My Answer to Cancer
by Cathy Brown
It is hard to imagine that in 1989, a tiny red dot on my arm could have changed my life so dramatically. I had always been very careful with my skin and very aware of melanoma.
When a small pimple-like spot appeared on my right forearm, initially I was not worried. It didn’t look anything like the typical warning photos in skin cancer brochures. I knocked it a couple of times and it sent a shock of pain up my arm, so I went to the doctor and asked his opinion. His comment after examining it was “No, that’s alright, don’t worry about it.” For some unknown reason, I insisted on having it removed. I’m not sure why, but I just knew I would be happier without it. His response to this request was “Oh alright, if it will keep you happy.”
The following day he rang me and asked me to come and see him at the surgery, as he had just been informed by the laboratory that the biopsy was malignant. What a shock! By the time I visited him, he had already made an appointment with a plastic surgeon to remove a greater excision, just to make sure that all the malignancy had been removed. After visiting the surgeon, the results confirmed, that as far as the doctors were concerned, they had removed all the offending melanoma.
Life went on pretty normally for another six months until I had an uncomfortable feeling under my arm. After getting this examined by the doctor, I was assured that there were no lumps and that it might have been a pinched nerve reacting from my previous surgery. I accepted this explanation and carried on quite happily for a further four months until my legs broke out in the most disturbing looking blisters.
Back to the doctors again where I was placed on antibiotics on one visit, steroid cream on another and finally on the third visit, two more doctors were called in to inspect the blisters. They all examined me and said that they hadn’t seen anything like it before, so suggested that I should visit a dermatologist. While visiting the dermatologist I queried whether this problem might be linked to the melanoma, which was the same question I had previously posed to all the other doctors. The dermatologist assured me that there was no connection. He wasn’t sure what these blisters were, so excised one and sent it for further pathology.
I received a phone call from him and was told, “It is a condition called Bullis Pemphigoid, but don’t worry, it won’t kill you. It is extremely rare, although normally it is only seen in very old people.” Why I might have this condition at the age of thirty-three could not be explained.
After a couple of weeks, the spots started to disappear and I was glad to see the end of them. About the same time, I noticed that the tightness under my arm was increasing and I wasn’t sure whether I could feel some swelling or not. Within a week I was certain that it was not my imagination. When I lifted up my arm, a golf ball size lump would bulge out. When I put my arm down, it would disappear.
I was having another small skin cancer removed by the plastic surgeon I had visited before, so asked him about the lump under my arm. He suggested that I return to my GP who examined me again and this time referred me to a surgeon. After the surgeon examined me, he confirmed that I did have a large mass in my right axillary and insisted that it must be removed immediately. He spoke to a fellow surgeon who informed him that the operating list was full. He replied, “Get rid of someone!” My stomach dropped.
Dread was filling me when I looked down at my file and saw a big red URGENT sticker displayed across it. This is when I knew things were starting to go very wrong for me. I mentioned the Bullis Pemphigoid and asked for his opinion. He did not hesitate in explaining that my immune system was so locked into fighting the tumours, it had broken down and the Bullis Pemphigoid was a reflection of this struggle. At least I had an answer now, although I was certainly not thrilled with the reason.
On the 3rd May 1990, I had surgery to remove the tumours and was hospitalised for five days. It was very challenging to stay optimistic, but always in the back of my mind I was secretly waiting for someone to walk in and say, “Sorry Cathy, this has all been a big mistake and there is nothing wrong with you.” Unfortunately, that person never turned up.
A week later I anxiously waited for the test results from the surgeon. My thoughts were terrorising me as I sat in the barren waiting room. It felt like I was being sent before a judge to hear whether I was getting a death sentence for some crime I didn’t know I had committed. Guilty or not guilty? What had I done wrong in my life to deserve this? Why me? Anger was starting to surface at the injustice of it all. My children were only six and eight years old. They needed their mum. It just wasn’t fair. After waiting for over two hours, my nerves were shot. Finally, the results were delivered.
The report stated that, from the group of lymph nodes removed from my right axillary, metastatic tumour was present extensively in two of them. The largest mass was five centimetres in diameter. Most of the following conversation was a blur. The few words that registered became etched into my mind. “How long do I have to live?” I warily enquired. He replied, “I’m not sure, maybe a couple of months, perhaps a couple of years.” I then asked what would finally finish me off? “It will go to either your lungs, liver or brain. You will be referred to an Oncologist. He will monitor your progress. In your situation chemotherapy is unlikely to help. Since you are young, with a young family, you would be better off going home and enjoying whatever time you have left”. I was devastated and felt totally shattered.
Two days later was Mothers’ Day and one of the hardest days of my life. Facing my children and not knowing whether this was my last Mothers’ Day with them was emotional torture. What would they do next year when the other kids at school were preparing gifts for their mothers? The pain in my heart was incredible. It felt like it had been ripped out of my body and squeezed tightly in a vice. There was nowhere I could go to escape this horrific pain. There was no one who could take it away. I was lost.
I remember waking up during the night shaking. The images flashing through my mind can only be understood by someone who has been in this situation. No words can accurately describe what I went through. I went to see my GP for help. He prescribed me Serapax, a sedative for my nerves, and invited me to send in the rest of the family to see him if they needed anything to help them cope. This wasn’t the type of help I was looking for. I needed more!
When I finally visited the Oncologist, he looked at my file, shook his head, clicked his tongue in a disapproving manner and simply said, “You’re in the hands of fate.” I was shocked with the bluntness of his response and remember being aware of a feeling rising up like fire from somewhere deep within me, and thinking “You don’t know who you’re dealing with mate!” As fate would have it I was thankful to him for being so blunt and triggering off a response inside that said, “If fate has anything to do with this, I’m going to give it all the help it needs!” I realised that there was no one else who could heal me and now it was up to me to find ‘my answer to cancer’.
This experience opened my mind to all sorts of possibilities and instigated an incredible healing journey. I became aware that there was so much more I could do for myself and found I was connecting to a deep sense of empowerment and belief that I could make a difference the prognosis given to me.
I was desperate for some sort of guidance and information. Fortunately, I came across Ian Gawler’s book ‘You Can Conquer Cancer’. WOW! This was the help I was searching for.
Someone who had defied the odds and was willing to share his insights and wisdom. I was excited to discover that there were many things I could do to empower myself… giving myself the best possible chance for recovery.
I found a naturopath, who very skilfully guided me through the minefield of nutrition and supplements. I would look at food and ask myself the question “Is this food life-giving or life-taking”. My answer to this question was always obvious. Intuitively I knew what was good for me. The connection between body/mind/spirit/emotions was becoming more and more apparent and Reiki was the perfect pathway for me to explore this connection. Meditation became my foundation to build a new life.
Finding the support group at Cancer Support WA (now known as Solaris Cancer Care Cottesloe) gave me a safe place to meet with like-minded people in a non-judgemental environment. Effective support has proven to be beneficial to people going through life challenges. Discovering that I didn’t have to go through this alone, removed the burden of isolation. I had wonderful support from my family, but there is something that goes beyond words when you meet people who understand and have experienced similar struggles. I found my tribe.
I returned to the Oncologist every three months for check-ups and chest x-rays. Each time I would tell him all that I was doing for myself but unfortunately, he wasn’t interested. After two years, I was healthier than I had ever been and he told me he had no need to see me anymore. As I walked out the door he said, “Don’t you think that it’s because of anything you’ve done. There is such a thing as spontaneous remission.” I was highly offended at this heartless comment as I had spent the previous two years creating an intensive Wellness Plan for myself. He was not interested in anything I had explored and was completely oblivious to the dedication and commitment I had made towards my own recovery. My ‘spontaneous remission’ took a lot of hard work.
The full story of my recovery is in my book My Answer to Cancer. I consequently went on to qualify as a Group Facilitator so I could share what I had learned with others on this journey of self-discovery. Training with Ian and the team at The Gawler Cancer Foundation, so I could present the Cancer, Healing and Wellbeing program in Western Australia, was a huge help for me and I was absolutely thrilled when Ian and Ruth invited me to join them as a leader on one of their Meditation in the Desert Retreats.
I became fascinated with the power of the mind when I learned to meditate and subsequently went on to become a Clinical Hypnotherapist. This work for me is so rewarding and I get great satisfaction when I see people achieving goals they never ‘thought’ they could. I tell them it was only a ‘thought’, which can be changed. I love the saying “If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got.” If you need to change your life, you need to change your mind.
My life is amazing now. I work two days a week for Solaris Cancer Care in Cottesloe (Western Australia) facilitating support groups and wellness programs, and do clinical hypnotherapy for two days. For the last five years I have been privileged to escort groups of people to an Ayurvedic Retreat in India with a tour company called Journeys of the Spirit. This year my retreats are expanding to Hawaii where I will be taking people to experience the spiritual and cultural magic of these beautiful islands.
The deep love I feel for my children fuelled my will to live. I wanted to be there for them and see them grow up. The added bonus is that I am now the proud Nana of four beautiful little souls, and I express gratitude daily for this privilege.
Over the last twenty-eight years, it has been an honour to witness thousands of people on their healing journey. Not all have healed physically but many have healed emotionally and spiritually. I have supported them, cried with them, encouraged them, challenged them and most of all loved them unconditionally. I found my life purpose and can’t believe all of this has happened because of a little red dot on my arm.