Health Professionals

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What Dr Lucy O’Hagan said after attending a Cancer Program as an observer.

Recently I attended a Canlive retreat in Wanaka on Cancer healing and wellbeing. I do not have cancer (that I know of) I went simply to see what happened there and experience it for myself. As a GP I am interested in the art as well as the science of medicine.

The Canlive course is based on the Gawler Foundation in Melbourne. Ian Gawler developed metastatic sarcoma as a young man and was given 8 weeks to live. He is still alive 30 years later and attributes this to mediation, diet and a belief that he could heal. His philosophy is that outcomes from cancer are individual, that while we can talk about 5 year survival in fact outcomes are distributed on a bell curve-some people do very well and some very badly. His theory is that if patients with cancer attend to diet, meditation and exercise in addition to good medical treatments they can put themselves at the better end of the bell curve. Makes sense to me.

Furthermore cancer is an assault not just on a body but on a life and healing can occur even in the absence of cure. That by reflecting on one’s life and one’s sense of purpose patients gain hope-become agents of their own future.

So I went to the retreat. A week in a beautiful home overlooking Lake Wanaka with 8 cancer sufferers and their spouses. They were all ordinary kiwis. Mostly they had undergone and completed conventional medical treatment and were faced with the question ‘How do I live now? What does all this mean for my life?”

I am surprised this course does not seem to be widely promoted within mainstream medicine.

Are we too afraid of deviating from evidence-based medicine? Medical therapies are supported on the course but the inference is that people who are facing their own mortality need more than chemotherapy.

Are we afraid of false hope? I had no sense at all that false hope or cures were on offer on the Canlive retreat.

Are we afraid there will be doctor-bashing? There were some people who had had bad experiences with doctors but the course includes a session on the importance of good relationships with GPs and specialists.

Are we as doctors afraid to discuss things like funerals, what you would do if you had 3 months to live, forgiveness, or hope? All these topics were covered in the retreat.

The diet was healthy and balanced. I did not see any supplements or alternative remedies on sale. Gawler recommends spending money on good food. Seems reasonable. But it is not prescriptive. Everything is presented as an option. Take from it what you need.

I personally want to thank the group who allowed me to sit in on their retreat. It was interesting to hear their stories, concerns and hopes without being in the role doctor. Stew Burt who runs the Canlive Charitable trust is an incredibly hard-working fellow who was formerly a publican. He was inspired by Gawler when his wife had cancer. He is joined by Helen Brown former GP and cancer survivor whose personal story is testament to the power of the programme. Liz Maluschnig a local counsellor who has been an oncology nurse provides warmth and professionalism.

There is something to be said for taking a week away, no cell phone, emails or TV and just sitting, talking and reflecting. Beautiful food. Long walks. Learning to meditate. It did me the world of good!