22 August 2011

Ian Gawler Blog: Recovery from cancer is possible.

It is possible to recover from cancer. Cancer can be cured. Medicine can do quite a bit. You can do the rest. These are facts. It is possible. Cancer can be cured.

On September the 17th and 18th I will be presenting a weekend workshop with The Gawler Foundation in Melbourne. The Saturday will be on Relaxation, Mindfulness and Meditation; while the Sunday will be on Food and Nutrition: Eating Your Way to Health. 

However, the weekend coincides with a major milestone. On September the 16th it will be 30 years since the first ever Melbourne Cancer Support Group meeting. I well remember that day. Sitting in the lounge room of a fairly large suburban house, in front of 30 anxious, fearful participants, I was probably as nervous as they were.

Never having been in a group before, let alone led one, here I was suggesting to these adventurous souls that just like me, they might be able to recover. Like me, all present quickly saw the rationale in the fact that if it can be done once, maybe it can be done again. A glimmer of hope was kindled and as the weeks moved on, despair gave way to optimism, futility was transformed amongst the active program that unfolded and developed, and life really did begin anew.

When these groups began in ’81, I had three main motives:

1. Cure cancer, live well.

When I wrote You Can Conquer Cancer, some people preferred to interpret the “conquer” bit not so much as recovering physically, but triumphing in your mind by not letting the cancer get the better of you. That is not all that I meant. I meant: YOU CAN CONQUER CANCER! You can experience a cure, and sure you will still have to die of something, but something other than cancer!

The real reason for such a strong title was just that. To state clearly what I believed then and do so even more today; and to confront the widely held view of the day that you get cancer and die.

So how real is this? Well firstly, medicine can do quite a bit. Average survival from all cancers after 5 years is now around 65%. However, if we take breast cancer as a specific example, for women diagnosed from 2001-06 in the UK, average 5 year survival is quoted at a higher than average 82%. But at 10yrs, the figure is down to 73% and at 20yrs it is 64%. Of course these figures vary a good deal depending upon the age of the woman and the stage of her disease at diagnosis, but they reveal the problem. For the average person, the possibility of dying from cancer increases as time goes on.

So what to do? It seems clear to me.

i) If you have a medical cure on offer:

Focus on that and then help yourself by doing all you can to get the best result possible, with the least side-effects and the best quality of life.

ii) If there is no prospect of a medical cure, or you have had treatment and are like so many people who have had initial cancer treatment and are then left hoping for the best; instead of just hoping for the best, do the best: use your own resources to help your body to heal and maintain itself.

The details of how to help yourself are in You Can Conquer Cancer.

Now there is a challenging issue here that is worth giving voice to. Do these very hopeful words of mine raise the possibility of false hope or imply that if someone’s cancer does progress adversely they have done something wrong, or worse, there is something wrong with them?

In my experience this raises a hugely complex range of issues, the detail and application of which have been of great concern and interest to me for many years and which I wrote about recently in three successive blogs (see links below).

2. To play a part in developing a more Integrative approach to cancer management.

Progress? Some things have changed for the better, some are still as stuck as ever. 
Integrative Medicine is probably what good medicine always has been. It focuses on the whole person; body, emotions, mind and spirit; and it works within a collaborative, multidisciplinary environment where the patients needs are first and foremost, and the turf wars of specialties are put aside. 

However, happily there is now an official body to represent doctors interested in this field, the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (AIMA), and one of the best things I believe I ever did, which was to found the Mind, Immunity and Health series of conferences for health professionals, has morphed into AIMA’s annual conference.

However, not everyone was, or is happy. In the early days of AA, it seemed that the notion of patients getting together and doing something in terms of outcome that the medical profession could not, such as overcoming alcoholism, was an idea some felt better blindly attacking, rather than investigating and supporting. Same for our cancer groups. 

So fairly frequently I have been called upon at Conferences and in the media to come together with often quite hostile senior medical figures to defend what we were doing. Given that 30yrs later some of these people are still at it, I sometimes wonder if I was too polite, too conciliatory, too keen to have doctors and patients working together. Not so long ago, even my ex-wife joined one of these figures (Prof. Ray Lowenthal) in an attempt to discredit me in the MJA.

Happily, the research is mounting, albeit most of it done outside of Australia. If I have one regret looking back, it is in not being able to solve the research dilemma. While for some years now the Gawler Foundation has had its own Post Doctoral Research Officer, and the Foundation has combined with a number of useful published research projects over many years, the most notable by Nicola Reavley; despite many efforts and grant applications, an outcome study investigating the programs effect on survival times is still to be done. 

If you want the truth, the thing that amazes me most about this is that those who claim to be scientific, have not recognized the large number of long term survivors associated with this cancer work and offered to establish research to investigate them more fully. It seems medicine these days is very scientific when the prospect of financially lucrative patents are involved, but not so when relatively free lifestyle techniques are the issue.

Around 20 years ago Lowenthal challenged me to provide the 50 best examples of long term survivors for scrutiny during an ABC program. That I did, but then he said the money was unavailable to fund the investigation. 

Maybe it is time for a challenge of my own. When will funding be available to answer this question so many people in the public want an answer to, and why should I or the Foundation be expected to fund or even drive such research when it is so complex and so expensive? Surely there is enough evidence and interest to warrant public resources including funds being allocated to such a project. 

I cringe when I hear what some well meaning fundraising is directed to. Please, if you are involved in fundraising for cancer, it is time to start insisting on how the money is used and what sort of research it funds.

3. Transform suffering.

Cancer causes a good deal of immediate and very real suffering. Yet so many people I have worked with say that getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. How can this be? The suffering, the risk of dying, the fear of dying, is initially so strong, so real, that it provokes either a complete freak out, or when well supported, a complete review of life, its priorities, its meaning and its purpose. This has been a deeply rewarding part of the work; seeing people transform really challenging, really difficult situations into something quite wonderful.

Heartfelt thanks

So, enough for now. Just time to thank all the amazing people who sat in groups with me over those many years, the staff and volunteers I worked with, all the media people who have been so constructive and helpful, the many other people who sat on successive boards, helped with fundraising, gave their support to me and to the Foundation.

Where am I at? 

Clearer than ever! You Can Conquer Cancer! I feel no need to apologise for such a strong statement. In my experience, it is a fact! Cancer can be cured.

Recovery from cancer is possible.