best position to be a cancer survivor?
No. There’s something else you can do: you can enlist your mind to encourage your body’s immune system to operate at a higher level. The mind/body connection is one more weapon in your arsenal to help you beat the disease.
When I was diagnosed with Stage Four lymphoma cancer in 1991 and given six months to live, I read everything I could about people who had survived supposedly terminal illnesses. One common thread emerged—they utilized the mind/body connection as a complement to Western allopathic treatment. That is, through meditation and visualization, they used their minds to support their immune systems. This was the infant science of psychoneuroimmunology—a new science in the Western world.
For the next six months, I was given double doses of CHOP chemotherapy to destroy the rampant disease that littered my pelvis—and that had fractured my hip. And I spent several periods of time each day visualizing my immune system attacking the cancer.
Examples of visualizations in books by Bernie Siegel, a Yale surgeon, and the Simontons, early mind/body cancer researchers, were fairly primitive. They advised patients to visualize Pac-Men gobbling up cancer cells, or knights with lances skewering the cancer cells. These seemed violent to me, and at odds with achieving a peaceful state.
So I devised my own: I visualized my diseased pelvis as a sandy beach littered with weak jellyfish eggs—the cancer cells. As I inhaled, a wave would crash into shore and cover the eggs. As I exhaled, the wave would recede and carry off a portion of the eggs to be filtered into the sea. I used my breathing in coordination with visualization of the waves. All aspects of my being were involved in this visualization: body (breathing), mind and spirit.
Little did I know that I had struck upon the techniques used by the Chinese for thousands of years to maintain health and combat disease. The Chinese called these mind/body exercises qigong, which means energy work. All involve the total being—mind, body and spirit. All involve the practice of deep, abdominal breathing, which has a multitude of benefits. I discuss my practice of qigong—which helped me beat several relapses of cancer and remain cancer-free for over 12 years—below.
Let me make one thing clear: qigong is affiliated with no religious group nor espouses any philosophy. Chinese Christians, Moslems, Taoists and Buddhist practice these mind/body exercises.
At the end of six months, against all odds, I was cancer free. My oncologist was shocked. But over the following five years the lymphoma cancer would return three times. Instinctively I knew I had to delve more deeply into the mind/body connection to survive.
Qigong—the Chinese Mind/Body Exercises That Helped Me Survive
I beat my cancer in 1991. My wife and I went to Cozumel and I drank more cerveza than is advisable. I was on top of the world.
Then a year later the cancer returned, this time in my other hip. As it was an aggressive mix of large and small cell lymphoma, my oncologist recommended a stem-cell transplant, in which white cells are filtered from your blood, stored, then poured back into you to recreate your immune system—after high-dose chemotherapy destroys the bone marrow, and hopefully every cancer cell in your body.
It’s a horrific, medieval treatment—but it was necessary. The high-dose chemotherapy employed in stem-cell or bone marrow transplants makes ordinary chemo seem like Tylenol. So I knew I had to work hard to weather it and finally beat my disease.
That’s when I researched more deeply into the mind/body connection and found that the Chinese had been utilizing it for thousands of years. What was new in the West was old hat in the East.
The Chinese call these mind/body exercises qigong (chee-gung).
What Is Qigong?
Qigong means ‘energy work’ in Chinese. The Chinese have used qigong exercises for several thousand years to keep healthy and stave off disease. Qigong operates on a similar theory to acupuncture: energy meridians and channels to your organs flow throughout the body. When these channels remain open, you remain healthy. When they become blocked, illness ensues. Qigong mind/body exercises are designed to keep those energy channels open. Acupuncture was regarded with suspicion and skepticism in the West until recently but its efficacy has now been proved to the extent that it has become accepted practice worldwide. Similarly with qigong.
I didn’t know if qigong would help me beat cancer. But facing a stem-cell transplant to try to kill a very dangerous relapsed lymphoma, I figured I had nothing to lose. I also leavened any skepticism with this line of reasoning: China is the world’s oldest continuing civilization, and the Chinese are the most practical people on earth—they have to be just to feed their population. If acupuncture and qigong didn’t work, the Chinese would have discarded these practices centuries ago.
In Chinese hospitals today, both Western medicine and qigong are used together. Western-trained doctors will use surgery or allopathic medicines to treat patients—but will also prescribe qigong exercises as a complement to speed the healing process. They know that our minds are powerful and can be used to enhance our immune systems.
So I found a local teacher of tai chi chuan, the slow-moving exercise that is both an advanced system of qigong and a martial art, and began learning simple, basic qigong exercises. All tai chi chuan instructors also teach qigong as part of their curriculum, as basic mind/body exercises are the foundation for learning the intricacies of tai chi.
Most qigong exercises are easy-to-learn and simple to do. They can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. Anyone can do qigong. Anyone.
If you’re enduring cancer, I’ll guarantee you one thing: Qigong practice will give you a better quality of life:
- Meditative practices have been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. This has been documented in books such as The Relaxation Response, by Dr. Herbert Benson.
- Meditative practices take us out of the fight-or-flight syndrome that we all undergo when we experience fear. The fight-or-flight mechanism is meant to be short-term; it pumps adrenal hormones like adrenaline into our system to help us escape the claws of an imminent danger—like a saber-tooth tiger’s claws. If we are in a constant state of fear—such as fighting a cancer within us—these substances will interfere with the healing process. You want a clear playing field for the chemo and/or radiation to do its job.
- The deep abdominal breathing will supercharge your lymphatic system, which removes toxins and is an important part of your immune system. It relies on respiration and muscular action to function. You’ll be calmer, better able to manage your disease and the deleterious effects of chemo and/or radiation therapy. Even if you are too tired to do any active exercises, you can lie down, breathe from your abdomen, and improve your health.
- You’ll also feel empowered. Empowerment is a trendy word. I balk at using it. But you will feel that you are part of the healing process if you practice qigong. It’s easy to feel helpless if you sit back and hope the doctors and treatment will cure you. Qigong will make you strong and reinforce your will every time you practice it.
How Qigong Helped Me
I made it through the stem-cell transplant with flying colors—and I set a record for leaving the transplant room and going home. The oncologists at the transplant center were amazed, as I had received so much chemotherapy to overcome the initial outbreak of cancer. Every time you receive chemotherapy, your immune system is weakened I should have been much sicker from the high-dose chemotherapy—but I sailed through.
I’m not an extraordinary physical specimen—just an average guy who keeps himself in decent shape. The only reason I went through the transplant with a minimum of sickness (many patients develop pneumonia and other infections; an alarming percentage die, not from cancer, but from the effects of the chemotherapy) was the qigong. It made me strong from the inside out.
Again, I was cancer-free. I believed I was cured. More cerveza. So I stopped practicing qigong and got on with my life, freelance writing for the corporate world.
Cancer Again—for the Third Time
A year later I felt a twinge in my shoulder while I was cutting some brush behind my house. It steadily grew worse. I hoped it was a rotator cuff injury. Tests proved otherwise; my lymphoma had returned.
Because my particular lymphoma was an aggressive cancer cell that could metastasize unpredictably, my oncologist recommended another stem cell transplant. I was crestfallen and afraid. I had been through one and I knew what to expect.
The second transplant would be more intense than the first, as I was a repeat offender. It would be at a different cancer center, and the protocol was several times more potent than the first.
So I decided to go deeper into qigong to help me mentally, physically and emotionally to deal with the high-dose chemotherapy—and to hopefully finally beat the cancer.
Just as better doctors are located in major cities, so are better qigong teachers—for the same reasons. From my martial arts days I knew that a world-famous kung fu, tai chi chuan and qigong master had his headquarters in Boston—his name is Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering from Purdue University and who studied the Eastern arts in Taiwan
I connected with Dr. Yang’s top disciple, who was teaching qigong and tai chi chuan in Connecticut at the time. He introduced me to the most powerful form of qigong—standing post meditation. It’s widely practiced in China and has numerous health benefits.
Here’s how you do the standing post: You stand, knees bent, spine straight, sacrum tucked, head level, and hold your arms in an arc, palms facing the heart. It opens all the meridians and channels of energy in your body, and the arcing of the arms places pressure on the sternum—which according to many masters stimulates the thymus gland, which produces T-cells. T-cells are the body’s natural killer cells which destroy invaders like cancer.
So I practiced, building up my time a little bit each day. Normally, twenty minutes of standing is enough for good health—but I was facing the most intense chemotherapy ever devised. So I practiced until I could stand for an hour at a time, clearing my energy meridians, breathing deeply to give my lymphatic system a good workout, and hopefully encouraging my thymus gland to kick out more T-cells to help kill the cancer.
Remarkable Results From My Second Transplant
Again, despite the ferocity of the chemotherapy of my second transplant, I came through with a minimum of sickness. I also set a record for getting out of a transplant room—which was remarkable, as I’d already had one transplant. Why? After the high-dose chemotherapy of a transplant, your immune system should be suppressed for life—and additional chemo should make you very sick.
Not in my case.
Also, a very extraordinary thing happened that I can only ascribe to my qigong practice: I was able to mobilize stem cells for the second transplant. No one had ever done this. Because my immune system supposedly was suppressed from the first transplant, stem cells—baby white cells that are the foundation of your immune system—should not have been present in sufficient quantities in my blood for collection.
When that’s the case, oncologists remove bone marrow from your bones, which contains white cells and many other types of cells. It’s a less pure product, which means a much longer hospital stay and the chance of many types of infections. Sometimes, because of its impurity, the bone marrow doesn’t engraft, or take, properly—and you’re left without an immune system. Then you die.
I avoided these complications because my immune system remained strong, despite repeated doses of the most lethal chemotherapy on earth. I can’t take credit for being special—it was the result of my qigong practice.
Cancer—for the Fourth Time
Cancer-free after my second stem-cell transplant. Champagne this time!
Then I made a mistake that I’ll always regret—I stopped practicing qigong. After the high-dose chemo of two transplants, how could any cancer cells remain in my body? Time to get on with life.
A year later the lymphoma relapsed in my spine, a tiny tumor eating its way through my L-4 disk. My oncologist was somewhat at a loss: I’d received every type of chemotherapy in the previous five years—cancer cells that survived in my body were obviously resistant to any chemo.
She decided to try the CHOP chemo I was treated with initially in 1991. It had worked well then.
And I began practicing qigong—standing post meditation—with a vengeance. An hour every day. Plus seated meditation and visualization.
In a month I was out of pain. Tests revealed the tumor was gone.
How I’ve Remained Cancer-Free for over 17 Years
In 1996 I became clear of cancer. Since that time, I’ve remained cancer-free and the doctors believe I’m cured.
I haven’t made the same mistake I made earlier in my battle: I’ve practiced qigong almost every day since, about forty minutes most mornings, time permitting.