The news that we had lost our Wellness Warrior, Jess Ainscough, on 26 February 2015 was passed to me by my husband. He subscribed to her blogs and had received an email with this photo. He went white as he read it and then gave me his phone. I read the words, and although the news was not entirely unexpected, tears just started to stream down my face. We both just sat there saying over and over “How sad.”
And let me tell you a little about my husband. He is a hard nosed commercial litigator. He has a poker face in most situations. He is a man of facts and generally, science. And he loved getting Jess’s emails. Often he would come home and tell me she had published a new blog and perhaps I’d like to read it. She had touched a place deep within him with her optimism and zest for life.
I had introduced them. It was a Tuesday in March 2013. I was in the middle of my third round of chemo, and was starting to feel nauseous and just oh so tired. But I dragged my weary body to St Michael’s Uniting Church where Dr Ian Gawler was to launch the new edition of his book, You Can Conquer Cancer. There were a few hundred people there, in various stages of wellness. It was the first “cancer” event I had been to. Ian led us in a brief meditation and then we were treated to three amazing speakers.
There was a woman who had been diagnosed with the same lymphoma as I had 3 years earlier. She had had no treatment, because the doctors had expressed doubt that it would work, so instead had attended a 10 day retreat at the Gawler Foundation. She had changed her lifestyle and was doing well. Instead of growing, her tumours had shrunk. As you can imagine, I was very interested.
The next speaker was Scott Stephens. Scott had been diagnosed with melanoma. He had some surgery after the cancer returned and then also went to the Gawler Foundation. The surgery hadn’t removed all his tumours but over the next months, he and his doctors watched his remaining tumours shrink. 10 years later Scott is alive and well. You can read his story in greater detail here.
The third speaker was Jess. She lit up the stage. She was bright, articulate and funny. Her eyes shone. And you can tell a lot about a person by their eyes. She spoke about the Gerson Therapy, and eating well and meditating. And told us that she was well. Apart from the fact that she found it difficult to use her left arm, apparently as a consequence of the large doses of chemo that she had received, her overall presence gave me no reason to doubt that she was thriving. I found out she had a blog so the first thing I did when I got home was find it. And ‘liked’ her on Facebook. And thus, our journey began.
As I started out on my own healing regime, post chemo and post remission, I always knew that Jess had done what I was doing. She made me feel that I was not walking the path alone. And whenever I had a question about what I was experiencing, I would search her site. Not for medical advice of course, but for reassurance that what I was experiencing was “normal”. Taking yourself out of the medical model can be very lonely and I pay my respects to Ian Gawler and Jess, and the many other pioneers who have blazed the trail before me. They didn’t have anything really except the courage of their convictions.
So this brings me to the sadness I feel about Jess’s passing. I don’t care that she hasn’t lived a long life. What she achieved in the extremely short time she was here is beyond miraculous. She encouraged so many brought up on processed and refined foods to “make peace with their plate.” She got them eating real food, whole foods. She got them affirming and meditating. Her blog posts were chatty and informative. She lived a life, albeit short, beyond many people’s dreams. She found true love and she had fun. It goes without saying that my thoughts are with those closest to her, her fiancé, her father and her friends at this time of great loss.
But since the news of her passing broke, there have been some who have seized upon it as an opportunity to condemn the choices that Jess made for herself, and to criticise her for sharing those choices with the world, and perhaps encouraging others to make similar choices. I have read many posts, news stories and comments (which I haven’t linked because I don’t want to increase their traffic) that she should have accepted her doctors’ advice and had her cancerous left arm amputated. It was in the context of that advice that she chose another path. Had she gone ahead with the amputation, she may have had a chance of surviving for 10 years, instead of the 7 years she did. Approximately, a 72% chance. That is what at least one cancer surgeon says. And he says that without surgery that chance was reduced to 33%.
If we look at the 72% chance she might have had, what it tells me is there was still a fair “chance” of it failing. No one could guarantee the surgery would work, just like no one can guarantee “alternative therapies” can work. But Jess might have fallen into the 33%. For all the evidence based medicine around, most (and I acknowledge that some conventional treatments work very successfully for some forms of cancer) cancer treatments remain a gamble. They may or may not work. Sometimes they buy some extra time, but not a quality of life (see a Four Corners programme about that here). And my personal experience is that although chemo helped me to go into remission, its long term effects severely compromised my quality of life and nearly killed me a year later (here). If Jess had chosen the surgery but still died within the same timeframe, would her choices have been judged so harshly? I think not.
And this is what I find most distressing and sad. Let’s venture into a parallel universe for a moment. Jess has chosen to have the surgery. The doctors tell her that it has been very successful and she is now cancer free. So she accepts what they say, spends time in recovery from the surgery and then resumes her old life, as best she can. She doesn’t explore lifestyle changes. She continues to drink and party and work at her high flying job at Dolly magazine, forever trying to hide because the surgery has disfigured her. Or worse, she is just so depressed by the surgery that she hides at home. And then one day, the cancer returns and the doctors say there is nothing they can do. Jess dies in oblivion.
The world just wouldn’t have had the benefit of her smile, her love and her encouragement. We wouldn’t have heard her admonishment to be kind, to be brave, to be well. So many of us might not have been inspired to overhaul our lifestyles, to strive actively to get healthy. She filled a gap in our lives.
It is very easy to judge a decision a person has made because we ourselves don’t agree with it. But when we do so, we don’t allow the bigger picture to unfold. We never know what gifts can flow from something that we judge to be negative.
Jess did what so many Radical Remission survivors do. She took control of her own health. She made the decisions that she thought were best for her at the time she made them. And she absolutely had that right. As did her mother who passed in late 2013. It has been said that Jess persuaded her mother to follow the same path. Although I read that Jess denied that, no one knows how her mother came to her own decision and no one ever will.
In making the choices that Jess did make, she helped the world to be a better place and many of us, to be better people.
I, for one, am enormously grateful that this angel spent as long as she did with us.
Rest in peace dear Jess. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And may you, dear reader, be happy. Be well. And just be.
And so be it.
There is a wonderful post written by Jess herself in 2012 on the blog of Dr Ian Gawler. You can find it here.