Choosing my Own Path through Cancer

Winter 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Rick Freeman

In the Winter of 2014 at the age of 62 years I was a busy Orthopaedic Surgeon with five wonderful grown-up children. I was looking forward to travel with my darling wife, following surgery to repair a rotator cuff tear of my left shoulder, and keen to resume my robust career.

The week that I was due to return to consulting with patients in my private practice after my shoulder surgery, I was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer. This came as a bolt out of the blue!

Within three days of seeing my Urologist I had a prostate biopsy, which proved positive for cancer, and ten days later I underwent a radical prostatectomy.

The doctor had become the patient, and the world as I knew it was upside down. Alarmingly, following this, my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level increased rather than fell.  Further investigations revealed four bony metastatic deposits.

We never really know the future, though we can comfort ourselves with plans. Suddenly, all my plans went out the window.  A course of stereo-tactic radiotherapy was followed by chemotherapy, during which time I attended my first retreat at The Gawler Cancer Foundation with my wife Jules.

My dear mother-in-law Jeannie had been a volunteer with the Foundation for many years, and upon my diagnosis, had wholeheartedly recommended that we attend a cancer retreat. Whilst still coming to terms with my diagnosis and sudden but necessary treatment, attending the Life & Living Cancer Retreat was a revelation for me.

It is a privilege to be able to pause and take stock of life at anytime.  But when confronted with my own existential crisis, arriving at The Gawler Cancer Foundation I was greeted by kind, caring and compassionate professionals ready to help me address all of the impact that such a diagnosis had on me.

Exploring and practicing mindfulness meditation, learning about a healthy diet (having been a carnivore in the past), and understanding the stress that my own disease had caused for myself and my family, led me to come to terms with living with cancer, and enabled me to find a positive way forward.

I found it very comforting to share stories and time with other people all fighting their own battles with cancer. Whilst everyone had their own story, there were so many similar threads in the lifestyles of all of us. Being able to share my fears and listen to those of others suffering similarly was very helpful.

Finding my way forward was not easy however. All life-changing experiences are brought on by a crisis of some kind, and whilst the diagnosis and treatment shocked my family and I to the core, I had been kept very busy with my surgical and medical treatments. There were endless appointments, tests and trials to investigate.

By attending the retreat I gave myself the permission to stop the treadmill that my disease had started.  Giving myself time to sit with what had happened, I was then able to realise the full ramifications of what was happening to me, and my mortality. Breaking down was more like a breaking through. Feeling the sense of loss and weathering the emotional storm that followed, I was able to begin grieving within the safety and support of the group, and this freed me to gather the strength to begin accepting what was happening to me. With Paul Bedson’s help I was able to sit with the pain and begin working with my grief. 

I embraced the concept of holistic treatment, wanting to leave no stone unturned in my search for healing, and followed the advice to choose the best that Western Medicine and Lifestyle Medicine has to offer. That felt right for me.

I wholeheartedly adopted the Gawler healing diet, and we returned home committed to maintaining a vegan diet with all that it entails, seeking out organic produce. This was surprisingly easy to find. I was so amazed that within several weeks my memories of a ‘meat and 3 veg’ diet had gone, and I had no desire to return to it. Over the ensuing few months I lost some 15 kilograms in weight, and no longer required my blood pressure medication!

I came away from my first retreat program with a much better understanding of my relationship to cancer, lifestyle and the life choices that we make. My diagnosis affected all of me, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Time at the Yarra Valley Living Centre gave me the opportunity to explore these areas of my life within the context of my cancer, and I began to develop the resources to set out on my cancer journey, with much less fear, and the ongoing support from the amazing staff. 

So supportive and life-changing was my initial retreat that throughout my treatment I attended three more retreat programs in 2015, to enhance and broaden my newfound knowledge and practice. We attended the follow up Cancer & Beyond Retreat with Ian and Ruth Gawler, then attended the Mindfulness Training for Health Professionals with Dr Craig Hassed, and capped off the year with the first Spirituality & Healing Retreat with Maia and Paul Bedson.

Each retreat helped build upon the foundations of the initial Life & Living program and enabled me to find a lasting sense of hope, direction and inner peace.

The Gawler Cancer Foundation has given me the tools to recognise, understand and manage the psychological crisis and emotional anxieties caused by the diagnosis of cancer, and how best to try and achieve a cure!

As a surgeon believing that prevention is always better than cure, I can only wonder how differently my life would have turned out had I attended the Eat Well : Live Well retreat as a young man!?

I have heard some of my medical colleagues pontificate about a perceived lack of science behind some of the lifestyle practices that I learnt about and embraced during my attendance at the various retreat programs.  However, coming from a scientific background I was amazed to find the level of research and knowledge behind these therapies and practices. I was also pleased to find that Lifestyle Medicine is now being taught to all of the medical students at my Alma Mater – Monash University.

Having been immersed in the scientific world of Medicine for my entire career, I am delighted to have been exposed to these life-affirming and life-changing practices that I might never have found but for my cancer diagnosis. They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and without doubt that silver lining for me has been The Gawler Cancer Foundation.

As Victor Frankl said ”When we are no longer able to change our situation we are challenged to change ourselves.” The Gawler Cancer Foundation gives one the resources to make healthy and informed life changes with or without cancer.

One’s attitude is everything. Jules and I are so grateful to the dedicated staff at The Gawler Cancer Foundation, who showed us the way forward at the most confronting and challenging time of our lives thus far.

Throughout my treatment, I had the intention of returning to work earlier this year when I had recovered from my treatment. However, unfortunately I had ongoing side-effects and as a result it became clear to me and my treating medical team that I was not fit to return to my work as an Orthopaedic Surgeon.

Very reluctantly I had to close my practice in February of this year, and retire prematurely, and whilst this was professionally the wisest thing to do for my patients and myself, I had not been prepared for the eventual fall-out of yet another life-changing decision.

For forty years I had been a Medical Practitioner, and an Orthopaedic Surgeon for some thirty years. In large part this shaped my identity and with the loss of this, as well as the trauma of the preceding 18 months, I gradually slipped into a depression that began to impair my functioning. Luckily drawing upon all that I have learnt at The Gawler Cancer Foundation, together with the help of a mindfulness-based mental health practitioner, and as always a wonderfully loving and supportive family, these clouds are clearing and I am back on my path.

My heartfelt thanks go to Siegfried, Maia, Paul, Ian, Ruth, Craig, Julia and Emma, and all the wonderful staff in the kitchen, the office, and the gardens!

I wholeheartedly commend The Gawler Cancer Foundation to everyone. Being a not-for-profit organization (without government funding), they depend on donations to continue their work, and I cannot think of a more worthwhile cause than teaching people how to be well, eat well and live well.

Yesterday is history

Tomorrow is a mystery

Today is a gift

That is why it is called the present.

So live in the moment with openness, gratitude and courage for all that life brings.

Click here to learn more about The Gawler Cancer Foundation’s Life & Living Cancer Retreat program.