The image on the left was taken a year ago when I had to renew my driver’s license, so I am stuck with it for the next 10 years. I don’t mind so much as it reminds me how far I’ve come. The photo on the right is me today. I’m still waiting for a traffic cop to pull me over, look at my license and go, “That’s not you!” How have I undergone this profound metamorphosis? Well, my secret is perhaps not one you ought to try at home. The photo on the left was taken just after I finished six cycles of chemotherapy. See, 18 months ago I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer – advanced because it had already spread to my right femur, or thigh bone, and a left rib bone. It’s difficult to describe the sheer, surreal terror of receiving a diagnosis like this, out of the blue, when life is otherwise going along swimmingly. I can actually recall thinking not too long before my diagnosis, “I have the perfect life. I don’t need a wakeup call.” Apparently, I was wrong. I did need a wakeup call. And cancer has certainly provided that. In those 18 months, I’ve gone through chemotherapy, turned vegan, lost 15 kg, put six of it back on, lost my hair, grown it back (thicker than before! Who knew?), undergone a form of hormone therapy with its suite of charming side effects, established a daily mediation practice and got back into my yoga and pilates. I’ve attended two residential retreats at the Gawler Cancer Foundation in Victoria, and learnt about the plant-based diet, meditation techniques and emotional healing strategies that its founder Ian Gawler used to heal himself of cancer. I’ve sat through a silent 10-day Vipassana Meditation retreat in the Sunshine Coast hinterland until I felt like I was a vibrating field of energy and not solid matter at all. I’ve snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef with my kids, been on a family ski trip to Japan, shed work responsibilities and vowed to take on only work that feels meaningful and beneficial to society. I don’t think of myself as a cancer “victim” or “sufferer” or “patient” engaged in a “battle” with cancer, but rather it’s student, learning deep life lessons. My hope is that when those lessons are fully learned the teacher can move on. That is not to suggest that anyone who succumbs to cancer has somehow “failed” – every form of cancer is different and every individual’s experience of it and response to it is as unique and individual as they are. For me, this just feels like the most healthy and useful way to frame it. We seem to hear only of miraculous cancer survivors or fallen cancer victims, and I suppose I am interested in filling in some of the mundane space in between –  what it is like to get on with the business of living with cancer. Cancer has re-designed my life in ways nothing else could have. Amidst the fear and freak outs have been moments of profound euphoria and deep appreciation for the most mundane aspects of daily life – a cup of tea with my wife, a family dinner, a surf with my son, my daughter’s poetry, hugs, sunrises, full moons, the kiss of the ocean, a bird in flight. Things that once passed me by are now savoured and cherished. While my prognosis remains uncertain, I feel the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever felt in my life and am determined to remain that way for as long as humanly possible. My condition has responded well to treatment – chemotherapy greatly reduced the cancer and the hormone therapy seems to be keeping it at bay for now. I’m seeing a naturopath, taking herbs and supplements, eating a heathy plant-based diet, exercising and meditating daily.  I feel like I’ve found a sensible “middle way” through the maze of mainstream and so-called “natural” or complimentary therapies. I feel equally frustrated with the worlds of modern western medicine and  alternative or complimentary medicine, which both seem more interested in demonizing the other than finding a useful common ground that would most assist their patients. While I’m grateful to modern medicine, I think one day we will look back and regard the current generation of cancer treatments as barbaric and primitive. Poisoning your system to kill cancer is an exercise in diminishing returns that I am in no hurry to repeat.  I’ve had people tell me I’m crazy to have chemo, and others say I’d be crazy not to. I made a pragmatic decision based on the evidence that it was the best course to follow to stop the cancer in its tracks and buy me more time to learn how to manage it naturally. I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that evil pharmaceutical companies are suppressing effective cancer treatments so that they can flog off dangerous and ineffective chemotherapy drugs. That hundreds of thousands of oncologists, researchers and medical staff around the world – many of whom would have friends and family with cancer – are all in on this global conspiracy seems a bit implausible to me. And there’s a fortune just waiting to be made by anyone who comes up with an effective cancer treatment. But I do think a kind of cultural groupthink prevents mainstream medicine from recognising the powers of diet, lifestyle, attitude, emotional healing and support, and meditation. Lying in shivasana at the end of a yoga class recently our teacher said quietly, “What’s in the way is the way”. Those few words struck me powerfully and became a kind of personal mantra. This experience is not an obstacle to be climbed over to resume my old life. It is my new life. And though I would wish the cancer gone if I could, I would not wish away the learning. My hope is that my experience might help others enjoy the benefits of that wakeup call without having to confront the dire diagnosis, and perhaps offer some small comfort to those going through a similar experience. So, hug your loved ones, heal an old rift, do what makes your heart sing, marvel at the play of light on the ocean or the meandering of clouds across a twilight sky. Eat your vegies, get some regular exercise, drink plenty of water and try and reduce stress and conflict in your life. Life is jaw-droppingly beautiful, frighteningly fragile and sometimes seems surprisingly brief. Who knows what lies beyond? I’m anticipating many years of good health yet but that next step in our great cosmic journey holds less fears for me now than it did 18 months ago. Buddhists say our life’s work is to prepare for death, and having to confront our mortality is something we will all have to do sooner or later. I feel like I’ve passed through a furnace of knowing that awaits us all ultimately, one that hopefully equips me to deal with this challenge with less fear and anxiety, and more wonder and joy. I’m not always this Zen – this is me having a good day. A bad day looks and sounds quite different – blubbering uncontrollably, unable to sleep, pacing my bedroom in the middle of the night like a death row inmate looking for an escape route. But I try and wake up each day determined to find whatever joy and learning another rotation of our planet may offer. I’ve already lived a blessed life that has delivered joy and adventure beyond my wildest youthful imaginings. Everything from here on in is a bonus I intend to savour.  

18 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN THE WAY IS THE WAY”

  1. Gordon Anthony Stammets

    Straight as a ruler Tim …… what one expects from one if their favourite authors …. Lao Tzu said to heal requires one to have more energy coming in than going out ….. hold on to your precious energy Tim ……. and stay well

  2. Stella Voolstra

    I know about the Gawler treatment. One of our friends has worked with and he cured himself from bladder cancer 30 years ago. He has helped my husband when he first was diagnosed with prostrate cancer. He was lucky that it did not affect his bones he had his prostrate removed and 2 years later a course of radiation. This year will be his fifth cancer free years. Good luck to all cancer sufferers and wish you good results.

  3. We all have challenges thrown at us in one form or another. Great to see you come through this and that the Vipassana, Yoga, diet and the miracle of modern medicine has helped you progress..

  4. Oh Tim
    Though I did not know , it was so..
    You have shown us all how to see and enjoy life through your journeys and. Writings, and you have assessed others and shared their lives for inspiration. I am sad that you and your family fad to endure that but glad you have come through with such wisdom to share..
    Love and respect to you mate

  5. Beautifully expressed Tim. I know the last thing you want to hear is that you’re an inspiration, but there is much wisdom in your words and your experience (and the ability to articulate it so thoughtfully) that will serve to encourage and inspire others. We all get caught up in the madness of our modern lives and misdirected priorities that at the time seemed so vitally important. You have turned what could have been a soul destroying negative into a life affirming positive. Power to you my friend. As Mr Spock would say “live long and prosper”.

  6. Carolyn Leach-Paholski

    What’s in the way is there, as you say – wanted or not. That you have made it a way, a path is wonderful. Your insight shines.

  7. Very deep insights wonderfully expressed Tim. Here’s to even more powerful light and peace in your life and that of your beautiful family. Love you mate

  8. Wow Tim, absolutely beautiful words, so eloquently expressed with a soul deep honesty, compassion & understanding of self & humanity. You are an inspiration and we love you.

  9. Thanks everyone for your beautiful comments here and on FB, it has buoyed my spirits more than you can know.

  10. When your pacing the bedroom in the middle of the night – switch the TV on. Either the crap they show will send you back to sleep or you’ll get lucky and end up watching a great foreign movie on SBS!!

  11. I don’t think I can write anything that expresses how I feel after reading this. I find it comforting, scary, wise, enlightening, shocking and just plain beautiful. Thank you for sharing Tim – there are lessons for us all in there. xx

  12. Inspirational words, Tim. And extremely sound reasonings expressed. My very best wishes to you and your family.

  13. Sending you positive vibes for a long, happy & healthy life Tim, I look forward to our paths crossing again some day.

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