Finding hope in a healing place

It has taken many years for Ian Gawler’s holistic approach to helping cancer patients to take hold. But his methods are finding currency among conventional medical practitioners – and helping thousands of people deal with their illness.
PEOPLE are gentle with each other here. A couple married for more than 40 years kiss before even the briefest parting. A husband caresses his wife’s hair as she lies propped on a mattress and pillows on the floor at his feet, too weary to sit up. Her slender arm rests on her rounded belly, which is curved as if it is carrying a baby rather than a tumour.
No one here has to be told that life is fragile, and loved ones precious.
The word cancer comes from the Latin word for crab, that little creature that scuttles so quickly and so unobtrusively across a landscape. The word has also become a metaphor for anything evil that quietly spreads and destroys. Here, in a room of 40 people it has touched, it has many names.
A Kiwi nurse-artist calls her ovarian tumour “Jenny Craig” because of the sudden, dramatic weight loss it has caused. Another woman, a mother of three, found that the real name for her “slight cough” was advanced lung cancer. Helen Emmett, who has two small children, one only a year old, discovered that the name for that odd lump in her groin was stage-three melanoma (skin cancer).
Her doctors never did find the primary site of Emmett’s cancer. “One in 20 people with melanoma don’t have a primary,” she says crisply, with the clinical distance of one who has had to repeat this many times. “Melanoma can be as small as a pin prick, or actually live under the skin. It’s quite scary.”
When doctors talk to her about her condition, she says, “Everything is ‘unfortunately. . .’, ‘unfortunately . . .’, ‘unfortunately’. . .” But Emmett is only 38, and she desperately wants to see her children grow up. So she has moved heaven and earth and family arrangements to get here, to learn how to fight her illness from Ian Gawler, “the fella in a dress” (his own words) who is living proof that it is possible to stop the C-word becoming a sentence.
It is 25 years today since Ian Gawler set up his first cancer support group, which took off after he announced its inception in a story that The Age ran on its front page. In the decades since then, 15,000 people have directly used his cancer services, and more than 75,000 have attended his programs in healthy lifestyles, disease prevention and meditation. He has written four best-selling books, including what patients here call the “cancer Bible”, You Can Conquer Cancer.
Gawler began as a voice in the medical wilderness, arguing that diet and meditation could arrest and even cure cancer at a time when conventional medicine dismissed such therapies as quackery that offered false hope. The years have seen conventional medicine start to adopt some of his strategies: “You go into most of the major hospitals these days and they’re running groups, they’re running meditation, they’re talking more constructively about diet and exercise, and they’re recognising the power of the mind,” he says. “I think GPs have moved a great deal in terms of adopting a more integrated approach towards medicine and a more holistic way of dealing with cancer specifically.
“But I think in oncology it’s been incredibly slow and very disappointing. People diagnosed with cancer are still being told by their cancer specialist that what they eat doesn’t matter, and (cancer specialists are) not addressing lifestyle issues. My view is that these things should be part of the first cancer consultation, like they are with heart disease and diabetes.”
Gawler is tall and lean, his elongation emphasised by the full-length tailored kaftans he has adopted since losing a leg. He has a lined face that looks melancholy in repose but which often breaks into flashing smiles over small ridiculous things that take his fancy. When they are not occupied with his crutches, his graceful hands move expressively as he talks. He is not always easy with small-talk one-to-one but when he is leading a session his words flow effortlessly. He intersperses advice and the findings of medical research with daggy jokes and powerful anecdotes about the healing of former patients that have the impact of parables.
Gawler is therapeutic director of the Yarra Valley Living Centre in Yarra Junction. Also working with his team is his wife, Ruth, a GP with an interest in natural therapies who has a post-graduate qualification that equips her as a counsellor.
Gawler could have found no more serene place to set up shop. His centre nestles in a cleft of land out of sight or sound of any road, with undulating paddocks and kangaroos in front and bushland full of the calls of magpies, kookaburras and bellbirds behind. The most beautiful room, the meditation sanctuary, is an airy hexagonal space with windows that look out into treetops. It has taken on an air of stillness, like a chapel, as if it has absorbed the peacefulness of the people who have calmed their minds in it. In this program, which ended on Thursday, participants at the first meditation of the day often closed their eyes to a misty morning and opened them 40 minutes later to sunlight streaming through the eucalypts. Nature offers its own metaphors for transformation.
Most people here have been told that conventional medicine cannot offer them a cure. The mood in the first couple of days is low; people are reserved, tired, anxious, aching. Belinda Irvin, 35, looks worn and is fretful about her pain; her breast cancer has spread to her bones and she limps along with the aid of crutches. Her mother, Nell Deeth, has a face set in lines of anger and sadness. In the past three years Deeth has buried her husband, and lost her mother and sister to cancer. She would be shaking her fist at the gods if only she had the energy, but that is all taken up with caring for her sick daughter and her daughter’s two active children.
Michael Allis, 68, is one of many here who talks about how frantically busy his life had been before he got sick. His wife called him Action Man because he never stopped. He says: “Cancer got my dad, and it got my brother as well. I thought cancer would never catch me because I was too fast for it.”
Gawler talks in one session about the Type C (cancer-prone) personality. Such people need the liking and approval of others to the point where they have trouble saying no, and trouble accepting the help of others. Their self-esteem is propped up by externals, such as a significant relationship or a successful career, and they can fall into profound hopelessness if they lose one of these things because their sense of self-worth will go with it. “This isn’t the sole cause of cancer, but often a significant event (of this kind) has occurred about 18 months before the cancer is diagnosed,” Gawler says.
Seeing is believing and seeing him is, perhaps, a central part of the Gawler experience for cancer patients. Before the first session, a couple of the patients on this program wondered anxiously between themselves about whether they would meet the legend himself. To the observer, their awe seemed uneasily akin to a desire to touch the hem of his kaftan, as if mere proximity to the master would have its own magic. But Gawler drily resists being enthroned in guru-dom, despite the fact that his life story – and his kaftans – would fit the template perfectly (see box).
In the first session, he says, “In each one of you, the outcome will depend on a whole lot of factors. It will be lovely to get cured of cancer so that you can look forward to dying of something else. If you were coming here hoping to learn the secret of keeping alive forever, there’s a real possibility we will disappoint you on that one.” Preparing for a mindful, peaceful death would also be part of what they would learn: “I think dying well is important too.”
They learn a lot about pragmatics: how to analyse the medical statistics related to prognoses, the importance of the enzymes in vegetable juices, the gentle exercise that can be done even by those with low energy and painful scarring.
Science is now starting to back some of Gawler’s philosophies. New research has found that for a woman with primary breast cancer, exercise for half an hour to an hour a day halves her risk of dying of the disease, and there have been similar findings for bowel and prostate cancer.
Recent findings also back Gawler’s insistence on the importance of vegetables in the diet. “For women diagnosed with primary breast cancer, having a high level of carotenoids in their blood – which is a direct measure of how much vegetable they are eating – reduces their risk of recurrence by 40 per cent,” he says.
Other lifestyle factors are beginning to emerge as significant too. “Lack of sunlight has been implicated in cancer, with up to 30 per cent of all breast cancers diagnosed in Europe now thought to be attributable to this. The link with sunlight is through its effect on vitamin D, which affects the immune system.”
The people here learn how to relax in meditation, and how to use imagery to fight their illness. Gawler believes that it is in deeply relaxed states that healing occurs. He also teaches practical exercises for managing negative emotions such as anger, guilt, shame and fear. Many of the people here find themselves doing painful emotional housekeeping, sometimes about hurts from very long ago.
To those sceptical about the mind-body connection, Gawler points to the placebo effect (under which about one-third of people given a sugar pill and told it is medicine will improve) and the pointing-the-bone effect (under which Aborigines who believe they have been ritually sentenced to death will waste away and die). He teases patients about being positive about eating healthy food, even the green juices that taste like lawn cuttings: “If you say, ‘Oh shit, not another salad!’ you lose the placebo effect.”
Something else happens here, something hard to put into words. Maybe it’s about the openness of people who are facing what really matters; maybe it’s the compassion that pain brings. But by the end of the course, the people who arrived here isolated in their silos of suffering have melded into a group that is peaceful and warm and trusting. The chat is friendly and intimate, the humour frequent, the general feeling one of loving-kindness. It envelopes you.
The previously wilting Belinda Irvin is incandescent, lit up with happiness. Now she is on only one crutch because her pain has been reduced by meditation exercises. She feels she has finally let go of painful feelings about a family member that had been gnawing away at her.
Her mother, Nell Deeth, looks calmer and happier too. She says she had an experience in meditation that startled her, because “I’m a very down-to-earth sort of person.” Deeth saw a river of light that seemed to radiate energy. She was frightened the first time it came; the second time, she realised what to do with it. “I deflected it across to Belinda.”
Belinda says that while she was meditating beside her mother, “I saw a white light coming towards me and a person in it looked at me and grabbed my hand, and energy went through my whole body. And he said, ‘everything’s going to be all right’ and that I was going to be OK. You don’t believe these things until it happens and then it’s ‘shit, it works!’ ”
Her mother nods. “We don’t want to go home. This is a healing place.”
Karen Kissane is a senior reporter.
The Ian Gawler story
IAN Gawler was 24, a decathlon athlete and a veterinarian when he was diagnosed with a savage bone cancer called osteogenic sarcoma in 1974. His right leg was amputated from the hip. Ten months later, he had a bony outcrop of cancer protruding from his chest. He had radiotherapy and chemotherapy but was told he had only a 5 per cent chance of being alive in five years time, and that he probably had only weeks to live.
He began meditating under the guidance of Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares, who said that by the time Gawler came to him, he was coughing up blood flecked with sand-like particles of bone from his lungs (his cancer created excessive bone tissue). “That means he was very close to death,” Meares told the ABC.
Gawler meditated for up to five hours a day, travelled to faith healers in the Philippines, radically changed his diet and practised positive thinking exercises. In 1978, he was pronounced free of cancer and his remission was reported in the Medical Journal of Australia. There have always been conventional doctors who point to his conventional treatment as the probable reason for his cure, and Gawler believes that it contributed. But he is convinced that the alternative paths were crucial, and that this approach can work for others. Quoting Meares, he says, “A thing only has to be done once to show that it can be done.”

First published in The Age.