My Gawler Experience

Winter 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Tim Baker

40 years ago Ian Gawler OAM was given three weeks to live. The methods he used to heal himself were once decried as voodoo but medical mainstream is slowly catching up.

I hope they get a good bulk deal on tissues at the Gawler Cancer Foundation. Boxes of them are positioned everywhere throughout their residential retreat, and for good reason. There are plenty of tears shed here, enough to swell the humble flow of the Little Yarra River into the wide brown torrent it is by the time it reaches Melbourne.

It sounds odd to say you’re excited about attending a retreat for cancer patients. But after six months of dealing with the grim fatalism of the mainstream medical profession it is entirely uplifting to receive a brochure in the post about The Gawler Cancer Foundation’s residential retreats in the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne.

Since my diagnosis I’d endured the usual barrage of tests, six cycles of chemotherapy and the characteristic oncologists’ assurances that nothing I do will make any significant difference and I should simply hand over my fate and future to their expertise. I’m grateful to modern western medicine but can’t help thinking more patient empowerment would be a good thing.

For me, Gawler’s philosophy, deified and decried in equal measure by his legions of admirers and at times sceptical medical fraternity respectively, come as a blast of fresh air. He is not advocating alternative, complimentary or traditional forms of medicine, he says in his bestselling book, You Can Conquer Cancer, with what he calls lifestyle medicine. He defines this as what you can do for yourself – diet, exercise, meditation, emotional healing, building a support team, finding a spiritual dimension to your disease – in tandem with whatever forms of treatment you make informed decisions about. And slowly, sometimes with apparently glacial pace, medical science is beginning to stack up in favour of meditation, diet and mental attitude improving patient outcomes.

I’d read enough in the first couple of chapters to willingly book myself into the 4-night Cancer Fundamentals Retreat and learn about meditation, healthy plant-based food and whatever else the educators might throw at me.

Although Ian Gawler is no longer working within the operations of the foundation he started in 1981, the retreats are still facilitated following these same principles, and his remarkable story of surviving a rare bone cancer, that cost him his leg but not his life, looms large in the minds of all who attend these retreats, seeking salvation from their own grim prognosis.

“Believe the diagnosis but not the prognosis,” is one of the first principles we are introduced to, as 19 of us settle into our simple but comfortable accommodation amid the gumtrees and kangaroos, cackling kookaburras and waddling wombats. A prognosis is based on statistical averages and as unique individuals those statistical averages need not apply to our unique circumstances.

In Ian Gawler’s place we are greeted by the Foundations therapeutic director, who stresses that this is not a medical facility and they make no particular recommendations about any patients’ treatment options, but strive to empower people to make informed decisions, and to be the drivers of their own recovery bus.

For the next five days we settle into a comforting routine of meditation sessions, lectures on food and nutrition, daily Qi Gong, exercises in healthy emotions and finding a spiritual dimension to our healing journeys. Our group quickly bonds and a safe space is created for deep emotional revelation and release. There are lots of tears and hugging. But there’s also enough practical information to make it feel like we are swatting for a crucial exam.

Birdsong and the mocking laugh of kookaburras accompany our morning meditation and Qi Gong sessions. A reverent silence is observed whenever we enter the “meditation sanctuary,” with 360 degree windows offering stunning views of the surrounding forest. “The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT,” a small plaque reminds us. We are being encouraged to listen to ourselves, tune in to our inner voice. I resolve to spend us much time as possible in this space, where thousands have meditated and conjured their own healing energy. I soak up its silent ambience alone early in the mornings and late at night before bed.

I have agreed to write only about my own experience, to respect the privacy of others, but it is fair to say we are a diverse group in age and ethnicity. Some have brought support people to share the retreat – friends, partners, even adult children. We are bonded by a common knowledge of the dread and disbelief that comes with a cancer diagnosis and what’s required to climb out of that dark hole and find a cause for hope.

By week’s end I think most of us would agree the experience has more than met it’s three-point mission – to provide hope that we can influence our prognosis through our own actions, to empower us to make informed decisions about our treatment options, and to help us achieve inner peace whatever the future might hold for us.

Tim Baker 

Tim Baker is the editor of Slow Living magazine, a quarterly journal celebrating all aspects of the slow lifestyle. New medical research shows we actually age better, live longer and healthier lives when we live in the moment – not casting ahead to our next task or mulling over our last.

Slow Living offers their readers real, practical and inspiring strategies for claiming back their time, and living a more leisurely and enriching life.

Visit www.slowmagazine.com.au for more information.