25 October 2010

Eating for recovery

“Now that you have cancer, what you eat will make no difference to the outcome.”This is the all-too-frequent and disturbing advice many people have told me was given to them by their well-meaning doctors.

Clearly, if you reflect on it, the advice is inane. Does that mean you can eat poison now and it will not matter? Does anyone really think that if you are on chemo and have a really bad junk food diet, that switching to a good diet will not help? And what of the recent research showing that what you eat actually can be therapeutic and improve outcomes for people with cancer?

Faced with cancer there are basically three food choices – do nothing different, eat sensibly, or eat therapeutically.

1. Do Nothing
Just continue to eat what ever you did in the past leading up to the diagnosis.
  • Benefits: No stress, no fuss, business as usual, easy for everyone.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Since the 1970’s and the work of Doll and Peto, we have known that at least one third of all cancers are directly dietary related. Food is the major cause of cancer according to leading authorities. So, if you have a disease why keep doing what is causing it?
    • By doing nothing, you could miss out on the real benefits.
  • How to do it? Convince yourself food is unimportant or what you are doing is okay.

2. Eat Sensibly
Eat things that are known to be good for you, and avoid those that are not. This is like the Wellness (or Maintenance) Diet, as set out in my book You Can Conquer Cancer (YCCC).
  • Benefits:
    • Provides sound nutrition that will support treatment and healing.
    • Avoids dietary factors that could make the situation worse.
    • This approach is relatively easy to do and if followed by other members of the family, will do their long term health a power of good.
  • Disadvantages: Unless you were eating really well before the diagnosis; you and those around you will need to change somewhat; you will have to learn new ways and adapt your habits.
  • How to do it?  Follow the Wellness Diet Guidelines in YCCC.

3. Eat therapeutically
Eating for Recovery goes further and aims to use food as a solution; it aims to increase the chances of survival.
  • Benefits:
    • Based on 30 years of clinical experience, almost all the people that I have worked with who have had medically unexpected, long term recoveries claim that food was one of the things that helped them most.
    • Taking control of your diet gives a sense of control generally and it might just be very helpful!
    • Changing your diet is not so easy but by doing so, it is like you make a huge affirmation that you want to live. This truth and its impact are often overlooked.
    • Done well, this focus on food can provide a common goal, a point of coming together for family and friends. What is needed is the clarity of conviction. Then enthusiasm for it, even delight in change flows easily.
  • Disadvantages:
    • If done badly, with the wrong attitudes, dietary change can cause stress for everyone.
    • Obtaining good professional support is challenging. Most medical courses provide little training in nutrition and hence many doctors do not value it. In my experience many dieticians seem to have a very conservative view regarding the potential for food to be therapeutic. Nutritionists and naturopaths are often more accepting of the possibilities and knowledgeable, but generally many health practitioners focus their “nutritional advice” on supplements and overlook the main event – the food you eat and what you drink.
  • How to do it?  Refer back to last weeks Blog – Food 101 as a starting point to review the decision making process and to be reminded of the choices. You could consider one of the following:
  • Follow a specific healing program or therapist’s advice.
    For example, the Healing Diet as outlined in YCCC and detailed in my CD “Eating for Recovery”, is based on 30 years experience helping people with cancer who took their nutrition seriously. Like me they studied, they experimented and they reached conclusions that were common to many of them. Those conclusions form the Healing Diet and are a good starting point for many who have been recently diagnosed and choose to be serious about their diet.
  • Personalise your Healing Diet.
    This requires a concerted effort but in my view provides the best long term outcomes. The steps are:
  1. Begin with an intense period.
    Take your food seriously. Ideally do a detox program, maybe a monodiet as in YCCC. Eliminate toxins, purify your system. Rebalance your metabolism and enhance your sensitivity to what is good for you. Revisit the blog: Food 101.
  2. Over time, use your own sensibilities to modify the Healing Diet to match your own situation and metabolism. This is a little challenging as it requires some confidence in your own ability to work out what is good for you. But remember, life is not static. Everything is constantly changing and so while the main things you eat may remain fairly constant, some details will change. When you have developed the capacity and the confidence to respond to you own dietary needs, you have a secret for long-term good health.

Before diagnosis: I ate the average Western diet with a lot of meat. Many people, including me, thought I ate pretty well.

After diagnosis: Began to take more interest in what I was eating, but changed little.

After secondaries: Had an “ah! ha!” experience. Food is important, it could help me to heal.
Began with about 3 months on the Gerson Diet: No meat except some liver juices (true!), no fish, only occasional cottage cheese, lots of veggies and juices along with specific Gerson supplements (from Dec ’75). Fortunately survived all this too!

While it was great for detoxing, rebalancing the system and increasing my sensitivity, I was unable to obtain organic grains at the time so struggled with weightloss. Also, as my disease was well advanced, cachexia, or weightloss related to the cancer itself was probably a real issue (I will write more on this important issue another time). So I began to modify Gerson by experimenting with a wider range of foods. Stayed off meat and found hen’s eggs and dairy products disagreed with me. Continued to have juices while healing, towards the end ate fish once every week or two.

Once well: Settled into the Wellness Diet. Now eat what is best described as  vegaquarian – basically (but obviously not strictly) vegetarian/vegan with seafood occasionally (about once a week). This could also be described in broad terms as a wholefood, plant based diet. Often I eat a couple of eggs a week and every now and again some cheese or an ice cream (for years while healing I did not, which may have been my greatest discipline).

It may well be that the more attention you give to your nutrition, the better the effect.

Prof. Dean Ornish published research showing that men who made modest lifestyle changes, including to their diets, stabilised early prostate cancer. Those who made major changes, improved their situation significantly.

With Multiple Sclerosis, Swank’s long term research showed the same effect even more dramatically. In his study, people who improved their diets to quite a large extent often got little benefit. It was only when they were more thorough that their MS stabilised and when really thorough, actually reversed – like we have documented at the Foundation’s MS program.

Again, based on my years of experience, I believe that to obtain cancer related, therapeutic benefits from nutrition may require a really good diet, not just pretty good. And while it may well be true that when you are well, what you eat mostly is important, (what you eat occasionally does not matter so much in this situation), when you are Eating for Recovery, what you eat all the time is likely to be important. So eating therapeutically may well require being consistently thorough, sticking to what is good for you.

How sad it is that research in this field is so neglected. I have seen so many people do remarkable things when they combine good nutrition with the right state of mind and regular, intense meditation.

All of this is an essentualised summary intended as an indication of what is possible while giving some inspiration and direction. Remember to get professional advice if you are making major changes.

As always, let me know your experiences, questions, feedback bellow by clicking on the word "Comments".

1. My book 'You Can Conquer Cancer' has three chapters on food, eating theraputically and maintaining a healthy diet.

2. My CDs:
Eating Well, Being Well: All the main points about food – the Wellness Diet.
Eating for Recovery:  Building on the first CD, the specifics of the anti-cancer diet: the Healing Diet.

3. Gerson’s book 'A Cancer Therapy'. While I do not recommend this at home because it is so hard to do, the book is full of explanations and recommendations that more recent research continues to support. For example, Gerson said in the ‘40s Flaxseed oil was the only oil to use and not to heat it.

4. Programs and counselling: The Gawler Foundation; www.gawler.org

What was Prof Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and world authority on the brain, the mind and relationships doing literally “Out on a Limb” up a tree in a Melbourne park? All will be revealed as I tell you about the meeting Ruth and I had with him this week and about his fascinating and extremely important research and experience.

18 October 2010

Food 101: What fuel goes into your tank?

Food is directly linked to six of the ten most common causes of death. Some people live for their next gourmet food experience. Some eat to fill an emotional hole and become the size of a whale. Some just hope they will get something, any old thing to eat today. And some base their health and their healing around food.

One recent, very hot summer’s day, I pulled in to a garage for petrol. Beside me, a hot, sweaty, overweight and grumpy man approached a nearby pump for his fuel. He had three choices – low, medium and high octane, and he seemed clear on which to choose.

Seeing his foul mood, the mischievous part of me thought to suggest he take out his grumpiness on his van and put the wrong fuel in it. The sane part rapidly decided this was not such a good idea! Not to be outdone, the mischievous part rose up with: “ tell him to do a really good job of it and fill up with diesel instead of petrol”. No came the response, you will get hit for sure if you say that!

So I held my tongue and watched. Very attentively this man put the right petrol into his simple combustion engine van. Then he went into the shop, bought all sorts of junk and proceeded to put absolute rubbish into his own highly sophisticated, super complex combustion engine ie his body? My guess is that this fellow was like the rest of us and regularly attends to his vehicle’s service timelines.

Why the disconnect with the body? Surely it is common sense that food builds our bodies and is the mainstay of running and repairing them.

If you want a junk body, eat junk food. Want a healthy body? Eat healthy food. Just think each time you are putting fuel into your vehicle, what sort of fuel am I asking my body to run on today?

THIS BLOG then will be the start of a series to examine three crucial questions:
  1. What is healthy food? - for those who are basically well, and those seeking healing.
  2. How is it best to handle food? – selection, storage, preparation, eating.
  3. Once you have confidence in what to do – how do you actually get into the habit of eating well and sustaining it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one dietary regime we could confidently recommend for everyone! Problem is, people are different – physically, metabolically, psychologically, every which way. How, therefore do we work out what is best for us?

Sort out what value you place on food, ie how important is it to you? How much attention will you give it?
In my opinion, it is very important – for our health, for healing and for wellbeing. But you may prefer to eat, drink, and be merry!

Decide who decides.
Given the complexity of this subject, you may choose to seek out the best health professional available, and follow their advice. Perhaps you will prefer to follow someone else’s established formula - such as the guidelines set out in my Wellness diet outlined in “You Can Conquer Cancer”(YCCC) which suit the needs of most people. Or you may decide to take the time to develop your own, personalised program.


Based on nearly 30 years of learning about nutrition, and clinical experience helping people attending to their food seriously, I have come to realise there are two steps that reliably sort this out.

  1. Establish Healthy Boundaries:
    By this is meant, in broad terms establish what is good for you and what is not. This leads to the sort of list most nutritional experts will agree with – things to eat, things to avoid. Too long for a blog, my own list is set out in YCCC or on my CD “Eating Well, Being Well”
    The essence of this approach is a whole food, plant based diet.
  2. Individualise Your Food:
    Again, this can be achieved by following the advice of an external, trusted expert, or by turning yourself into the expert. How? By developing your responsiveness to your food. By building your own sense of what is good for you and what is not, and your capacity to respond to this knowing.

This later approach requires a concerted effort but is rewarding in the sense of achievement and confidence you will feel, and the results that follow.

A Short Summary of How to Do It:
    Meditation heightens mindfulness and awareness. You notice the effects of what you do. You become more responsive to, and appreciative of your food.
    Let your body be your guide. Help your body to become more responsive.
    • Detoxify: Like servicing the car, use a detox to refresh and purify your system. TIP: Just eliminating sugar and salt quickly enhances your body’s capacity to discriminate between foods that agree with you and those that do not.
    • Balance Your System: Supplements may be useful for a while but food is the main event. Remember, good supplements will never make up for poor food.
    • Observe your reactions and adjust accordingly.
    Treat any negative emotions. Quite a lot to say in a few words, but many people’s dietary habits are driven by their emotions.
    Learn! Take an interest. Read. Go to groups and seminars. Visit the experts. Ask questions and discriminate.

Remember, whenever considering nutrition it is wise to seek professional help. This is essential if you have had bowel surgery, or if anything untoward or unexpected happens.


  1. BOOKS:
    You Can Conquer Cancer - Dr. Ian Gawler: Three chapters on food; as much for prevention of cancer and for the healthy as it is for those dealing with the disease.

    The Miracle of Mindfulness- Thich Nhat Hanh: How to develop your awareness and so your responsiveness to food.
  2. IAN’S CDs:
    Eating Well, Being Well: The healthy boundaries explained – a sound, enjoyable basic diet. Suitable for many people.

    Eating For Recovery: The healing diet for cancer. Note: If you are dealing with cancer, you need both CDs as the first explains the foundations and the second the details.

    Emotional Health: Particularly useful for resolving “racket”, or habitual emotions that can override our common sense when it comes to what to eat.
    The Gawler Foundation provides residential and non-residential programs, as well as counselling and a great resource centre.

I will go “Out on a Limb” recounting what I did eat to get well, what I eat now and discuss food in relation to cancer – its role as a cause, how it supports other treatments, and the possibilities it holds as a cure.

Pardon the poor pun but I am very interested in what is working for people and any difficulties or questions you may have. Just click on Comments and let me know.

11 October 2010

A Survivor's Bemusement

It is rather bemusing to be a long term cancer survivor and to have so many people claiming to be responsible for curing you and to have their own version of what you did.

During the thirty plus years since my recovery from disseminated osteosarcoma, I am personally aware of hearing the following people lay claim to my cure: one psychiatrist who taught meditation therapeutically, one chemotherapist, one naturopath, several shamanic healers, one rabid nutritionist, one Indian avatar (actually he did not make any claim, but some of his disciples did), and one ex wife.

Those who claim to have assisted significantly in the recovery include a surgeon, radiotherapist, counsellor, yoga teacher, one GP heavily into supplementation, several other GPs, diagnosticians and natural therapists, family members and friends!

Things that I took or did that others have claimed were what really cured me include food, juices, supplements, developing strong willpower, benefitting from good support, using meditation, imagery, yoga, exercise, spiritual healing, prayer, chemotherapy, taking injections of mistletoe and TB vaccines and taking various other herbs, elixirs and potions.

The fact is I did a lot and many of the above were really helpful. Perhaps it is no wonder that when my story has been retold by others, while the main points have usually been accurately presented, there have often been minor errors in the detail – usually to do with time lines.

My biography “The Dragon’s Blessing” was compiled by an independent journalist who had access to meticulous diaries I kept through my illness, my detailed medical records and to all the key people involved, including family, friends, healers and doctors. I believe it to be an accurate account of what really did happen during my life leading up to the diagnosis, my long and complex recovery and my life and work since.

One of the most common questions I have been asked over the years is “What did it? How come you survived when others did not? Were you just lucky? What made the difference?” Well in my view, the challenging reality is that there was not any single thing that “did it”. Most of the above were helpful. I attribute my recovery to a combined approach.

So was I just lucky? I do not think so. While it would be fair to say that I was a little bit lucky - I am still alive after all; in my view, the key points, the key points that usually have been accurately portrayed when my story has been retold, are these: the two things that helped me the most were my lifestyle generally, and my state of mind specifically.

My state of mind was aided greatly by the sustained practice of meditation. It enabled me to remain free of anxiety in the face of an extreme health crisis. My mind became clearer, more stable and better focused. As a consequence, I was able to think clearly, make good decisions and have the confidence, commitment and perseverance to gain the best outcomes from all that I did.

For the last thirty years I have helped others to take up a similar therapeutic lifestyle to the one I used and continue to follow personally. This approach is well documented in my book “You Can Conquer Cancer” which was first published in 1984 and has been updated since.

Based on my extensive clinical experience, and supported by the burgeoning amount of positive research in this field, I am of the view that a lifestyle program warrants implementation at the time of first diagnosis of cancer, just as it does for heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and MS. There is no doubt in my view that lifestyle factors can do more than just improve the quality of life for people affected by cancer; A therapeutic lifestyle can improve survival times.

While it is relatively easy to instruct people in the technical aspects of how to meditate, and what constitutes healthy food, drink and exercise, it is far more challenging to address implementation of such a lifestyle based program, as well as the emotional, mental and spiritual needs they experience.

Again, based on my clinical experience, this is where group instruction and therapy is so important. Inspiration, hope, safety, emotional expression, the search for meaning, the capacity to endure, cope with setbacks, failures and triumphs; all these and so much more is possible when self help, peer groups meet around a common theme with a well trained and skilled facilitator.

  1. Doctors to recommend a lifestyle program for all people at first diagnosis of cancer (just like they do for heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes)
  2. More research is needed on the therapeutic benefits of lifestyle specifically and long term survivors generally. Also, specific research is long overdue to investigate the effects of meditation on cancer survival.
  3. Increase public awareness so people know what a therapeutic lifestyle is, what its benefits are, where to learn about it and where to receive the support they need to implement it.
  4. Ensure access to suitable lifestyle based self–help programs led by well trained and authentic group leaders supported by sufficient ancillary staff and services. The Gawler Foundation, from which I am now retired, continues to provide what in my view is the world’s best practice model for this type of service.


NUTRITION: What constitutes a healthy diet for the average person and for those looking to recover from major illness? What I actually did eat through my own recovery - and what I eat now that helps me to be really well and happy!

04 October 2010


"It’s a great feeling to have recovered from cancer – to have been through it all and to be living a full, happy life again. I have done it. I have seen others do it and I know many more will repeat the process in the future"
This is how I began “You Can Conquer Cancer” when I first wrote it in 1984. Those lines encapsulated the elation I felt coming out the other end of a very difficult illness, the realisation that what had helped me to recover was already helping others and the promise of things to come.

First diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma and leg amputated in 1975, my cancer recurred later that year. Then given 2 weeks to live in early 1976 and yet almost miraculously, declared cancer free in July 1978.
Apart from being elated, was I just lucky? Or was there something repeatable in what had helped me?
I was convinced that it was the things I was able to learn and do for myself that had made the difference. This is not to minimise the terrific support I received during my recovery, but I felt a compulsion to attempt to help others with the key things I believed had the potential to make the difference between life and death. The key things that people can learn to do for themselves.
These key factors are best described as lifestyle factors. They are the things that we can do in the course of our daily lives that have so much influence on our health, our capacity to heal and our wellbeing. What we eat and drink, how much we exercise, whether we smoke or not. How we manage our relationships, our work, our emotional health, what we know of the workings of our mind and how we use its potential; and how our spiritual values and practices inform our lives; these are lifestyle factors. These are things we can learn about, study and practice. These are things which are within our own control and have the capacity to radically transform our lives for the better.
My work in this field had begun rather tentatively in 1981. Perhaps what had helped me might help others. In those early days there was an incredible amount to learn. And I asked questions. Many questions - of many people. In fact, most of the questions were directed at the large numbers of people who attended the groups I ran. What works? What works to make the groups function better? What works at home that you learn at the groups? What do we need to give more attention to? What is irrelevant? What is useful?
Many people reported many benefits and the groups flourished, You Can Conquer Cancer was written, an organisation grew to support the work. As the positive results became more obvious, we moved into preventative health as well as adding to the cancer programs with specific Multiple Sclerosis programs. We expended into the field of wellbeing – how is sustainable happiness to be found.
When I retired from The Gawler Foundation at the end of 2009 there were around 50 staff and many volunteers providing a wide range of services that focus on the capacity for lifestyle factors to positively influence health, healing and wellbeing. Happily the organisation has continued to flourish since I have stepped back.
It was a tough thing to retire. I am only 60 and there are so many people needing help. But as well as feeling the need for a break (which I could have accomplished with a sabbatical) and the need to allow the Foundation to fully mature and to establish its bona fides independently of myself; I recognise the value of stepping outside of what you are immersed in, to reassess and refocus. Being so committed to this work for so many years, it would be nice to think I had become a little better at what I was doing as the years passed by.
But being so involved, it is hard to think really freely, really creatively. My work has always valued innovation and creativity. Curiously, the core of the programs is very similar now to what they were in the early 80s. The value of good food, and what it is, the value of regular meditation and how to do it; these are the constants.
But is there a better way that I could be assisting people? It may be helpful to say that it felt to me to be a huge responsibility to step out of something that clearly was, and continues to be, so helpful to so many people, to step into the unknown and to explore new unchartered possibilities. Let’s hope something useful emerges.
Why then a blog? Well, firstly, I pretty thoroughly avoided computers for the first 60 years of my life! We had plenty of them at work and while enjoying learning about what they could do and being involved in developing good systems to use them, I never had one myself or used one personally. I love the feel and the flow of writing with a fountain pen.
However, one of the areas that I am bound to give my attention to in future blogs is the exciting new discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity – how the brain changes its structure and function depending upon how we use it. It adds good science to the old adage “use it or lose it.”
Personally therefore, I am choosing to stretch and work my brain by delving into what for me are new fields of IT and the web.
In the broader terms of what I have to offer, and how I might be helpful, a blog seems like a great medium to explore. Just like when I first started Australia’s first lifestyle based cancer self-help groups back in 1981, now I am interested in how new technologies can be useful – not just for people with cancer, but also those interested in the wider scope of lifestyle factors – that cover health, healing and wellbeing.
So, the current intention is to begin with weekly posts covering a range of topics. Please feel free to comment. Those early cancer groups were dramatically shaped by the feedback of their participants and as a consequence they rapidly grew into something useful. Maybe we can do the same thing here and use this medium to develop something that is really relevant and helpful.
Maybe the blog will be useful in its own right and will warrant development. Maybe it will lead to something else in IT land. Maybe my energies will be better directed into the garden?!
This then has been an introduction and a beginning. The first focussed blog is posted now too – on meditation. So, read on. Give feedback if you feel to. Unsubscribe if you prefer and lets see what happens.