Thriving With Cancer
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 disbelief and agony. 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. It’s true, there are far worse types of cancer, but 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!
Given a choice of surgery or radiation, I dove into research. Turns out the web is a Pandora’s Box of information and misinformation. As someone who prides himself on being a practical, take-charge type who’s highly competent at solving personal and professional problems, that self-image took a blow. No matter where I looked, the side-effects were alarming, and the outcome would be out of my control. And denial wasn’t a treatment option.
Being a private person, I only shared the news with a few close friends. There was a huge hole in my own inner circle, as both of my brothers had been diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia. One had passed and the other was just a shell of the person I once knew. So, the two men I was closest to (we spoke 2–3 times a week), had disappeared and that sense of loss and grief felt even more acute now.
I was fortunate that my wife was there to support me every step of the way, but I didn’t want to burden her with every daunting detail or frighten our kids with the specter of their father being really sick. It was hard enough dealing with the diagnosis on my own, as I didn’t want to admit to them, or to myself, how scared I was. So, I swallowed a lot of that fear, and my stomach churned with cerebral indigestion.
Under The Robot’s Knife
In April, I underwent a radical prostatectomy at the UCSF Medical Center. It was done by a world-renowned surgeon using a robotic machine called the Da Vinci, operated from ten feet away using three-dimensional, high-definition video, like some kind of space-age Xbox. That night, plodding along the halls of the hospital like a zombie, my wife firmly holding my arm, I knew I’d survived a battle, but was literally wounded to the core. It also marked the beginning of two weeks of using a catheter and feeling pissed off took on a whole new meaning.
Tests showed the cancer had been confined to the capsule, so I assumed my treatment was done. Life might not go back to exactly as before, but some of the anxiety and uncertainty that had been my constant companions lifted. Other than a small scar on my abdomen, no one would know I’d had an operation that could permanently affect my plumbing and sexual function. It took time to heal my physical body and for the mental and emotional trauma to subside, but I was content being a cancer survivor and became one of the lucky ones who had a full recovery.
Actually, turns out I wasn’t so lucky, because 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. Not aware of this, I hadn’t worried, so I was floored when I found out. It felt like my body had turned on me again and a Vincent Price-ish voice of gloom reminded me of my mortality. 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.
The first step in pre-treatment was a PSMA, a highly-sophisticated PET scan, to try to pinpoint our target. I was injected with radioactive isotopes (you know something is up when it arrives in a lead box) and iodine to help locate the cancer cells, but nothing showed up. They were there somewhere, but too small to see. 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, like carpet bombing versus radar-guided missiles.
So, 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 was that the disease wasn’t adapting to my battle plan. I was fortunate to have a great medical team, and I did join a prostate cancer support group, where the members provided very useful information and encouragement. 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.
Covering All the Bases
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 even visited a shaman in Baja, Mexico.
Acupuncture was very helpful in balancing my system. The energy work was done over the phone with someone using his intuition to release blockages. Interesting process didn’t feel any changes. The sound therapy was pleasant and put me to sleep, and a CBD tincture had no discernible impact. But an occasional hit of its cousin, THC cannabis, and an everyday challenge can take on an ever-so-slight shift towards more bearable or enjoyable, counteracting the constant undercurrent of dis-ease (and increasing the desire for a chocolate chip cookie). In my book, all of these, including the cookie, constitute medicine.
High on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the shaman, a gentle soul dressed all in white, blessed me, cleansed my body with sage, and called on the spirits to help me heal. Like a dramatic movie scene, there was 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 potent mojo to my list of medications. Can’t get a Rx for magic at CVS.
Put Me In, Coach
Even though my PSA level was low, and we still couldn’t see the cancer on the scans, I was running out of time and needed to make a decision, rather than risk the cancer spreading to my bones or organs. Not taking action meant I didn’t have to endure hormone therapy and radiation right away, but waiting might lead to a lifetime of treatment or even a death sentence. 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 in Boston. Despite the distance, I figured I had nothing to lose, except money, to learn about using my mind to aid in my healing journey. At times, we need experts and mentors to help us develop new skills, and being a life-long athlete who had also worked in professional sports, I recognized the value of having a cancer coach.
I flew east for three days of intensive one-on-one sessions. In a cozy, light-filled office, the comfort of a cushioned chair, water, and energy bars within reach, it felt as if I was preparing for a triathlon. My coach was a former soldier in the Israeli army and had a no-nonsense aura about him, like an empathetic drill sergeant in a cancer boot camp. Using hypnosis and self-hypnosis, we got down in the trenches together, getting me ready for the battle of my life. Actually, the battle for my life.
It was grueling work, but as 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 had to confront my demons, declare my willingness to change, acknowledge my resilience, and believe I deserved every chance to heal.
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 into the benefits of psychoneuroimmunology has shown that going into any medical procedure in the right state of mind will yield fewer complications, shorter hospital stays, faster recovery rate, even overall better outcomes.
Most importantly, I reclaimed some sense of control by retraining my brain to think positively. Negative thoughts repress the body’s immune system — the goal is to recognize these old voices and deactivate them using a constructive mindset. When my inner critic says, “You’re not going to beat this cancer,” my inner ally responds with, “I’m living life fully and sticking around!” Ironic that letting go of the outside elements I can’t control has helped me gain more command of my inner world.
Make Up Your Mind
Now, when I wake up and before I go to sleep, I write about the large and small things I’m grateful for. I practice self-hypnosis and visit an emotional control room to acknowledge any angst, and dial it down. Lying below the linear accelerator, which slowly rotates like a space station as it emits computer-guided external beam radiation, I listen to hard-driving classic rock and visualize cancer cells being zapped by drones. When swimming laps, I see giant waves washing the cancer out to sea. This all would have sounded silly to me before I gained this new sense of self-awareness, but now, it makes me feel powerful when I’m at my most vulnerable.
Is my whole-istic approach to cancer treatment working? I do have hormonal side effects, such as hot flashes. I’ll be reading in my chair and suddenly, need to start peeling off clothes, my internal thermostat going haywire. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is history, I’ve gained a little weight and with less testosterone, my libido has gone on a sabbatical. I also have body aches and radiation fatigue. But these are all temporary conditions, and I keep reminding myself the long-range forecast calls for clear skies.
Yes, there will be moments when life gets messy and the “why me?” sneaks in. But I’ve learned that a serious illness can 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 wanted to keep and which I wanted 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.
Approaching the finish line in my second round of treatment, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. However, one word my doctors don’t use is “cure.” Each time I get a PSA test, the ideal result will be “no current evidence of disease.” Yet 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 my shaman.