How I transformed my mindset to maximize healing before, during and after treatment
“I have bad news.” First time I heard those words, my heart skipped a beat. The second time was more of a kick in the balls, a mix of agony and disbelief. When a doctor says, “you’ve got cancer,” you know your world won’t be the same again — I’d just been presented with lifetime membership to a club I never wanted to join.
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2019 and one of the first things my doctor told me is that it’s actually a “good cancer” (words I’d never put together) because if discovered early, it’s highly treatable. While there are far worse types of cancer, it still felt like my body had betrayed me. I was 63, which my doctors called young, ate well, exercised and didn’t drink or smoke. Cancer? WTF!
In April of that year, I underwent a radical prostatectomy at the UCSF Medical Center. Tests showed the cancer had been confined to the capsule, so I assumed my treatment was done. But in April 2021, a routine PSA blood test showed evidence of a recurrence. I wasn’t told at the time of surgery that a third of men with prostate cancer will need salvage radiation therapy later on.
We did a PSMA PET scan to try to pinpoint to help locate the cancer cells, but nothing showed up. Given my options of doing nothing, while monitoring my PSA levels or immediately starting hormone therapy and radiation treatment, I hesitated. Going through forced “man-opause” and radiating my body without knowing the exact location of the cancer didn’t make sense. At the same time, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of all cancer deaths — a statistic that hovered in the back of my mind like a loitering Grim Reaper.
But I waited and over the next 15 months, I had four more scans, each showing no sign of cancer. The good news was it was microscopic, the bad news the disease wasn’t adapting to my battle plan of locating the cells and radiation destroying them with radar-guided missiles. I was fortunate to have a great medical team and I did join a prostate cancer support group, but sharing my story made me feel less than whole, as like many men, one of my weaknesses is not being able to admit to any weakness. Those cancer wrist bracelets always use the word Strong.
Meanwhile, I discussed nutrition, supplements, exercise, acupuncture and meditation with my integrative oncologist. I tried all kinds of holistic modalities such as energy work, sound healing and CBD. And leaving no stone unturned, I did a sunset ceremony with MEA’s shaman Saul while down in Baja. It provided an overwhelming sensation of natural forces at work and a feeling of profound gravitas. Given all the modalities I’d already sought out, I was fully open to adding some extremely potent mojo to my list of medications. Can’t get a Rx for magic at CVS.
Even though my PSA level was low, and we still couldn’t see the cancer on the scans, I needed to make a decision, rather than risk the cancer spreading to my bones or organs. Eventually, I realized the most judicious move was to combine the best of modern and traditional therapies. But I also wanted to be an active participant in the process. Preparing for six months of conventional treatment, I did a web search on mind-body medicine and cancer and found Avinoam Lerner, a clinical hypnotherapist and cancer & trauma recovery specialist.
Over three days of intensive one-on-one sessions with my “cancer coach,” we pushed through my defenses and long-held beliefs that I brought to cancer treatment. I discovered while my medical team was treating my physical body, it was my job to take care of the person within my body. That meant taking ownership and responsibility for how I think and feel. Rather than falling down a rabbit hole of victimhood, helplessness and hopelessness, I needed to envision the best scenarios and results in every stage of treatment.
I followed up with my coach’s 8-week online course, which was more goal-oriented and result driven with practical tools such as writing exercises (including daily gratitude journaling), self-hypnosis, and meditations for surgery, chemo or radiation treatments. Neuroscientists are studying how cognitive thought affects nerve cells and tumors, and research has shown that going into any medical procedure in the right state of mind will yield fewer complications, shorter hospital stays, faster recovery rate, and even overall better outcomes.
Did my whole-istic approach to cancer treatment work? I did have hot flashes, gained a little weight and my libido went on sabbatical. I also had body aches and radiation fatigue. But these are all temporary conditions, and I reminded myself the long-range forecast called for clear skies. Most importantly, I reclaimed some sense of control by retraining my brain to think positively. When my inner critic said, “You’re not going to beat this cancer, it’s going to come back,” my inner ally responded with, “I’m cancer free, living life fully and sticking around!”
Yes, there will be moments where life gets messy and the “why me?” sneaks in. But I’ve learned that a serious illness can also have a silver lining, where it becomes a rite of passage, a matter of self-transformation. Seeing certain patterns that had become my identity, there’s a strategic battle to choose which ones I want to keep and which I want to change. It’s an ongoing tug-of-war, but during this crisis, I’ve become more like the person I wished I could be. Cancer has humbled me, opened my heart and made me more human.
I finished my six months of treatment in late April. Now, my goal isn’t to merely survive, it’s living with the energy and intention of thriving. In addition to ridding my body of these malignant cells, my deeper purpose is to feel more grateful, peaceful, joyful and loving. Daily doses of these elixirs are the strongest medicine in my cabinet.
And there’s also one special remedy in my back pocket. I can always FaceTime with Saul.
Paul Gilbert is a writer, producer and idea engine. He was hired at CNN’s inception to be a producer and on-air anchor and then, was head of the entertainment division at the National Basketball Association. He’s now a principal/creative director at Heart at Work Productions. There is also an unabridged version of this essay. For more info, you can reach out to Paul directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
KR Comments: Equal attention to the cancer challenges of men. Connect with Modern Elder Academy and Wisdom Well for “ reminder of wisdom and it’s value”.