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Topic of Cancer: Social void at the heart of the new ice age

Former editor of the Byron Shire News Digby Hildreth.
Former editor of the Byron Shire News Digby Hildreth. Julie Bergin

Entry 83, October 27, 2014: I had to peek through my fingers during this week's TV doco, Ice Rush, Four Corners' sensationalist but compelling report on the spread of meth-amphetamine use in country Australia.

The scene of a middle-aged woman shaking uncontrollably while trying to find a vein in her knotted arm to inject into made for brutal viewing (and disinterred ancient memories).

One kid had got off the gear and escaped from his criminal handlers (read bikies) who fed his habit while he cooked. He looked traumatised - and doomed - eyes like pools of black oil, sitting chain-smoking in a darkened room while his buddy sucked on the pipe.

These individuals' stories are desperately sad, but they are just a few among hundreds of thousands trapped in ice addiction, digging imaginary insects out of their arms and faces, pulling their teeth out with pliers and causing mayhem in the lives of their families and community.

Ice makes for good shock horror television and Ice Rush was really just an update of Four Corners' The Ice Age, its 2006 study of inner Sydney meth-heads. As then, the film-makers focused on the underclass, as if addiction was restricted to bogans and ferals.

The new angle was that ice abuse is no longer confined to the big cities but is oozing out into rural areas. No surprises there: a similar trend has occurred in the US.

The program concentrated on regional Victoria and Tasmania but ice is here too, and not just in Struggle Street towns like Kyogle and Casino, but in affluent Byron Bay and la-de-dah Bangalow.

I know a decent, hard-working man in his 40s who has for weeks been holed up in a caravan park, sweating and spending every cent he has -and all of his emotional and spiritual capital ­- on getting and using the drug. He is powerless: except for the brief relief offered by the drug he is increasingly shaky, jumpy, paranoid, his mind a churn of despair and self-loathing.

I fear for his safety, even his life.

He's committing a crime but his addiction is a mental health disorder, not a legal problem, and please, not a moral weakness.

The wide uptake of ice points to a terrible impoverishment in people's lives, in society, though it's not new: consider Hogarth's Gin Lane from the 1750s.

Four Corners' use of the inevitable cliché "epidemic" may be justified by the statistics.

But the war on drugs isn't working: meanwhile, as the program showed, treatment programs are struggling for funding, overwhelmed by demand.

They need more help, but prevention is preferable, and that is everyone's responsibility.

Some Northern Rivers parents made their teenagers watch Ice Rush, to scare them off the drug.

That may work, but broader, deeper, smarter tactics are called for. Fight the suppliers, by all means, but tackling the causes behind the demand  should be our main goal.

 

Entry 82, October 18, 2014: The Australian photo-journalist Nigel Brennan has returned to Africa five years after being released by Somalian militants who held him prisoner for 14 months.

Beaten and brutalised, Brennan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return home. Four years later he was said to have undergone "post-traumatic growth phenomenon" - a life-changing psychic shift - telling journos that "in some respects, I'm incredibly grateful to have had this experience".

He has emerged, not unscathed but sane enough to head back to the region, this time to raise funds for fistula sufferers and midwives in Ethiopia.

I cannot comprehend the resilience and courage demonstrated by this man (and by Amanda Lindhout, the woman kidnapped with him) during their captivity -­ and afterwards.

As someone who, on a clear bright morning, in the comfort and safety of his own bed, can feel defeated, overwhelmed by life's everyday challenges, I am slightly ashamed by such stories.

My experience with cancer pales in comparison with their suffering, yet this week I've been forced to conclude that I'm either bipolar or that the disease has taken a toll I hadn't reckoned on: there's not a lot of "post-traumatic growth phenomenon" apparent. Not to me, anyway.

Brennan's story points up a gap in my approach to dealing with cancer, or any of life's vicissitudes.

"Positive thinking", a good attitude, are wonderful defences against disease, great medicine, and I've been able to mobilise them for short periods, although I suspect that often it was nothing more than minimisation, denial, even pretence: a happy face hiding a fearful heart; the response of one of Eliot's human kind, who "cannot bear very much reality".

Denial (backed by laziness and scepticism) has extended to a reluctance to fully employ the power of my mind to improve health, boost my immune system.

Yet everywhere today someone is extolling the virtues of "positive psychology". Even rugby league teams are using "mindfulness" to win games.

A friend has just learned that the cancer he cleared in February has returned, this time to another part of his body.

He meditates daily and it brings him great peace, even around the prospect of dying

I am still coming to terms with my experience, recovering from the trauma: I am physically well but one raw morning this week I burst into tears when a friend asked me how I was going.

I want some of my friend's deep acceptance and some of what enabled Nigel Brennan to endure, to survive and live more courageously, more selflessly.

These psychological - and spiritual - assets may be genetic, but they also require effort and practice; they demand discipline.

Some days, the willingness just isn't there.

 

Entry 81, October 11, 2014: Aside from a few defiant, last-gasp gusts of chill wind, winter has given up the ghost. Intimations of summer's long, stripped-down days can be sniffed in the sickly sweet blasts of evanescent jasmine as its flowers sunbake and turn brown, and in the haze of salty vapour drifting off churning whitecaps into an untroubled blue sky, moist with memory and hope.

It is the most devoutly wished for seasonal change, even in the Northern Rivers, where bare feet and ocean swimming are hardly discouraged by winter temperatures.

Yet the longer I live in the sub-tropics, the softer I become, the less able to tolerate the cold, and the premature onset of spring - in August both this year and last - engenders a profound glow of gratitude and relief, despite its sinister sub-plot of global warming.

Less welcome has been the switch to daylight saving, barely noticed in the past but which this year has given time a new urgency: night falls suddenly, and there's no dinner started; bosh, it's 6am, still dark but time to stir.

These gripes wither in the sunlight, expiring amid overnight burgeonings in the garden, which is now dense and lush with greens, somehow thriving in the dry earth.

October is also the season of a grim anniversary: in 2012 it was when the cancer was found, changing my world forever. That year, spring was the harbinger of 12 months of pain and confusion.

But last year it ushered in a period of convalescence and, perversely, marked the dawning of a contentment I had never known before.

And I'm still here - a miracle, some say - with a renewed appetite for engagement with the physical world, with life.

Spring demands activity, growth, and I'm heeding the call, compelled, like millions of others, to do more exercise, get stronger, build muscle (and pander to my vanity).

So I've surrendered to the less than tender mercies of my young mate Joel, built like a brick shithouse but possessing a brain, who is using his passion for exercise to encourage we slugabeds and slackers to push through the pain barrier and become fitter and more flexible, meanwhile burning off any residual winter blues.

I emerge from his dungeon spent and a little shaky.

An hour later, high on endorphins and testosterone, I see the world with new eyes: it looks benign, responsive, full of promise - in our neck of the woods, at least.

 

Entry 80, October 4, 2014: This week's vast report from Cancer Australia contains an astonishing statistic: a mere two per cent of cancer research funds go towards prevention of the disease, despite half of all cancers being preventable.

How could prevention be expanded? We are all now thoroughly tired and confused - skeptical - about the frequent and often contradictory "causes" of cancer and other diseases that "researchers" discover lurking in our favourite snack or pastime.

We are well aware that smoking, drinking to excess and eating rubbish can make us ill, but we still do them. And we are almost resigned to living with the environmental factors, the toxins all around us and in our food.

But what about the emotional causes? On its information page, the Cancer Council states that stress doesn't cause cancer, and other psychological states don't even get a look in.

Recently I've spent a lot of time with people devoted to getting well, physically and emotionally: emerging from the shadows of addiction and social isolation, carrying a lot of pain from their past, they gather to yarn about how they are lessening its sickening power; sharing their stories in a respectful, attentive forum. For them, it's R U OK Day every day.

I've been a part of such groups for more than half my life and I've thrown myself back into them now as part of a detox from social media, and because I love the feeling of connectedness they provide. We are learning how to communicate with each other, and I believe the resulting sense of belonging boosts health in every sphere. Lives are saved.

If there were a Facebookers Anonymous, I'd join, adding it to the swollen corpus of such fellowships I belong to, or whose doors I have darkened in a three-decade search for serenity and freedom from self.

With cyber-relating on hold, I'm forced to make an effort to mingle … or face being suffocated inside an avalanche of self-obsession.

And how beneficial it is, the relief and therapeutic value of communicating honestly with others. Only connect! and much disease will be prevented.

These are people who have been to the bitter end and are now on the return journey, shaken, a little unsteady, needing support.

The individual takes baby steps out of isolation into a group and that group becomes a family, then a community.

Here men talk about their relationships with partners and children - with themselves. They talk about their feelings.Dinky-di Aussie blokes reveal their vulnerability, dropping the banter and bravado.

By connecting, they are healing from the disease of addiction, and they're taking steps to prevent other forms of illness developing, mental and physical, including  cancer.

I go to have my perspective realigned, my world-view widened, my gratitude refreshed and deepened.

And to move a little sickness out, making room for new ideas, healthy alternatives, fresh ways of living.

 

Entry 79, September 27, 2014: We bought a brace of bicycles this week, second-hand, a bit rickety, and young Seth and I flew home down the hills of Ocean Shores, him in front, beaming, keeping an eye out for the old man bringing up the rear, quads quivering, face fixed in a rictus grin of glee and terror, thrilled but also envisioning shooting over the handlebars and smearing his face into the unforgiving tarmac. Hands and elbow too.

It was exhilarating, sparking a red-blooded surge of confidence in one's fitness, tempered by the newly familiar awareness of frailty.

But the freedom! the self-sufficiency of it - and the need for absolute focus: a lethal trap appears every few metres.

Self-sufficiency but also a freedom from self: freedom from the me that sits in my four-wheeled armoured bubble, separate from yet jostling with other drivers, a comfortable throne from which to bark censure and rebuke, a cushioned seat of privilege, of self-importance, where the worst of me rises to the surface (it doesn't have far to travel); where the first interaction with another human being upon leaving the house is likely to be one of impatience, irritation, unpleasantires.

It will occur with the two-wheeler too but survival there depends on becoming more "right-sized", more accommodating, occupying my fair share of space, no less, no more.

A few days later we take our funny little blended mob to a forest-fringed beach, which miraculously we have all to ourselves for the day: using sharp stones as knives to cut up lunch, poking around in caves, scaling rocks, wading across chest-deep channels of surging water. Getting a fright when the current proves too strong and white water comes crashing from all sides. Now it's Roo who slows down to watch out for me.

We marvel at the colours of the rock and the weed: glowing orange, pastel pink, black, a wedge-tailed eagle overhead showing what true freedom and mastery look like.

It's boy's adventure stuff and I find myself saying "Yes" when another obstacle appears … yes, let's try it, I think we can make it.

I'm 61 going on 12. We use the ferrous stains in the rock where rain water leaches through to daub our faces, warriors in our own lunchtime, war-paint that is only remembered on the way home with a "hope-the-cops-don't-pull-us-over" giggle.

The preceding week had been fraught: worrying about what more I had to say regarding cancer and recovery, fretting about how to keep it fresh and authentic.

In the water, whizzing through the bush on a bike, those circling doubts disappear, evicted by pure sensation. Some of that lightness of being lingers: back behind the wheel, I make a decision not to react to what's occurring outside the vehicle, but to look for the good in the world around me, and be glad of it.

 

Entry 78, September 20, 2014: Waking up, do you give yourself a bit of a going-over? A sort of mental pat-down, a status update, to survey the vital signs?

You know: liver and other major organs? All lying there quietly. Knees, shoulders? Flexing nicely, very few crunching noises. Brain? Managing to remember what day it is and anticipate its demands without flinching. Libido? Hmmm. A faint glow amid the embers.

Mood? Initially recalcitrant, usually, and needing to be monitored once the shelter of the bed has been surrendered. An immediate improvement is common.

What surprises me about my bleary inventory is how rarely any physical problem is evident.

The cancer, if it's still there, is leaving me alone. No symptoms to alarm - although the problem with surviving without medical input is that you don't really know … and that can be wearing.

I take feeling healthy for granted now, I assume that I'm all right, and assumptions, complacency, are never a good idea.

Instead of grumbling that I have to get up and make breakfast, I should get down on my knees to give thanks for another day on Earth, another 24 hours of life ahead of me.

Some days I do. Say thank you, I mean, not the knees bit. When did you last happily kneel on a cold wooden floor? No, don't answer that.

It's human to forget the bad stuff, the pain. Isn't that the standard line about having children?

I can no more recall the sweaty nights, the mind-numbing dread, the twist in the guts than I could tell you which way the wind is blowing: does a northerly come from the north, or go towards it? It's one of those things I can never remember, like a sports score.

But the thing about complacency is that it breeds expectation, which leads to a kind of arrogance and, inevitably, frustration.

Post cancer (superstition makes me almost too nervous to write it), things are different, no matter how much I expect them to be the same.

The "hey, I'm back, now where were we?" approach doesn't work. Things have changed, the world has moved on. I have changed. I'm unemployed, for a start - unemployable, probably, in a conventional market.

I'm also physically and psychologically reduced: a couple of hours in the garden tires me out; crowds and noise - in restaurants and on the street - send me into a frenzy of anxiety.

It's a time of transition, and I was warned by a fellow survivor it could be rough. I'm having to adapt, adjust to the idea that I may actually be well, with a "normal" life ahead.

I tell you, it's a puzzling and tiring business. Sometimes, though never for long, I think it would be easier just to slip quietly away.

But it seems I've been sentenced to life. So on these scent-laden balmy spring mornings, I keep the pondering short and just get up and get on with it, no matter how puzzled I may be.

 

Entry 77, September 13, 2014: This is the final year of my son's schooling. In a few months he will leave home for university in a faraway city and a life I will know very little about.

The prospect stirs up a sandstorm of emotions, including relief at being free of the domestic drudgery parenthood imposes. Overwhelming that thought, however, is a blend of grief and regret.

The time has gone so quickly, as the clichés warn. I will no longer be needed, no longer have the daily connection with my darling companion.

The sadness at this loss is naturally tempered by an acceptance of its inevitability, its healthiness. He needs to get away and establish his place in the big wide world. I encourage him to fly free.

But the regrets can be crushing, echoed as they are by the looking back that accompanies ageing, which in itself is a kind of grief - a mourning for things that never were, and never will be.

In sombre moments I catechise myself: Why was I not a more loving, more patient father? Why did I not hold him tightly to me more often, be kinder in my language, softer in my criticisms. (Why criticise at all?).

It's too late now: he's not a child and the opportunity for close, cuddling, human succour has passed. It distresses me that I failed to make the most of it while it was here and I crave our time together over again.

I don't imagine there are too many parents without some similar feelings.

But I am wary of indulging such sadness, and am lucky to have gratitude over-riding it.

For much of last year, polluted with cancer, staring death in the face, my primary goal was to stay alive until the end of his HSC year, to support him as much as possible until he could go out into the world, independent.

That time nears and the prospect of imminent cancer-death recedes and I am still here, to share some fun, to listen to him talk, to discuss ideas and encourage him during this peculiarly stressful time.

I left school with a police record but minimal academic qualifications: the straight path he is walking so assuredly looked like an obstacle course to me. Regret at the litany of my early failures sharpens my desire to see him avoid such humiliations.

He will have his own struggles but he doesn't seek to make them harder.

He has goals - a bit vague, but there, nevertheless - and a healthy sense of entitlement to a fulfilling life.

For whatever reason, I had none: I entered secondary school wrapped in defiance and defeatism.

The pundits say that goals are important, both in life and in recovering from illness.

The HSC target will soon be reached, but the others are not time-sensitive. Being kinder, less selfish, more loving, happier!: this is what I aim for. It's the goal for today, and a prophylactic against regret.

 

Entry 76, September 6, 2014: The other day I could be heard bleating that I "needed" a holiday, because life's monotonous routines and responsibilities were becoming very stale.

It is nearly three years since I last ventured overseas … the longest gap in decades.

Unwilling for the time being to suffer the stress of travel, I can only observe somewhat enviously as friends and family visit exotic locations, places I have dreamed about.

But I live near Byron Bay - few foreign beach holidays could beat that. And while cities may appear exciting from a distance, the reality of the crowds, pollution and other urban stinks soon fills me with a panicky urge to escape.

Early last year, a few months after the hepatectomy, I aborted a trip to Western Australia. I had just been told that the cancer had returned and I stood with my partner in a cold dark Melbourne Airport, filled with dread, crying.

I was afraid of being far from home and my doctors, trying to relax and have fun while subduing visions of tumours regrouping in my gut.

I missed out on snorkelling with whale sharks as a result of that decision - an awe-inspiring experience I may never get another chance at.

I'm no longer interested in the relentless accumulation of "experiences", working my way down a "been there, done that" list from some bottomless bucket, but I do regret missing that.

There was no need for me to rush back to the Northern Rivers: it wasn't a life or death decision.

Treatment unfolded smoothly and the first round of chemo seemed positive - although it, and the follow-up procedure months later made me sicker than anything the cancer had done up to that point, or since.

The disappointment, however, did confirm a long-held personal motto: avoid making decisions based on fear.

My recovery from the disease still has this as a principle theme. Cancer is not the enemy … fear is.

The opposite of fear - faith - has grown through my enforced stillness in the Northern Rivers, shoring up the immune system.

Staying "home", I have come to know myself and my region better, explored previously unknown beaches and valleys, deepened relationships and made commitments I can keep.

The joy comes not from the novelty, the rush, the assumed "glamour" of travel, but from a simpler, less stressful life. I love what I have. I don't need anything more.

I've had "experience" enough; swum in Lake Titicaca, marvelled at the architecture in Prague, trekked glaciers in Tierra del Fuego and volcanoes in Hawaii, made love in Paris, meditated on the banks of the Amazon, the Mekong, the Tiber … felt so fulfilled in Peru that I thought I could die happy, then and there.

Sometimes I still have that deep feeling of fulfilment.

But now it comes from looking at a pelican, not a pyramid. It arises from the internal wellspring of life, from being alive; from the journey today, not from looking forward excitedly to what may be waiting at the destination.

 

Entry 75, August 30, 2014: It was awfully decent of the prime minister to drop into a Melbourne cancer clinic this week and show his concern for the sick and suffering.

Luckily, he was able to squeeze the visit into his busy schedule, demonstrating what a spokeswoman described as his "passionate support" for medical research.

While there he was able to reassure the hardworking boffins about the viability of the proposed Medical Research Future Fund, paid for with lots of little $7 GP surcharge fees.

This is the $20 billion fund that the PM's fellow humanitarian, Treasurer Joe Hockey, dreams will enable an Australian to discover better treatments "and even cures" for dementia, Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer.

But haven't lab-loads of cash already been spent on the holy grail of a cure for cancer? And what did Hockey have in mind exactly when he used that sweeping phrase?

There are more than 200 different types of the disease, according to Cancer Research UK, and it can develop in any of our 60 organs.

I'd be hard-pressed to name a dozen such body parts but I know that the term "cancer", in this light, is almost meaningless.

Further, while headway has been made in understanding various cancers, in prevention measures such as anti-smoking campaigns, and in extending people's lives, we are no closer to finding a cure than we've ever been. The treatments, so far, are horrible and often useless and the diagnosis rate keeps climbing.

Also this week, another Tony, Crescent Head resident Tony Bower, was back in court on charges of cultivating marijuana. He turns the plant into a tincture which he distributes to 400 sick people around Australia who consume it as medicine for a wide range of complaints, including, you guessed it, cancer.

An ingredient in the drug (which apparently does not cause people to get high) helps all of these patients in ways that one GP described as "miraculous".

He was talking about the case of Tara O'Connell, 9, who had a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy which meant she could barely walk and which flogged her with up to 200 seizures a day.

Soon after starting to take a daily dose of Bower's medicine, that number came down to zero, and has stayed there for 16 months. Tara's life is transformed. Google her story and weep.

Medical cannabis also alleviates symptoms in people with HIV, a host of neurological disorders, polio, depression, arthritis and many more.

Australia's Cancer Council acknowledges that cannabis may be of medical benefit to relieve nausea and vomiting during chemo, to alleviate pain and boost appetite.

But clinical trials suggest it does much more, including slowing growth in cancer cells, blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumours, and even killing aberrant cells.

Research into this doesn't need a billion dollars.

Give a fistful to the barefoot medical pioneer Tony Bower, who makes no money from his trade, and faces 12 months inside.

 

Entry 74, August 23, 2014: Melbourne's grand Palais Theatre overflowed with Bob Dylan fans on Monday night, my son and I among them.

My expectations of the croaky old troubadour were not high but the show was magnificent.

The band made sweet, melodic music and Dylan sang softly, even seductively, creating an atmosphere of considerable intimacy.

But most remarkable was the choice of songs: more than half of them were from his most recent albums, and included a rare gem, Waiting for You from the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

The show was thus a testimony to Dylan's devotion to his art. The man is determined to keep working at his craft, and to keep it fresh for the audience. He's a living legend, with the emphasis on living.

The love and admiration I've had for him since I was an adolescent was reignited, and there was an added poignancy: he is 73 and I have a life-threatening illness.  

This, the umpteenth time I've seen him perform, may be the last. I'll take the memory of the night to my grave, whenever that may be, and so will Noah.

The concert was part of a cultural feast for us in "the world's friendliest city".

We had travelled there for Melbourne University's Open Day

but also saw an exhibition of Italian Masters from the Prado and a collection of William Blake's watercolours and engravings.

I have now officially seen enough Renaissance paintings to last me a lifetime (all that torture and martyrdom!) but Blake's visionary artwork sent me back to his poetry.

In Auguries of Innocence, Blake writes: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour."

I don't meditate in any formal sense. Perhaps I should, but if I sit down and close my eyes I soon go to sleep. In nature, however - away from the man-made mayhem of cities, no matter how "liveable" - my mind is automatically stilled, even if my body is active.

Walking through the rainforest, floating in the sea, looking out to the horizon or at a sunset can inspire a religious wonder. I am momentarily in tune with the infinite, feeling the perfection of life.

Words - thoughts - desert me then, but I understand with my whole being what Albert Schweitzer meant when he explained the idea behind his great work Reverence for Life.

"I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live."

This "highest moral principle is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live thoughtlessly and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to give it true value", he said.

Paradoxically, I also know in those blissful moments that death is okay too; a part of life and nothing to fear.

 

Entry 73, August 16, 2014: Psoriasis has been a regular visitor since adolescence, embellishing my cheeks and nose with flaky, sticky, itchy patches. Daubs of hydrocortisone cream would subdue the symptoms but they'd inevitably return, as stubborn as a forest fire.

That minor but demoralising disorder has disappeared, a healing I attribute entirely to a sugar-free vegan diet.

It's stating the bleeding obvious to say that food choices can dictate whether we are well or unwell. We are what we eat.

I've been surrounded for weeks by teens with sore throats, barking coughs and streaming noses. They are occasionally irritating and often disgusting but my main response is one of smugness: despite the bacterial bombardment I haven't fallen ill.

My immune system is doing its job and if I credit those white blood cells with keeping me sniffle-free, shouldn't I also thank them for keeping the cancer cells under control?

My naturopath thinks so. He was quite frisky this week when outlining the improvements he could observe in my blood.

His validation strengthened my resolve to make the organism that contains me (is me) as robust as possible.

The news gave impetus to a subtle psychic shift that began with a fresh level of surrender, resulting in a new clarity.

A blast of ozone up the backside earlier in the week left me in such discomfort I momentarily imagined that a tumour was about to burst through but I am otherwise untroubled by fear.

It's not all sweetness and light. Many mornings I have to force myself out of bed, reluctant to face the cold day and its responsibilities. I have to take myself out onto the deck and say a little prayer of thanks to get my head in the game.

And the shift brought with it a bewildering array of options: work, creative challenges, how best to carry the message of the alternative recovery route that was so generously shown to me.

I prefer to "hand over" such decisions and let answers appear but I'm also increasingly free to make risky choices, to say no.

I'll ignore the advice, for instance, to continue the ozone insufflation, an experience that left me feeling quite deflated.

Much more uplifting are the human interventions; being stopped for a chat by a Sister at my son's school; hearing from a young Bosnian Muslim, a survivor of the Balkans conflict who worked with me in London in the 90s; a touching message from an old university friend. Their care takes me by surprise.

Being ill has opened the door to love in many forms and in a time of exceptional savagery and sudden death I want to make it welcome.

I'm powerless over all the cruel news, but I can act within my own small sphere, and respond to the love: it gives me the courage to change things, including how I eat, think, speak.

I've stopped saying "I have cancer"; no longer look forward to "clearing" it, but will focus instead on living with the tumours, seeking to manage them through the choices I make.

 

Entry 72, August 9, 2014: An elderly gent took a while to get seated next to me at the Byron writers' festival, then remarked that there was nothing good about getting old.

I replied that from my perspective it didn't seem too bad an option, and that I would be tickled pink to reach his 81-year mark.

But I could see his point.

Another drawback to longevity is making itself horribly apparent: that while it's fine to stay alive, you have to pay for it. Not only with the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to, but with cold hard cash, and that means working, literally earning a living.

I've not been thinking too hard about such facts of life because so far I've been able to survive on savings, cashed-in super and so on.

But that will all run out quite soon and I've done little to stem the flow, partly out of indolence, partly blind faith. And there also exists a half belief, nagging away beneath my "faith", which murmurs to me I'll probably be dead quite soon, so don't need to worry about money, that I have enough to see me out.

It's a guilty secret, a subterranean fear fed by twinges in the liver and sudden slumps in energy. I don't confront this morbid narrative when it surfaces; I let it go unchallenged, but I suspect it's the source of the groundless tearfulness, occasional eruptions of grief and regret.

A frank talk with my partner about responsibility and the practicalities of the future pulled the scab off this quietly festering thought, and pumped some oxygen into it.

I am ashamed of this unexamined "truth": that behind the bravado, the carefree larking about in the waves, the smiling and dancing around in the kitchen, lurks a resignation, a suspicion that I'm kidding myself, that my efforts are all for nought. The "knowledge" that cancer, especially liver cancer, kills people, and usually pretty damn quickly; that all of this palaver constitutes a grotesque and pitiful deception -- of myself, primarily. (A continuation, really, of the "false front" rapidly pointed out to me in rehab 30 years ago, constructed to conceal a reservoir of anger, self-doubt, shame and fear).

I can no longer allow this silent corroding defeatism to go on: the psychic toll is considerable and without doubt affects me at a cellular level. It feeds the tumours as surely as sugar.

I suffer the usual fatigue and frustrations of life, but my experience overall is that I am thriving: that is the truth. The ancient powerful messages of hopelessness and failure are patently lies, phantasms from the murky depths of my psyche, and requiring the exorcism I have brought to other inherited distortions.

By admitting there's a thinking problem, exposing it, I stepped into the solution and immediately felt stronger, lighter. The next step is to take responsibility for it, take action. In this case, hunting out paid work, to demonstrate faith in the future.

 

Entry 71, August 2, 2014: A year ago, almost to the day, a liver specialist at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital told me I was unlikely to survive for more than a few months. A tumour was wrapping itself around and possibly invading the portal vein, making any surgical or invasive chemotherapy procedures almost certainly fatal: there was nothing more they could do.

He was sorrowful (he is a decent, caring human being, capable of empathy) and gave a forlorn smile when I took his pronouncement as a challenge and made an appointment for the following August ... This week in fact.

I had been looking forward to returning to see him, and not just to say "na na, na-na na". I also wanted to give him some good news - a rare commodity in his line of work - and, if he was interested, to let him know what I'd done to confound his prognosis.

But come the day, with its need for a cold, early start and four-hour return drive, I questioned the point of the consultation, and anticipated the venture with reluctance and some anxiety.

He may have been interested in talking about naturopathy, diet, meditative walks and the merits of minerals, but I doubt it. Mainstream medics just don't have the time or the inclination to hear about alternative approaches to health. They can attack diseases with scalpels or drugs or radiation, but their job generally doesn't extend to treating the whole person.

There was also a chance that underlying his genuine pleasure in seeing me bright-eyed and bushy tailed I would detect a strain of professional pessimism, a reservation about how "realistic" my chances of surviving really are. Or face his scepticism about my good health being anything other than a chance, spontaneous matter (as it may be: it's not uncommon in cancer cases, where plenty of people pull through miraculously).

I had even chosen not to have blood test updates to present: the procedure is not pleasant and what good is it going to do either of us to observe that the numbers have changed?

And those places ... Clinics, surgeries, waiting rooms ... They just ain't healthy. That's where sick people go (note marvellous denial) and I'm glad the decision to find another treatment route was made for me.

So I cancelled. Somewhat regretfully: I liked this man and was touched by his sadness that I was about to die. I wanted then to reassure him that it was all OK and I wanted to bring him cheer now.

But what could he offer me at this point?

I have stayed away from the funerals of suicides and relapsed addicts for similar reasons. I prefer not to buy into it, to collaborate in the grim, doomy game, and choose to do something to celebrate life instead.

So I threw open the doors to the sun, watered the garden, and went to frolic in the emerald ocean. 

 

Entry 70, July 26, 2014: There is no such thing, as far as I'm aware, as cancer of the heart. Every other part of the body is affected: there's brain, blood, bone and skin. Throat, stomach and bowel; ovarian, uterine, prostate and testicular - but the heart is exempt.

Why that is, I don't know (it's part of my willed ignorance around the disease) but I'm tempted to suggest the obvious, the cheesy, that it is because the heart is the organ of love. Love breaks all the rules and is indomitable. God knows the heart is damaged by a horde of other invaders, including plenty beyond the physical: grief and loss, loneliness, despair, romantic failure.

There's been good cause for heartache in the headlines this week and I have not gone unaffected by it. Feeling isolated, fearful, stressed and depressed about the world my son will have to navigate reduced me to a state of dull, unproductive anger for a couple of days - the anger that hurt and impotence hide behind. Babbling about my feelings in print (or anything to do with cancer, cancer, cancer) was simply beyond me.

But then there is love and the beginning of that for me regarding world events is to refuse to fear and hate: taking sides, arguing … that's never been my style, and is more important now than ever, with the air thick with horror, rage and blame.

So while I may be powerless over global events (including Australia and its criminal treatment of people in boats), there are things I can do to make the world a better place from within my own little circle, which means the exercise of love: talking and listening, hugging, enjoying music, gardening  and making food.

Ah, we're back to food: my previous attempts at trying to be funny about my ineptness in the kitchen, whining about the narrow dietary regime and so on, just don't cut it.

Food can be a purest expression of love and I'm convinced it has been a vital part in keeping me as healthy as I am.

I have had hundreds of meals prepared for me by loving hands, with effort taken to ensure the ingredients are the purest, the freshest possible. And I make that effort for myself also. Necessity and the desire not simply to survive but to know I have done everything I can to honour life drives me: I love most aspects of my life, including the natural environment, my friends and family, and am grateful for the daily opportunity to change and grow - and learn new skills, explore other creative outlets.

I revel in picking vegetables I have cultivated and turning them into a tasty meal, love feeling the goodness flood into the glands in my mouth and throat and spread throughout my body, the juices of life slowing cancer's march.

 

Entry 69, July 19, 2014: Food: it's become a cultural obsession and the subject of wild fears around safety, security and health.

As a function of Western affluenza, we now idolise and fetishise it (witness the nauseating ascendency of the "celebrity chef"), seeking perfection through trendy "miracle" diets like the paleo, or algorithms of fasting.

So when I heard there was a play being staged in Lismore entitled Food, I assumed that it would have something to do with, you know, tucker, perhaps with sequels called Munching, the Musical, or Brekky, the Ballet.

But the curious thing about Food, the drama, is that it barely features grub at all, instead exploring the subjects of rape and refugees.

My assumption about Food being about food doesn't mean I'm preoccupied with things to eat, though chafing under a restricted  nutrient-rich/filler-free regime, of course I am.

I'm confronted with it hourly, often with a sense of deprivation. Eating out is, er, out, but everywhere wafts of fat and sugar drift in through the olfactory organ to a pleasure centre in the brain, setting off cravings and making me discontent with my Spartan fare.

I succumb occasionally, fuelled by denial and resentment, and an adolescent need to flirt with risk.

To stay on the straight and narrow means buying and preparing fresh provisions, and that means planning, discipline, creativity, and a bit of effort - none of them my strong suit.

I've lived on my own most of my life and should know how to knock out a decent dish but I've usually depended on a few bog standard items such as omelets and things involving toast.

One old standby was a thing I call "lentil bake"; orange, stodgy, and as appetising as it sounds.  I've concocted curries so fibrous they made me feel like a stroke victim trying to chew and swallow them.

I've had fabulous cooks to guide me but I've opted to let them do the work, or depended on restaurants and, sadly, work canteens and machines peddling chocolate and chippies.

When I came to this country I weighed about 90kgs, too much "condition" for a man of my height. Various detoxes knocked some of that off but even cancer and chemo couldn't return me to the svelte figure of yore.

The fatwa against meat, sugar and grains has slimmed me down and, I'm convinced, meant slim pickings for the  tumours,  but the result is a frustratingly narrow palate range.

I did go to Lismore last weekend, not for Food but for lighter cultural sustenance.

Instead of an earnest drama, I saw 80s rocker Lloyd Cole at the Star Court Theatre. He was low-key and brilliant, though my enjoyment may have been enhanced by some off-piste indulgence at the excellent Miss Lizzies Café before the show.

One of cancer's tactics (if you live long enough) is to wear you down. I get tired, and tired of my bland diet. I want to live, of course, but I also want to live, and not die of boredom.

So I have had to learn to cook - even two meals simultaneously, to satisfy the ravening teenager. And I love it. I also love the challenge to take responsibility, make the effort, and stop feeling sorry for myself.

 

Entry 68, July 12, 2014:  The Angel has been out of the country this week, taking with her the laughter that has laid down the irresistible life-enhancing rhythms for my dance with cancer.

Her absence has added to the chill in the air, a melancholy in the wind made all the darker by news of the death of a young woman by her own hand.

I have only seen photos, in which she looked radiantly happy, but she was loved by a beautiful man whom I love, and I saw first-hand the faces of her friends, blank with shock and grief.

The bewilderment deepened when I heard from a good mate that his lovely niece had taken the same path, aged just 21.

I've had my moments of doubt and pain and, like all alkies and addicts, understand the attraction of oblivion. At her age I didn't realise the world was my oyster - didn't have the tools to open the shell, or even know that I had a right to do so.

I also understand that existence can seem like nothing but a struggle, a life sentence: there are times still when I feel as if I hate everything and everybody, with their need to jabber and show off, and am amazed that more people don't elect to run away from the circus.

But these irremediable acts of violence belong to a different category altogether and the determination and mechanics of suicide remain unfathomable to me.

While there's life there's hope is a comforting cliché which I am reminded of, and heartened by, reading Jeanette Winterson, as a prelude to the Byron Writers' Festival.

Winterson had a loveless, impoverished upbringing after her adoption by a 20-stone religious fanatic and her ineffectual husband.

"I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life," she writes in her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

It is wondrous, the survival of that life spark, how it continues to glow, even in those poor wretches whose lives make Winterson's seem carefree.

Among the torrent of ideas that flow from the brilliant Northerner's pen, enriching her every sentence, this one also has the ring of truth to it: "The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance."

I know that to be true from my own history, in the escape from chronic alcoholism and poly-drug addiction, and in that new freedom, that rebirth, a second, third, fourth and fifth chance to experience love - of nature, of others, sometimes even of myself - and to enjoy fulfilling work, meaningful relationships.

For some mysterious reason, cancer has so far stayed its hand against me. I've been given another chance once again. Cautioned, and I hope a little wiser, I've been blessed with a keener appreciation of what it means to live. Death has never looked so unappealing.

 

Entry 67, July 5, 2014: My young friend Seth took me out on the Brunswick River in an inflatable craft this week, and rarely have I experienced such hours of utter peace.

For a minute I regretted not having spent more of my life messing about in boats, but this was no time for looking back and feeling sorry about anything.

It constituted an opportunity, a moral imperative, to relish the moment, and soak up the silence and serenity.

Alone, except for the birds, a few fish and a fast-moving stingray, we moved languidly through the clear green water, between thick stands of mangroves, musing about the turn of the tide, lulled into a state of timelessness, of carefree, endless boyhood, by both the primeval setting and the simple Huck Finn fun of it.

The highlight was tying an old rock onto a bit of cord and chucking it overboard to serve as anchor, while we lay in the warming winter sun, saying nothing and feeling no need for words.

Seth usually takes to the water with his brother, so it was a privilege to be invited along, and, as is often the case with physical effort, it created more energy within me than it took out.

In fact, the outing began a period of surging strength as well as a disturbing and resettling of the emotional silt.  My own brother has been visiting from his home up near the Arctic circle, bringing with him, inevitably, the full fraught psychodrama of familial memory.

But we spent refreshingly little time digging up ancient history, preferring to sit quietly, talking over a host of current issues. He has health challenges too, and in the light of these I forget my own problems. The flood of physical wellbeing - of bodily power - reinforced the inner strengths, integrating respect, affection, acceptance into the mix.

Bathed in sunshine, preternaturally clear skies and warm ocean and the easiness of family both old andnew, these feel like special days -- a child's summer hols, impermanent perhaps, but with a future emptyof fears and expectations.

I feel fully alive, connected to the Earth and its inhabitants, nurtured by the simplest of circumstances.Two mates in a boat, dozing, letting the time drift by; two brothers, different in most respects, hugging with all the strength their knocked-about bodies can muster; a teenager showing kindness to his ageing uncle,getting to know him a little.

These halcyon days will pass and outrageous fortune is probably preparing a serving of niggles and setbacks for us. For now, any difficulties are in my mind. Cancer is a mere chance-companion, like a hitch-hiker, who will either get out at the intersection, as agreed, or mug me and leave me by the roadside to die.

Time will tell: today I am oblivious to either option. The present is overwhelmingly beautiful.

 

Entry 66, June 28,  2014: There is no escaping the suppository of wisdom. Prolong the evil hour as I might, a visit to my naturopath has left me with no option but to befriend the enema.

The consultation was a bit of a downer, truth be told.

With the Angel riding shotgun, we headed into the Gold Coast hinterland to see this man, an old hand, bio-chemical background, something of a stirrer.

I come in, jaunty, waiting for the compliments about how well I look. I've been congratulating myself in the car on being able to drive for hours at the end of a long day, unfazed, unfatigued.

Then this geezer looks at my blood and the deflation begins: there's fungus in there, he tells me; the red cells, which should all be fairly uniform, are differently sized; there's also evidence of chemicals, inflammation, influenza, stress. Even my blood pressure's "a bit low".

 "You are walking a knife edge," he intones, giving me the basilisk stare.

It confirms the official medical reading that the disease has come out to play after taking a breather. If I wasn't feeling so well I'd let it rattle me

But instead of taking it as a kick in the guts, I hear a warning to start taking my health seriously again -- a kick up the bum.

Which is where the problem lies. The idea is wheeled out, not for the first time, of blasting my insides, via the rectal passage, with ozone. It's supposed to make life difficult for any bacteria, viruses, fungi and pathogenic microbes that are lurking down there and would be like sending my liver to Arizona.

Except that the very idea of it makes my head swim.

I've had a few of the old digital examinations and I can't say they were hideous but nor did I enjoy them one little bit.

Now it appears as if my virginal rear end and I have to get used to the idea: first an enema, then  in with the ozone.

It is an indicator of how attached to life I've become (and how trusting of this Dickensian individual) that I would even countenance such a procedure. It's the final frontier, goodbye dignity; au revoir self-respect.

I am only exploring it because I don't want to find myself, in a year or two, rotted out with cancer, sitting in a puddle as my entrails turn to mush and leak out of me.

It's painful too, at that stage, I believe.

I leave Queensland with an enema kit sitting in the backseat, boring a hole in the back of my skull like a relentless tailgater.

It takes a day or two but I fall into line. It's an abject business: wet and cold and necessarily solitary but hey! It's not the most distasteful thing I've ever stood still for, it beats chemo and you can get used to anything.

And yes, an ozone machine is on its way.

Pray for me.

 

Entry 65, June 21,  2014: I'm back in Aurukun, miles from anywhere, and once again I am peculiarly moved by my experiences here, which consist of little more than walking around the town and countryside and talking with anybody who will give me their time.

It is a surreal place, where few of the usual rules apply, and with an unnameable quality about it that leaves me feeling richly alive, humbled, and seeking to better understand what it is to be a human being.

The sensation has something to do with the weather, which is blustery and hot; with being isolated amid millions of hectares of tropical rainforest and serpentine waterways under infinite skies; and with the slow pace of life.

But it has much more to do with the people, weird, wonderful, sometimes wild, yet possessing an innocence and inner beauty that survives despite lives of hardship and the impoverishment of their culture.

I'm aware I am a visitor here and that the Wik people and I will be forever separate, but it is partly these unfathomable differences that make every successful "meeting" so rewarding. 

These moments of identification and connection have a warmth and sincerity that I come across rarely in the outside world, where vanity, vulgarity, greed, loud opinion and waste seem to dominate contemporary culture.

I am an ignorant outsider in the Cape, and like all tourists prone to making naive, half-baked generalisations about "the natives", but the language of the heart I am able to speak here brings with it a longing for age-old values that I miss in my own community.

Underlying this fundamental human pleasure, this unspoken discovery of common ground, there is a heart-breaking theme, one which perhaps explains why I feel so emotionally charged when I'm here, and that is the presence of death.

As in most Aboriginal communities, it is a subject never very far away: premature death through disease, suicide or violence is an everyday reality, and it is set within the context of the dying off of traditional culture, even the extinction of an entire people, a tangible threat that is immensely saddening.

What does this have to do with having cancer? Simply that for me, as for the people of Aurukun, the prospect of an imminent ending endows life with a heightened sense of urgency, of seriousness. While I don't want to belittle the importance of play (indeed, I dreamt of the surf every night I've been here, and we laugh a lot), it's not enough.

The strange and gentle conversations I have in Aurukun, and hearing the children speak in language, engender enough hope to persuade me that healing in the lives of the local people is possible, both individually and culturally.

It is an extension of the hope I locate and nurture in my own spirit to help me survive, and I want passionately to do my bit, however tiny, to help to strengthen it in theirs.

 

Entry 64, June 14,  2014: The tumours have flared up again. Nothing too extreme, but enough to wipe the smile off my face, to cast a shadow.

As I absorb the news I heap upon myself moralistic judgments about pride coming before a fall and so on, which I cannot entirely dismiss as puritanical, superstitious nonsense.

Even as I wrote the words "cancer is ebbing from my life" last week, I feared I was tempting fate; that it was hubristic to be declaring victory in such certain terms.

And to joke about relapse being a good career move? Well, that's just asking for it.

More puritanism: I had been thinking guiltily that there hadn't been enough of a "battle"; that I hadn't needed to fight and suffer enough. Just how much suffering would satisfy that self-flagellating need I don't know, but I may find out as I've been dropped back with a bump into the combat zone.

Now at least I can shed the faux fatalism:  in recent months, when people asked me how I was, I'd say "very well … for now", as if I were looking my future in the eye with a plucky nod to the disease's lethal cunning and patience.

The fatalism has become more real: any illusion of control has faded.

I suppose I should be grateful I'm as well as I am - that I am alive at all. Right now that's a struggle. I'm slightly aged by the news, shrunken and shut down. I am afraid to feel.

It's a time of self-recrimination about my diet: typically, the reprieve gave me an excuse to slip back into bad old ways.

Coffee had become a routine vice (despite knowing how hard it makes the liver work, its stress upon the adrenals); if not coffee, a comforting soy dandelion latte, despite knowing the soy milk used in cafes contains sugar.

Ah sugar! What a plague; an addiction, a cancer-feeding drug masquerading as a "treat". A sliver of dried mango here, spoonfuls of apple crumble and ice-cream there: "That's not going to kill me," I semi-snarl at those who object (because they want to see me stay alive). But added up, it could.

So it's back to being Mr 110%. Strict veganism. The "relapse" has administered a kick up the arse.

And happily the ether is full of good angels. A call to my son's school to bunk off a remedial reading commitment there ends with a warm validation from the secretary: "I'm a big fan of your column," she tells me. "It's inspirational."

Moved, I thank her, hang up, and have a sniffly moment.

The tight visage softens: energy trickles back into me and I grab the boogie board and head out to plunge into the surf.

The doctor's news is a setback, not a sentence: and even if it were, that's no reason to stop living today.

 

Entry 63, June 7,  2014: I was shown evidence this week of the existence of God, when my first whale of the season was pointed out to me by one of two gorgeous French girls on a path above Wategos Beach.

After a long patient search, they also spotted the shark gorging on the vast black blossom of bait-fish in the pellucid water below. Both young women smoked but I can forgive that in some people, especially when it contributes in a je ne c'est quoi kind of way to the existential delight of the moment.

I had not long got out of the surf myself, bait-fish and their toothy hunters having appeared only after I'd ventured out deep in yet another abortive splash-around on a body board (a euphemism, surely, for the boogie board, a name as awkward and ignominious as my water-logged performance).

But while I'm thankful for the guidance given me by other late-middle-age-crisis andropausals in the waves, my surfing attempts make me feel a little fraudulent, striding along the beach tarted up in a fetish costume, then floundering about among the rocks like a suicidal sea elephant.

I'm also feeling something of a cancer fraud.

By this time next week I will have the results of a range of blood tests that will give me a thorough picture of my state of health and point me in what direction I need to go.

I anticipate (and hope) no tumour growth will be detected, that my liver and other bits are still ticking over and that, at worst, I may need to add a zinc supplement into my daily routine.

But this column is called the Topic of Cancer, so surely, no cancer, no column? The crisis is over, no more dramas, nothing to see here, let's move on.

Were I to show signs of relapse, I might have something to report. The terror! the tears! the courage!

However, it seems that - as much as I would love to be able to bring you a heart-wrenching tale of decline and fall (almost willing to people-please my way into the grave) - the kindly deity who puts Gallic sea-nymphs in my path has other plans for me. Cancer is ebbing from my life, and though I come across it on every screen and page I read, and in every second conversation, my problems now come not from having a life-threatening disease, but from forging a life in the aftermath of that experience.

The board riding (with its pitiful promise of at last becoming one of the boys) is among several activities I've long harboured a desire to have a go at. I suppose they make up what is known, unhappily, as my bucket list.

One other involves a musical instrument and the results of that are as euphonious as the surfing is graceful.

But I want to give them my best shot, and time is precious. Luckily, the disease has made me immune to feeling ridiculous. And I'm no longer terribly afraid of sharks either.

 

Entry 62, May 31,  2014: A visit to my old friends at Seedsavers in Byron Bay sees me staggering out under a load of cuttings, seeds and seedlings and a bottle of reishi mushroom tincture, determined to bring greater diversity to my own rather humdrum vege patch.

Jude and Michel Fanton grow the blood red reishi mushrooms on logs in their overflowing garden and Michel is presently playing guinea pig for the immunity-boosting brew, which he makes in a variety of formats.

He urged me to do my own research on the reishis, for while they have been widely used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, Michel is unsure about their suitability for someone with liver disease.

My naturopath would baulk at these mushrooms, and all such organisms, as he believes fungus plays a large part in causing many diseases, cancer among them. I'll talk to him and follow his advice, of course, but I know he would not object to anything else grown in the Fantons' culinary cornucopia.

Here are just some of the goodies they heaped upon me:

* stems and leaves of celery taro or Tahitian spinach, rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium and vitamins A, B, and C;

* the perennial, peppery Lebanese cress, good in salads or pesto;  

* several of their garden's five varieties of chicory, whose bitter taste stimulates the liver. Jude tells me chicory is a dietary secret of the French, who eat it in a salad to aid digestion after a fatty meal.

* tulsi, a member of the basil family, whose Latin name, Ocimum sanctum, gives an indication of its great significance in Hinduism. The "holy basil" is used widely in Thai cuisine and ayurvedic medicine, where it is considered an elixir of life.

* amaranth, another sacred crop, this time of the Aztecs, whose seeds contain high quality protein, calcium, iron and other minerals. It is also highly digestible.

There was more: African cabbage, the Lombok chilli or pepper, mints, the herb winter savoury, related to but more hardy than thyme, edible hibiscus, crinkly Ecuadorean and Okinawa spinaches, golden oregano, mustard, endive and the leaves and seeds of New Zealand spinach.

I also brought home some penny royal, an ancient herb which, being emmenagogic, I'll use only on paths as an insecticide. I'm going back soon for some sweetening pandanus.

My naturopath advised me against consuming anything that didn't have nutritional value: it's a waste of (internal) space, he said. I took his dietary warnings to heart but have been wobbling a little since receiving a clean bill of health.

Watching the effervescent Fantons gambol about in their garden has put some steel back into my resolve. This weekend their extraordinary crops will be planted alongside the kale, celery, beetroot and basil that have been a key to keeping me alive.

 

Entry 61, May 24,  2014:  I'm getting old. Yes, I know, it's better than the alternative, but still. It's not just the constant searches for keys or glasses (now indispensable). I've been used to that for a while. My punk nom du guerre is, after all, Brian Damage.

No, it's more the body: I just don't bounce back as I once did. Don't bounce at all, in fact.

The morning after a lazy body board surf and a spot of gentle gardening, I awoke in good spirits but with protesting flesh: weary bones, stiff muscles.

I thought I'd put things right by making use of the five-trip ticket I'd bought months ago in a fit of enthusiasm and get to a yogalates class. (A gym subscription and a pass for multiple visits to a sauna also remain unused, after similar bursts of wasteful exuberance).

Rolling out of bed I added some layers to the leisure wear that serves as pyjamas in the winter and headed out. (Another sign of senescence: when your sleeping gear and daytime garb are indistinguishable; are in fact one and the same).

Now titter not: these classes are not gatherings of pony-tailed babes and bendy Adonises on bicycles, smelling of steamed tofu and enlightened chakras. This day it was me and 20 grandmas, who were both fairer and fitter, radiating a healthiness I could only envy.

It's all about the core, apparently, but I was so busy directing energy to and from the core that I forgot whether I was supposed to exhale or inhale, and frequently found myself doing neither, which even I know is quite wrong, and even possibly fatal.

My balance was off, my face pointed in the opposite direction to the rest of the group, stretch pains pinged in body parts quite unrelated to those the teacher seemed to be describing  and alarming gestational noises started to come from my abdomen (landslide rumbles and geyser-like gurgles which, due to the high-fibre diet, sea minerals, OD-level vitamin C intake and a ruined digestion, it is perilous to ignore).

I stuck it out and enjoyed the bit where we had to lie on our backs and meditate. I dozed off then wandered dopily out into one of the Indian summer days we are blessed with this winter (wonderful, but carrying the guilty taint of global warming), went home and crawled back into bed - only to dream of Lou Reed, who was looking more benign than I've ever seen him.

He seemed to be offering me advice. I forget what but it prompted me to think about his liver transplant and whether, should my tumours shrink sufficiently to make one possible, I would go for it.

I think most likely not. The one that's already down there is bloodied but unbowed. It hasn't let me down so far and I hope I'd want to honour that.

 

Entry 60, May 17,  2014:  Congratulations and a big thank you to the good citizens of the Northern Rivers who stood up to Metgasco and had their voices heard at State government level. Ordinary people of all types were united over the issue, acting with determination and dignity and speaking strongly enough to have the CSG miner's activities suspended because it has failed to properly address their fundamental concerns.

It came as heartening news in a week in which the little people (me, and probably most of you) took a pummeling from the Hockey budget, which is only going to make life tougher for the majority, many of whom are already struggling. At the same time, very cynically, it will barely inconvenience any of the cigar-chewing fatties who are setting the agenda in politics n this country.

The area most badly mauled, healthcare, is the one I should have the greatest interest in but I'm fortunate enough to be able to feel personally unaffected and am concerned only for those who need care but won't get it.

During the cancer days, I was very glad of every service available - I was given top-draw treatment which cost me almost nothing, though when asked I paid up happily, grateful to be able to do so.

In hospital for the surgery to cut out the mushrooming tumour in my liver, I was a well cared for patient in a bustling but efficient ward in Brisbane: four months later I returned to see neighbouring annexes closed, their gloomy depths off-limits, and the staff at sixes and sevens.

Having emerged from there and escaped from the death-grip of the disease, I'm relieved I won't need anything major from the health services in the foreseeable future - because it can only get worse.

And anyway, my honeymoon with mainstream medicine was short-lived, as was its infatuation with me. It was the specialists who handed me the divorce papers and watched me walk out onto Cemetery Road.

In the end, as with Bentley, it was ordinary people who mobilised something extraordinary in my liver - from the organic products of Little Farmers rather than Big Pharma to the series of other helpers, guides and good angels who often just popped up.

Among them was a never-say-die naturopath with foul-tasting goos and good advice; a biochemist, a former nurse, friends who rolled up their sleeves and cleaned and cooked and made me laugh.

I know of other unsung heroes out there in the undergrowth: health activists making liposomal vitamin C and giving it away. And pioneers defying the law to turn cannabis into an oily medicine that thousands of survivors swear has cured them of cancer.

Naturally, Big Pharma wants to control the pot patents, but this is one area that will prove almost impossible to control. It's already beyond control.

Big anything doesn't work. Small is beautiful: the peasants are revolting, and demanding to be heard on their environment - and their health - even if it means breaking the law. I applaud their courage.

 

Entry 59, May 10,  2014:  A flying visit this week to the remote Aboriginal community of Aurukun on the Cape York Peninsula stirs up a maelstrom of emotion.

One the one hand there's sadness, white fella guilt, outrage and despair: on the other, laughter, joy at creating connections across race, despite the great differences, and admiration for the dedication and care shown by the staff of the various agencies working there: teachers, social workers, nurses, advisers and guides.

The rewards may be few and far between for those trying to better a grim situation (one which, for all the expressions of "sorry" uttered, continues to weep like an open sore on the face of the nation), but when they come they are rich indeed.

I was fortunate to yarn with elders Leith Kawangka and Stanley Kalkeeyorta, two wise, gentle men, sorrowful at the spiritual damage inflicted by colonialism and the dismembering of their culture, including the loss of language.

With the patience of a crocodile, Leith teaches me some words in the ancient Wik tongue and says he urges his grandchildren - "and all the kids here" - to attend school.

Although Wik, or variants of it, is still widely spoken here, Stanley says his mother tongue, Kukumumin, has all but vanished. Indeed, Stanley believes he is the last one of his family group. "All the old songs and stories will go with me,' he says.

But he is more philosophical than gloomy and has had a colourful, creative life, including performing traditional dance in Brisbane at the age of nine, which he loved, playing guitar and singing in a band, carving shields out of ironwood, juggling, painting and serving in the military for 10 years.

He bubbles over with ideas, such as developing a mud crab industry in the community, exporting the delicacy to Asia.

But he is not optimistic about the future of this country. "A metre below us is the mother lode, bauxite," he says.

"They can move us out of here any time. We have no power.  When the miners come, those mangrove swamps, and the crabs, will disappear."

There are causes for hope here though: primary school principal Cindy Hales tells me that student attendance has gone up from 48% seven years ago to 75%, and child mortality rates have improved dramatically.

The respect and fellow feeling that can be established in a few hours of conversation with the elders, while watching the children play and laugh, is profoundly moving.

A psychic shift occurs in me.

My second night in Aurukun I dream I see my long-dead father in the street: he's old school, as always, three-piece suit, rakish hat, pipe.

"There's my Dad," I shout, and run up to greet him. I give him a long hug, revelling in his solidity and crying with happiness.

I wake up, face wet with tears but oddly renewed, and step out into the heat and dust, to talk and listen, keen to learn more and try to understand a little better.

 

Entry 58, May 3,  2014: Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell regularly sends me words of encouragement after reading a column: one of the busiest people in the Northern Rivers finds the time to be one of the kindest.

My return to health has been given momentum, I am sure, by people such as her and the others who read this every week, and cheer me on … no matter if I've been I've been cranky, maudlin or self-indulgent. So, without getting all Gwyneth Paltrow about it, I want to thank you all (and my parents, God etc).

Jenny is an outstanding example of a public servant, far from the "sleaze frenzy" of politics, as cartoonist Ralph Steadman called it, and I'll bet her experience of surviving cancer further heightened her social consciousness.

Service to others is not only good for society, it also brings freedom from self, a happy state lacking in lives devoted to the pursuit of money and pleasure -- of happiness itself.

After 18 months of living with cancer and the imminence of death, I'm now in the position of seeing that I might have a decent few years ahead of me.

The reprieve brought in its wake not the ecstatic joy I confidently predicted but, a few days later, a sudden, vicious kicking from depression. I'm embarrassed to report this (one of the condition's more insidious symptoms being shame at having it.). Then again, it's been an intense 18 or so months - and a busy 2014, with a lot of "living", in which relationships of all sorts have both simplified and become more demanding.

But the darkness lifted, as it always has, and now I've got to return to "normal", which means earning a living, ideally through doing something useful, before I die of boredom droning on about cancer.

As you read this I'm preparing for a trip to Aurukun, the Aboriginal community in Cape York, to document the painting of a mural on the airport building, a project that is bringing damaged residents together in a relaxed and meaningful co-operative effort.

My partner, an artist, is painting and co-ordinating the work and is stimulated and fulfilled by it: I'll yarn with the participants in order to communicate their stories, and the story of the mural to the wider world, a job that also promises deep satisfaction.

At home, meanwhile, there is a huge need for older men to give some time to younger guys, many of whom are wandering around in a daze, full of doubt, seeking identity and comfort in drunken or iced-up stupor and destructive parodies of masculinity.

We blokes draw the short straw in the survival lottery: booze, violence, accidents, depression, disease: we top the grisly statistics.

A caring word can change the course of a life: cancer may have made me more selfish in some ways but it has also given me the motivation to say such words whenever I can.

 

Entry 57, April 26,  2014: Despite clinical evidence indicating its dormancy, and every bodily sign backing up that finding, the threat of cancer's return has for a couple of months been spotted now and again lurking in the psychic gloom, like a mugger waiting for his victim.

It failed to make a real score, being brushed aside in the brisk rush of rude good health, but its ghoulish presence could make itself felt in the most blissful moments (of which there's been plenty).

The fear's survival - shadowy, unscrutinised - was aided by several powerful streams of belief. One is the Antipodean dislike of exuberance, of display. I didn't want to "skite". There's also an habitual mistrust, whose genesis remains a mystery (because I have led a charmed life, almost free of betrayal), and, most egregiously, a gnawing belief that I don't really deserve recovery - a vein of low self-worth that beats deep in the subconscious but bursts only too corporeally into thought and feeling.

There may also be a touch of survivor guilt thrown in: why me, and not my cousin Don, as good a man as ever walked, who died from an aggressive malignancy recently? Or Dylan Tombides, the Australian soccer player, by all accounts a fine man with a great future, who last week succumbed to testicular cancer, aged 20?  They surely deserved to live more than I.

It was easier for me to accept the cancer diagnosis (there were no "why me's?" then) than to believe that I may have been spared - though don't get me wrong, I was glad of it, despite these occasional morbid intimations.

But it looks as if I may be forced to fully accept that I've struck lucky with the disease - or rather, stayed lucky (I'm a first-world white man, bright, educated, a baby boomer) because (as luck would have it) I ran into my brilliant GP at Byron farmers' market this week.

"I'll save you a trip and tell you your blood test figures are dropping," she said, "including the indicator for tumour activity, which is 13," (two wonderful points below the previous mark, and as close to normal as goddammit).

I shared the news immediately with my Kiwi niece and her daughter, my body awash with warm emotions. Reader, I may have even shed a tear.

Recently I have felt more alive than ever - in every sphere of existence.

After the brief ­- and lucky? - market consultation, that vibrancy will deepen into a cellular and certain joy.

But I'm not delusional. I know I will die one day, and the odds are against my making old bones. After all, my liver's about as robust as a run-over cane toad, and sometimes feels like one.

For now though, and foreseeably, I'll be stayin' alive, as the Bee Gees so memorably trilled.

(Then again, it didn't really work for them).

 

Entry 56, April 19,  2014:  It's Bluesfest time again and, needing to go into their website to tweak the tickets I bought immediately after the festival last year, I looked up my password.

It was Be-there-in-14 - not so much a reminder (erm: it's Easter; remember to attend five-day musical extravaganza) as a pledge, a commitment to the future made on April Fool's Day 2013.

And there I be, soaking up as much of the colourful experience as my little body and soul can stand. That may not be a lot: I avoided Bluefest and other such shows for years because I didn't want to deal with the crowds. I felt too old for such unruliness.  And while I'm now a festival convert, mob behaviour is still off-putting.

As the Peanuts character Linus once yelled: I love mankind, it's people I can't stand - at least not in these numbers. Mobile phone zombies on the footpaths, over-caffeinated shriekers in cafes and popcorn munchers at the cinema are vexatious enough, but music fests allow for a particular kind of en-masse lurching and lashing about that alarms me.

It's tougher for those of us who have to deal with it without a tipple or two - though I doubt even a $3000 bottle of Grange could ease the aggro of wading through the mud, dodging intoxicated young people (oblivious at the best of time).

But so far the levels of drunkenness don't seem too extreme. There's a lot of fun to be had here and, sad though it might seem, being part of a crowd of several thousand people bawling out the words to some ancient rock anthem is an uplifting experience. So I avoid the serious middle-aged blokes who stand there, arms folded, nodding approval, and join those who seem to listen with their bodies, and respond accordingly. (Though there are also times when I'm spellbound, standing stock-still, listening entirely with my head, to something fresh and transcendent, such as Edward Sharpe's Magnetic Zeroes.

When I dance though, the family and friends who have descended upon Byron for the gig will move quietly away and leave me to it.

They can drink, and will, but few of them will have palates as aristocratically refined as those who run our state, whose exquisite tastes stand in inverse ratio to their debauched morality.

O'Farrell's foolish forgetfulness pales into insignificance beside the tens of millions of dollars being trousered by some of these individuals. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of their book? It's too late to get my snout in the trough but maybe I'll courier a bottle of plonk or two over to the local mayor before I lobby council about the yapping mutts here in Dogville 2479.

A drop of Barossa Pearl might oil the wheels of government machinery. And a slab of VB or somesuch to my editor here might ensure the continuation of this column, even after I've run out of interesting things to say about having cancer (a point I sometimes feel I've long passed).

In the meantime, wo-oh-ohhhh, listen to the music

It nourishes the spirit and that in turn feeds physical wellbeing. It's going to be a healthy Easter.

 

Entry 55, April 12,  2014: One year ago today, a Saturday, I was knocking on my GP's door, doubled over in pain but nonetheless feeling like an old fraud, seeking narcotic relief after a probing, trans-arterial blast of chemo in Brisbane the day before.

The merciful creature didn't survey me through half-closed eyes, seeing just another addict putting the bite on, but behaved like the saint she is and gave me succour.

I took many foggy weeks to come right, then it was back into hospital for another round, which was a dispiriting, damaging experience from go to whoa.

That was then, in the barely believable past.

Ever since, every few weeks, I've marvelled as my body undergoes a new strengthening, in which physical energy goes up a notch or two, accompanied, as you would expect, by an elevation in mind and spirit.

It's a return to the kind of heft I always took for granted -an addition of muscle (and fat) that is very welcome. I feel more solid, denser, but also lighter.

These bursts are followed by a settling in, when I absorb the new "aliveness" and the peace of mind it brings, a stranger to fatigue and susceptible to spontaneous displays of vitality.

After a day working in front of the computer this week I ventured out for an evening stroll along the beach. Alone in the soft rain, the ocean roiling ceaselessly beside me, I felt compelled to run, then sprinted for a couple of hundred metres, relishing the feel of the forgiving grit between my toes.

The sea is treacherous just now - a young man drowned here last week - but I can rarely resist its call and splashed about like a gleeful child, catching wave after wave, gliding across their smooth face.

Finally spent, I stood and mouthed a silent "thank you" to the darkening sky, weirdly expecting my words to be noted (by what, or whom?) but not expecting a response.

And anyway, there was nothing I needed to hear: health - life - is guiding me and I'm happily bouncing along behind.

The new vigour may be a result of some Ayurvedic powders I'm gorging on to try to damp down the fires of a diseased liver.

Or it might be fuelled by the coffee (with soy milk) that has insidiously re-established itself as a near-daily habit. I'll be checking out the pastries next.

Whatever the reason, one year on I experience myself as renewed, stronger almost daily, incredulous at my good fortune, able to "do" most of life with a smile, including the dull bits.

I felt so ebullient one day I even went and had the blood test I've been putting off for weeks: the act implies (and increases) doubt, but I still need that scientific confirmation.

If it hadn't been for such a test 18 months ago I could be dead by now, so I'm grateful. But while orthodox medicine identified the problem and helped to take my pain away, a more mysterious set of forces is working the real magic.

 

Entry 54, April 5,  2014: I don't know how many of you saw the final episode of the TV series Rake recently, so … Spoiler Alert!

The season climaxed with the dissolute, charismatic anti-hero barrister Cleaver Greene and his colleague and close mate "Barnyard" soaring over Sydney Harbour under a huge, colourful balloon, adrift after a lift-off gone wrong, with Cleaver hanging from the basket by a rope around his leg, both men exultant at being "above the fray".

It's a fantastical and joyous conclusion, and, like the cycling across the sky scene in ET, ridiculously cheering.

The series just got better with every episode: it sparkled with Hogarthian monsters, cunning plotting and a mix of legal nonsense with the demotic and the demi-monde, and, crucially, the impish and fatalistic, Godot-absurd charm of the Rake himself.

Its screenwriter made a textbook play of the showbiz dictum "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry" for the final.

It was laugh out loud funny until the point, shortly before the balloon debacle, where Barnyard informs Cleaver that his cancer has returned. I felt as if a bony finger had poked out of the screen, inserted itself between two ribs and jabbed the nerve responsible for keeping the tear ducts shut. Without warning I spouted and shook, then squirted a little more. The storm passed quickly, a gust of emotion bursting from a pricked bubble of unrecognised fear.

Barnyard's attempted stoic out-of-the-blue disclosure shocked me - almost subliminally, faster than thought - into "knowing" the reality of my condition.

Sadness for the characters evoked by the actors' artful performances got to me first but my sniffles were also for myself (in potentiality) and for the people I dread leaving behind (and always will).

One of Cleaver's many charms is that despite a chaotic and disreputable existence, he is highly moral and, as a consequence, very loving.

Organising the dawn balloon ride for his afflicted friend was an act of love. The dread of relapse and dying I usually manage to ignore is also founded in love: my relationships are reduced in number, but have an unprecedented authenticity and depth.

Most important is the relationship with my son - who held me during my Rake eruption - and it is becoming daily more rewarding.

Love and concern for him - and curiosity! - have played a big part in keeping me alive so far, and well into the future, I'm sure. Dying is not an option, as several cancer-riddled parents have told me.

Next comes a less straightforward kind of intimate connection, The Relationship, as coupling is commonly called, bestowing upon concupiscence a universality and capital-letter kudos.

This relationship preceded my illness and has been assayed and enriched by it. The love I am shown - and which I attempt to reciprocate - has been the surest medicine in my healing, and has sustained us both as we stumbled along the cancer path. The peace and the pleasure of it, the laughter (and the tears, though rare as a clean-shaven Cleaver), make me want to live for ever.

 

Entry 53, March 29,  2014:  The vegetable patch is loving the weather we're having. The rain has rejuvenated skanky old stumps of silverbeet and grasshopper-crunched kale and teased new seedlings into sitting up like Jackie, bright with life.

The soil has regained some moistness and is once more looking fecund, multi-dimensional, after being reduced by drought to brittle, dusty lumps. Everything in nature is happy.

This makes me happy in turn, naturally. And then there's  autumn's you-and-me-and-rain-on-the-roof effect, where the teeming noise against the tin floods the body with a euphoric thrill, a delicious, almost guilty, shiver from the safety of a warm, dry nest, ideally in bed, snug, foetal, with a throb of intimacy at the core. Nothing so instantly turns on the gratitude tap - it flows through one at an animal level, yet rich with emotion, including an undercurrent of pity for those without such basic comforts.

The wet (the dreary grey) discourages venturing out of doors, or even out of bed in the morning. You have to, of course, to make the rent, but though it can be dull, it's luxurious to hibernate.

What's more, it's healthy, forcing rest. Not that I need much persuasion to lie back, gaze through the window at the wind in the trees, mind adrift …

And healthy is what I seem to be; it's what my body's telling me. I survive long, testing days, full of physical activity and the demands of being a functional adult, very often reaching the end of the evening still feeling fresh. 

Then come the languorous days, which feature repeated bouts of dozing, and very little else, a discouraging, torpid state I persuade myself is not a result of illness, but of the body rebuilding. That may be just another one of the million rationalisations that float non-stop through my brain but there are other encouraging signs of … let's call it remission … such as weight gain. That word, remission, by the way, is entirely my own, and could be wildly - even insanely - inaccurate or optimistic. I should ask a doctor, but I rarely see one.

I need to view the lassitude as a function of recovery because the alternative is to see it as a sign of the cancer keeping busy.

(And in a weird sense, such activity is just what I need: cancer and its torments make good material for a misery memoir. Taking to one's bed feeling a bit iffy, not so much).

But I'm not so attached to this column to let the cancer off the leash in order to provide good tear-jerking copy.

In fact, now's a time for heightened vigilance and discipline. As the weather cools and I become overly complacent about cancer's tenacity, the temptation to lapse back into "comfort" foods can be great.

Too great. Autumn's mellow fruitfulness brings forth ripe figs on a tree in my garden. Forbidden. Irresistible.

 

Entry 52, March 22,  2014:  Woke up one morning with the blues all around my bed. After a night punctuated by tearing at the prickling pruritus itch, lost in self, I head out for a tumble in the sea. It barely puts a dent in the mood of isolation, the free-floating anger. They feel as if they're here to stay but I know this slough will pass, as all things must.

Vexingly, the slinking back of the black dog goes against the run of play. Days before, a bout in the breakers with the body board left me exhilarated, flooded with a cellular realisation that I am one lucky human. I'm living a life I could only dream about, and I am enjoying myself more, and in more areas, than ever before. Life is simple and the living easy. Meanwhile I'm managing to be of some use around the place as well.

Such peace - freedom! - is one of the fringe benefits of being diagnosed with cancer (and a fringe dweller is what I am in cancer county, in a limbo of willed ignorance: is the cancer getting worse, lying dormant, or ebbing away? I'm in no hurry to shed clinical light on that question because the blood test and results rigmarole puts me in a funk for a few days and that's a waste of valuable time … time in which I could be revelling in my unbelievably enviable life).

It's been a year since I worked fulltime but, more through good luck than good management, I have been able to survive - and without Centrelink help. Once I would not have believed it possible but I live as if I am on a never-ending holiday; I have everything I need and more and just about everything I could want.

I have faith in a future, both that I will have one, and also that whatever it may bring I will be able to deal with, as will those who love me. But I don't visit the future much: cancer has brushed aside worry about work or money - and, for now, even what might happen with my health.

The freedom from that worry has left room for a deepened appreciation of the present, also a sort of faith, or trust, which leads to the extraordinary sense of contentment I feel much of the time, and which I expect some will find a cause for irritation. Joyful people can be annoying.

Curiously, it comes at a time when the cords of my personal life, and the lives of those I love, are being stretched and twisted, even snapped, in a carousel of creative destruction.

Cancer puts all of this sturm und drang in perspective: it has revealed what I must accept and what I need to ­ change.

And it has thrown in enough courage to help me do so, on the dog-free days, at least.

 

Entry 51, March 15,  2014: The Hepatitis C virus brings along with it a darling companion. The lesion-laden liver's inability to do its job of processing crap out of the system creates a backlog of it in the blood. One symptom is a dreadful itching - fittingly named pruritus - as attention-grabbing as a mosquito bite and, infuriatingly, moving suddenly from deep and sharp to unfocused.

Occurring commonly on the back of the neck and upper arms, it is so enraging that blood is drawn trying to claw it to extinction. Sharp implements have appeal.

It kept me awake the other night, the scratching becoming ever more baroque, until I resorted to the internet to look for a solution.

Number 9 on the top 10 tips was "Don't scratch" but, more helpfully, was the advice to apply an ice-pack. It worked but the diabolical subcutaneous tickling, combined with a couple of days of feeling as if my bones were tired, reminded me that even if I survive the cancer, there's an underlying disease that's as stubbornly alive as the Lone Goat, and twice as old.

Not great for morale, but I'm not complaining. It's a matter of first things first. My priority is the hepatocellular carcinoma and the snuffing out of its galaxy of growths. And despite the fatigue, I feel as if it is slowly fading away.

As to the Hep C, it too has been given a hammering by the regime I'm on, especially, I feel, by obscure remedies such as black nigella seed oil, but also because it's been starved of all the sugar and fat it had got so lardy on over the years.

Two blokes I know are taking on the virus right now, having signed up for a three-month program of what is, in effect, chemotherapy. I'll support them in every way I can because the treatment, requiring self-administered injections in the stomach, is a proper bastard and these two strong men are already pole-axed by it.

But essentially my mates are on their own. This is an inside job: other people may try to be supportive but they're often simply aggravating. It's impossible to feel another's pain, despite the empathy-fail cliché to the contrary.

And thank god for that, though it means the "patient" has plenty of lonely moments.

I had my darkest night in post-surgery intensive care, where I felt alone and worse: weakened, alien, unwelcome.

It was the drugs talking but that didn't lessen the distress. Nor did the swaggering young doc selected to comfort me, who was almost pathologically inept in the role and just made things worse.

Like most people, I never want to see the inside of a hospital again, or take medicine that saps and depresses.

I wish the Hep C guys all the best for the next three months, but I wouldn't swap places with them for quids.

 

Entry 50, March 8,  2014:  It has been a glorious summer, and a long one, surprising us by starting in August, usually the cruellest month.

It saddens me to notice the signs that it's coming to an end but change is inevitable and is to be embraced.

This week also marks the 50th Topic of Cancer, and I am grateful for every day that has made up this strange saga. But I fear the title is becoming misleading. Cancerous tumours may still be present in my liver but hours - days! - pass by without me giving the disease a second thought.

Here I am, a year or so after the cancer came back, not only alive but, to all appearances, healthy.

This restoration throws up a few new questions: what to do with my time, now that vitality has been restored? I need paid work, and soon, but I'm reluctant to commit to anything too stressful or which doesn't nourish my spirit.

So for the time being, I'm happy to take on a bit of service here and there - helping others where I can. And that sometimes involves nothing more than being present, and listening carefully.

Attention is the only real gift I have to give, and through some strange mystical process that conscious, creative awareness brings gifts back, and tenfold.

I spent part of last weekend at a men-only forum, listening as blokes of every stripe spoke about what it means to them to be a man and, almost inevitably, about their fathers.

Many - most - of them had been brutalised as boys, bullied or bashed, humiliated, betrayed. They had in turn grown up to be brutes, embarking upon careers of violence, delinquency and addiction.

As a result of confronting the destructive behaviours they had escaped into as youngsters, and persistently pursuing freedom from them, these guys - tough and tattooed, scarred and scary - had begun to grow up and slowly evolve into decent, loving fathers and partners.

Their substance abuse had made it impossible for them to avoid the destiny of becoming just like their once-despised or feared old man.

Freedom from addiction gave them the opportunity - the imperative - to change, and to break the damaging cycle of god knows how many generations.

One of my oldest mates from NZ - a bit of a prof - was across for the gig and he too opened up about the life-long process of coming to forgive a tyrannical father.

We talked and laughed and shed tears. It was healing.

My dad was as mild mannered as Clark Kent but my mother was capable of titanic rages, and anger still terrifies and revolts me today. My own anger has caused me - and others - much pain, and it still can, even masquerading as impatience or irritability.

Having the cancer at bay means I have the opportunity to look at these "issues" in my life.

There's work to do and I'm thrilled to feel strong enough again to be able to get on with it.

 

Entry 49, March 1,  2014: A snake bit me on the foot in the vegie patch the other day and when the bite site started to sting I called the ambos.

They barely succeeded in suppressing their sniggers as they took my temperature and showed me an image of a whip snake, explaining that they are not known to be venomous.

As a consolation prize, the long-suffering medics left me a couple of bandages, to be applied in a genuine emergency.

The pint-sized serpent's attack serves me right: not because I choose to walk around the garden in bare feet (I can't be arsed to pull on boots every time I go down for a sprig of parsley, and naked contact with the ground feels good and is good for the soul); rather because it's nature's way of telling me something's wrong.

Wrong with the way I've been neglecting the garden, letting grasses grow thickly up the middle and leaving desiccated, possibly diseased, tomato vines to hang, fatally wounded, their withered stalks rustling in the hot wind.

But directing passive-aggression at tomatoes is a ridiculous approach to horticulture, and nor should I try to blame the weather.

I've simply been too tired, lazy or busy to give the garden the attention it needs.

Which is wrong on almost a moral level because for many years it has served me well. Post diagnosis in particular, it has been a source of spiritual uplift and distraction, and loads of life-restoring produce.

One day I found myself scratching around in the dirt for a few potatoes - foraging for food, like a medium-sized marsupial - and I felt a flash of prehistoric self. I swear, my sinews tautened.

Even ignored, the vegie patch continues to give: four types of kale (which has become faddish, alongside the ubiquitous coconut), lettuces, celery, beans, silverbeet and spinach, beetroot (for the leaves especially), broccoli that won't give up, potatoes for the first time, and yes, even tomatoes - indefatigable cherries.

Herbs in successful quantities and variety are another first: basil and oregano, rocket, coriander.

My lemon tree has a way to go at the moment so I buy or am given organic ones, and ladle in the ginger, turmeric, garlic (I must reek) and avocadoes!

I believe in the healing power of this stuff: I feel it nourishing me, not only as I eat it, but also as I take it from the plant, pick the bugs off and cook it. I even try to make it look pretty on the plate, including when I'm alone.

Laurie, my big grader-driving mate in cancer recovery, does the same, demonstrating respect both for himself and for the food that's helping to keep him alive.

Recovery is enhanced by such details, subtle gestures that speak of self-care. Planting things shows faith in the future, and offers a deep connectedness to life.

 

Entry 48, February 22, 2014:  A friend in the healing professions told me this week about the many people he had witnessed over the years who had greeted their diagnosis of cancer with fighting words.

"I'll beat this!" and so on … possibly the way they had lived their whole lives, if not in conflict, at least making a struggle of it.

"They all die," said my mate, meaning such resistance is futile.

Surrendering to the fact of the disease rather than jumping to battle stations is, I would suggest, a healthier approach - surrender meaning acceptance, not resignation and giving up.

It's facing life on life's terms, as some recovery models put it.

I can't say with any truth whether I surrendered to it or not: there are blocks of time in which I was a bit dead to feeling last year, with a grey cloud following me around.

But it is accurate to say that for a few months following diagnosis and surgery, I quite enjoyed the experience, partly because - sadly - it somehow made me extraordinary (though of course my situation is far from unique, cancers now being as common as a cockroach in the kitchen).

It's hard to find the line between resistance and acceptance, because the latter, to be complete, comes with an obligation to do something about it (if you want to live).

It's not passive and calls for some of the same actions carried out by someone "fighting" the disease: discipline with medications, diet, exercise, and a methodical - conscious - shifting of one's thinking into positive gear.

"Fighting", I suppose, entails exertion, self-will, the need to be strong, invulnerable (dishonest, in short), a degree of denial or wishful thinking, a focus on the disease - and some angry energy.

I've had bouts with all the above but couldn't keep it up: I may put on a brave face but I'm a cry baby and whether alone or in company, I find a good bawl can release days of built-up tension and worry.

As to anger, it was never an option: it's about as welcome as northerlies in the Bay: I want to drain that deep reservoir of suppressed rage, not add to it.

It was, after all, along with its attendant thugs fear, shame and self-loathing, what kicked all this off in the first place, what led me to chase the "angry fix", in Ginsberg's words.

Anger didn't help me get out of that particular ring but acceptance did.

And when the fight stopped following my last round with the oncologists, I was free to to start to get better.

I got a new manager who retrained me and gave me hope. Forget the cancer, he said, get your body right.

Acceptance requires trust - and breeds more. I trusted this guy and I'm alive today. That daily  confirmation has helped trust spill out like golden syrup and seal up some other cracks in my life, which feels very sweet indeed.

 

Entry 47, February 15, 2014:  Lee T, a dear old mate, told me recently that the toughest time during his long bout with throat cancer was after he had been given the all-clear.

He was haunted by the fear of it returning, he said, and, I surmise, the sudden removal of the intense focus on a very specific goal: survival. What now? he must have wondered, pondering the void.

Lee likes occasionally to don the mentor mantle, to play the elder, and people mostly just nod their heads and smile sympathetically.

But this time I listened. And I've been reminded of his comments as the very reassuring blood test results I was given recently continued to sink in.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that Lee's clean bill of health after a couple of years of illness would rocket him into a new, bliss-filled dimension, above it all, untroubled by worldly concerns.

That didn't happen to him and while I've been declaring that I received the news with a bodhisattva's detachment, it hasn't happened to me either. I've simply reverted to type.

Call it an individual's sense of entitlement, or an everyday human response, but I find myself taking the renewal of health for granted. I'm not basking in any glory, or taking credit for being a cancer survivor - that would be crazily premature. But I am carrying on as if the disease had not played - was not still playing - a big part in my life.

My first words after leaving the doctor's surgery were that I was going to eat a hamburger (and yes, I will have fries with that) which, as you might imagine, were received like a slap in the face by the person who has nourished me so carefully since this all began.

I didn't ingest the offending "food" but I've been neglecting a few of my healthy practices, have become so much more gung ho about it all, and that's not always pretty.

The future … well, it's full of possibilities now. A flood of lurid options slops about in the euphoric brain; vulnerability fades away. I'm back - and bulletproof.

The true, weakened state of my body is forgotten: Perhaps I should have taken Lee up on his offer to travel to Auckland to carouse and see Eminem, I muse.

Insanely unfeasible lusts loom: that honey-toned nymphette smiling and dancing beside me at The National concert in Brisbane? Mmmm.

Nonsense, all of it, and only mildly reprehensible. Pitiful, more than anything.

But along with the re-emergence of the inner sleazebag, the unreconstructed juvenile delinquent, comes a darker, uglier shadow: a reversion to the cranky, andropausal old bastard I was becoming before I was diagnosed. The new energy too often feeds old, useless, angers - at all the dumb dangerous drivers on our roads, for instance.

This miserable creature had no place in the recovery regime: I was humbled, needy, accepting, and I think I preferred myself then.

 

Entry 46, February 8, 2014: In Singapore once, at a gathering of sober alcoholics, I heard a Chinese man tell of the anguish caused him by the psoriasis on his hands.

The itchy discomfort - and possibly its unsightliness - made him want to jump out a window, he said.

I understood how he felt - recognised in myself the same reaction - over-reaction, in truth; the turning of a manageable problem into a catastrophe, with suicide presenting as a viable solution.

It's a textbook alkie response to life's difficulties, and confirmed for me the universal nature of the condition: race means nothing when dealing with the mysterious complex of forces that run strong inside the addict's mind.

It was a classic example of the broken shoelace response: it's the small stuff that trips us up.

I have probably felt more distressed, more despairing, about having pimples than I have about having cancer.

For a start, the disease's targeting of my liver struck me as fitting, even just, considering my early, ingrate's rejection of the gift of life, and the abuse I heaped upon a healthy body.

So there's been no anger, no outrage, though such is my sense of entitlement to a full and fulfilling life, it took a while for the diagnosis to sink in, and fear to follow it.

But while these hard truths and the grief at leaving loved ones have been intensely upsetting at times, at no point have I been inconsolable. Giving up, suicide, hopelessness: they haven't had a look in.

And last week's good news, which implied that we have the tumours on the run, has been received just as calmly.

There has been no popping of champagne corks, for obvious reasons, but my joy has been muted. I neither believe the blood test numbers, nor disbelieve them. If I believe them completely I am thrust into the future, with expectations.

That is just a disappointment waiting to happen, as the saying goes, so I have instead been focusing on each day's renewed sensation of strength. I'm even back at the gym.

The endeavour to avoid being blown about by the winds of change is based on the principles I learned almost entirely from sitting in rooms similar to the one in Singapore, listening to similar stories.

The Chinese man helped two alkies at least that day: himself and me. By being honest about his outlandish mental processes, he was taking responsibility for himself, and being part of the solution. He hadn't killed himself; he'd made a decision to go on living, to get healthy, despite his affliction.

It's what I've been aiming to do: accept the reality, feel the emotions but don't act upon them, seek the courage to change what I can, ask for help and receive it graciously, help others where possible, and be thankful for my life. All of it.

And it seems to be working.

 

Entry 45, February 1, 2014: I receive a telephone call asking me to make an appointment with my doctor to discuss the results of a recent blood test.

Doesn't sound too promising, does it?

That was 10 days ago and this week I saw the wise woman to hear the news.

The phone call had sprinkled some doubt through my day, during which I gloomed about the place, tempted to ring the medical centre for more detail, a hint: thumbs up? Or …

I resisted the urge. Why risk spoiling the city holiday we had planned? If the results were poor - more gloom; if positive, they'd keep.

But strangely, holidays can be tiring, which combined with other bloody dramas to lead me to doubt the possibility of my survival - and even to doubt that I really wanted to - so I anticipated the appointment with a low-level dread.

I spent the morning lying around, inert, listless, my vision shrunk to anger about the neighbourhood dogs and their incessant noise. But, as you must, I arose to shower, shave (but no shampoo, long abandoned), donned fresh clothes and headed out to face the facts.

Within minutes I was in the surgery, looking at the numbers on a screen.

I had understood the test to be a standard liver function assessment, to see how the misused organ was holding up, but the good doctor had slipped in a check of my alpha-fetoprotein levels, a tumour marker in liver cancer.

In July last year, six weeks after the second chemo invasion and a few days before the hospital oncologists gave me months to live, the reading was 2475. "Normal" is 12 or less.

This week it was 15. Barring error, that indicates the tumours are largely inactive.

"Whatever you've been doing, keep it up," my GP said, before proceeding to throw in some welcome counselling on the side.

It's not often confessions of guilt come up in a doctor's rooms, but having those moments of frankness and acceptance  was almost as heartening as the astounding - almost unbelievable - reversal in tumour growth.

Indeed, the suspicious, Scottish strands of my New Zealand soul didn't quite trust the news at first. For several hours, I was advising myself not to get my hopes up.

But naturally I am elated: the future has flung open its arms. And I'm grateful: this progress is based upon the "Sledgehammer" regime laid out by my militant naturopath in Boona and the ministrations of an angelic creature who has cared for me selflessly throughout, sometimes to her own detriment.

Added to these are the support and love of family and friends (and readers) and, not forgetting the unsurpassed opportunities for healthy living in the Northern Rivers.

Farmers' market food, clean environment, enlightened people … they all conspire towards wellness.

I feel well, I look well, and it seems I'm getting well. There's still a long way to go but, like encouragement, evidence of progress is a fantastic motivator.

 

Entry 44, January 25, 2014: My son has had to do some accelerated growing up since the diagnosis. I have been open about the cancer from the start and its causes came as no surprise to him, as I have also been frank about my past.

It saddens me that he has had to face the possibility of my death - and I cannot fully gauge the impact all this is having upon him - but I am immensely proud of the way he has responded to the crisis.

We joke about the ethics around his playing the cancer card - at school, for example, by way of special pleading for extra marks, or as a possible leg-up into a university of his choice, without the usual grades requirement. We laugh  about a lot of things - always have - and I feel fortunate that we are able to use humour to counter-balance what at times seems insupportably dreadful.

But the growth I see in him every day is no joke: it is based upon emotional depth - gravity - and manifests as a loving kindness.

For, while he remains in many spheres a stereotypical 16-year-old (rude, self-absorbed, oblivious to housework - work of any kind), when the call comes he answers it.

This week we caught an early morning flight to Melbourne, to see a band perform, catch up with friends and explore the city.

Upon arrival, tired after a sleepless night, hungry, I used the toilet and was shocked afterwards to see blood in the bowl.

Fear seeped into my body until at Southern Cross station, waiting for a shuttle bus in its noxious, Stygian depths, it overwhelmed me.

We stood there, alone and far from home, me crying, shaking, feeling horribly weak and hopeless, wildly imagining an emergency dash to a hospital, he with his arm around my shoulders, holding me with all his might.

Noah remained the calm, positive one until we ventured out into the city and found food: beef burger for him, scrappy items approximating something healthy for me, and the happy little adventure we had anticipated began.

The child becomes father to the man. Many youngsters facing bereavement, their own illness, a family break-up, will surprise with their courage and wisdom, and I'm not making a case for his exceptional maturity or inner strength.

But as well as being a comfort to me when required, his solid presence is gratifying in other, bigger, ways.

I am cheered for his sake, that he should possess these qualities, and relieved to know that, whatever may happen to me, he will be all right. The prospect of us parting forever crushes me with grief, but it is my loss that causes me to weep, not any fear for him, for how he will cope.  I can rest in peace on that score.

I am also witness to the growth of another teenage lad as he is forced, prematurely, to assume some of the responsibilities of adulthood to support his mother during a family crisis.

All around me I see other young men and women developing into fine human beings.

They fill me with pride, and hope for the future.

 

Entry 43, January 18, 2014: The bad news is that I have lost 3kg. The good news is that I am unable to restrain myself from carrying out random acts of running - on beaches, along coastal paths and up obstacle-strewn bush tracks.

Mysteriously urged - compelled - I startle companions by suddenly taking off, to abandon myself to  pure, unthinking movement, my mind preoccupied with breathing and dodging rocks and hidden roots.

Vigorous swimming produces a similar result: the body floods with feel-good chemicals and any troubling thoughts and emotions are burned off.

Running has become possible again because the weight loss caused by a monastic diet means my rugby-ravaged knees don't hurt any more. And to be free of that painful restriction brings much more than physical relief: the spirits lift, a sensation of youthfulness returns.

My niece and her radiant, ocean-adoring  daughter are visiting from New Zealand and the little girl, witnessing my antics, remarked to her mother "he's not sick" - and any observer would have to agree.

How seriously ill I am remains unknown. How well I feel is not only obvious to others, it's a palpable reality for me: and one that continues to astonish.

It has prompted me to become, slightly obnoxiously, something of an evangelist - for exercise as the surest antidote to depression, for diet as the best medicine, and for an attitude of gratitude as the formula guaranteed to create a contented existence.

But cancer or no cancer, life insists on changing and challenging. Relationships or money (and often both) can overnight bloody the emotional waters.

Perhaps I should view such challenges as assets, because they can push my illness into the shade, which is where it belongs. After all, my "problem" is a banal one: I have cancer, which could finish me off this year. That's sad, but not a tragedy.

Any suffering following the diagnosis 15 months ago has been caused by fear and grief stoking the emotional fire, and a salient feature of both these feelings is that they are based on an event that hasn't happened - my death.

Which means that it takes mere seconds' thought to establish that right now, everything is just fine. And often more than fine: physically joyous, sensually replete, intellectually stimulating, daily life is full of funny, intimate, surprising moments.

Athletes and many lifestyle "experts" assert that there is no gain without pain. While I can see the truth in this T-shirt slogan when it comes to the body, it sits uncomfortably with me in the emotional/spiritual realm, because I don't want to hurt.

But judging by recent experience - and Buddhist teaching - suffering is unavoidable. In the past, I've sometimes felt as if I couldn't live through it.

Now survival is the priority. I can sit for a while with painful emotions, and learn from them, but I refuse to allow them to  replace or blur that focus.

So off I trot. Not away from the pain, but through it.

 

Entry 42, January 11, 2014:  I heard recently about a fit young local woman who, out of the blue, was diagnosed with cancer and within a few weeks had passed away.

 

Another girl, a beautiful, talented teenager, the daughter of a friend, lost her fight with a rare form of the disease late last year.

Cancer's appearance often seems random, unfair, and its conclusion rapid and devastating.

Nowadays, I notice its presence everywhere: in the media, in conversation - and in people.

I was waiting in the Bexhill butchers this week when the customer before me revealed that he had a suspected tumour and was booked to have a biopsy.  He had apparently lost a lot of weight and to me already looked weakened and defeated.

Another friend is a silent, powerless witness to his own physical and mental deterioration with MS.

I can only wish them luck and something miraculous, and value the perspective granted me by their suffering. I am reminded how fortunate I am to have been given this period of grace between diagnosis and … resolution.

For more than a year now I've carried around the illness and the awareness of its presence within me but, aside from the months of recovery from surgery and chemo treatments, I have shown (or suffered) no symptoms.

A new year surge in strength, morale, libido is very gratifying in itself, but more than that it comes as a herald of hope. It is also mystifying: how is it possible to have such a serious illness and yet feel so good?

Many of my cancer comrades are in a less happy position. Tired and uncomfortable, disabled by a tsunami of drugs and other debilitating therapies as well as the ravages of the disease, they are just too unwell to get out and about. There's not much they can do to distract themselves from their plight. My heart goes out to them, and I have huge respect for their stoicism.

I have had only a taste of their loneliness and fear and I wouldn't fancy my chances of maintaining dignity or even emotional equilibrium if I were to start being restricted by pain or exhaustion.

But life continues to improve - and bring delightful surprises, such as the recent series of visitors I've had from all over the world.

And from my recovery mentor, a man my age who had a vast tumour successfully removed from his kidney but who was sent home to die when the cancer showed signs of spreading. That was two years ago: he's now back at his physically demanding job. We find a spot in the shade and natter like two old biddies, swapping recipes, gardening tips and encouragement.

It is impossible to feel bitter under the circumstances: I have a reprieve in which I can go on living as if all were well. And by acting upon that irrational belief, make it so.

 

Entry 41, January 4, 2014:  I  learned only recently that Lou Reed's most famous creation, the saccharine Perfect Day, is a paean to heroin ­- a discovery which made me feel instantly obtuse and unworthy to ever again remark upon any aspect of popular culture.

But I will happily borrow the curmudgeonly (liverish?) performer's song title and apply it without irony or metaphor to my start to the year.

January 1 contained almost everything that fills me with joy: fellowship and story-telling, further psychic cleansing in the ocean, a day and night of music under sheltering skies at the Falls Festival listening in ecstasy to bands I have enjoyed for years, absorbing as much of the wonderful mind and body-blowing noise my skinny frame and battered brain could handle. (I knew Grizzly Bear would be interesting but they were sublime).

I was alone for just enough of the day on site but was otherwise  in the company of much-loved friends, and although I felt like Rip Van Winkle amid the 12,000 babes in the woods, after the initial shock, it didn't matter!

It's deliriously disinhibiting being surrounded by strangers and I danced what's left of my arse off - ungainly and undignified, no doubt, but unashamed, wholly liberating, and an expression of animal health.

The day (and its eve) were full of other good stuff too, including cooking a delicious "pure cure" meal to take to the festival, full of home-grown vegetables, which was consumed by my bestie and me in a late-night (and period-piece) picnic on the grass of the disabled car park.

(Yes folks, I'm embarrassed to admit it ­ but after I'd been gouged and gored by poison-spurting radiologists, I was too unwell to walk far, and played the cancer card for a sticker. Now that I'm fit I feel a fraud. However, when it comes to cancer, you've got to look for the perks).

It was also uplifting to party alongside so many people young enough to be my grandchildren and find that aside from littering and their incomprehensible use of nicotine, they were  friendly,  funny and courteous - and easy on the eye.

Hearing the Cat Empire reminded me of their frequent guest on stage, David Ades, who we lost  in 2013, which added poignancy to an already emotion-packed day. But for me the year brought the best of times as well as the worst. Despite cancer, it was far from terrible and included an indecent amount of fun.

A little wobbly over Christmas (when fear had the most plausible lines), I had to give myself a good talking to one evening to rally resilience, restore mental toughness.  The decision to do that, topped with exhilarating rock music and  celebration with loved ones, brought the life-force roaring back into my being.

Indeed, too forcefully: reinforced by an illicit coffee, it kept me awake until 4am. I arose at 7 and got down on my knees to a force I don't understand to give thanks for the past year, for cancer and for survival.

I should be nearing death's vale, according to the doctors, but I'm delighted to say that "outcome" feels very far away this new, four-square year.

 

Entry 40, December 28:  Between you and me, I have always thought of naturopathy as a bit, you know, anaemic. Now, those practitioners of the craft among my acquaintance, please don't take offence. It's just another choice item from my glittering array of prejudices.

So there is some irony in the fact that I have based my treatment plan largely upon the advice of a member of that fraternity.

And far from having anything airy-fairy about him - the facile diagnosis, the aura of special knowledge and moral purity - he is scientific and quite fierce.

The good man, whom I have come to like and trust, (as much as I do ever trust) gave me a pre-Christmas pep-talk this week, accompanied by many a forbidding stare.

A spare, Dickensian figure, he glanced up from his microscope to convey to me, in mournful tones and faintly accusatory language, that he was a little disappointed at the state of my blood - which he blamed on dietary transgressions.

I was forced to do a "busted" routine, feign penitence and generally joke around and flirt with the poor bewildered naturopathy student sitting in on the session, in order to win the old goat over. (As if I could bullshit my way into a diagnosis of health, use charm to snatch life from the slavering jaws of cancer).

I still came away feeling guilty about my "breadcrumb sins" - trivial to most, but starring honey, yoghurt, cheese, fruit, peanut butter! ­- all on the banned list.

I had been toying with these, in minuscule amounts, justifying lapses with the line "I don't think this is going to kill me", but concealing the fact that I'd consumed something wrong from those who love me and who know the score (and will call me on it).

(To my shame, I've lied about and hidden chocolate from my son often over the years. He never thought to look in the freezer.)

But these recent food slips reveal a potentially fatal vanity: that I can beat cancer despite defying my adviser's guidance. Such an attitude can make it difficult for me to believe I have cancer at all, which means life seems very surreal some days.

Nevertheless, I hurried home to carry out his advice.

Why? Because in the five months I have been seeing him I have gained in strength and wellbeing. And in hope. His program is working.

But getting back on the wagon is never easy. Especially as, following a disturbance in a matter of the heart, an old pattern resurfaced: hurt wrapped itself in anger, perspective became warped, gratitude went AWOL and on Christmas Day I hit the destruct button.

In a brooding, labile mood, to the unconvincing (and juvenile) mantra of "I don't care", I hoovered up bacon and eggs, sausages, orange juice, then went out for fish, meringue, ice-cream and glazed fruit.

All of it bad for a cancerous body but, along with the delightful company, bloody good for the soul. I felt normal: happy, and even a little festive.

 

Entry 39, December 21: I spent Tuesday in a disturbed, discontented state, marked by frequent crying jags.

Softened up by days of feeling tired and weak, I succumbed to the cancer horrors: fear of imminent death, scepticism about my laughable attempts to improve it, an acute loneliness and sense of waste.

The doubts harden into certainties: "It's ridiculous to imagine that tomatoes and turmeric are going to save me now," I grumble sotto voce.

Self-pity oozes in: "I'm dying of cancer and spending my last days alone, just as I have always been alone ..."

Cue boo-hooing, snotty nose, shoulder-heaving sighs.

But while my solitude is self-imposed, I can't take all the blame, so I call in a few sure-fire resentments, targeting the people, especially those closest to me, who take my being here for granted, as if my illness were a long-forgotten hoax.

The grievances ripple out: old lovers, family, humankind! - all needing a good telling off.

Clearly, it's not a happy or a healthy state to be in.

Duvet therapy and escape (using the rock-bottom route of TV or DVDs) are not options, so I drag myself into action.

Mowing the lawn distracts me up until lunch, after which I "rest" (and time-waste on Facebook). A late afternoon in the garden provides a simulacrum of meaning as well as proof of physical wellbeing: I flap around like a busy old chook for several hours.

I remain dogged by sadness, but the focused activity - especially turning the compost  - goes a long way to burning off the death-terror and anger.

"Action purifies" was one of the simpler sayings of a now departed local guru (long-winded and a dreadful lothario) and I absolutely believe it.

For years I took action with the hangman's noose vision I wrote about last week: every time it appeared I pulled an NLP swiftie - by visualising the noose being untied and turning into a limp length of dangly old rope. It worked.

This week, I acted against type and reached out to other humans. Not personally, you understand, but via one of the strands of the social media web I'm stuck on.

After a loving exchange with my brother in the glacial reaches of northern Canada, the febrile emotions lose power. Preparing a nutritious dinner and writing this ensure I retire peacefully.

The guru aside, I have to thank my education in 12 Step programs for the "tool" of action which, in the jargon, propels you into living "in the solution".

As an approach to life I love it and I'm also chuffed that I am usually able (and willing) to do exactly that.

The doctors say I am one of the "unlucky ones" on cancer's death row. But mostly I can't believe how lucky I am - fit, cheerful, free of pain, fear or grief.

I just have to accept that there will always be rough days like Tuesday, and worse.

 

Entry 38, December 14:  I flew to the big smoke last weekend to see a production of the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot.  

Concluding as it does with the two protagonists consoling each other with the thought that they can hang themselves the next day, Godot is famously bleak; it is also poignant, richly comic and, as with all great art, mysteriously uplifting.

Despite the weighty themes, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh indulge in several bouts of knockabout humour - physical clumsiness to match the tricks, habits and hopes they invent to avoid facing the fact of life's meaninglessness.

Their everyman antics include a capacity for courage and loyalty, but also for capriciousness and cruelty, as they slip-slide between persecutor, victim and rescuer - the unholy trinity of relationships.

We humans are absurd, riddled with doubt and weakness and a desperate need to have our existence acknowledged by others; but there is also heroism in the daily decision to go on living.

Godot was first staged in 1953 and its themes formed part of the zeitgeist I grew up in, themes only very shallowly grasped by me.

The play's recurrent hanging motif became entangled in my earnest, impressionable teenage mind with the statement from Camus that the decision to continue living (or not) is the only significant philosophical question: a perfect ideological bolt-hole for a lost and unhappy youth.  

For years after, during times of even moderate emotional stress, an image of a hangman's noose would pop into my head, often with a little scenario of knot-tying involved. Wherever I found myself, I would cast my eye about for the ideal beams from which to dangle oneself.

Knives, trains, drugs all featured too - followed by a tearful and guilt-drenched funeral - but the involuntary vision of the noose, with its comforting promise of oblivion, was the most common event.

What subterranean rage or despair is revealed by that grim symbol, which continued even after suicide became unconscionable with the birth of my son.

I mention all this because my theatre companion, my beautiful angel, has never had a suicidal thought in her life.  I have met such types before - people with healthy self-esteem - and they strike me as so odd as to resemble an alien species.

That polarity exists between us too, but doesn't throw up any obstacle to our profound rapport and trust.

And reflecting upon the play, I realise that the noose has not come dancing into my inner vision for a long time.

Not, in fact, since I was diagnosed with cancer. That provoked a shift at a level of being from which the over-dramatic "I" is quite shut out. The self-indulgent fantasy was terminated as being incompatible with survival.

I'm free of it, and much other psychic detritus I was barely aware of. Its elimination has allowed me to tread more lightly and breathe more easily.

 

Entry 37, December 7: The phrase "God moves on the waters like Casey Jones" accurately sum up the extent of my spiritual life.  

The lyric from the deliciously languid (and more-ishly morbid) Gillian Welch has all the necessary ingredients: it makes the claim for a beneficent universal power, conjures up pretty pictures of lakes and oceans, and has a loaded rock music reference as a pay-off.  

The last two stand on the peaks of human experience, high up there among the things that make life worth living: nature and music.  

And because it's rock 'n' roll there's the promise of a pleasing amount of grubbiness in the mix as well.   Sex, nature and music then: they all tie together nicely too, don't they? And even if you can't play an instrument (like me, to my irremediable frustration), we can all enjoy the first of these - even if we aren't very good at it.  

Listening to music though, what a marvellous and mysterious gift. It can be transporting, transcendental...  

Now where was I? Oh yes, God. Well, that's just the word I use whenever I say thank you to whatever force there is behind music and nature and  sex -- and cancer. It's the simplest word to use when I'm lying otter-like on my back in the ocean, or gazing out at the twilight sky stippled with clouds in a thousand gorgeous hues, and am suffused with peace and acceptance. Death, you have no sting at moments like this.   I am for that short time sated with life, in a state of blissful acceptance, a surrendering to what is (and, like in that old Doris Day song, whatever will be).   But the gratitude can be for more basic blessings as well.

Not least among these - and I crave your forbearance once again, patient reader - was learning my digestion problems of last week were just that.

My excellent GP promptly assured me that I did not have secondary malignant tumours forming an unspeakable snarl-up in my bowel.  

"That's not how it works," the saintly creature said, adding that, should it occur, the collapse of the liver would bring with it not a pulsing pain, but a relentless one, more like toothache.   "You just have a bug," she said, to my great relief.  

I also inquired about what I feared was a post-op hernia which popped up alongside the hepatectomy scar from a year ago, and which I imagined starting to protrude Alien-like from my stomach, perhaps finally bursting out at the beach, my horrible condition on full display before a nauseated public.   It turns out to be a harmless cyst which could be excised easily enough in the local surgery.  

Well, that's something to look forward to in the future. But if I'm so clueless about my own body, how can I talk about god   ?

I mean, what do I know? (And how much more do I need to know, really?)  

 

Entry 36, November 30: I  am writing this in severe discomfort, after 36 hours of gripy pain churning through my lower abdomen.

I can't think of what I've eaten that might have caused such a ruction but my digestion system has never really recovered from years of abuse, aggravated by vicious bouts of gastro enteritis enjoyed in toilets across the developing world.

Then there was the decade of late nights putting out newspapers, where health is sapped by stress and bad food; heartburn and halitosis a recurrent reality.

I expect it will pass, as it always has. Except … now there are be other forces at play. It doesn't take too much writhing around in pain before I start imagining cancerous growths in the bowel: maybe the tumours have metastasized - a word whose meaning was unknown to me a year ago. 

"This is how it begins," I mutter darkly to myself, as the intestines twist and turn.

The pains persist but the fear passes - I am too distracted by my groaning guts to run with it (and I wouldn't anyway), but the real downside is that I'm unable to concentrate on a conversation with my son Noah about his viva voce at school in the morning.

It was to be the latest of several such discussions on - and arguments about -biology, law or literature, which have provided me with some of the most rewarding hours of my life.

Noah may not thank me for revealing it but the other night he wrote "thank you, daddy, I love you", in a journal he has to keep to record the creative processes behind a short story he's writing for his Year 12 English.

Our earlier talk had led him to some plot breakthrough and he was so pleased he wrote that uninhibited, happy note, which delighted and touched me profoundly.

It's a fearless note too, especially for a teenager, and just one example of the deepening of our relationship - a consequence of both his maturing with the years, and also of the diagnosis, which demanded an overhaul of priorities.

I'm enormously proud of Noah and the way he has handled the threat, stepping up into new responsibilities, demonstrating to me, despite his unspoken fears, that he will be OK no matter what, and that he won't waste his time here.

The new order means I am free to sit and talk for an hour, fully present and responsive, giving him my total attention.

Along with time (fast running out, cancer or no) the acute awareness of mortality has motivated me to step up too, for my most important role on Earth.

Noah and I have an intimacy that I grievously missed with my dad and there's not much more to it than taking the time to listen, and share with him who I am, and by doing so, show him I love him.

 

 

Entry 35, November 23: Straight after concluding a pre-surgery visit with the liver people at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane last November, I drove into the CBD, went to David Jones and bought an expensive set of kitchen knives.

It was a textbook example of retail therapy - my "purchasing power" giving some illusion of control in a crisis.

It was not a one-off. Another specialist appointment, one more pricy shirt to add to the rack that would last me even if I lived to be 100. Shoes, ditto.

Losing weight through the medical interventions and reformed diet justified the acquisition of new trousers, shorts, swimmers, some of which are already unwearable as I start to thicken up again.

And while I deplore this pointless,  compulsive consumption in others, by some sleight of thinking I can more easily forgive it in myself.

Still, I have at times been rooted to the spot in shops, overcome with nausea and self-loathing after spending far too much time in them and I am more than a little uncomfortable with what such concern with appearance  reveals about my hidden shallows.

The need for the comfort of instant gratification I can excuse in myself. But vanity is a deeper vice of character and very unattractive, despite its being a hallmark of the age. It also tends, though strenuously concealed, to out itself in unconscious and rather distasteful leaks. 

And beneath the amassing of clothes, bed linen, towels, slumbers the awareness that this is what unimaginative and unhappy people do: they buy stuff. In fact, "shopping" is now shamelessly proclaimed a favourite pastime … and I feel just as trashy and miserable a mug as those who fight for pole position on big sales days.

But the knives were something else as well: they were an investment in the future, in my future.

Every time I use one of them I feel a small jolt of pleasure, at their utilitarian excellence and for what they symbolise - the intention to live, and to live more creatively, while taking more responsibility for what goes into my mouth.

But regarding the vanity: I shouldn't be so unforgiving, as it has helped to keep me alive. An idea that was popular in my 20s was "live fast, die pretty", but life slowed down and became ugly, a groundhog routine of topping up to make it through the day (and night).

After warnings from specialists (again) about alcoholic brain damage, I was terrified at the prospect of becoming a vegetable, with a face the colour and texture of an over-ripe pumpkin.  

That was about the extent of my ambition back then: to avoid turning into a pumpkin in the park. It was enough to get me sober but I didn't realise it at the time that staying sober demanded a rigorous internal overhaul. No amount of dressing up the outside was going to help that.

Efficiently chopped up food, on the other hand …

 

Entry 34, November 16: Except for the wetsuits, black clothing was not much in evidence as hundreds of us gathered at The Pass on Tuesday to give saxophonist David Ades his final standing ovation, after he quietly surrendered to cancer at his home last week.

There was sadness at the ceremony, of course - we (and the world's jazz aficionados) have lost a wonderful man and artist. Tears flowed, and one speaker, a musician more used to expressing feeling through sound, was almost mute with emotion - which in itself said a mouthful.

But as with his life, David's death and the bare-feet and boardies turnout to honour him were a great gift to those  present, and left me, and many others, feeling more elated than dull with grief.

David's dying days were filled with love and joy and the beachside rite was accompanied by music and laughter - just as he would have wanted.

He could be a prickly bugger but the lethal imperatives of cancer caused much of his irascibility to drop away, like a redundant carapace, and the loving, gentle man who was always there come to the fore.

Those closest to him expressed their love in action and attention and he returned it with interest, even when all he could do was smile through the fog and pain.

Relationships are all that matter, David said, and that if he had his health back he would see more of his family and friends and watch the sun go down.

Ten days before he died I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with him on the sun-dappled deck of his Bangalow home and we spoke as men rarely seem to.

We had overcome the same demons, were no strangers to madness and loss and were brothers-in-arms in the cancer campaign, during which we shared some treatments and many responses to our new, unspectacular horizons.

He was clear that cancer is "a motherfucker"; but it can also be liberating, we agreed, nearly a year ago.

David made the most of his 20 months of liberty, to honour his gift and draw those he loved even closer to him - a fine example to me.

Laurie Anderson said shortly after losing Lou Reed: "I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love."

The ultimate outpouring of love occurred at David's beach send-off: the rain withdrew, out of respect, the trees shook with laughter,  "mourners" jitterbugged to Bye Bye Blackbird, his ragged requiem; the surfers' circle was a ring of raucous cheering. We travelled home in an afterglow.

That night I sang and danced around the kitchen, knowing David would applaud the vitality and joy, if not the sense of rhythm.

Such a good death can order up an inventory of one's own love supply - and how selflessly it is expressed. In the past I sometimes wondered if there was any at all in my being. Now I know there is, and that it's enough.

 

 

Entry 33, November 9: I recently went out wearing mismatching sandals. My error wasn't spotted until I was leaving a friend's and put them on again to come home.

It's a bit worrying on a few fronts but the surprising thing is that I had anything on my feet at all - going unshod being my preference these days, the opportunity for it one of the many reasons I love living in this part of Australia.

I have become, in the old vernacular, a beach bum; moth-eaten T-shirts, mad hair. The indecent pride I take in walking the Cape Byron Lighthouse track in bare feet is now tinged with a moral superiority.

What is also slightly indecent is how avidly I assumed the role of "local" on the walk, which I've only been doing consistently for the past six months, usually beginning at Wategos and returning via the bush track and the Pass, though sometimes the other way for a little excitement.

"A local" then, humming with all the parochialism, snobbery and we-don't- care-for-strangers-round-these-parts attitude that is contained in that noun.

I "tsk tsk" at the litter, glare at anyone who insists on smoking or talking loudly into their mobile phones, and take a pedagogical approach toward foreigners who cling to the handrail on the wrong side of the path.

But such is the radiant beauty and uplifting effects of the walk that I am usually able - bare-footed, saintlike - to rise above such provocations. I can turn the other cheek to vast families of vast people bedecked in leisure wear and jauntily angled caps, and greet them, even those self-evidently from the Gold Coast, with a genuine warmth.

However, there is a breed whose presence on the track it is impossible to ignore.

They are the fitness fanatics: not the emaciated runners, mainly women, for whom this, all exercise - life! - is a tragi-drama of self flagellation, but the over-muscled descendant of the Yuppie "jogger". Ambitious, soulless, egocentric.

It is not enough that the coastal cliffs reveal sublime views and that the bush offers a place of cool silence in which to stop and imbibe some serenity; these Masters of the Universe need to exploit it, to use it in the pursuit of their PBs, or whatever.

They come pounding down the path, snorting and glassy-eyed like speared bulls, emitting an aura of testosterone, sweat and self-entitlement. And, very often, martyrdom.

It's a serious business for them; it's also joyless and does little for the environment.

The Cape is a sacred place, and has been for millennia. It is also a place of contemplation and healing, crafted by nature and lovingly maintained by its guardians.

The Bay's waters have already been invaded - infested - with learner surfers and kayaking armadas. I would hate to see the coastal path become just another lifestyle accessory.

Could the boot camp boys and girls please take their stampeding elsewhere, and leave the lesser-spotted locals to potter along in peace, enjoying the wildlife and the endless views.

PS: David Ades, the Bangalow saxophonist, died peacefully at his home early Friday morning. He will be much missed but he left us his music and many happy memories. RIP David

 

 

Entry 32, November 2: Lying in bed one night I experienced some grumbly but insistent pains beneath my ribs.

In a nanosecond I was staring into a possible future: awful pain, decline, dementia, death, and was so terrified I feared I might vomit.

I breathed through it but I was reminded that I haven't been tested by this disease yet, haven't been made privy to its full box of tricks and its monstrous, everyday tortures.

And I pray I won't be. Judging by the acute dread of this moment, I'm sure I would collapse into a trembling, whimpering wreck, like a failed soufflé.

In contrast is the experience of my friend David Ades, whose story I have touched on, and who is 20-months alive after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer - a cruel irony for the gifted saxophonist.

Gravely ill, colonised by a large and ravening tumour  which has invaded his trachea and with secondaries in the liver, David remains a paragon of endurance, courage and clear-eyed acceptance, as dynamic as the wild sounds he urges from his horn, only now rendered pianissimo.

Now in considerable pain, from the tumour and a broken rib that his coughing won't let mend, he has undergone a blitzkrieg of therapies, often uncomfortable, debilitating and disorienting, and through it all has maintained his humour, kindness and dignity.

Indeed, this weekend he hosted a barbecue/meeting of the weekly Bangalow postmodern discussion group, of which he has been a lively member for many years. 

David has just returned to the Northern Rivers from his most recent adventure, a trip to New York City to record a follow-up album to A Glorious Uncertainty.

The title of the new work captures David's lust for life and his fierce determination to get his art onto tape - and is his acknowledgment that this will be his last record.

It's called A Life in a Day and was recorded in five hours, some numbers in a single take, with an ensemble of fine musicians who are also his friends.

The flight to New York was arduous and David spent some weeks in a clinic in Germany being helped to recover from the ordeal with invasive chemotherapy.

"But once I went into the studio, I didn't feel as if I had cancer at all," he says. The music is likely to reflect that freedom from pain and worry - unimaginable and taken for granted by healthy people.

The trip took a heavy toll on David and he is relieved to be home, where he is being cared for by his partner and family in an atmosphere of light and pure love.

He has lost weight and the crushed trachea is causing him many scary choking moments, especially at night.

But he knows that travelling to the States was the right decision and I admire his single-minded fervour to give his art a meaningful conclusion.

We are very different people and our cancer paths quite dissimilar.

But I have watched him, as one would a guide, and he is teaching me about grace under pressure. It's a privilege just being around him now.

Smile on, brother. Play on too.

 

Entry 31, October 26: It's about a year since the first tumour was detected in my liver, but the intruder had already been busy down there for many months, doing push-ups, getting fighting fit.

It muscled up quickly, to reach the size and shape of a small egg, built to punch above its weight.

But it was on its own, and lurking on the periphery of the much-abused organ, so the decision to cut it out was the obvious one, and I went ahead with relief and even some insouciance.

The tumour and a lump of liver came out as sweet as a nut and I left hospital after five nights with a six-inch scar, feeling both absurdly puffed up about my tough constitution and a little more vulnerable than ever before.

But I hadn't accepted that I was up against something truly lethal. Tumours, obeying the Big C's number one commandment to go forth and multiply, resurfaced on the other side of my liver … several of them, and with a Tony Soprano-sized appetite for self-aggrandisement and living large.

It was a disappointing result, said the surgeon, who had not expected a recurrence.

A couple of bombing raids on the tumours with chemo crippled me for weeks but I'm vague about how effective the "therapy" part of the equation was. Not very, from what I could gather talking to the boffins.

Unluckily, it turns out the cancer I have is a "multi-faceted" form of the disease. That is, it's a many-headed monster. It's also pin-headed - which might be comical in a human being, but is less amusing when it comes to malignant growths.

For one, it rules out any further intrusive chemical response or surgery, as does the fact that one tumour has sunk its teeth into a major vein.

Since then, the slowing (and defeating) of the disease has become a fulltime occupation, the driver behind a slew of lifestyle changes and, I think, a shift in consciousness.

Pursuing a policy of blissful ignorance, I don't know what the tumours are up to, and I'm in no hurry to find out. The outcome can wait.

As a result, sometimes I feel as if I'm in a dream. I potter around quietly, with the thought "I have cancer and it could kill me" only infrequently gate-crashing my serenity.

A well-meaning friend remarked on the degree of my denial the other day and yes, I may be living in a fool's paradise.

But at least it is a paradise, and a place of my own choosing. It's where I am lucky enough to be able to elect to dwell: in health, hope, harmony and the occasional high old time.

Whatever the outcome, the psychic shift from treating living as a waiting room, a means to an end, to the end in itself, means that these days are some of the happiest I've experienced. And I have cancer to thank for that.  

 

Entry 30, October 19: Summer has arrived and I was putting away some cold weather gear the other day when I asked myself: "Will I be around to need this next winter?"

The moment wasn't as morbid as it may sound, more of a passing house-keeperly observation. But an icy one, nevertheless, and carrying a whisper of loss.

Thankfully, it lacked the impact of the kind of sorrow that has recently appeared out of nowhere, curling itself into a fist and punching me in the throat.

On the one morning in which the wind took a break from its sustained attack on our nerves, the feeling seized hold of my chest and wouldn't let go.

In this mood, past friendships, lovers, cities, family members glide into the memory with a crepuscular and haunting air, making me want to reach out (back?) and ask how they're doing, and tell them how I've been.

Very likely such feelings make up a good part of the musings of many men (and women) of a certain age. Essentially it is sentimentality, but it can be a heady mix of grief, nostalgia and regret for what never happened, and I'm a bit of a sucker for it, especially if it comes scored with potently maudlin music.

Booze feeds this kind of ersatz emotion. When a drunk drinks, he or she commonly lurches through four stages: from jocose to bellicose, lachrymose and comatose.

I have humiliated myself in all of these spheres but the third was routine, from the 14-year-old's snotty bleat of "I'm so lonely", to the damp implosions of a defeated 30-year-old gaping blearily into the abyss.

Why all the blubbing? Ethyl alcohol mainly, but also grieving for the absence of intimacy, of connection, understanding, appreciation.

That kind of emptiness is long in the past and I'm also way beyond the mid-life crisis - in years, if not in maturity. I regret very little, and cancer has anyway presented an attention-grabbing, existential crisis of its own.

In doing so it has if anything bounced me OUT of tearful reminiscence, along with much else of my once habitual negativity. Or at least it has given me the motivation to bounce myself out with all the elasticity, momentum and focus I can summon.

Those qualities of the spirit that are empowering me in this crisis I learnt from the decades spent among people who were intent on recovering from the same sort of mental health and living problems I had.

With them and through them I learned about one day at a time, acceptance, self-honesty, humility, courage and above all gratitude.

Also … to take responsibility for myself and not be a victim.

So, seductive as the "melancholy" is, I refuse to wallow in it or deny it or try to escape it.

Instead, on the day in question, I threw myself in the ocean, which, as always, washed my psyche clean … until the past seeps through again.

 

Entry 29, October 12:  First there was slow food, then slow schools, and now there is slow Digby.

Slowed by the double whammy of a ban on all stimulants such as coffee and a banquet of left-field remedies and nourishing food which calm the blood; and then by becoming conscious of the need to rest, to switch off the mind with its never-ending "to-do" list, its incessant shoulds and have to's.

And damn, it's not easy doing nothing and feeling OK about it.

But I think it's a vital element in my recovery from cancer. Working in Fleet St in the 90s, my stress levels were very high and I became, like many press people, addicted to that state of driven-ness.

I thought I would escape it by coming to Australia but it had welded so well with my anxious-to-please personality that it took the flight out here from London right with me.

My last job (well, hopefully not my LAST job) was as editor of the Byron Shire News and it had as many stressful moments on press day as any bigger newspaper. There was something about that adrenaline charge I loved while realising that it wasn't doing me any good.

Indeed, stress is recognised as one of the main causes of cancer.

Self-punishing, work-ethic protestant and borderline workaholic that I am, I seriously considered sticking at that job, even when the cancer came back and I was bracing myself for a flogging from the chemo.

Six months later, I am finally starting to stop and be still. And only just starting to …

The irony is that what people with cancer want more than anything is time, and yet time for me has usually been something to chew through in order to get going to whatever's next.

I eventually realised that this was my life I was burning up with activity and impatience, but it didn't make me pause.

Now, however, I am slowed by circumstances I cannot alter. I am obeying a categorical imperative to put my health first, and that includes eliminating as much stress - as much busy-ness - as possible.

Of course I have to drive, and have to practise patience with the holiday crowds, but otherwise I do as little as possible that is not pleasurable.

And the extension of that applies too: I try to take pleasure in everything I do. You can, when you are unhurried or unworried enough to pay close attention to what you are doing. Even folding the washing provides me with Zen moments, including a reminder of the beauty of movement. Swimming is similar, with added animal vitality.

Solitude, stillness, silence make for blissful days.

There is a new age trope that reminds me I am a human being, not a human doing. Being: it's hard to do, but I'm working on it.

 

Entry 28, October 5: I have turned into one of those people who used to drive me crazy: a food bore.

Not like one of the fetishists and snobs who salivate and gush over the stuff on television, but the kind of person in front of you at the cafe who asks 11 questions about the contents of the rice balls or the salad dressing.

Finally they decide against buying anything because there may be stevia in the sauce, or it isn't organic enough.

I used to want to shout out (and may even have done so): "Hurry up, it's only food!"

Now I have morphed into one of those over-precious sad sacks, except I twitch with self-consciousness at the sighing coming from those standing behind me.

The problem arose recently when my niece visited from London and we ate out a bit. And, as a good food bore, I have to report that it is impossible to order a restaurant meal without it containing something nasty. Sugar, for instance, is everywhere, often hiding under an alias.

I rarely need to go to the supermarket nowadays but when I do I gape at the aisle upon aisle of appalling products masquerading as food.

Not only is all of the garishly packaged gunk not food, it is a kind of anti-food; not only not nourishing but actively depleting or attacking the consumer's body.

I have recognised this for years but, being (sort of) healthy, I never did anything to take good care of myself, and shovelled the sweet and fatty crap into me as cheerfully as Billy Bunter.

With the threat to my life, that awareness is turned up to the max and the willingness to act on it becomes absolute.

Trouble comes when I try to impose my new attitudes on those around me, which this week provoked a disagreement with my son. He opted for toast and jam for breakfast, and I criticised it (and him) for the unhealthy and lazy choice.

Unfair, of course, and hypocritical. I would kill for a thick  slab of hot toast smothered in butter and strawberry jam.

So I need to keep my mouth shut - although that wouldn't have altered how unreasonably irritable the exchange left me.

Surprise, surprise, Australians have deftly dubbed such grumpiness as "shit on the liver".

I don't like behaving like this. It seems there are external stimuli to which I am powerless to react with anything but impatience and bad temper - dangerous drivers, dawdling pedestrians, squealing infants in coffee shops, the neighbours' yapping dogs.

But the internal flare-ups are increasingly rare and I hope the reservoir of anger that fuels them is shrinking, just like, I trust, the tumours it has helped to spawn. 

 

Entry 27, September 28:  I HAVE binned the last of the anti-depressants. I was holding on to them, just in case. But I don't need them and besides I have discovered a natural alternative which not only doesn't have the pills' emasculating side effects but is also fun.

 The clear-out was not prompted by a rush of joy to the head. It was more an act of puritanism and done in a rare hour of loneliness.

That feeling of separateness arrived instantly with the diagnosis of cancer - separateness from everybody - or at least from all those who are not of my stricken tribe.

It began with the doctor giving the bad news, just one member among the billions in the Healthy Club.

As I say, it descends very seldom now but sometimes at night my aloneness wraps around me like a threadbare but weighty old cardigan. It's a familiar garment too, providing a sinister kind of comfort. Sweet melancholy quickly slides into morbidity, which conspires with fatigue to make oblivion appear attractive.

The feeling is an old familiar because in all of my relationships, starting with both of my parents, I have craved greater intimacy, but have been unable to do whatever is required to achieve it. 

Cancer has changed that: the gravity (and the fear) associated with having the disease has made me more vulnerable, more willing to ask for help, and open to accept - and express - love. And also more discriminating.

So most of those who were close to me before the diagnosis have become closer. The bonds with my son, my lover, a beautiful niece, have become simpler, deeper, richer.

There's been a shift in all of my relationships. The internet allows connection with long-distance mates and I relish being to drop in on their lives, to maintain and strengthen links that have been in place for four decades and more.

Locally, many friendships have dropped away, or are kept barely alive by the occasional SMS. But I have been delighted to forge new ones, centred around recovery, and unexpectedly revive a few others.

I lead a sheltered, self-protective life, which means I choose not to be very social, and have become better at saying no. I've spent too much time doing things I didn't want to do and now I don't have the time, energy or willingness. Once again, the existential threat posed by the disease has forced me to free myself of useless behaviours.

The greater intimacy - the realness - in my significant relationships more than makes up for the downsizing in my social life, but on those dark nights I can still become fearful that even those closest might leave me.

Come the dawn, they are still here: as am I. We are together and our enjoyment of each other is growing day by day.

 

Entry 26, September 21: Call me naïve - or even a fool - but I have cancelled my appointment with the oncologists in Lismore next week.

The decision became ever easier as the weeks passed and I continued to be blessed with vitality and high spirits. I am the picture of health, and I believe that more than ever, the outer shell reflects the inner reality.

As a rather narcissistic and very drunken university student, I was bewitched by the Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's imaginative study of the chasm between an individual's appearance and his true nature.

The idea of an angelic surface and a degenerate, corrupt inner being was fascinating, and as alcohol and other substances began to erode my personality, I almost came to believe that I was getting away with a similar duplicity, keeping the shameful secret hidden behind a plausible front. 

It was nonsense of course, and the hard living eventually started to take its toll on my physique. And anyway, my behaviour usually gave the game away.

Getting sober is a journey into integrity, in which the disintegrated parts of the personality begin to fit together once again, or in some cases, for the first time ever.

In other words, what you see is what you get - a phrase that could not be applied to any active alcoholic or drug user or, sadly, to very many "normal" people.

The question is important to me now, because I am continually being told how well I look, and one consequence of my delusional past is to make me mistrust such comments, however welcome they are.

But a kind of proof of authenticity, of integrity, was provided to me this week when I visited my naturopath in Queensland.

He tells me there has been a significant improvement in the state of my blood cells and the level of , and while I am reluctant to allow this news to get my hopes too high, I feel vindicated in choosing to go down the alternative route. It has done nothing but make me feel fantastic, and I am encouraged to pursue it with renewed enthusiasm.

A visit to the cancer specialists would only shake this foundation, by instantly turning me into a patient, a "case" in palliative care. To take their drugs at this point would reinforce that idea. I would feel physically sick and that would frighten and depress me.

Health (and illness) work on a feedback loop: if I feel well, I do healthy things (including, this week, Bikram yoga); these make me feel good, so I do more of them. Health, including the immune system, must surely improve.

Recovery (and I dare to apply that term now) is an inside job. But I don't doubt that the two realities tell a united  story: one in which my physical appearance does not mislead, but honestly reveals what is going on down in my entrails.

 

Entry 25, September 14: NEVER before has it been so important for me to be conscious of the advice to live one day at a time. I had plans for this month - to travel to the US and Europe, including going to see the Alhambra in southern Spain - but I cancelled the flights many weeks ago when I doubted I would have the stamina to handle New York.

I haven't made any plans since.

Planning implies a future, or at least a future with a set of certainties. I don't have that luxury just now. I am more like the character in the exquisite Ryan Adams song, Come Home, who says "my fate's a wandering river with no riverside".  

 I hope to live, of course, and expect it. But even in my most positive moments (and they are plentiful: I rarely give cancer the time of day) I have to admit that there are no guarantees.    And while I'm not exactly surprised when I open my eyes each morning, I do continue to be slightly astonished at waking up feeling completely well and, most days, untroubled.  

I still hope to get back to London, my stomping ground for many years, for a short visit, but I will have to wait until travelling feels exactly right.   Until - or if - that time comes, I can only thrive in the absolute present. I know, I know… everyone with any imagination is familiar with living in the now, of the deep wisdom in it.  

Some even manage to put it into practice. I never have, despite being long familiar with the concept and using it often as a balm in my most fearful moments. But it has become imperative - and unavoidable - and brings a huge sense of relief with it. I really do not have to worry about any future event.   

I exist daily with the knowledge that dwelling within me is a repellent force that is intent on taking me over and killing me - but somehow it fails to terrify me or, most of the time, even lower my spirits.    Having that knowledge, what could life throw at me that would be more disturbing?   

Only one thing: the possibility of something terrible happening to my boy. That is the unthinkable (and so I don't). Being present now means that recently I have been able to enjoy perfect moments, in which I am fully conscious of the hum of life.   Add the moments together and they become perfect hours, days… sacred memories for me and my companions.

Which is not to say it's all rosy dewdrops. In the middle of a recent happy sunny Saturday a powerful sadness came bubbling up and I had a good cry, the first in many months.  

The trouble with perfect moments is that you don't want them to stop. Life can be so beautiful that it's almost unbearable to reflect that it could end.  

Entry 24, September 7I have been lucky enough to devote the past week to the pursuit of pleasure in several of its myriad forms - yes, including that one, if you must know. The experience has spawned a resurgence of the life force within me, a sheer delight in being.

"Pursuit" is slightly misleading: there is no chasing involved. In truth, I can loll on the sofa, or even in bed, reading or listening to music, and feel fulfilled. The ocean is always there, and the bush, my vegie patch, loving friends - all sources of great joy, requiring nothing except my presence.

One outstanding pleasure was watching a documentary about fractals, the complex patterns whose secret was unveiled through mathematics but which are found everywhere in nature, such as on a fern or the head of a cauliflower.

Fractals: the Colours of Infinity shows how, when a simple formula is charted in 3D and represented visually through a computer, a bug-like shape is created, named the Mandelbrot Set after its discoverer.

Look at the Set's edges with ever increasing magnification and you see a series of kaleidoscopic patterns - gorgeous, hallucinatory, mysterious yet recognisable - which go on and on, apparently infinitely.

The "bug" continues to reappear no matter how close you zoom in - the icon of order amid chaotic replication. The same principle applies in nature.

Cancer represents chaos to me, cells reproducing out of control and eventually killing their host. It's a gross affront to the natural order, which is the impulse towards health and survival.

The doctors see my cancer taking me inexorably in one direction: towards the grave. Hearing this afresh last week, I felt newly relieved of my need for them. The chemo offers the possibility of a few extra months, with devitalising side-effects almost guaranteed. The medics have done their best, and I'm grateful, but what can they really do for me at this stage but feed my fear?

I contrast this approach with the way I feel, with the life force pulsating  through my body, mind and spirit. Sometimes I feel as if it's bursting out of my chest.

I am part of the natural order and I feel absolutely in tune with it right now. In Dylan Thomas's words,  "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower … drives my red blood".

It also keeps the blood flowing in the people I continue to meet who were sent home from hospitals and advised to get their lives in order, some given just months until they died.

They chose instead to stay alive, using more natural therapies.

It may be arrogance on my part ("I'm too special to die"), or denial, or ignorance, or simply that a few months - possibly - doesn't seem like that good a deal, but I'm reluctant to do the chemo thing.

I think I'll take my chances with my life-affirming sisters and brothers.

 

Entry 23, August 31The numinous peace of mind I boasted about in such poetic terms last week proved fleeting, eroded by that most banal of concerns, money.

Financial fears were soon reinforced by a barely suppressed anxiety about an appointment looming at the Liver Clinic in Lismore.

I try not to have any expectations, but such encounters are always approached with hope - and with a lurking dread. What will the blood tests reveal?

This time it's nothing too sinister, but there's no miracle either and the good doctor outlined my condition kindly but frankly. The medics' expectation, as I already know but have been quietly ignoring, or rather, belittling, is that despite how well I may feel (and look), my time is limited. Anything they can offer is palliative, not curative.

Like the great bluesman Robert Johnson, I have arrived at the crossroad. Would I sell my soul to the devil in exchange for a return to health, as he claimed he did for commercial success? I doubt it, and anyway, my option is a good deal less exotic.

The choice is between the alternative path I'm on now and the offer of a form of chemotherapy, daily tablets, which could extend my life. They could also provoke a rash on my hands and feet, make me tired and give me diarrhoea, but hey, nothing's perfect.

It's a dilemma nearly all cancer patients face: amid the plethora of options suggested, from "miracle cancer cures" such as New Zealand prune juice through to major surgery, radiation and so on, which path to choose?

The drug on offer is my only option within conventional medicine. Do I take it and risk compromising the good work being done by diet, supplements and lifestyle?

Do I opt for a longer life, but one impaired by side-effects, or choose to remain active and feeling well until the sudden - though not inevitable - falling off of health?

As the clinic's specialist said, it depends on one's philosophy of life. Personally, I'd go for the quality. I'm already sick of myself sick, as I was after the chemo interventions. This wouldn't be as drastic, but my present vitality is easily compromised.

And there are other people to think about. I'm told there are people who would like to have me round for longer, fatigue, diarrhoea and all.

I take the rather vainglorious view that if I can't be fully present, upbeat and top of my game, I'd rather not be there at all.

That pride, or egoism, is one reason behind my recent isolation from others. I suspect I share with a lot of men a reluctance to be seen in a vulnerable condition.

The pills would reduce me to a weakened state. I have some time to decide before I go down that path. The key thing is not to make a decision based on fear.

 

 

Entry 22, August 24Often, when my parents had left the house to go to work or, rarely, for a social occasion, my grandmother would lift her eyes skywards and exclaim "peace, perfect peace".

Her relief gives an indication of the tension that was a regular feature of our home life. The phrase is the title of a hymn, whose composer was inspired to write it after attending a friend's death. Its theme is that Jesus has vanquished death - something to do with his shedding blood for us, so that Christians  can die cheerfully, knowing they are heaven-bound.

I emerged from that highly-strung household (having added to it my own variety of trouble) with a desperate need for peace, perfect or not,  and have pursued it down many avenues.  Pills, pints and powders proved a catastrophic mis-step, creating greater chaos; LSD provided moments of ecstatic "knowing" but always had a hellish comedown. I've tried meditation and prayer, including, as a gormless pre-pubescent, within Christianity. But by the age of 14 I worshipped Jimi and Jagger and Jim, and was lost to Jesus.

I still can't warm to a belief system that has the image of a being tortured to death as its central symbol. And as for human (and animal) suffering down the ages, isn't God supposed to be all-loving?

Alcohol lulled me for a while but it is a depressant, biochemically speaking, and too much lulling made me half crazy in the end. I only began to enjoy any peace of mind once I had put the cork in the bottle.

Even then the material world - travel, work, romance, service to others - left me dissatisfied.

With age, a certain peace of mind has come, through acceptance of life's limitations and the surrendering of ambition, of desire.

But it is cancer that has been the great liberator: I have never felt as peaceful as I do now. Being out of the daily grind of work helps: I can do what I love doing, with whom I want to do it (though I'm most often alone, and happily so).

There's something greater though. I'm not precisely aware of my physical condition. I feel healthy but I may be dying (and please don't say "we all are". I've heard it and it's facile and annoying). I might, quite suddenly, experience peace as in RIP.

But death holds no fear for me and while I don't think it has anything to do with Jesus, this calmness has a religious quality, like a blessing or grace bestowed.

And being free of that primal fear is allowing me to live more fully than ever.

Forced to slow down, I can experience the present more richly. A pile of driftwood on the beach has a psychedelic impact on me; I gaze and marvel at the colour palette of my tibouchina tree; birds absorb my attention.

I can see more clearly now, and the darkest hours of the disease (so far) were simply the prelude to the dawn.

 

Entry 21, August 17The novelty and fresh hope sparked by an alternative therapy program of action have worn off and the diet-supplement-topical lotion regime become a rather lonely and demoralising chore.

 

There should be joy in food and with my limited skills I am incapable of creating it.

So I begin the day ransacking my soul for a little enthusiasm for a sort of gruel made of rice and whatever ingredients I am allowed to give it a glimmer of interest ­- nuts, shredded coconut and so on. Fruit, which I adore in all its wondrous, colourful forms, is forbidden, and I miss it keenly.

Salads I can manage but some of the messes that come out of the pan in the evening, while edible, have a texture and appearance and taste that would make Gordon Ramsay lose the will to live.

That's their effect on me this week too, and the rigidity of the diet has given me nightmares, in which I rebel and prepare a feast of banned delicacies.

Awake, I lust after coffee, yoghurt, pastries, a sausage perhaps?

I move sluggishly from the breakfast table to skull shots of vitamins C and B, magnesium in lethal doses, enzymes, sea minerals, iodine. Then, fluids sloshing around inside me, comes the inevitable visit to the toilet.

When I complain about my lot, my son reminds me, between mouthfuls of bacon and eggs, that the privation is worth it if it prolongs my life. He is right, of course, though I am leaning to the quality not quantity viewpoint.

But I also have to remember what most people endure when faced with this disease: years of pain and indignity and fear.

I have no idea what is going on in my liver, but it's not preventing me having time at the beach, working out in the gym, digging the garden and generally enjoying life like a normal person.

And, this week, working. I've missed the engagement with the world that comes with work.  It may be a form of escape, but what's wrong with that?

Work immediately brings a degree of stress, which I've been advised to avoid, but the reality is I manufacture my own stress anyway. Getting the lawns mown, cleaning the kitchen ... even a pile of dirty dishes can provoke a slight anxiety.

Writing this right now helps me put my "problems" in perspective: it's one of the column's therapeutic effects, and I am grateful for it.

Gratitude, that rare and precious quality, is sometimes not easy to find in one's being. And feeling well, having energy, a brain that functions, loving friends, a home, a healthy, cheerful (and nagging) son and sunshine in August, are all things I can say "thank you" for ... to whatever entity or force is running the show. 

 

Entry 20, August 10Week One of the Sledgehammer DNA repair program is finished and I'm surviving the spartan regime nicely.

It is forcing me to be creative in the kitchen (not "more creative", as I could hardly have been less before) and to make a real effort to ensure healing vegetables such as kale, celery and beetroot are thriving in the garden.

And despite the lack of carbs, fats and proteins, my energy levels are good; good enough to immerse myself in the stimulating Byron Writers' Festival, cold sea water and the gym.

Rest is supposed to be an important part of this project but I find it hard to sit down and do nothing. Fortunately, the supplements I'm glugging down thrice daily - minerals and vitamins mainly, in big doses - have the effect of clearing and calming the mind.

And Sledgehammer keeps me busy.

I haven't mentioned the lotions yet, partly out of embarrassment. Twice daily I am required to anoint myself with large quantities of watery unguents, two containing the well-known remedies echinacea and calendula, but also brews targeting mycotoxins and fungus - the cause of cancer, according to my naturopath, and many others.

This apparently sybaritic ritual can be damp and dreary and I'm tempted to duck it. But then I remember the healer's words:  "110% … nothing less will do", and slip, slop, slap, on they go.

I'm tempted to rationalise his warning as the voice of a fanatic and disobey him, do what suits me. But I realise that fanatical is how I need to be - or at least disciplined, for once. Faced with a bewildering range of advice, often contradictory (beetroot, anyone?) I have chosen this man's approach, and I've committed to follow it fully.

But there are some suggested therapies where I have to draw a line. Among them is the enema.

Strangely perhaps for an individual who once so recklessly violated his body, the enema, highly regarded in some quarters, represents an affront so personal, so fundamentally intrusive, that I cannot bring myself to face it.

Call me up-tight, but the idea of inserting a tube into my rectum makes me squirm, especially as the ingredient recommended to then flow through it is ozone - a gas!

Once inflated, I picture myself floating up to the ceiling, zeppelin-like, only to be halted halfway, tethered by that abominable pipe, as if I had regressed and now sported a prehensile tail, which I could use to balance on, while reaching up to pick fruit from the higher branches.

And a quick look on Ebay for ozone generators frightened the life out of me: how can I trust a machine that looks like that?

The counsel of more enlightened souls may be able to help me overcome my fears, because although I may say "I'd rather die than do that", I don't really mean it.

 

Entry 19, August 3:  I have bought a diary for next year and entered an appointment for August 2014 to see my liver specialist at the hospital in Brisbane.

 

The appointment was his idea, although he added that looking beyond that date might be overly optimistic.

However, he also expressed some surprise that according to the most recent scan there had been no change in the pathology of the liver. That is, the tumours had not grown.

It's good news, and a surprise to me too, as I'd had been looking at some elevated numbers from a blood test and reached the opposite conclusion - that is, that they were running out of control.

But it seems these numbers don't mean that much, which came as a great relief.

I happily took the specialist's suggestion of a 2014 check-up as a challenge to live that long, a response that seemed to cheer the slightly lugubrious medic up. He displayed further signs of being a fully rounded human ­- unusual within his profession - when we parted, thanking me quite emotionally for "doing something for him" that day. It seems a cheerful acceptance of one's condition, and a positive outlook, are rarely witnessed within these gloomy walls.

The next day, as a committed first step on the path into a healthy future, I drove deeper into Queensland to consult with an experienced natural healer, who also expressed some surprise at quite how well my liver seemed to be functioning, after 40 years of the inflammatory disease hepatitis C, followed, or rather joined, by cirrhosis and, finally, cancer.

Though I was exhausted by the time this second consultation ended, both meetings were enormously encouraging: the foundations are within me upon which to build a sound recovery.

But the naturopath was quite clear, and quite stern: his emphatic message was that I have to work hard to get better and to that end he tasked me with a dietary regime that would make the most ascetic holy man renounce his vows, supplemented by a pharmacopoeia of strange and foul-tasting concoctions.

It's a seven-week program, a DNA repair plan named the Sledgehammer and I am to "hit it hard" - no compromises or cutting corners. It will be my primary focus until late September, making me very poor company indeed and forcing me into a kind of hibernation.

The alternative I was considering - and may still undertake - is a visit to a psychic healer in Brazil: I am open to anything to recover from this, and I also fancied a week lounging in the sun at Copacabana afterwards, while the Southern Hemisphere endured its coldest months.

But I don't have to travel out of Byron Shire to experience a metaphysical healing session. This weekend I will be put into a semi trance state to allow my subconscious to flex its muscles and give the cancer a kick in the pants.

I'm fundamentally a sceptic but I won't dismiss anything until I've tried it and it hasn't worked. And maybe not even then.

 

Entry 18, July 27:  Although I smoked the stuff for years in my youth, I never much enjoyed the effects of marijuana.

Occasionally it enabled me to follow the bass line in a rock song and it could make the most vacuous bore seem intriguing. But I usually needed strong drink or several pills to take the edge off, which invariably led to blackouts and disgruntled girlfriends.

Without those, the weed could cause paralysing self-consciousness (and self-doubt). Often I felt divided: there was me and a meta-commentating "other" in my head, judging and criticising me. All sense of authenticity vanished, along with confidence and spontaneity.

The effects could be extreme. Once at a party, believing I had wet my pants, I sat petrified, unable to stand up, let alone dance, mingle, laugh and joke - you know, partay!

I've also run, panic-stricken along dark streets because I imagined I had seen men sitting in a car up ahead, waiting to jump out and beat me up. Very uncool.

I mention these times of fear and self-loathing because it has been suggested that marijuana in oil form could cure my cancer. It's one of a suite of alternative treatments, which already includes essiac tea, bicarbonate of soda, turmeric and nigella seeds.

On the menu I am considering, next to the tetra-hydro cannabinol, is olive leaf extract, iodine, colloidal silver and a water purifying bleach. I could need the pot to help make the rest even partially palatable.

But the THC is the most problematic for me. I am both drawn to it, and wary. Cancer has stripped away a lot of the layers of ego and left a simpler, more integrated individual. I am very reluctant to endanger the kind of wholeness - of authenticity - the disease has paradoxically brought me.

And I really don't want to repeat that hash oil experience of decades ago, being skewered to the bed, white face between trembling hands, silently emulating Munch's Screamer.

Plus, of course, it is, ludicrously, illegal.

On the other hand, I need all the help I can get and I'm prepared to chuck just about anything at this disease.

Speaking of authenticity, I spent some time with my friend and neighbour David Ades this week. David's quality of life is severely compromised by a large tumour in his lung which is pressing on his trachea and a major blood vessel.

Despite the discomfort, and the grim outlook, he remains determinedly, courageously -  authentically! - his self: defiant, irascible, intelligent,  funny, kind.  His lust for life, and for making music, is unquenchable, and he is a huge inspiration to me.

David has had stents inserted into his vena cava and trachea to take some of the pressure off. Miraculously he can still blow his horn - "and loudly", he boasts - so next week he is getting on a plane to New York to record a new album.

Travel comfortably, my friend. And come home soon.

PS: Thanks to the kindness of the organisers of Splendour in the Grass, I too will be enjoying music for much of this weekend. Highlight of Friday night was Mumford & Sons, but it was also good to see Pete Doherty of Babyshambles looking so well - and so well-fed. He must be off the gear.

 

 

Entry 17, July 20My first attempt at body boarding eight weeks ago was not a success.

I could manage the board on dry land but as soon as I entered the water it took on a life of its own, banging into my legs as I stood in the shallows struggling to get stones out of my flippers.

In the breakers I spent more time underneath it than on top, but once there, hands flailing to try to make headway, I found I had to use my chin to steer it - which meant meeting incoming waves with an open mouth, and an open gullet. It was all very discouraging.

That was two weeks before my last, very debilitating, chemo. One of the problems was that, reluctant to have my efforts witnessed by others, I chose isolated, deserted beaches. They were deserted for good reason, of course. After a couple more abortive tries in the following days I found a spot where the waves weren't quite so crap, watched other boarders, swallowed my pride and went out where they did.

Soon I was "out the back", ecstatically lying in the silence and solitude, warmed by the sun. The failure to catch a wave was inconsequential.

Since the chemo I've been forlornly hoping I might feel strong enough to get back to that place, to that state of being, and this week I did.

After the rock bottom last week, when I could see no end to the feebleness, and the fear that it was the cancer and not the chemo that was causing it, the outing into deeper water was a major triumph.

More than the (non-existent) surfing, it's the feeling of vigour restored, the end of fragility, the return of personal power that are so important.  Out there, and for the rest of the day, I vibrate with life. My mind is calm and clear. I'm a player again, not a victim. The possibility of a premature death seems inconceivable.

Even my mojo is threatening to resurface, though I won't put you off your breakfast with the sordid details.

Dealing with this disease is down to me now. The doctors have as good as written me off.

I can only return the compliment. I can no longer place much faith in them. I'm not angry that the surgery and the chemo failed, but I am dismayed that first-world medicine has given up on me at the first real hurdle. And I feel a degree of outrage that, given the limit to their capabilities, a doctor should tell someone when they will die.

Understanding that my condition is beyond medicine, I've been lucky enough to be able to reclaim my power and utilise everything else available: optimise my body and mind's capacity to deal with the illness through diet, exercise, rest, loving company.  I can do that.  I am doing that.

These things make me stronger and help me make the most of every day.

Today, right now, I feel fine  - and that is the only reality I can trust. Today I'm making the most of it.

Living one day at a time - or attempting to - is the source of my power,  along with the openness to the possibility of something miraculous happening.

And of course, a stubborn determination to ride the wave, no matter what form it takes.

 

Entry 16, July 13"IT took less than 48 hours for me to bounce back from the death sentence handed down by the doctors last week."

That was the intro I drafted in my head as I got ready for a walk and a swim two mornings after the verdict, full of defiance and bravado. And I did walk, and swam, declaring to all that I wasn't going to take the prognosis as gospel and that I will beat this disease.

But it was pure reactive denial, with no substance to it. I was like the boy whistling in the dark - making a noise to mask his terror.

The week since has seen catastrophic fall-offs in energy: not so much tiredness as a sudden loss of any physical strength, an all-body weakness that made another step seem impossible.

The braggadocio continued: "It's fall-out from the chemo. I'll be right in a few days ... "

But I wasn't. On Tuesday, a brilliant walk to the lighthouse with my son, catching the elusive golden weather, a rejuvenating haircut and the assertion that "today is a new beginning". Wednesday, I wake up after 10 hours of reasonable sleep and I am almost incapable of movement.

With the weakness and the nagging pain comes every kind of demon you don't want paying a visit. Depression, hopelessness, guilt. Regret, doubt, dread. Fear of dying (and worryingly, of living, of having to face the daily grind of life, with all its responsibilities and chores, its discomforts and frustrations).

All day I lie inert, a state worsened by my shaming, hectoring thoughts: You need to get organised, make a will, sort out your affairs. That's what real men do, with dignity and silence. Here are you, whining in public.

I've been here before, but not quite so low. There's no fight left; I feel forced to accept that I'm fading.

Then the day is redeemed ... and by another's love. An angel sweeps in with a delicious, nourishing lunch. She does all the dishes and cleans the fridge.  I am ordered to stay in bed.  Restored somewhat, I reach out to a mate with whom there has been a rift, and he responds positively.  I feel less of a passive victim.

Noah's mother has us over for dinner, and a few peaceful, healing hours pass. A family that disintegrated 12 years ago unites in a hug.

My vulnerable condition is forcing me to accept love, and to attempt to return it. I am a beginner here ... in the past unable to let it in and inevitably sabotaging it.  It's become a personal mythology - part not feeling worthy of love, part not wanting it, and the obligations it brings.

Now I'm being bombarded with it, and from all around the world. I have to surrender to it, give up the myth. In some mysterious way it provides a solid underpinning of strength, creates a genuine hope for a healthy future, replacing the sputtering defiance of before.

I find myself saying out loud, for the first time since the diagnosis: "I want to live."

And to learn to love is surely a project that's worth living for.

 

Entry 15, July 6:  This week I went to Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital looking for some straight answers about my state of health.

And boy, did I get them, like a cold hard slap across the face.

The cancer, like a cunning guerrilla fighter, has outsmarted my body's heroic efforts at resistance and the best medical treatment available. I'm one of the "unlucky ones" and there's not much more the medics can do for me. My life has been officially declared finite.

Everything is in my favour: I'm fit and strong, all my organs are functioning well and even the liver is ticking over nicely. But one of the tumours has manoeuvred itself into an unspeakable coupling with a major blood vessel -  the portal vein - which renders most medical interventions unworkable. A transplant would only speed up the progress of the cancer;  and other forms of surgery are no longer viable for the same reason.

Death, sooner rather than later, is now the reality - a reality that has plunged me into a surreal state of mind. My brain is racing but I feel stunned, dumb with grief.

I will have a scan to see how the last TACE procedure went but, similarly, the presence of this tumour around the vein makes that procedure too dangerous now.

There are few other options and the doctor, sensitive, genuinely upset, was quite matter of fact: "I'm sorry to deliver such bad news."

In an almost comical haggling with him, we went from his verdict of "months", to my pleading "not years, multiples of years?" to his, "perhaps, but not decades".

I don't need decades but I do need two years, to see my boy out of school, so I immediately decided, vowed somewhere down in my soul, that I will be here in two years' time.

There's something pitiful about imagining such a decision can out-distance this disease: it will help, surely,  but it will take a load of willpower and self-discipline and self-love - more than I really believe I possess, and not enough, I fear, to wage a consistent fight against the death wish that has lurked forever deep in my psyche.

But I can do it for my son. It's simply not right that he should suffer for the crimes of my past.

Leaving him is the only real fear I have of  dying: the thought of that loss is the source of my tears, which are plentiful. But he is wiser than me, telling me not to regret anything, to be grateful for what we have had, and still have, and it occurs to me that my sadness is really a projection. I am devastated at leaving him in this world, desperate not to add to his sense of aloneness - a pure reflection of what has been the dominant condition of my life, which is loneliness. My grief is presumptuous, as if he will feel what I feel.

So I have my answers, but out of the gloom emerges the thought that, really, my luck hasn't run out at all, because I have been given time with him now: time to exercise together, to enjoy the ocean and the sunshine, to dance like no one's watching at the Splendour music festival, to enjoy Breaking Bad, to garden, and laugh and talk. To talk and talk and talk.

And to follow George Harrison's advice to beware of sadness, until the time for sadness comes, as it inevitably will.

 

 

Entry 14, June 29Correct me if if I am wide of the mark here, but I suspect that among my many loyal readers there is perhaps a dozen of you lusting after my body, seduced by the manly courage combined with the great sensitivity of feeling shown in the column, and stimulated by the brilliance of the prose, as it reclines there, each word burning with a hard, gem-like flame.

So allow me to offer a few remedial  insights into the true state of my being just now.

Hepatitis C and cirrhosis cause a maddening, subcutaneous itching, which means we sufferers spend hours clawing at our arms and necks, digging away until the skin is broken and bleeding. That doesn't bring us blessed relief: we just scratch on, as scabby bloody sores appear up and down our arms, continuing to infuriate and refusing to heal.

Then there are the painkillers, which also cause a kind of elusive, phantom itching, but now around the entire body. You will have seen junkies on the nod, propped up by a building, bent 90 degrees from the waist, nails working the side of the face or nose, as they make the most of their few minutes of freedom from their hellish lives.

Similarly, I have recently spent entire nights gouging away at my legs and groin, throat and  scalp,  a psoriatic simian, twitching and jerking awake every half hour from a ghastly drug nightmare. Coleridge glorified the opiate dream in his fine poem Kubla Khan, but my experience is that they are filled with anxiety and ugly scenarios. Why I chased this experience so avidly in my youth is a mystery to me now, and I'm relieved to have passed through the worst of the pain and don't need the drugs any longer.

But their legacy remains - a constellation of pustules across my chest, and bruising and nail marks around the stomach and thighs.

As to the chest itself, and the shoulders, three weeks of bed rest and being doubled over in pain have caused any musculature to vanish. Or rather, it has gone south, leaving a scrawny upper body which widens out around the middle, topped off by a self-important little pot belly. Below this are the emaciated hips, an arse becoming flatter by the day, wasted thighs and calves leaving the knees to look more knobbly than in all their six-decade history.

I ought not overlook the sweats, defying the cold nights we've been having, and leaving me thrashing around in sodden bed linen, as slippery  as a performing seal; or the vile taste in the mouth; nor the 10 days of passing ti-tree lake coloured urine, the cytotoxins bubbling and gurgling away in the bowl, impatient to be unleashed upon the environment.

It's just as well I'm not a vain or shallow man. I would hate to be noticing this diminution in appearance and letting it affect me.

And anyway, of course, cancer is like masturbation: you don't have to look your best, or even make much of an effort. I have the perfect excuse to look like sh*t.

But further, those people who genuinely care about me don't care what I look like.

They can see the humour surviving beneath the pain and disappointment in my jaundiced eyes; the hope climbing to its feet after every cowardly king hit from despair; the love of life getting its sparkle back beneath the dull patina of fatigue; and the wonder and gratitude at the kindness and big-heartedness of others reaching depths I have never known before.

 

 

Entry 13, June 22People who know us often ask me how Noah is going.

They're concerned about how my son, who turned 16 yesterday, is coping with his father being in the grip of such a scary disease.

From what I can see, he's doing pretty well.  He is protected to an extent by the demands faced by any 16-year-old - the social and school pressures which keep him very busy, allowing little time to brood - and by a teenager's psychology, which is predominantly self-absorbed.

But naturally there are powerful currents of sadness and fear running through him. We have spent a lot of time together, even when he was a tiny boy, and there is a very deep bond between us. The thought of losing that must be devastating for him.

I have been a far from perfect father, and on occasions I've behaved no better  than a bad-tempered old bugger. But one thing I am grateful for is that we have had a deep human relationship - something I never had with my silent, shut-down old man.  Noah knows me intimately, warts and all, and I believe his acceptance of those imperfections, and his trust within them, are indicators of his wisdom and depth of character.

He has even expressed gratitude that his mother and I are such oddballs: "It will help me be a better writer," he told me recently.

Noah' sadness surfaced this week when I revealed the fairly horrific results of my last chemo blast in Brisbane. I'll go into detail next week, but suffice to say that trans-arterial chemo, in which I placed so much hope, is no longer an option. Now there is only conventional chemo, which has a very low success rate. Or, my likely path, Chinese herbs and acupuncture.

Of course I am glad when his feelings do puncture the noisy, cheeky chappy persona: he's good at putting a brave face on things and I suspect he thinks he has to protect me from his "negative" emotions. But it is he, and the others who love me, who are really going through it. They are the ones who need care and protection. Weirdly, I feel somehow cut free from too much emotion around this, but I need others  to be upfront  about theirs.

I am enormously proud when Noah does give voice to his feelings, that we can speak honestly about the situation, without him being burdened down by them, becoming depressed, or feeding it into a gloomy, goth-like teenage angst. We quickly move on.

His behaviour in all areas has gone up a several notches this year - not entirely because of the diagnosis, of course, but through a general maturing, and aided as much by his mother's guidance as  anything else.

Nowadays he takes more responsibility for himself and his belongings, he has become more self-motivated and doesn't have to be nagged into practising the piano; his standard of schoolwork and the enjoyment he gets from it are a joy to witness.

The diagnosis has conveyed an important message to him: Life is precious, and short. Don't waste it in worry and regret. Identify your talents and use them.

Noah, you are the best thing I've ever had a hand in, and are, I believe, a valuable gift to the world.

Happy birthday, darling boy.

 

 

Entry 12, June 16Gentle reader, please forgive me if today's column wanders about a bit. It comes after a week of painful treatment, confusion and exhaustion. Its highlight was a return to my own bed on Thursday afternoon after three nights in a Brisbane hospital. I had been summoned there at the last minute on Monday, the result of a bureaucratic snafu.

I was booked in the following day for the second round of chemo, whose form I have outlined here before, with a catheter inserted into an artery and pushed into the tumours, which are then flooded with strong chemicals.

I was delighted to not have a long lead-up time, to be able to get the treatment over and done with, as there is the possibility of some much-needed work coming up soon.

And the procedure, gruesome as it sounds, is not only painless, but even quite pleasant, such is the calm state induced by a cocktail of modern pharmaceuticals.

Afterwards however, as in April, there is crippling pain, this time across the full width of my stomach, at the bottom of the ribs. But again, the drugs are wheeled out, and although it takes time for them to do their work, they are effective and allow me to move about a little.

The next day, a complication arises, not fully explained: the doctors want to see a follow-up scan.   But I've already had breakfast so I need to wait until 2pm before I can even think about going home. Travel arrangements with friends and my guardian angel are made, then cancelled.

I'm finally scanned at 6pm: hungry, cold, tired and sore. The unit has only one machine working that day. As in NSW, this is a medical system under stress. Confusion rules, and the price is paid, as always with "cutbacks", by the personnel. I am amazed that the staff here never, in my experience, let that stress leak out and affect their warmth and professionalism.

On Thursday morning, another worrying but once again unidentified development. I'm not told (and I'm getting fed up with being kept in the dark, or do they just not know?). I'm to stay for another scan. Then suddenly I'm told it won't be necessary. They just want blood. I give it and scuttle out, feeling great sympathy for my ward mates, even if some of them are hard to love.

I get back to Bangalow and urgent messages: the hospital wants me back in -- today! There may be an infection, and so on. Well … no way are we doing that trip again and after an hour in my bed my temperature drops, eyes whiten, I'm feeling fine. I'll take it from here for the next few days, thank you.

It seems a quantity of healthy liver tissue was killed off during the procedure, which I need like a hole in the head!

So, two steps forward, one back, or maybe the other way round. I'm still absorbing the unwelcome news.

 

 

Entry 11, June 8"Am I bovvered?" was the stock response of TV comedian Catherine Tate's obnoxious Cockney schoolgirl Lauren - a catchphrase reproduced by the egregious populist Tony Blair.

"I'm. Not. Bovvered!" Lauren would end the skits shouting at her hapless interlocutor.

It's something I'm increasingly coming to think; about the cancer inside me,  and about my life in general.

Some comrades in illness regularly have intravenous injections of vitamin C, consult meditation experts, dieticians, spiritual guides, cancer gurus. I have yet to link up with a local oncologist, and am starting to feel like a slacker in the recovery stakes.

I do the very minimum to "fight" the disease. My recovery program consists of trying to eat well, swallowing vitamins when I remember, exercise when I feel like it and waiting patiently for the doctors to do what they will next.

My time alternates between walking and swimming, followed by long periods in bed, loafing, sleeping, and gazing out the window at the sky and the wind in the trees.

Is it denial that I refuse to give the disease any real attention, any "energy", in the new-age parlance of Byon Shire?

Or is it an equally pernicious passivity, a subterranean resignation to the "fact" that it's going to get me in the end, so why bovver doing anything?

The reality is that the full horrors of cancer haven't hit me yet. At worst I'm suddenly tired, with occasional nausea - both the product of the chemo, not the disease.

I may escape the horrors, or, in time, I may come to know them only too well. Until then, however, I'm not going to let it bother me.

There's also a deeper detachment that comes with the inescapable focus on mortality which accompanies a diagnosis of a serious illness. And that is the detachment from life itself: life in general, what is going on out there, beyond my window. But even more profoundly, from my life. From my being alive.

Except for a sadness about the pain my dying will cause others (very few others, let's face it) I have no "negative" feelings about it whatsoever: no anxiety, no anger, almost no regret. And certainly no fear about "the other side".

It is, after all, just another life, though it happens to have been inhabited by "me", whatever that is.

And it's been a good one, with its share of confusion and heartache, true, but also full of music and love and laughter, as much sensation and experience as anyone could ask for. This dance with cancer is just more experience, and one I'm grateful to still be alive for.

 

 

Entry 10, May 31ACROSS the road from the hospital I go to in Brisbane are several cheap eateries. I was in one recently, having a cuppa after a scan, when a chemo patient, bald beneath her headscarf, came in and sat down with her husband.

Soon she took out a packet of tobacco and wandered off to have a smoke. I watched, incredulous, feeling something bordering on contempt.

But who am I to judge?

I've been told that sugar "feeds" cancerous tumours, and that the glucose created in the body by eating certain grains does the same. I believe it to be true, but do you think that stops me?

Six months ago I swore off all sugar, including fruit, and stopped oats based muesli and porridge, bread, rice, pasta and so on. I lost weight and felt good.

But slowly, slowly, coffees came back, with a "just a small spoonful" of the sweet stuff. Bananas and other fruit were gobbled. Chocolate, bikkies and the occasional small cake started to disappear.

Worst of all was the yoghurt/cereal/dried fruit habit, which is, in truth, an addiction. Returning home after a gloomy day I feel my spirits lift at the thought of buying and consuming these. Having dispatched a bowlful, I'll return to the kitchen for another.

Even though it makes me feel bloated, I'll still want more.

Some days I like to call this defiance of advice a healthy disrespect for the disease. Another view is that it's arrogance, or apathy, or, worst of all, a form of self-destructiveness.

For years after I sobered up, whenever I felt a headache or twinge coming on, I would swallow a couple of painkillers, preferably codeine based.  I'd blame work pressures, or rugby injuries. But as time passed I realised I was often taking them to relieve other types of "pain". Loneliness, sadness, frustration, even anger.

I suspect I'm not alone here, and that emotional neediness rather than pain relief is a major cause of the huge sales of such "medications".

Long before the cancer diagnosis I was aware my liver was vulnerable. The tablets often made me feel queasy, playing havoc with my digestive system. I knew they weren't doing me any good.

But like the sugar - and the ciggies - they offered some immediate pay-off, an instant, if illusory, solution to discomfort, fatigue, misery.

Did I have the willpower to stop?  Only after a complete "rock bottom" when I was struck by the truth of my behaviour: the delusion, the self-harm, the tawdriness of it as a coping option.

I'm trying to cut out sugar, in all its forms. No more grains either (no matter how gluten free, or "ancient").

Yoghurt I'm still working on ....

 

Entry nine, May 25DESPITE a telephone conversation with a local GP and a consultation with a liver specialist in Queensland, I'm no better informed about my condition than I was a week ago.

The doctor was unable to interpret the films of a recent scan -- for which I can hardly blame him -- or the terminology of the written report.

The specialist, eccentric, remote, overworked, peered quizzically at his screen and made vaguely reassuring noises about the "take-up" of the chemotherapy drugs by three of the tumours in my liver, although it's too early to tell if they have shrunk. He seemed pleased, and because I'm not sure what to ask, that has to be good enough. As I am hurried out into the crowded waiting room I am ... well ... vaguely reassured.

The two men's rather minimalist approach leaves me needing more and adds to a creeping  sense of my being somehow fraudulent. The other patients here are manifestly unwell, grey and skinny, or with distended stomachs.

I feel too healthy -- too undeserving! -- to take my illness seriously, to ask the penetrating questions, do the research.

But this week I met someone who has, because she's been forced to -- and she told me more than both medics put together. 

She has tumours in the liver, "secondaries" following bowel cancer. Over the course of nearly four years she  has undergone surgery, conventional chemotherapy, a more radical chemo in Germany and most recently, a research trial in which "balloons" were inserted into arteries to temporarily shut off blood supply to the liver, followed by a blitzkreig dose of drugs into the tumours.

Her last  treatment required seven general anaesthetics and she has survived ghastly pain, hunger, exhaustion, loneliness and heart problems throughout it all.

But her eyes were clear and bright and she was full of energy, and believes that the awful pain of the last treatment sounded the death knell of the main malignancy.

It's a miracle she's alive and clearly she's doing something very right, though no doctor has asked her what that is.

Our discussion was inspiring, but I felt like a phony in her presence. Yes, I have cancer, and I know it won't go away without further ordeals. But last week I did the full Byron Lighthouse walk several times, strode 12km along the coast from Ballina for charity, swam and body-surfed.

Compared with this woman and her hard years, I feel like an amateur in the theatre of pain. I was awed by her courage, her refusal to consider dying until her children have finished  school, and I wondered if I have the same capacity for suffering, that same grace and level of resilience.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, she offers me a shining example of how to ride the wave. 

PS: Today is my mother's birthday. She died in 2006 aged 87. She could be difficult but she also possessed intelligence, humour, curiosity and moral courage.  I owe much of what is best about me to her.

 

 

Entry eight, May 18THE prospect of a CT scan earlier this week has me unusually nervous. After the last time, I know they can bring bad news - though I'm feeling so healthy that I can barely imagine the tumours have failed to shrink.

But after a busy morning, I bowl up to the clinic, cheerful, meek as a rabbit, and undergo the screening. It's innocuous enough, despite the all-too familiar probing for a vein in the crook of the arm to inject the iodine. (A nurse recently commented on the scar tissue at the site and I, paranoid, embarrassed, wondered what she was really saying).

Then there's the chemical tang in the back of the throat and the warm "wet your pants" sensation between the legs, which I was very glad I was warned about the first time.

On this occasion the technology falters, there are delays, and a second dose of the purple radio-contrast agent is required.

Except for being well and truly hydrated, as advised, with the consequent full bladder bringing some discomfort, the hold-up doesn't worry me.

I seem to have become a good deal more patient these days (a much-needed change, I'm sure), but especially in these circumstances.

It's partly because I'm hugely grateful for the ready access to such high-quality care - the million-dollar equipment, the medics' expertise and solicitude: I have come to rely upon the kindness of strangers, so I try to leave any personal grumpiness at the door. I need them to like me, to want to not hurt me.

But the docility - the acceptance - is something more than mere self-interest. It's one of the many gifts of cancer, and points to one of its many paradoxes.

Being diagnosed with the disease liberated me in a number of ways, among them being freed from the 9-5 drudgery of work, and from the fear of others' opinion of me.

I feel I can do and say whatever I please - but far from indulging that, I've become, in my view anyway, a nicer person, more restrained in my judgments.

So I am both untethered (from convention, routine, dogma) and at the same time cut down to size.

My "softening" may simply be a result of not sweating the small stuff, conserving my energy for the bigger things going on - I won't call it my "battle" with cancer, although I have been guilty of that journalistic cliché.

But again, it's bigger than that too. There's now a heightened sense of our shared frailty, our mortality. And then there's the less loving insight into the fact that those who do manage to upset me will be getting theirs one day too, in one form or another.

PS: It is my mother's birthday today. She died aged 87 in 2006. She could be a difficult woman, but I owe most of the best parts of me to her.

 

Entry seven, May 11I APPEAR to be shrinking. I can tell this, not from the expensive set of scales I bought recently which have stopped working, but from my clothes.

Everything is suddenly looser: I now fit snugly into a size S T-shirt, where once I took an L, or even XL. It was L in all the wrong places, mind you, and I don't object to some slimming down.

Except that the downsizing occurs after several days of fatigue and feebleness, which causes me to start brooding. This leads quickly to the thought "I have cancer!" which prompts fears that I am being consumed from the inside, eaten away - and that all I have to look forward to is getting skinnier all the time, then dying.

Fortunately a sensible friend reminds me I'm not eating much in the way of carbs, and no sugar, and that this might account for both the weight loss and the weakness in my limbs.

It's a reassuring idea, and along with her propelling me off the sofa, down to the beach and into the ocean, is enough to restore a sense of vitality. I'm back - but I needed help to get me here.

They weren't fun, the days spent horizontal, lacking any oomph, physically drained. But the role - jaded decadent lying limply on a  chaise longue, sustained by an occasional peeled grape - is one I cultivated many decades ago, and is easily slipped back into.

The episode exposes the lie of self-sufficiency, a "I don't need anyone" mode adopted in wounded adolescence and nurtured by the lethal machismo of the Antipodean male's socialisation. (And not just the Antipodean: suicide rates have soared in the US in the past decade, especially among men, a result surely of loneliness and silence).

I can't win this battle on my own but during the low points my enthusiasm for social activity shrinks along with my waistline, which just deepens the feeling of irrelevance.

Deprived of daily work and its connection with people, I am humbled to discover I don't have the inner resources to consistently provide myself with a sense of meaning.

This week it took receiving some positive feedback for this column to lift my spirits.

And that acknowledgment may even be one of the motives for writing it. To proclaim: I'm still here! I still have something to contribute!

I may believe I'm shining a light on cultural taboos, but another, less grandiose, motive is the ego's need for recognition, to have a voice in society.

Like other serious illnesses, cancer erases things, starting with "the patient's" autonomy and dignity at the hands of the medical profession, no matter how caring its workers.

It isolates (there's now you, the healthy ones, and me), and is busy trying to make itself the centre of my world.

Alone, I can distract myself with things that make me feel alive. But I need connectedness to others to experience it deeply as a reality.

 

 

Entry six, May 4A NEW "protocol" - or cocktail of drugs - to treat Hepatitis C became available recently.

It's great news for sufferers, as the treatment times are reduced to a few months and it has been proven to be effective against the most stubborn strain of the virus, known as Genotype 1.

Clearing the virus is an individual's best hope of preventing the onset of cirrhosis and cancer and anyone who has put themselves at risk of contracting Hep C ought to go and have a check-up and, if they test positive, seek treatment.

There are many thousands of people with the virus in the Northern Rivers and even those who have cleared the disease but have had it return have a good chance of clearing it again - a better chance than ever before.

Then there are those such as myself, the "non-responders". The new treatment is still based on Interferon, with a couple of new drugs on top. Non-responders - those who have failed the Interferon regimen - still have only a small chance of a cure.

So, depressingly, the pathology feeding my cancer cannot be removed by orthodox medicine. I was told this two months ago and it was confirmed in a recent face-to-face with a staff member of the excellent Lismore-based Liver Clinic.

I am in the  "Those we can't help" category, so my mind immediately leaps went to the alternatives available. Some acquaintances swear by Chinese herbs, saying they helped them clear the virus, although mainstream medicine remains skeptical.

Many alternative treatments for cancer have also been presented to me since my diagnosis became known.

Unfortunately, they often accompany rabid attacks on conventional medicine and its practitioners, but it is not my experience that the doctors, surgeons and specialists who are treating me are especially narrow or closed-minded, bigoted, slaves to Big Pharma, or corrupt.

Nevertheless, beggars can't be choosers, so I'm investigating some of the more fringe "cures", while at the same time availing myself of all that first world medicine can offer, such as surgery, and the ongoing chemotherapy with its "cytotoxic" bombardments of the tumours colonising my liver.

Common sense tells me that no amount of apricot kernels or flaxseed oil and cottage cheese are going to halt their growth.

However, I'm a believer in miracles. I see them every day, witnessing apparently hopeless addicts, including of the drug alcohol, halt the progress of their illness and have their humanity and dignity restored.

Soon after they stop poisoning themselves, these shrunken, hardened, frozen people begin to inhabit their bodies, their true selves and their new lives. They begin to grow up and grow into the beautiful human beings they were meant to be, before they were disfigured by addiction.

So, a starry-eyed believer underneath the mask of cynicism and scorn, here I am, lying on a table having acupuncture needles stuck into me, seeking out Chinese herbs to quaff, and poking around in health shops, inquiring about the best quality flax oil and whether they stock turkey tail mushrooms.

And, crucially, opening up about my sickness and its causes, baring my soul, knowing (though sometimes just hoping) that the truth will set me free.

Hepatitis C may be a physical driver of liver cancer, but secrecy and shame surely feed it too, on that mysterious, non-medical level where miracles are needed.

 

Entry five, April 27ONE week after chemotherapy and the pain in my liver becomes tolerable. It's still there, jabbing me under the ribs with every attempt at a deep breath, and making it a chore to get comfortable at night, but somehow, I'm feeling freed-up.

Out go the painkilling drugs: I'm unwilling to have them in my living space, as I know they will call to me, Siren-like, to take them, to help this niggle or that discomfort, or even to lift the gloomy or irritable moments that come (and always go, without any chemical assistance).

Similarly, I've stopped taking anti-depressants - begun during two three-month long treatments for hepatitis C to deal with the god-awful side-effects of the drug Interferon - itself a kind of chemo, involving big doses of pills and weekly self-administered injections in the stomach.

It's brutal and gives most people a very rough time. Weakness, fatigue, depression, hair and weight loss, skin problems and, in my case, a mouth full of ulcers, are just some of the unwanted results. The anti-depressants were welcome.

And when I began taking them before the first treatment I started to feel "normal". The weekend-long sloughs of fatigue and inertia, the crying jags when brooding on my mistakes as a father, fears about the future (illness, decrepitude, death - the fate of many of my teenage friends) were much reduced.

At the end of the last, unsuccessful,  treatment I gave them away. Then, in November, after the surgeons removed the tumour, along with 15% of my liver, my inner world was turned upside down: wakeful nights were spent listening to music, wallowing in sadness and regret, and I began them again.

Now, however, I want to face the cancer unmediated, face on, just it and me (backed by every form of medical, alternative medical, social and spiritual assistance available.)

I'll accept drugs for the pain, but I don't want my experience to be dulled by anything. This is an exercise in digging deep. I need to be fully cognizant of what I'm facing.

So they go down the dunny too.

 "Real" things can take the medications' place. Exercise, diet, attitude. I celebrate the passing of the pain with an optimistic visit to the beach with my boy. But you have to be feeling strong to tackle the Northern Rivers seas. I'm too frail, can't work hard enough and so quickly get cold.

Three days later it's a different story. I join my son at the gym: it's the best anti-depressant on Earth. I'm feeling good, a little feeble, and conscious that my groin and stomach still resemble a palette of marine park greens and purples, but willing to push myself. An hour later, sweating, panting, we head to the ocean. I can't swim properly because stretching out in over-arm invites the fist in the side again, but I compensate, with a shortened right arm, digging in: enough movement this time to stay warm.

Afterwards, drying my hair, I realise I've pulled a muscle near my shoulder blade - sadly perhaps as a result of drying my hair. It's painful, and I lift my shoulder up to my ear to protect it. The midriff is nagging me too, after being pounded around in the waves.

Inside, I'm zinging with a sense of good health, of sunlight and vitality; joyful. Outside, I'm doubled over to the right to protect the aching liver, and with the left shoulder pulled up tight, I scuttle along the foreshore like a geriatric crab.

 

 

 

 

Entry four, April 20PARDON me if I'm over-sharing, but I had a bowel movement a couple of days ago. Now that may seem like a status update from your saddest Facebook friend, but have some compassion. It's been four days since the chemo procedure and well, you know, it was starting to concern me more than the cancer.

So, as with our lonely "friend", the event was something of a highlight in my week, which has been otherwise marked by pain in the midriff, causing whimpering and mutterings, aural hallucinations, fatigue, and a growing awareness about what the real fight will entail: discomfort, soreness, aches and occasional agony. Even my hair hurt there for a while.

But it's passing with every day. And there's something "pure" about pain. It's not like nausea or fever or even a headache. Pain like this I can handle.

And I know I'm not unique. Millions of people have had - and have - cancer, and millions have undergone chemotherapy before me. And hundreds of millions will follow, because liver cancer is the fastest growing cancer in the world and liver diseases feeding it are at epidemic proportions, including here in the Northern Rivers.

It's partly because  we ageing baby boomers are now starting to pay for the wild indulgences of our youth.

Liver cancer is often a result of having hepatitis C, which is caused by exchanging blood, usually through intravenous drug use. There's a stigma attached to it: I'm not proud of a teenage past that exposed me to the disease, but I'm not so ashamed of it that I'm going to dance around the truth.

Better to put that energy into marveling at the sheer dumb (and undeserved) luck (or maybe something more) that has granted me a full life since I gave up the booze on Anzac Day, 1983, and using needles 10 years before that.

But the disease had already found a home and putting down the syringe wasn't the end of addiction. I was already trapped: What had started as a naïve, reckless search for new experience shrunk to a groundhog day grind of drunkenness, dishonesty, trouble and humiliation.

My 20s contained a marriage, a university degree, Territorial Army training and the beginning of a career, but it was a decade of committing suicide by degrees, in which I inflicted horrible physical, emotional and spiritual harm to myself, and those who loved me.

Stern moralists reading this may judge me, and save their sympathy for a more worthy case. I brought the cancer on myself, they might say. I completely agree, which is why I've never had any anger about contracting it.  I can't blame god, or society, or even the dealers, just myself.

The illness is entirely my responsibility and so is my recovery - like my recovery from addiction, which I address every day.

For the cancer, I will step up willingly, cheerfully, and do whatever is required. Suck up the pain, and be grateful for those successful visits to the loo.

 

 

Entry three, April 13: On Thursday I was pricked, punctured, painted pink and penetrated with tubes that targeted the tumours in my liver and zapped them with chemicals.

And so far, so good. No nausea, no fever. The collateral damage with this form of "transarterial" chemotherapy is not caused by the drugs but by the overnight stays in hospital. To misquote Sartre, hell is other patients.

My three ward-mates snored like wart hogs all last night,  repeatedly  jarring me awake.

It made for a grumpy start to the day. But now, post treatment at the skilful hands of the Princess Alexandra Hospital's radiology staff, my cheerfulness is restored.

The procedure itself was even quite enjoyable. Sedated and medicated against pain, I had to lie perfectly still for two hours, holding my breath on command as the tube was steered through my veins.  Most of the tumours were hit -- bar one in an awkward spot -- and over time they will be "killed" by the chemicals, to use the specialist's rather non-scientific term. Well hallelujah. I'm a big fan of killing in this context.

I welcome his reassuring words because in the days leading up to admission, my optimism was sometimes hard to locate. I had attacks  of self-pity and resentment, which I dislike in myself, and bouts of  acute sadness, which I accept, and even welcome, as an authentic -- and appropriate -- emotion.

In those moments I'm ambushed by an existential dread,  a shocking awareness of my mortality.  A twinge  in my kidneys starts me thinking that they too have been colonised; a mother of pearl sunset prompts me to wonder how many more of them I will live to enjoy.

On the eve of admission however, thanks to my trainer and his breathing/meditation exercises, my calm and  sense of hope are restored.

It's been suggested that my optimism is a function of denial. Or is it  a symptom of my shallowness? The ego's incomprehension of its own extinction?

Now, as I sit here in anti-embolism stockings, non-slip socks, paper underpants and a purple smock, my arse hanging out the back, all dignity erased, there's no room for such vanity.

But  my sense of well-being feels authentic.  The cancer has brought with it a sharpened appreciation of the preciousness of life and I've embraced the concept of living one day at a time.

And today everything is just fine. Although  I'm tired and alone in a Brisbane hospital, surrounded by strangers, the cancer has been attacked and I'm still alive. Bruised, bloodied, sporting bright pink privates, but undeniably alive.

Next week: the rise and rise of liver cancer.

PS: Since I wrote the above and submitted it Thursday to meet a deadline, my situation has changed, and wiped the smug smile off my dial. There has been fallout -- I'm not special and able to somehow escape the nasty aspects of this treatment. After the slightly surreal hospital experience, it got suddenly, shockingly real.

Shortly after I arrived home on Friday, the hospital-administered narcotic wore off and I was crippled by flurries of stabbing pain in my side and shoulder, whenever I moved or even lay still.

I couldn't get comfortable and ended up wincing, whimpering, doubled over and gasping to take a decent breath, groaning with a pain I'd never known before.

Luckily there were some tablets in the house and I got a degree of relief. A neighbour came to my aid with a hot water bottle and I was able to lie down and rest a little.
 

But it was a powerful reminder that any arrogant assumptions about my ability to coast through this would inevitably be shattered, and that there is more of this to come. The battle has really only just begun.

 

Entry two, April 6, 2013:  Chemotherapy begins on Thursday. The doctors will insert a thin tube into an artery in my groin, then feed it up into the liver and into the tumours. It will deliver a mega dose of drugs into the growths to try to shrink them.

I will be awake the whole time and the idea - especially the groin part - makes me squirm, but otherwise I'm eager to begin.

In preparation I need to get myself strong, on all levels. I haul my diet back on track. Nothing extreme or faddish, just loads of leafy greens and proteins; no grains and no sugars including, distressingly, fruit. Not even a small piece, I plead? No. But fruit is something that's vital for a happy, healthy life, like music, sex or swimming. Please? No, nyet, nein, says my food Nazi.

There's exercise too, of course - especially activities that oxygenate the body (which means a lot of exertion, so I need a gym Nazi too).

The mind and the spirit are key to this fight and as my brain is a playground for chattering monkeys I've been recommended someone to help me meditate - I've just been too busy to contact them.

Then there are the so-called "alternative" treatments, some of them quite nutty: but I'm basically an old hippie and a resident of Byron Bay, so acupuncture and Chinese herbs seem pretty mainstream and I'm pursuing them enthusiastically.  

One friend advised I see a psychologist but the last thing I need is a tissue for my issues. The spirit needs to be in charge here - that mysterious life force that's as close as I come to having a god and which, weirdly, is keeping me so positive.

Another friend got quite cranky about my "irresponsibility" that I didn't know what chemicals I'd be dosed with. Quite simply, I don't want to micro-manage this thing or become obsessed with it.

And one pearl of information a visitor gave me was that chemo would damage me so much I'd have to wear nappies, as happened to a mate of his (recently deceased). Well, thank you for sharing.

Fact is, I have complete faith in the specialist looking after me. I have surrendered (not the same as giving up) and will put energy into those things I can control, such as diet. And dancing wildly at Bluesfest - not pretty, but a pure expression of joy and animal wellbeing, sending any morbid or fearful thoughts rocketing out into the cosmos

 

NEXT:  After chemo

 

Entry one, March 30, 2013:  The news thumps me in the chest and my body goes numb: a CT scan has revealed the presence of four tumours in my liver.

It's not my first bout with cancer: four months ago I had a growth cut out, along with 15% of my liver. But it's back, with reinforcements.

Then, I kept the news quiet - either out of shame about liver cancer's association with a debauched lifestyle, or, absurdly, because I didn't want to make a fuss.

There were also many positives. It was just one tumour, eminently operable. I was unconcerned, even blasé.

Now, it's different. I'm afraid. These growths have appeared in a few months. They are proliferating, full steam ahead.

I have a powerful need to tell somebody: I keep an appointment with Ryan, my trainer, and tell him.

He is sympathetic but proceeds to work me hard. I feel like vomiting but I emerge strengthened, buoyed by endorphins.

I drive home to tell my teenage son - his fear the worst part of this illness for me.

He is shocked, frightened. I tell him 'it's bad but it's not going to kill me' - though of course I can't be sure of that.

A day later and the real urgency of my condition penetrated my denial. I'm grim, exhausted, but I fly out of the Gold Coast with a friend to snorkel in WA for 10 days.

At Melbourne airport my extraordinarily dedicated GP rings: This is serious, he says; liver cancer is not responsive to chemotherapy; transplant; survivability.

Suddenly overwhelmed with dread, crying, I decide to abort the trip. I panic, thinking I need to get home before I die.

On the return flight, a small miracle: the morbid mantra "I'm dying" and obsessive worrying about my affairs are replaced by a realization. "No I'm not, I'm living! I stretch, flex my muscles. Yes, today, right now, I'm living. I read the paper, chat to my neighbour.

I arrive at the Gold Coast to a message from the Brisbane specialist: Yes, I will need an MRI, but it's not urgent. I'm hugely comforted by his calm tone.

A mate drops everything to come and pick me up. We talk and laugh as we race south in his van through the warm night.

I buy us both Cokes at a servo - verboten for me because of the tumour-feeding sugar, but what the hell! I'm alive!

On Monday the specialist rings again: chemo is an option. I'm relieved and excited.

- Digby Hildreth is the former editor of the Byron Shire News

Topics:  digby hildreth, journey with cancer


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