18 Sep HAPPY RETIREMENT, MR GAWLER
The author (centre) with Ruth and Ian Gawler
Recently a great Australian, a man who has helped thousands of others in their most vulnerable and challenging moments, a Member of the Order of Australia, quietly retired from a long and remarkable career of public service. I have seen not a word written about him on the occasion of his retirement, so I thought I would.
Ian Gawler is a celebrated cancer survivor who pioneered the idea that a healthy plant-based diet, meditation, a positive mental attitude and emotional healing could improve the prognosis of cancer patients. When he first put forward these ideas in the early ‘80s, having used these principles to heal himself from cancer, there was widespread derision and hostility from the medical mainstream. The notion that meditation, sitting on a cushion focused on our nostrils, could improve our health was seen as the stuff of voodoo. Today there are virtually no dissenting voices about meditation’s profound health benefits.
Ian began with a small support group for cancer patients in suburban Melbourne, which eventually grew to the not-for-profit Gawler Foundation and Australia’s first cancer-specific residential retreats in the Yarra Valley. I’ve attended two of their five-day retreats, the second hosted by Ian himself and his wife Ruth, a medical doctor, so I can speak with some authority when I say the service they offer is a unique and invaluable resource for anyone hoping to do better than merely submit to the prescriptions of their oncologist and serve out their allotted survival time unquestioningly. They emphasise that they are not a medical facility and do not dissuade anyone from following conventional treatment, but they do promote the idea of “lifestyle medicine” which Ian’s defines as those things you can do for yourself – diet, exercise, meditation, mental attitude.
Not everyone who attends miraculously heals themselves from cancer, in fact they are up front about the fact that most won’t. Facing and accepting one’s mortality is a large part of their program. But they do claim to offer the tools and knowledge for people to make informed choices about their treatment options and empower them to actively improve their prognosis.
In many ways, I am probably a fairly typical client – my advanced prostate cancer has not disappeared from all the hours of meditation, the daily juicing, the array of supplements, the yoga, the wholesale lifestyle renovation, but it has not progressed either. I can honestly say more than two years after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer I feel fitter and healthier than I have ever felt in my life. I am able to face the constant rounds of oncologist’s visits, blood tests, scans and often debilitating treatments with something approaching equanimity. And I dare to believe that by following these principles I may be able to maintain good health and ditch some of the nastier pharmaceuticals more or less indefinitely. It is no easy feat and the cycles of hope and despair can be draining as test results fluctuate, but for now I am altogether leading a more meaningful and enriching life than I was before my diagnosis. And I thank Ian Gawler for that.
A few years ago, a couple of oncologists got together and decided to try and shoot a hole in Ian Gawler’s story. Ian lost a leg to his cancer as a young man – so it is hard to claim he faked the whole thing – and when secondary cancer appeared in his lungs he pursued a range of alternative strategies to heal. His critics claimed he never had secondary cancer at all, that his symptoms were tuberculosis and he had been cured not by his new age mumbo jumbo but by modern medicine. Ian and his treating physician at the time vehemently refuted this theory. Sadly, no biopsies were taken of the secondary cancer so the matter cannot be settled absolutely.
I have read both sides of the story and I find it far-fetched in the extreme that Ian’s 35 years of tireless work and the vast community of supporters he has attracted are all based on a falsehood. But his critics did not need to prove their case – it is a little like the climate change debate, they just needed to muddy the water, plant doubt in people’s minds, to achieve their goal. To this day, if you google Ian Gawler’s name you will come across their claims. Yet without his efforts, thousands of cancer patients would have led shorter and less meaningful lives and met less dignified ends.
I’m not going to offer a detailed biography of Ian Gawler here but having spent some time in his company I was deeply moved by his compassion and integrity. When I asked him about his strained relationship with the medical establishment, he told me, “The thing that really surprised me when I got well was the lack of curiosity. What I hadn’t anticipated was that it would become a turf war.”
On the final day of the second retreat I attended, Ian asked us to go outside and commune with a tree, to sit under it, walk around it, hug it, talk to it, or just admire it, as we chose, then to come in and write something poetic about the experience. It is the sort of spiritual exercise the medical mainstream love to mock, but I’m convinced this greater sensitivity to our surroundings, a readiness to pause from the busyness of modern life to connect with nature and respond to it poetically, holds at least part of the key to maintaining good health. When we returned to the meeting room where we’d gathered for this final session I quickly composed the following poem. Make of it what you will.
I for one will be forever grateful to Ian Gawler and his brave and determined work to offer cancer patients some sense of control, hope and the capacity to face their illness on their terms.
Your orange flank catches my eye
A mighty giant brushing sky
A green grandeur, a milky sheen
You’re royalty, a king or queen
Your bark hangs like potato peel
I want to know just how you feel
I take off my shirt and hold you close
Sip a therapeutic dose
Home to insects, bird and beast
You welcome sunrise from the east
Salute the sunset in the west
You have withstood this life’s test
You’ve lost limbs, seen off disease
I have to give you one more squeeze
Ants scurry from you to me
Do they imagine I’m a tree?
If I could be so resolute
I know my life would be beaut