What are the most pressing questions people ask?
The most frequent one is simply "what did you do in order to heal
yourself of cancer?" Uppermost in my mind when I'm trying to answer this
question is the need to emphasize that what worked for me will not
necessarily work in exactly the same way for anybody else: because we
are all different. That's a key starting point in any healing journey,
the recognition that you are unique. While I can give some clues about
specific things that I did, more important may be some of the attitudes
that seem to underpin the way I tackled being ill.
What were these?
Asking questions, being open to suggestions, being prepared to be
unpopular with doctors, therapists, family and friends about my choices,
and, above all, trusting my own judgement: accepting that I was at the
centre of my own healing process.
I also knew that I had to
put myself first, sometimes quite ruthlessly so. As soon as I got the
diagnosis I stopped work completely. I knew instinctively that all my
energy and resources needed to go into healing the cancer. The diagnosis
came mid-way through producing a big movie, and I was very fortunate
that Sally (who is both my professional and personal partner) was
prepared - on top of everything else - to cover for me at work while I
concentrated exclusively on getting well.
What was the first thing you learned after your diagnosis?
I learned that it's a good thing to question those in authority. The
first piece of concrete advice came from my friend Richard, who advised
me to get a second opinion from the top person that I could find. That
was a very sound piece of advice, based on the correct view that
medicine is not an exact science: there's a lot of room for different
interpretation and judgement, and there are different degrees of wisdom
among doctors, surgeons and medics of all kinds. So my first piece of
advice to anyone facing a major health crisis is to insist upon a second
opinion, if not a third and fourth opinion, from the best people you can
find; acknowledged leaders in the particular field of medicine relevant
to your condition.
How do you find out who to go and see?
Inevitably that involves some research. The best way to do this is
through a sympathetic doctor or a friend who has got some understanding
of the way that the medical system works, perhaps has some connections
into it, and can ask the right questions. Apart from Richard, I was very
lucky to have Thom, an old friend of Sallyís and an ex-doctor, who did a
lot of research for me, particularly when I was feeling too ill to do it
myself. I know that the internet is also a useful tool.
What would you say to somebody who neither has a sympathetic doctor nor
a medically informed friend?
Well, I think you have to find a sympathetic doctor. It's absolutely
essential to have a doctor or a specialist in the front line of your
case who you feel you can talk to completely openly, and feel that you
are being listened to and respected. If you don't have that feeling then
I think you need to change your doctor. (Feeling free to hug your doctor
is one of the tests that Dr Bernie Siegel suggests.) It's absolutely
vital that you have a doctor who is sympathetic to what you're trying to
In your case what were you trying to do?
I was trying to make sense for myself of what was happening to me - and
why I'd got sick. I knew I didnít want surgery and I was looking for
What was the premise that your thinking about this was based on?
I intuitively believed the causes of my illness were to be found within
my own life and that I hadn't got sick because of an accident of fate or
genetics or bad luck; I believed that there would be causes within my
own life that I could understand and unravel and then put straight. In
the case of having a tumour, as I did, it seemed common sense that my
body had made it and that therefore my body could un-make it.
Was this a belief you had from the first moment of diagnosis or was it
something that gradually evolved as a point of view?
It was there almost immediately and just got reinforced as I went along,
both through what I experienced myself and through the books I started
to read (foremost among these were "Getting Well Again" by Carl Simonton
and "Love, Medicine and Miracles" by Bernie Siegel, both written by
doctors whose first-hand clinical experience forced them to change their
views on healing). I became absolutely convinced that body and mind are
intimately linked when it comes to sickness and health, and that your
mind can be your most powerful tool in healing from cancer.
But I must repeat that what
may have been true for me and worked for me won't necessarily be the
correct course of action for any other individual. One of my points of
biggest disagreement with the medical establishment is that it often has
great difficulty in seeing a sick person as an individual, rather than
just a set of symptoms with a particular prognosis based on statistics.
The same applies here: you are an individual, different from me, so what
was true for me will not necessarily be true for you. When I read the
standard medical review on colo-rectal surgery (published by the Royal
College of Surgeons) I found the statistics showed that the average age
of someone diagnosed with the problem I had is 72 years. I was 47. I was
obviously different from the norm. And so, perhaps, are you.
In the case of cancer, statistics get used a lot. What's your view of
I think that when it comes to you, the individual who is ill, statistics
are useless. Okay, they may have some relevance for the medical experts
in arriving at generalities about what works and what doesn't work and
what happens and what doesn't happen with particular drugs or treatment
regimes. But you as an individual are not a statistic; you're a human
being, a unique person who has arrived at this place in your life and in
this state of illness because of what has happened to you uniquely.
The use of statistics to
determine courses of treatment and, in particular, to predict what is
likely to happen can be very harmful indeed. Such a prediction or
"prognosis" can take on the status of a negative prophecy or a kind of
voodoo curse; particularly the practice of saying "you've got X-months
or X-years to live, or X-percent probability of surviving this
particular operation or procedure". I think the use of statistics like
that is almost always a bad thing. My only hesitation about this is in a
case where someone is definitely going to die (if there's ever a case in
which there can be complete certainty about this). Then I suppose I do
believe that it's a piece of knowledge that it's best for the dying
person to have because that gives him or her the opportunity to prepare
And do you believe there is ever such a moment of certainty?
I think there can never be complete certainty that someone is going to
die at a particular time. I don't think anyone ever knows that. There
are so many examples of individuals who have confounded the
expectations, not only of the doctors around them, but of their families
and friends, by appearing to be at deathís door and then surviving.
There are so many examples of this that it's clearly never possible for
any doctor to predict with complete certainty when someone is going to
die, even in the case where organ failure may eventually make it
So even in the case of an extremely poor statistical prognosis, your
view would be that the person themselves should be the authority on what
to do and respect their own self-knowledge about whatís happening to
I think there always has to be room for hope and for faith; room to turn
What was the next step for you? So far, the first step was about
trusting your own judgement, the second was about getting further
medical opinions and the third was deciding that statistics were
What you learn by getting additional opinions is that there is very
rarely a universal consensus within the medical profession about how to
treat a particular illness or condition, or about the probable outcome.
In my case I got widely differing opinions and advice as to how urgent
surgery was: varying from absolutely needing to have it within a few
days, to it being fine to wait a few months.
But they were all urging surgery at some point?
Yes. But what I learned from the second opinions was that I had time to
explore other options, time to give due consideration to my immediate
instinct that it was wrong for me to have surgery at all. The first
surgeon I saw (and who gave me the diagnosis) had tried to terrorise me
into having surgery immediately with the heavy implication that if I
didn't have it then I would die, sooner or later, and that it wasn't my
place to challenge the medical wisdom and authority of the experts. If I
had doubts about what he was advising me to do then - according to him -
I needed to put myself in the hands of my general practitioner, who
would weigh the choices for me. I was actively discouraged from thinking
independently, from asking questions, from taking responsibility for my
own life. I believe that is a bad thing, not just in my case but in any
case. There's plenty of evidence to support the fact that, for someone
faced with a serious illness, informing yourself about decisions that
affect you and taking responsibility for them is a healthy thing to do.
In my case, having got some medical support from an eminent surgeon for
taking time to research and to reflect upon my options, I was able to do
So what did you do then?
I very quickly checked out what was on offer from the fields of
alternative medicine that I already had some experience of, which were
homeopathy and acupuncture. With homeopathy I found that, even at the
top end of the profession, the medical homeopaths (thatís the people
who, within the British system, are qualified both as medical doctors
and as homeopaths) were reluctant to hold out any kind of hope or
expectation that they could do anything other than provide palliative
help alongside conventional medicine. They basically said: "Look, if the
surgeons and doctors have said you've got to have surgery, then you've
got to have surgery. Maybe we can help with the side-effects or the
speed of your recovery, or just help your general constitutional health.
But we can't offer you an alternative form of treatment."
The problem with a lot of
the alternative practitioners is that they're afraid of getting it
wrong. Many are simply regarded as quacks by straight doctors; they're
in a very difficult position if they're seen to be discouraging people
from having surgery, taking certain drugs or chemotherapy or whatever.
If the alternatives they propose don't work then they're wide open, not
just to criticism, but also to legal action. Their professions are in a
delicate position. It's difficult for most alternative health
practitioners to take a very strong affirmative position against the
views of medical doctors, because thatís where all the power lies,
including the legal power.
So what did you do to find a way through this minefield?
I found that there wasn't going to be an easy solution in choosing one
alternative therapy that was somehow going to do the job. In the end I
did find a sympathetic and helpful doctor at the Royal London
Homeopathic Hospital, but the process of exploring that as an option led
me to feel that this was not going to be the mainstay of my healing.
As for acupuncture, Tinh
Thong Nguyen, the Vietnamese practitioner who I was already seeing
regularly, very soon told me he thought I should have surgery. He was
willing to treat the cancer, but thought refusing surgery was too big a
gamble for me. Nevertheless, he remained a strong ally.
My conclusion was that
alternative therapies like homeopathy and acupuncture can play a major
part in keeping the body as a whole in good shape and supporting what
else is being done. But for me it was clear they were not going to be
So what did you do instead?
What came to me, bit by bit, was the realisation that something was
going to have to guide me through the plethora of choices. Cancer, along
with some other illnesses, has become such big business: there are so
many treatments, therapies, regimes, devices and belief systems; so many
things on offer that it's impossible to make a purely logical, rational
choice. For me, deciding to do one thing rather than another became an
intuitive process. I had to use my instincts and trust my judgement. And
I allowed myself just to be open to suggestions that I received, from
wherever they came. For example, in the case of my diet I went to a
particular nutritionist, Sue Donnelly, because I was given her name by
someone I was working with. I didnít shop around; once I had the name I
went straight to her.
You had an instinct that diet was going to be important for you?
There is so much evidence and such widespread belief among an increasing
number of conventional doctors (as well as alternative practitioners)
that diet makes a difference with cancer, it was something that I
decided upon very quickly.
What kind of diet did the nutritionist advise?
I'd already got the basics from the Bristol Cancer Centre, which, in a
very responsible way, has assembled all of the suggestions that have
some medical authority behind them. They recommend a diet which cuts out
red meat, dairy products, sugar, alcohol, tea, and coffee. Itís
basically a low-fat, high-fibre diet, favouring lots of fresh fruit and
How did your diet differ from this?
Sue Donnelly calls herself a wholistic nutritional therapist, and has
worked with a lot of people with cancer. She has connections with the
British affiliate of the Gerson Institute. The Gerson Diet is a
well-known but very radical form of dietary therapy, particularly for
cancer, which not only involves taking a lot more things out of the
diet, but also adding in fresh juice (usually carrot, beetroot and apple
juice, taken throughout the day) together with a regime of coffee
enemas, which are designed to assist the liver in eliminating toxins.
Sue recommends a modified version of the Gerson regime, together with a
lot of supplementation with vitamins, minerals and so on. My diet was
very strict indeed, cutting out additional things such as salt, wheat
and any fermented foods like vinegar or soy sauce. I lived mainly on
fresh organic juices, brown rice and vegetables. Maintaining a diet like
this takes a lot of effort, particularly if you are not feeling well.
Sally shopped and cooked every evening when I was at home, but as she
was still working full-time we had someone come and make lunch for me
while I was particularly ill.
In your view has diet been a very important part of your healing
Yes, a detoxification diet made complete sense to me right from the
start. Clearly my body had a big battle on dealing with this illness and
it needed to focus all its resources on that battle. By eliminating
anything that was going to stress the system, anything that was going to
be difficult to digest, the energy that would otherwise be used by the
digestive system could be liberated for healing my body.
Apart from diet, what else turned out to be really important?
The biggest and the single most radical step that I took was to pursue
spiritual healing. I decided very shortly after my diagnosis to go to
Brazil to see a spiritual healer called Joao Texeira, popularly known as
"John of God", who is renowned (and reviled) in Brazil, increasingly
known internationally, and has a reputation as a kind of "miracle"
worker who can help people deal with very serious illnesses and physical
disabilities. The place where he works is called the Casa de Dom Inacio,
which is in a small town called Abadiania in the state of Goias, near
This was a very radical
choice because spiritual healing was not something I'd ever been
involved in, not something I knew very much about. It emerged as a
choice because I was aware that I needed to do something extreme. In
deciding not to have surgery, the stakes were raised considerably and I
was getting a lot of messages from those around me - therapists,
healers, family and friends - that I was in a precarious position and
that strong action was called for. The suggestion of going to this
particular place in Brazil came from two places simultaneously, but
primarily from my friend Achim, who works as a therapist and healer. (Achim
also gave me a series of individual healing sessions throughout the
period of my illness, and for many months was part of a trio, with Sally
and another friend, Diana, who did nightly meditations for me.)
Three weeks after my
diagnosis I was on a plane to Brazil with my friend Robert, who dropped
everything at a momentís notice in order to be my escort. Sally joined
us two weeks later. I stayed for six weeks, returning to London in the
first few days of the new millenium.
So in what sense was this a spiritual journey? You said it was spiritual
It started by me accepting that the cancer I had was more than just a
physical illness: it was an energetic thing too, an expression of an
emotional and spiritual malaise. In addressing that malaise and trying
to heal it, I came to feel that it was possible for me to call upon a
source of energy outside myself, that for want of a better word I'd have
to call "divine" energy. I started to believe that it was possible to
access a source of healing power that was greater than me, although it
still relied on me as the ultimate instrument of my own healing.
So this work in Brazil proved to be a central part of your healing
It absolutely clicked with my feeling that the task I was facing was
that of trying to heal my whole being. This corresponded with my more
reasoned judgement in deciding not to have surgery: the belief that the
surgery might remove the physical symptoms but would do nothing about
correcting the causes (which also seemed to go some way to explaining
the conventional wisdom that following any surgery for cancer there is
the threat of spread or recurrence: the symptoms may have been
temporarily removed but the underlying causes may remain). Going to
Brazil on this spiritual journey opened up the space for me to start to
understand that there was a very complex set of causes within my way of
living and my way of being which lay deeply at the source of my illness
and which I had to address.
I realised that for years I had been neglecting myself as a spiritual
being and was in denial about some difficult realities in my life. I was
deceiving myself and those around me about what was really going on
inside me. Put bluntly, without realising it I had become a liar,
capable of betraying not just myself but my loved ones too. This was
compounded by the sudden death of my mother (six months before the
diagnosis) coming in the middle of enormous difficulties at work. My
life was in a mess: a mess which I was neither fully aware of nor able
to face up to. All this resulted in a split within me; a psychic,
spiritual and emotional split that was both an expression of, and in
some ways also a cause of, the splitting at the deepest cellular level
in my body. Cancer cells were splitting away from normal, healthy cells
to the point where one type of cell could not recognise another.
So in that sense the illness seemed like a metaphor for what was
happening in your life, manifesting in your body?
Yes. And the message that this gave to me was that the real work, the
deepest healing work that needed to be done was both spiritual and
emotional. (This seemed to correspond with what I learned later about
cutting-edge research in molecular biology showing that individual cells
have an emotional memory which can make them "sick". Deepak Chopra makes
a similar argument in his book "Quantum Healing". And Candace Pert
offers a scientific explanation in "Molecules of Emotion".)
So how did you do this spiritual and emotional work?
Well, the first thing to say is that my life became a rollercoaster.
This was not the cool, calculated process that an account like this may
make it seem. Terror and rage and grief all played their part and my
life was lived continually at the edge, often in a tempest of
uncertainty and conflict with those around me. I was afraid of dying -
and there were those around me whose private view was that I would die.
And at times the tearful, sometimes heartbreaking repercussions of all
the truth-telling in my personal life merged inseparably with the fight
for life. But again and again these dramatic struggles returned me to
the spiritual and emotional work which I firmly believed was at the
heart of my healing.
The spiritual work I did in
two ways. First, using the opportunity that was provided by the Casa de
Dom Inacio in Brazil. Although it calls itself a healing centre, it is a
cross between a sort of clinic and a church, where two important things
happen. The "shop window" of the place, the sensational side of it, is
the demonstration of extraordinary, almost paranormal healing phenomena
where actual surgical operations are undertaken by Joao without
anaesthetic or proper instruments (he works as a spirit medium
incorporating what are referred to as "entities", which appear to
manifest the persona and healing abilities of particular deceased
individuals). But behind this is the belief, that is central to the work
there, that you must heal the energy (or the "soul" or the "spirit")
before you can heal the body, and that a lot of this healing work is
done through meditation and prayer. One important function of the Casa
is to provide a context for intensifying a force field of belief, of
faith, and of concentration among the people there, which magnifies the
possibilities of using healing energy, whether it's "divine" or however
one describes it.
The other key thing about
the Casa is the emphasis that it puts on each individual taking
responsibility for his or her own healing. A favourite refrain of the
spirit medium when people come and ask to be healed is "vai trabalho"
which translates as "go and work". The conviction here - and the
instruction - is for each individual to take responsibility for his or
her own healing: and that involves work, not miracles. These were the
main things that I got from being there, together with the opportunity
to work in an extremely focused environment which is blessed by a
feeling of optimism and faith; a belief in the possibility of healing,
even in very extreme circumstances. Quite the opposite to many
hospitals, which I often found to be places filled with fatalism and
The Casa provided a place
where I could go and spend hours and days and weeks: I was fortunate to
be able to go five times during the year after my diagnosis and I spent
a total of about eighteen weeks there. I went to the Casa determined to
have one of the "visible" operations; something concrete that the
rationalist in could experience as proof of the healing power of the
place. I tried to insist, but was told no. This was my first lesson at
the Casa: to start believing in the invisible. There was no "miracle"
healing for me; I was told on my first visit that I would be healed, but
could never get an answer to my questions about how, when or where this
might be achieved. (Did it mean returning to London for conventional
surgery? I was never told either yes or no.) Not everyone experiences
things at the Casa in the same way. Some people visit only once for just
a few days: a tiny minority do experience an apparently "spontaneous
healing". Others stay for months and months and show no improvement.
A lot of serious work was
done while I was staying in Brazil. During my first six-week trip I made
a key decision: not to hide behind the cancer, or to use it as an excuse
for denying responsibility for my feelings or actions. I was encouraged
in this by Carl Simontonís book which includes a very telling exercise
that asks you to list the possible "benefits" of having cancer. My list
included: avoiding work I found difficult; getting myself looked after;
and escaping punishment for my wrongdoings. Simonton encourages you - as
a matter of survival - to find ways of addressing these issues that do
not depend on having (or keeping) the cancer.
For me, the decision not to
use cancer as an excuse paved the way for some huge, soul-searching
fights with Sally as we started to unravel the painful legacy of my
secrets and lies.
Apart from going to the Casa de Dom Inacio, what other spiritual work
did you do?
The other area that I explored was Tibetan Buddhism. I was able to take
advantage of the contact I'd already made with the work of the Tibetan
Lama Sogyal Rinpoche (who is best known for his book "The Tibetan Book
of Living and Dying"). I spent time among Buddhists who believe that
death is not necessarily a bad thing; it is something we donít need to
be afraid of and can actually prepare to do well. Tibetans view
illnesses such as cancer, not necessarily as life-threatening, but as a
"wake-up call", bringing our attention to problems of spiritual neglect.
Thereís also a belief, similar to that at the Casa, that it's possible
for us to access a divine source of healing energy. In the case of
Tibetan Buddhism, there are specific practices to help encourage and
achieve this: specific meditation practices, visualisations and mantras.
The Tibetan Buddhist
community at Dzogchen Beara in south-west Ireland encouraged and guided
me in how to use a meditation practice called "Vajrasattva" which simply
employs the idea that a source of divine light, of healing energy can be
brought into our bodies and can help cleanse us and heal us. (There is a
lot in common between some Buddhist meditations and the sort of "visualisation"
techniques advocated by many healers and doctors, including Carl
Simonton. You certainly donít have to be a Buddhist to use these
effectively.) While I was in Brazil the first time I spent many hours
listening to tapes of Sogyal Rinpoche teaching about Vajrasattva: apart
from instructing me in how to do the meditation, these deepened my
understanding of the importance of feeling regret, owning up to my
mistakes, then apologising and asking for forgiveness.
How often did you do this meditation?
I did it every day, sometimes for hours, but certainly every morning and
night during the time when I was most ill. And I continue to do it now.
The other idea that came from Tibetan Buddhism that I found helpful was
the notion of "karma". For me the concept of karma had a lot to do with
accepting the interconnectedness of things within my life and seeing
that, put very crudely, I could have accumulated the negative effect of
my own negative acts, be they in thought, word or deed, by commission or
omission. This helped me to focus, at a philosophical and spiritual
level, on the fact that some of the causes of my illness lay within my
own life; in my way of living and in my actions.
What do you mean exactly?
I was forced to see the areas in which some of my actions had been
hurtful to those close to me. I began to realise that, powerful as I
might have become in the world, I was often failing to act with a proper
sense of awareness and responsibility. A failure that sometimes led to
unwitting abuse of those around me.
Buddhism is very strict in
encouraging us not to hurt other sentient beings and tells us that in
the act of hurting others we accumulate negativity within and for
ourselves. The idea that in hurting someone else you hurt yourself, was
a very important part of understanding how I'd come to wound myself so
What Buddhist thinking and
teaching did for me was to provide a springboard into an area of
emotional work, of counselling and therapy which became - together with
spiritual healing at the Casa and Buddhist meditation - the third key
corner at the base of a sort of healing pyramid, seeming to reach
heavenwards, in which the spiritual and emotional underpinnings of my
illness were tackled.
So how did you tackle the emotional work?
It was tackled primarily through organised counselling in a support
group that was created by Sally and my friend Julian and led by Robin,
an experienced counselling leader and group facilitator. (Robin had
responded instantly to my call for help after the diagnosis. He combined
an invaluable sense of humour - "what a bummer" and "oh, thatís a pain
in the arse" were his first reactions to the news - with an devoted
day-and-night commitment to counselling me, often when I was in the
depths of terror and despair.)
Sally, Julian and Robin
joined together with a small number of friends - there were three
regulars: Thom, Jacky and Renny - who met about once a week whenever I
was in London, with the specific purpose of encouraging me to face the
fear, anger, pain and other areas of emotional distress associated with
my illness. The goal was to help me release some of this distress so
that I could think and act as clearly as possible in the midst of my
predicament and to help me reach again and again for a firm belief in my
right to live. This was the emotional counterpart to the spiritual
cleansing; the two went hand in hand, and for me this involved facing up
to some very difficult and uncomfortable realities about myself.
I do realise that, for many
people who suddenly find themselves very ill, the idea that there is
going to be an emotional dimension to physical illness may be one of the
hardest things to contemplate, to be open to, and to agree to do
Because it could very easily feel like you're blaming yourself for
getting ill. Most religious practices have built into them the idea of
redemption or forgiveness; so there's an immediate benefit to owning up,
to repenting. But facing your worst thoughts, your failures, your demons
in an emotional, therapeutic setting where there are is no ready-made
offer of any redemption - beyond that which you are able to fashion for
yourself - means that it can be very tough.
How did the support group function?
It worked with a process called re-evaluation co-counselling, which was
originally devised by Harvey Jackins in the USA and now has a worldwide
network. It is based on certain assumptions, the main one being that we
are all essentially good, rational, loving and loveable individuals and
it's nothing more or less than an accumulation of old hurts, traumas,
pain and distress which stops us from being fully realised and happy
human beings. From this perspective the job of recovering your essential
(and healthy) self starts with clearing out the mess of the painful old
emotions which get in our way.
Primarily through a range of emotional expression, from crying to
laughing to raging. Crying usually features first and foremost, but in
the case of something like cancer there's a lot of fear and anger to be
shed too. It's work that I would not have been able to do alone. And I
doubt very much if I would have been able to do it so effectively even
in a conventional one-on-one psychotherapy set-up. It helped me
enormously with all my decisions about medical treatment: for example,
after my second consultation with John Northover, one of the most
eminent colo-rectal surgeons in Britain (and the last of the four expert
medical opinions I sought). He had supported my first trip to Brazil but
on my return refused to condone any further delay of surgery and
powerfully argued his view that I was in a state of "avoidance". This
forced me to look deeper into any patterns of fear and denial that were
mingling with my "no surgery" instincts. That work got done in the
The group really functioned
at the limits of my (and the othersí) understanding of how "feelings" -
and their expression or release - relate to good, healthy
decision-making. I experienced, and the others witnessed, truly extreme
outpourings of fear, anger, guilt and grief: each and every session
leaving me that bit clearer about what to do next.
Is a support group like yours something you would recommend?
I was lucky to have willing friends who were prepared to dive in
alongside the more trained and already skilled individuals. So I was
blessed with a great opportunity in which to do this very challenging
emotional work. I can see that most people do not have that ready
opportunity. But nonetheless I would urge three things upon anyone
facing a serious illness:
One is to try psychotherapy
in some form, to acknowledge the need to express the difficult emotions
that come with illness. To do that needs both space and committed
attention, ideally from a professional.
Second is to organize among
your friends and family a support group of some kind. The people who are
most intimately connected with you and your illness should have the
opportunity to share among themselves their hopes and fears, as well as
some of the practical information about the business of helping you to
get well again. A support group, even if it doesn't function as a
psychotherapeutic or counselling support group, can provide solidarity
for those most intimately involved, helping them not to feel alone in
the face of the illness.
The third thing is to
acknowledge the needs of the principal carers: those who are involved
most fully with you and your illness, to encourage them to take the time
and space to release their own fear and confusion, to replenish their
hope and strength and to get them to be as clear as possible about how
they can help you without damaging themselves. (Sally is writing
separately about the workings of the support group as part of her own
account of what she sees as the key elements of my healing.)
How was your family involved in all of this?
It was an incredibly difficult time for them. Both my father and my
sister (who shares the family home) were still in deep mourning after
the sudden and unexpected loss of my mother. I did not tell them
immediately about the diagnosis. And I considered not telling them at
all. But I quickly realised that this urge was part of an old pattern of
"protecting" those close to me by concealing difficult things from them.
I knew that telling the truth was now part of survival. So I told my
family about the cancer on the eve of my departure to Brazil ("to see a
specialist") and once I was there called my father and told him that I
had opted for spiritual healing rather than surgery. He, and the whole
family, were incredibly supportive although not actively involved in the
things I was doing. I didnít ask them to be. I discovered later,
however, that my father had got his church congregation praying for me
What was happening with your body while all this spiritual and emotional
work was going on?
After a while, I took the view (which I think most medical experts in
the field would probably now accept) that we all have cancer cells in
our bodies, which in most cases never manifest as a tumour or as a
problem of any kind. If your immune system is functioning well then your
body will take care of recognising and eliminating cancer cells and
preventing their proliferation. My plan was to do anything and
everything that would allow my body to get back into proper shape so
that it could do the job that it is designed to do. As to why my immune
system had gotten into such bad shape, I accepted the common wisdom that
stress of various kinds can be a cause. (This includes the "toxic
stress" of living a busy city life, and the effects of an improper diet,
as well as the stress of emotional and spiritual unhappiness and
By this time I was doing
everything I could spiritually and emotionally to try to heal every
aspect of my system. The aim of the dietary work was to release toxic
stress on my body and allow it to renew. So the next specifically
physical thing I did was to seek help in boosting my body's immune
system. There were two key elements to this: one was the regime of
supplements prescribed by Sue Donnelly alongside the diet. But I also
found a medical doctor in Ireland, Dr. Paschal Carmody, who works at the
alternative end of conventional medical and practices what he calls "immuno-therapy".
Alongside his general practice he runs a clinic which deals with cancer,
heart disease and a lot of chronic illnesses. On my first visit to his
clinic, Paschal assessed me (using, among other things, a technique
called Thermography, which measures how well essential organs and the
immune system respond to stress produced by a small drop in temperature)
and then told me "you have the immune system of an old man".
Paschalís view is that the
body has its own regenerative powers that can be stimulated and
supported when you are facing a health crisis. During my two-week stay
he prescribed a very heavy-duty regime which included extremely
high-dose supplements given intravenously as well as supplements in pill
form (derived from organically raised cows) for the thymus, the adrenals
and other key parts of the immune system. He also uses things like
iscador and laetrile, with reputations from around the world for helping
to cure cancer. Paschal's philosophy is "if it's been shown to help then
let's try it". He also prescribed a whole range of supplements, which
combined with the ones from Sue Donnelly meant that for a period of many
months I was taking at least a hundred pills a day. (I should say that
there was an unspoken conflict between Paschalís and Sueís views on how
the immune system can be stimulated. Sue works on the principle that it
can be encouraged to recover by itself with homeopathic and other
remedies. Paschal believes that direct supplementation of the deficient
part of the body - with raw bovine thymus, pancreas, adrenal and so on -
gets things going faster. Sue believes that this might delay the bodyís
own recovery; Paschal that in a crisis what the system needs is a
"kick". I trusted that there was not necessarily a contradiction here
and decided to mix and match their approaches and their remedies.)
What else did you do to help your immune system?
I came across a proprietary blend of Chinese herbs called SPES, which
has been branded and packaged by a Chinese doctor working in the States.
This had been used successfully by Dr William Fair, a top urological
surgeon at Sloane Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York, one of the
leading cancer hospitals in the USA. When diagnosed with prostate cancer
he explored alternative remedies and this is one of the things he
discovered. It comes in different forms: there is one formulated
specifically for the prostate and another as a boost for the immune
system. I started taking SPES and later had the formula checked by
Thong, my acupuncturist/herbalist. He endorsed the formula as a very
good one, by no means revolutionary, but well-known within Chinese
medicine and very effective.
I also discovered that some
healers take the connection between stress and the immune system to the
conclusion that "negative energy" of all kinds should be avoided as much
as possible. This can mean deciding not to see anyone (including family
and friends) who is sceptical or discouraging about your choices,
telling you they wonít work (Brandon Bays is a clear exponent of the
more drastic approach, as she describes in her book, "The Journey").
This can also mean staying away from newspapers, TV news and similar
things which may feed you depressing messages or images. I was not able
to be totally strict in this way, but I very soon reached the point
where I knew that another "realistic" opinion from a doctor or friend
was not going to help me. I knew that what I needed most was
encouragement. Sally acted as a vital gatekeeper in this respect,
soaking up a large amount of doom-laden fears and feelings from those
around us, much more than I realised at the time.
How's your body doing at this point in the story?
The one thing I always tell people who ask me about my story - and a lot
of them seem to take comfort from this - is that I got a lot worse
before I got better.
How much worse?
When I was first diagnosed I had no clear-cut ongoing physical symptoms.
What had alerted me to the problem was one day suddenly shitting blood.
When I look back I realise that in the weeks and months prior to that
there were other things that - if I'd paid attention to them
sufficiently - might have given me clues that I was ill. But I didn't
have any major symptoms that demanded my attention. The symptoms crept
up on me in the months that followed: as the tumour grew and started to
impinge upon other tissue and nerves, so the pain grew. Five or six
months after the diagnosis I was in almost unremitting pain of a highly
disabling order: I could hardly sit or stand, and I certainly couldn't
sleep. Sometimes I could barely speak because all my attention was being
sucked into a black hole of pain. I got very sick. I was doing all these
things to help my healing but I was still getting sick.
But this didn't make you lose faith in what you were doing?
No, but it brought about a crisis around my decision not to have
surgery, because there seemed to be evidence, apparently objective
evidence in the form of the X-ray and scan results, that in spite of
everything I was doing, the tumour was getting bigger. Or so it seemed.
What do you mean by that?
There were differences of opinion between the medical doctors and some
of the alternative practitioners who took the view that, even if the
tumour looked bigger on the scans, this may have been be due to the
body's natural defences starting to work by forming a swelling around
the tumour. This could make it look bigger and feel more painful even
though it was actually starting to heal. For example, according to
Chinese QiGong, which I had also started doing and which understands
healing in terms of energy, the energetic core of a problem can be being
dealt with while a lot of the physical manifestations remain the same.
There's a time lag, if you like. My QiGong teacher, Zhixing Wang, with
whom I had had a number of intense healing sessions, was telling me that
in his perception the tumour was shrinking, while the scan showed it
The split between these
points of view was a difficult one to deal with, given that I was in
terrible pain and the people close to me did not always share my
conviction that the healing was possible without surgery. Eventually
this reached a crisis point. On the night of the scan results there was
an emergency meeting of the support group that lasted into the early
hours of the morning. It was then that I took the decision to open
myself completely to what conventional medicine had to offer - including
surgery. This change of heart was an important point of surrender for
me, turning around a very old pattern of rigidity. Up until then I had
been quite dogmatic in my view that I was going to do things my way, and
my way wasn't going to include submitting to surgery.
So what did you do at this point?
I said that yes, if necessary, I would have surgery: I would accept what
was on offer to me from the doctors. (By this stage I'd identified the
right doctors for me, doctors who would respect my point of view and
what I was trying to do. I opted for a surgeon, Professor Bill Heald,
who is not only one of the worldís top colo-rectal specialists but also
a man of extraordinary compassion, humility and patience. His response
to my search for alternatives to surgery was to say "we (the doctors)
need all the help we can get". My oncologist, Diana Tait at the Royal
Marsden, likewise a leader in her field, also responded to my direct
appeal that we proceed as a team. And my General Practitioner, Stuart
Ungar, while remaining steadfast in his own belief that surgery was the
right thing for me to do, was always open to my endless search for
By this stage the tumour
was of such a size and in such a position that it wasn't operable
without completely devastating and mutilating surgery. The recommended
medical plan was to use radiotherapy and chemotherapy in an attempt to
shrink the tumour and to make it surgically operable. So, paradoxically,
the consequence of deciding to accept surgery was to grant me more time
without surgery. I decided against the chemotherapy (because I wanted to
avoid something that seemed to me likely to deplete my whole system,
including my immune system) but accepted the proposed course of
radiotherapy. That provided a focus and a time-frame through which all
my other healing endeavours could be intensified.
How did this work?
I was prescribed a seven-week course of daily radiotherapy, followed by
a wait-and-see period of up to a further eight weeks to see the effect
of the radiotherapy on the tumour, prior to any surgery. The decision to
accept this conventional treatment became the peg on which to hang a
total onslaught on the cancer. I decided to bracket the course of
radiotherapy by making two more trips to Brazil, a two-week trip
immediately prior to the radiotherapy and a three-week trip immediately
after it. I negotiated with Diana Tait for both the dosage and area of
radiation to be the absolute minimum that she considered acceptable, and
I dealt directly with the radiotherapy team who were going to put this
plan into effect, so that I could really see and understand the process.
I wanted to maximise any benefits of the radiation and minimise any
side-effects. In addition to taking the specific homeopathic and herbal
remedies for this (a number of which are recommended and supplied by the
Bristol Cancer Help Centre), I added three new things.
One was hyperthermia, a
form of treatment that is hardly accepted at all by the medical
establishment in Britain. Itís a centuries-old concept of healing
lesions or tumours with heat. (There is apparently a quote from
Hippocrates which goes "Whatever cannot be cured with medicine can be
cured with surgery. Whatever cannot be cured with surgery can be cured
with hyperthermia. Whatever cannot be cured with hyperthermia cannot be
cured at all".) The particular device I used is called an Indiba (made
in Spain) and uses radiowaves to produce the heating effect in targeted
areas. There is evidence that this treatment helps counter the
side-effects and intensifies the benefits of radiotherapy, while also
having healing benefits of its own. I had first heard about it from
Achim. Paschal Carmody in Ireland uses one, and that was one reason why
I went to him. Through this experience together with my own research, I
had a strong feeling that hyperthermia was a very important treatment
for me. But I had to fight the opposition of nearly all the doctors, who
were absolutely set against it, saying it was useless. In the end I
decided to keep quiet about my plan for using it. I rented one of the
machines and Sally and a private nurse took the responsibility of
administering the treatment every day through the whole seven weeks of
I also started
hypnotherapy. I did this with the specific intention of encouraging my
body to accept the radiotherapy treatment and to help it distinguish
between the benefits and the unwanted side-effects. I went to Pamela
Gawler-Wright, a practitioner who describes herself as a hypno-psychotherapist.
The way she works is through deep guided relaxation rather than full
hypnosis. I felt that this provided a way to start a dialogue between my
mind and my body, in which I directly asked the healthy cells to
"co-operate" with the radiation by making space for it to pass through
my body without harming them and telling the cancer cells that it was
time for them to leave: their job (of "waking me up" to the problems in
my life) had been done. I recited these requests like a mantra each time
I lay under the x-ray machine.
The third thing I started
was cranio-sacral osteopathy with Ernest Keeling. (Osteopathy recognizes
that illness can result from abnormalities in the body's structure and
addresses this through gentle manipulation, which often focuses
particularly on the head, spine and sacrum.) Although I had being seeing
Ernest for years about back problems and other "structural" things, only
now did I come across the idea that osteopathy could help heal cancer,
as well as reducing the side-effects of radiotherapy. His work was based
on the premise that my body could open-up and "let-go" of the tumour.
In addition to the
hyperthermia, the hypnotherapy and the osteopathy, I continued with all
the other things: the acupuncture, the homeopathy, the supplements, the
diet, the QiGong, the meditation and the counselling.
What happened next?
By the end of the course of radiotherapy the pain was starting to
diminish. I had been on very heavy-duty painkillers, including morphine,
which at the worst time weren't touching the pain, it had gotten that
bad. (At this point my only source of relief was marijuana.) But now the
pain started to go away, and I took the last painkiller on the plane to
Brazil at the end of the radiotherapy. After three weeks in Brazil the
pain had entirely gone and when the MRI scan was done back in London it
showed that the tumour had completely disappeared. This was on 26 May
2000, nearly seven months after the diagnosis. (It was raining hard
outside the hospital and there were no taxis, so Sally and I celebrated
by taking a test drive in a Rolls Royce convertible from a nearby
showroom and asking the salesman to take us home in it.)
This was seen by all the
doctors as an exceptional outcome for conventional radiotherapy: it is
almost unheard of that a tumour should go completely. It's not clear who
or what should take the credit for this. The doctors take the view, as
they must, that the radiotherapy was responsible and I was very lucky to
get such a spectacular result (as Prof. Heald said to me: "I have to
believe it"). I donít know for sure that my body needed the radiotherapy
(it is still recovering from the unwanted side-effects), but my mind
certainly needed the act of surrender involved in accepting it. And
everything else undoubtedly played its part. But I do know, without any
doubt, that conventional medicine alone could never have healed me.
Even with this outcome, the
doctors still wanted me to have surgery, telling me rather gloomily that
it was "not a cure". The conventional view is that, even if the tumour
has disappeared, you can't be certain that all the microscopic cancer
cells have gone too. So you still chop out the affected area: that's the
best bet, in their view, of clearing up any remaining cells and so
helping to prevent a recurrence. Needless to say, I refused. By this
time I had formed a very determined view about what was happening within
my body. There was actually a subsequent episode about six weeks later
when a lymph node in my groin became enlarged. I decided to have that
removed surgically by Prof. Heald, as it could be done under local
anaesthetic. When that showed evidence of another small tumour of
similar type I very firmly took the view that this was nothing to worry
about: it was simply my bodyís lymphatic system doing its job of
draining off the remaining debris in a way that could be easily dealt
with. (Both Achim and Pamela encouraged me to see this operation as a
"homeopathic dose" of surgery: a tiny amount of the major procedure
originally proposed, that could actually help strengthen my resistance.)
But I also accepted the advice that I was getting from a number of the
alternative practitioners that the work had to carry on in order to
complete the cleansing process, to allow my body to recover from this
enormous battle that it had fought, and to continue boosting my immune
system so that it could return to total health.
It was not until six months
after the disappearance of the tumour (and two more visits to the Casa
de Dom Inacio) that "Joao de Deus" told me I was healed, saying to me
"It is finished. You can go now." It was exactly a year and a day from
my first arrival at the Casa. By then I had developed the firm
conviction that health and staying healthy must become a way of life.
And what I feel I've now made is a life-long commitment to taking care
of myself and my body.
What other factors were unique in your case in helping you to recover?
There are two key things that underpin the whole of my healing journey:
love and enough money.
Almost none of the
alternative therapies that I chose to do were covered by health
insurance, even though I had very comprehensive cover. It did cover all
of the conventional tests and consultations and certainly allowed a lot
of them to happen very quickly: appointments got booked immediately and
the results came very fast. Sad to say, but if I had relied on the
National Health Service, things would have been much, much slower. The
path I chose was expensive and I was fortunate enough to have the
resources to be able to follow it. (I should say that some friends have
made the point that for someone facing a life-threatening illness the
kind of treatments I chose, although expensive, would not necessarily be
beyond the combined resources of a generous group of family, friends and
I was also privileged to
have many friends who were ready to give their time and energy to help
me. Although there are too many to praise individually, three particular
individuals assumed decisive roles in seeing me through the illness.
They are Achim, Robin and Sally.
Achim held out from the
very start the belief that I could and would survive the cancer and that
my decision not to have surgery was correct. He was prepared to be very
unpopular in supporting me in that way, as well as being an invaluable
source both of information and inspiration.
Robin responded without any
reservation to my call for help in the early days. He made himself
continually available as a dedicated counsellor and led the group that
supported me over many months. He played a decisive role in helping me
emerge from my emotional distress in order to think Ė and act - more
Above all I had my beloved
Sally. Somehow Ė God only knows how - she found the courage and the
strength to set aside her own pain and grief and fear to be with me
night and day, whenever I needed, as a source of loving attention and
intelligence. What I had from her was the intense focus of another human
being: a witness, a nurse, a mate; someone who was totally engaged with
the relentless pain and dirt of my illness as well as with the job of
working out how it was going to be transformed and survived. She did
everything from masterminding the support group to scouring the shelves
of healthfood stores in search of things I could eat to laying healing
hands on me when I was crying with pain in the dark of the night - all
in the midst of completing her work as the director of a huge movie, her
biggest yet. Hers was an immeasurable gift. (Sally also edited this
document, as well as being the "friend" who did the initial interview on
which it is based.) Sally and I got married on 7 July 2001, 14 years
from the week we met, in celebration of survival, the strength of the
human spirit and the healing power of love.
Throughout my journey from
sickness to health I was blessed with incredible love and support:
whenever I asked for help it came. I pray that others may be as
(Revised April 2002)