It’s Day 90 of this regime! Woo hoo! My blood is slowly creeping back to normal with the help of some beetroot in my juices. The best news is that we were finally able to get a platelet count in my latest blood tests done at the hospital. This hasn’t happened before because my platelets have been clumped. For those that don’t know (and I didn’t) this means that my body is no longer in a state of ramping up to fight infections and wounds. It’s relaxing. More about this later.
So Day 90 (just in case you didn’t take that in) and I’m going strong. I still get fatigued but this is normal post chemo. It doesn’t matter much. It’s not like I’m going any where in a hurry. When I started this healing through nutrition thing, I thought I’d do it for about 3 months. And then I read that for Gerson to really work, it is suggested to do it for 2 years. Then I found out that even this slightly less stringent regime should be given 2 years. At least. I read this book by Dale Figtree and she had a major healing reaction 3 years into her healing programme. So that’s it. I’m doing this for two years. Thank goodness I have faith it can work. And thank goodness I have a supportive husband and family. And a course I can do online to keep my brain active. I’m studying nutrition and lifestyle to become a health coach. These blogs should get interesting (and maybe even informative) …
I attribute much of my healing, recovery and my capacity to stay on schedule to meditation. You might remember that I wrote about the role of meditation in the blogs “It’s the Lifestyle Factors” and “Meditating Spaciously” , so I’ve been meditating for most of this year. However, 10 days ago I got a real boost by going to a 5 day retreat held by the Gawler Foundation. The centre at Yarra Junction is set amongst the trees and melodies of birds and borders the Little Yarra River. There are kangaroos and koalas, and no doubt much more wildlife that hid amongst the trees.
The programme was a lovely mix of lectures on mind-body medicine, the interaction between the mind and the body, meditation and guided imagery. It was reassuring to connect not only with Ian Gawler and Ruth Gawler, but with others who have survived supposedly incurable cancers for decades or are just at the beginning of the journey like me. There were a number of health professionals who attended to learn how to better use language when delivering diagnoses to their patients. We were also privileged to hear from Nimrod Sheinman, a mind-body medicine expert from Israel and his wife Anat.
We were given a number of tools that I have brought home with me and I intend to practise. Exercises to make inquiry of the body and its symptoms and emotions. But the most beneficial thing I can focus on at the moment is the progressive muscle relaxation meditation technique. This takes the body into the optimum state for healing and ultimately stills the mind.
Most of my life has been spent in an actively stressed state. From a very young age, I was chronically hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for the first sign of danger. Alcohol helped me to relax but that came with a whole new set of problems so it had to go.
When the body has turned on the stress response, activating the sympathetic nervous system, it puts pressure on the immune system and suppresses it. Essentially, it flicks the switch on the fight or flight response and if you are in a constant state of anxiety or stress, it never turns off. The effects that this state can have on the body include the following:
- increased blood flow which elevates blood pressure and heart rate, diverts blood flow from the gut and skin and to muscles and sweating;
- increased metabolism including respiration and mobilisation of glucose and fat stores;
- preparation of the body to heal from injuries (presumably once inflicted by a saber tooth tiger) by thickening the blood and in particular the platelets (the unclumping of my platelets suggests I am more relaxed) and the mobilisation of the immune system to fight any impending infections;
- activation of inflammatory hormones produced by the adrenal glands such as cortisol to help repair any tissues which might be damaged. Constant release of inflammatory hormones can result in aching limbs and joints, a symptom which I have suffered for approximately 6 years;
- suppressed digestion and elimination by releasing digestive enzymes and acids inappropriately. Ultimately this affects the body’s capacity to absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins;
- all of this swelling and imbalance prevents the lymphatic system from properly draining.
Stress doesn’t just affect the physical functioning of the body but as the body becomes weakened and more disturbed, our emotional and psychological wellbeing is compromised leading to symptoms such as:
- hyperactive and obsessive thinking;
- aggression and excessive competitiveness (as I am writing this I am seeing all of those patterns of behaviour which affected me over the last few years);
- rigidity and inflexibility of body’s emotions and mind (fight response) or collapse and despair (flight response).
If you are identifying with any of these symptoms, don’t get more stressed. There is hope. The antidote to the stress response is to activate and promote the relaxation response. Of course there are other things that go hand in hand with reducing stress, such as diet, cutting out inflammatory foods such as coffee and sugar, having fun and laughing, but if through relaxation and meditation we can change our mindset, anything is possible.
The constant message I have received over the last 10 months or so is that given the right conditions, our body can heal itself. We know this because if we set a broken bone, it heals. The body’s natural state is one of balance. It is essential then to restore it to that state as best we can so that it has the best opportunity for healing. We need the counter to stress, the relaxation response.
So how do we turn on the relaxation response? The answer is easily. Meditation for relaxation has been practised in the eastern traditions for centuries. Probably the most commonly known form of mindful relaxation is the yoga nidra or “yoga sleep”.
For those of you who do yoga, the yoga nidra is perhaps best explained as a elongated version of the meditation the yoga teacher does when the class is finished and the participants have taken up savasana. It brings the student’s attention to each part of their body and encourages them to “let go”, “relax” and “let it be”.
Progressive muscle relaxation technique as taught by Ian Gawler, and his first teacher Ainslie Meares (an Australian psychiatrist), is very similar except you are encouraged to sit upright (if physically able) but to ensure that part of you is slightly uncomfortable so that you do not drift off mindlessly or fall asleep. You then take the mind’s attention to each muscle group in the body consciously and deliberately, starting with the feet. You observe how they are, noticing any sensations then consciously relaxing the muscles. As a beginner, unfamiliar with feeling the sensations in these muscle groups, it is recommended that you consciously contract the muscles and then release them. This way you can familiarise yourself with each muscle and learn what the sensation of relaxation feels like.
You then move from feet to the calves, to the thighs, and to the other main muscle groups of the body slowly and mindfully, repeating the process with each. It is important to take your time to ensure that each part is fully relaxed before you move on. Repeating words to yourself like “let it go”, “feel the ease of it all” and “effortlessly” help to remain mindful. Over time it becomes easier and easier to put your body into a state of deep relaxation quickly.
Once the body is fully relaxed, you just sit in that state and allow the thoughts to come and go. If you’re anything like me, and are prone to excessive thinking, and have difficulty not chasing thoughts, you may wish to use any other technique of mindfulness that you know such as watching the breath, listening to sounds going on around you or simply being in the moment with awareness of all that is right now.
I bought a CD of Ian Gawler’s in August with him doing guided relaxation meditations. I have found it profoundly beneficial. However, at the retreat I was able to step up a level and start to practise this technique on my own. I can now focus in such a way that I spend up to 40 minutes putting my body into a deeply relaxed state. I’m doing this now twice, sometimes 3 times, a day (for healing 2 – 3 sessions of 40 – 60 minutes a day are recommended) and I know that as a result my sleep is better, most of the joint aches and pains I have experienced have subsided and generally my outlook is more positive and joyous. I also spend a slightly shorter period of time practising visualisations or loving-kindness meditation each day, now in an even more relaxed state.
This is an interesting journey. At times it has been very lonely as it often is when you step outside the dominant paradigm. I am deeply, deeply grateful to have had the Gawlers come into my life to provide me with support and community along the way. The work they and the foundation do is invaluable.
And so I am now relaxed and creating a vision for my future. Relaxation is vital if I am to have a long and happy life. Which I will.
[10 March 2016 – for an interview with Ian Gawler in which he discusses the importance of relaxation for healing, go here: Being with Ian Gawler talking about lifestyle medicine.
And so be it.
Figtree, D, Beyond Cancer Treatment: Clearing and Healing the Underlying Causes, 2011, Blue Palm Press.
Gawler, I, You Can Conquer Cancer, 2013, Michelle Anderson Publishing.
Gawler, I and Bedson, P, Meditation: An In-depth Guide, 2010, Allen & Unwin.
McKenzie, S, and Hassed, C, Mindfulness for Life, 2012, Exisle Publishing.