Home' Nova National : October 2009 Contents changed forever. I was admitted to a club
that I didn't want to join."
Brian describes the difficult, turbulent
year that followed. But when he received
the survey in June he had a chance to reflect:
"As strange as it may seem getting (advanced
prostate) cancer has probably been one of
the best things that has happened to me. I
wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy but it
has made a positive difference to my life in
Brian had spent years working as a
prison officer, a career where he needed a
very hard professional shell. "The shock of
the diagnosis finally broke it down," leading
to what Brian describes as a profound,
positive change in his personality. Now his
ability to communicate with colleagues,
family and friends has never been better.
"I haven't always been so open with
communication. Opening up was my way
of handling cancer...Well, I knew I had two
choices: to be up front and tell everybody,
or try and hide it and run into all sorts of
"Incidentally, a measure of just how
much this barrier has come down is the
reality of me sharing some fairly personal
information here [for NOVA Magazine],
Brian adds. "Believe me, before the big
C, this would not have happened. I firmly
believe that if I had tried to keep it to
myself, and not share it, it would have been
a disaster for me psychologically."
Today, with a promising prognosis for a
cancer-free future, Brian looks back: "I tend
not to take life for granted anymore. I'm
more of a 'yes' person, in that if someone
suggests I do something different, my first
response is now 'yes'...rather than the 'I'll
think about it' attitude that I formerly had.
"I started canoeing, I joined a book club.
You appreciate your friends and you start
to tell them regularly that you appreciate
them. Without being gushy about it," he
adds. "When you go down the supermarket
and the checkout chicks say, 'How are you?'
you think, 'Well, I'm here'. You wake up
in the morning and think, 'Hey it's a great
Reading comments from the other
204 survey respondents, it seems Brian's
views are not unique. "Be more thankful...
There are always more blessings in life than
bad things if we actually make a list...Love
yourself truly...It's about making a life, not
making a living". You could mistake these
words as quotes from an inspirational
calendar, rather than a document of a
crippling and heart-wrenching disease.
But there are pockets of despair as well.
When asked what success means to them,
one response was, "Not much now I've
been diagnosed with advanced cancer ". The
survey doesn't shy away from the difficulties
cancer patients face, with questions like:
What has helped you through the toughest
periods of your life? What advice would you
give someone who feels like 'giving up' on
life? Do you believe in euthanasia? What is
the worst thing about having cancer?
Degrading medical procedures, lack of
control and vulnerability, the devastation
of chemotherapy and fears of leaving
loved ones behind were common negative
experiences. According to one respondent
the worst thing about the illness has been,
"The alienation that can come from social
perceptions of 'illness' as something
'wrong'/something 'not right', rather than
illness as a part of health and health as a part
of illness -- just like yin and yang. And the
A cancer diagnosis is just one of many
ways we can come face to face with death.
But, as Richard explains, cancer is an
interesting case, which often involves a
whole range of experiences. "Cancer is
spontaneous, and applies to all ages and
often for apparently no reason. Plus it's not
all doom and gloom. Lives are improved
and new perspectives are gained. Some of
us are survivors."
The Western Australian Cancer Council
was also interested in the personal
dimensions and experiences of cancer. For
the survey they offered Richard's company
access to its members -- cancer sufferers
and survivors living mainly in Western
Australia, and also in eastern Australia and
overseas. In June this year, the anonymous
survey was launched online, and now the
results are in -- a rich document of frank,
eye-opening views from 205 respondents.
"Be happy. You have woken up alive,"
comments one respondent. "Be grateful
and enjoy your day. Somebody that doesn't
want to leave this earth will actually die
"In some ways, being given a death
sentence of five years has made me do the
things I was putting off," says another. "It
came to help me improve my life," another
said of their illness. When asked exactly
how cancer has improved their lives, about
20 per cent of the 205 respondents say they
feel more thankful, and another 20 per cent
say problems bother them less. "I found my
faith again," "I retired," "I am trying very
hard to let problems bother me less and
trying not to be so reactive to every little
thing," were other reflections. And, equally
legitimate, "You must be joking -- how can
cancer be good for me?"
April 4, 2008, is one day Brian will
never forget. As someone living a health
conscious, symptom-free lifestyle (still
doing aerobics at the age of 61), a diagnosis
of advanced prostate cancer was the last
thing he expected. "It was like being hit in
the guts," Brian says. Prostate cancer, the
most common cancer in Australia, kills 3000
men every year. "It's a silent killer. My life
34 © NOVA OCTOBER 2009
Why would someone with a
terminal illness say, "I am
more empowered than ever
before"? In facing death, is the act of living
transformed? For the healthy, for the young,
the daily grind keeps grinding on. Between
mundane chores and our most outstanding
achievements, we answer one demand
and then another; that sink full of dishes,
the deadline, bills that must be paid. And
pay we do: "So many lives are full of stress
and anxiety," says social researcher Richard
"I have a lot of friends in their twenties
and thirties. They're preoccupied with
money and their careers, buying property.
We're worrying about things like what car
we drive. It's not that these things aren't
important. But I thought it would be
interesting to ask people who have faced
the prospect of death what they thought
"I think cancer patients have a directness that comes from not
being afraid of being open. There's fearlessness and optimism."
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Lisette Kaleveld finds that a cancer
diagnosis can be a profound and inspiring
wake up call with implications for us all.
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