30 September 2016

35 years later – Two remarkable cancer stories made more remarkable by what happened next…

In the last post, we heard of the remarkable recoveries from advanced brain cancer experienced by 2 of the women who joined the very first Melbourne Cancer Support Group on 16th September 1981 – 35 years ago

Jan’s recovery had been uneventful but spectacular, Mary’s was slow and laboured – lots of ups and downs.

To add to Jan’s story - she had rung me the night before we began that first group to tell me how difficult things were and that she was not sure if she would commit suicide or come to the group tomorrow. Then she hung up.

Being new to all this, I had not yet taken her contact details so I could not get back to her. I could only spend a somewhat anxious time before experiencing considerable relief when she did turn up for the group.

Jan was in her early forties and she came with her partner, Michael. Together they quickly warmed to the program, embraced all the recommendations and Jan experienced a swift, uneventful and complete recovery without any medical treatment. Jan was a star patient – or so it seemed.

So this week, what happened when Jan and Mary returned to her lives, but first

               Thought for the day

You have been walking the ocean’s edge
Holding up your robes to keep them dry.
You must dive naked under, and deeper under; 
A thousand times deeper!

Love flows down.
The ground submits to the sky
And suffers what comes.
Tell me, is the earth worse for giving in like that?


A life too difficult to live

Around one year after that first group began, Michael rang me. Jan had been very well but recently was eating more and more things they both knew were not good for her. When Michael questioned her, he was told very curtly to mind his own business.

Michael and I discussed this a little but then a few weeks later he rang again. Now Jan had abandoned her meditation. Michael was increasingly worried; we discussed the situation some more but a few weeks later he rang again. Now the brain cancer was back and this time Jan was completely opposed to meditating, eating for recovery, being positive. I went to see her in person.

Jan was a very intelligent and articulate woman. She was reasonably open and frank with me. Jan explained that before the cancer was diagnosed her life was in deep disarray. Problems abounded in every aspect of her life. A disturbing childhood, difficult past relationships, unhappy in work, conflict in her current relationship; the cancer diagnosis came as no surprise and she had related strongly to the group discussions regarding the cancer prone personality. But the diagnosis changed everything.

Following the diagnosis of cancer, Michael had become more attentive and their relationship flourished. With the cancer, she was unable to go to work. With the cancer she had a ready-made, unarguable excuse to do whatever she liked. So she did. She came to know a new level of happiness. 

Then she recovered.

What now?

She needed to face her life again.

But she did not like it. The job seemed as unpleasant as ever. Now her friends were not so attentive.

Her past felt as if it was crowding in on her.

Jan put it to me quite simply: “Ian, I would rather die than go back to my old life.”

And despite everyone’s best efforts at the time, she did die quite rapidly.

Often the stories that carry major insights or reveal key points are dramatic. Jan’s story coupled with those of other people with similar dilemmas, affected me deeply, caused me a great deal of introspection, led to me studying widely and culminated in a new level of understanding.

The so called “positive approach” worked well as a starting point. It gave people hope and direction and nearly everyone in those early groups who committed to the techniques involved improved dramatically in their health and wellbeing.

But over time, what we came to observe was that on returning to their lives, not all by any means, but significant numbers of people hit barriers to coping with that life and to maintaining their peace of mind. And when that peace of mind was lost, the motivation to look after themselves was lost, and almost invariably, their health suffered badly.

Jan’s story is one of those pivotal experiences that helped to shape the groups we developed and continue to present, and the writing of You Can Conquer Cancer (where her story is also recorded).

With the benefit of many years of study and the cumulative experience of my colleagues and the many thousands of people from the groups, it is possible to categorize the barriers and to set out effective antidotes. Basically, for people like Jan, it is about learning new life skills and particularly finding some elements of joy and meaning in life once again.

But what you may well also find useful is to contrast Jan’s experience with that of Mary.

Mary and the impact of major tragedy
Mary continued to look after herself and she stayed well for around 7 years. Then tragedy struck. Mary’s teenage daughter was found dead of a drug overdose. Mary had been unaware her daughter was involved with drugs, so the shock was even more profound. Her grief was immense. Deep despair followed.

In a situation like this, it would be easy to imagine how as a mother one could have a wide range of painful emotions on top of any normal grief reaction. What went wrong? What could I have done? What did I do? How could I have made it different?

When I spoke to her shortly after her daughter’s death, Mary was clear in a way that was reminded me of Jan. In a calm, detached manner, she told me how she felt life was no longer worth living. She went on to say how she had come to know so much about her cancer - enough to recover - that now she felt sure she could bring it back, and that she felt that was the best way out of her pain.

We continued to talk over the next 2 weeks. Then Mary had a revelation. She told me that it was bad enough that her daughter had died of an overdose, but if she were to die as a direct consequence, that would make things even worse for her daughter and all around her.

So Mary determined to survive once again.

She knew how vulnerable she was.

She intensified her dietary patterns once more, along with her meditation. She sought counselling, reduced her workload, stayed close to family and supportive friends.

The time surrounding the aftermath of the tragedy was very tough for Mary and it went on for quite a while, but Mary chose life and used her supports and her skills to maintain it.

I still see her from time to time; Mary survived, she is still alive. She has done many good things over the years, but she always tells me there is this part of her that still finds life a challenge; that it has never been the same since the tragedy.

Different, but life goes on in new ways.

So 35 years of incredible people like Jan and Mary. What extra-ordinary work to be involved in. No cliché…  this is a genuine privilege. So much learnt from these wonderful people.

Next post 
Some observations on how the management of cancer has changed dramatically in these last 35 years.


Meditation Retreats
Ruth and I, with the help of Liz Stillwell, will personally lead our next 7 day meditation retreat in New Zealand :  October 22 - 28.

Next Aussie one, April 2017 in the Yarra Valley.

In NZ, we will give attention to the major experiences of deeper meditation – stillness, clarity and bliss. We will explore these states experientially and examine their relevance in an ongoing and satisfying meditation practice.

This promises to be one of the very best retreats – well worth travelling from Australia to attend, or making the journey to the glorious Mana Retreat Centre from anywhere around New Zealand.


Meditation Teacher Training 
The program - October 10 - 14 - may be fully booked already – check with the office.
Next year's dates will be available very soon...


Specific cancer residential programs 

8 days In Wanaka New Zealand 
- November 3 - 10
This is a comprehensive program focusing on activating and targeting the immune system, accelerating healing, much more on a therapeutic lifestyle, along with a range of strategies for heightening emotional health and wellbeing.

Again we will have the incomparable help of Liz Stillwell and the amazing Stew Burt - the ideal starting point for everyone affected by cancer.

5 days in the Yarra Valley : November 14 - 18
More designed as a follow-up cancer program for those who have done a previous program with Ruth and myself, the Foundation, or one of its affiliates. Call the Foundation for details of eligibility.



  1. Thank you for sharing those stories, but most importantly, thank you for sharing how you care about these people, how involved you are, how committed you remain with the purpose of your life. People like you make the world a better place.

  2. Such a encouraging and help article for those who want beautiful life. sound good

  3. Thank you for sharing this! Your whole site is very informative and I feel like I’m ready to do some work for stop cancer and save our earth!