I am beginning to think that Breast Cancer Nirvana is not just about breast cancer at all. There is so much to learn from others’ cancer survival stories. Especially from remarkable individuals who have gone on to live full lives, helping others along the way.
Here, Phil Kerslake has shared part of his story and some of the things that really helped him. Phil is an author. motviational speaker, coach and has his own website Life Paths, helping people navigate the cancer journey. His mission to help people affected by cancer conquer the disease while creating more happiness and fulfillment in their lives.
Phil Kerslake was just 14 or 15 when he first developed lumps under his armpits. Misdiagnosed as glandular fever, he was diagnosed age 19 with stage II non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Thirty-eight years after his first symptoms appeared he reflects on having successfully battled six diagnoses of both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The cancer to have…
I was 19 when I first received a cancer diagnosis. The doctor said I had ‘the cancer to have if you had to have cancer,’ but added that I was terminal, with perhaps up to ten years to live. Those two statements seemed completely contradictory and I was left to reconcile them while in that stunned and confused state a cancer diagnosis produces.
The oncologists adopted a ‘wait and watch’ approach which lasted for years, so I just got on with my life. I did my traditional New Zealand OE, and experienced as many things as took my interest. I jumped out of aeroplanes and off bridges, went up to experience aerobatics in aircraft of all kinds and soared in hot air balloons, helicopters and gliders. Whether I was working my way through ‘100 things to do before you die’ I can’t say. I didn’t consciously feel a sword hanging over my head but I guess my diagnosis stimulated me to fast-track the things I wanted to do.
Eight years after my diagnosis I became very ill, with dramatic weight loss, profuse night sweats, nausea and severe back pain. Staging tests showed the disease had progressed to stage 4B. It was everywhere now; in my chest, armpits, abdomen, spleen, aortic vein and bone marrow. I commenced my first regime of chemotherapy in 1987 in what was to become a lengthy, on-again-off-again road that included close to 24 months of chemotherapy, two regimes of radiotherapy, high-dose chemotherapy with a stem cell transplant and nine operations including the removal of my spleen.
But contrary to how it might appear, my life hasn’t been dominated by cancer. There have been long remissions during which I have involved myself in many things. One was tertiary study. When I left school I had no interest in going to university. After recovering from my lengthy cancer battle in the late 1980s I wanted to challenge myself and to see what there was to learn. I began part-time study towards my first qualification – a diploma in business studies. When I completed it I enrolled in an MBA and when I completed that, I did a master’s degree in business studies. When I do something I’m pretty full on and tend to give it all I have. I took the same approach to my career, rising through the ranks to become general manager of two of the largest property advisory companies in New Zealand.
People often ask me what got me through six battles with cancer spanning four decades. Naturally, I had great support around me but having said that, accepting help from others was never easy for me and in the early days, I resisted offers of support, feeling I needed to be totally self-reliant. Even my immediate family was kept at arms length.
For years I avoided cancer support groups like the plague. I felt, very uncharitably and quite ignorantly that those people who needed to attend them must be weak. They needed to lean on others while I didn’t. I also pictured the environment of a support group involving constant hugs, pats on the back and mutual bemoaning of each member’s circumstances.
When I eventually did attend a support group I found my preconceptions to be totally contrary to what I encountered. I found people of real courage – willing to face up to the challenge of cancer and prepared to help others cope with the illness.
Now I truly regret having kept close friends and relatives at bay. Back then I justified my actions by telling myself and others that I needed to remain free from any distractions; to be completely focused on the battle at hand and not on others’ reaction to it. While everyone respected my wishes, I had ignored the needs of those who truly cared for me to understand what I was experiencing, and to feel they had a part to play in my recovery. I know now that this left them feeling helpless.
When I was diagnosed with a recurrence of Hodgkin’s Disease in 2003, my wife Gillian experienced a cancer battle for the first time. I had been free of disease since we began dating nine years earlier. Gillian wanted to know everything and to be an active part of my recovery, which was a catalyst for me to be much more open and inclusive.
As it transpired this was the best thing that could have happened. My 5th and 6th cancer battles through 2003 and 2004 (we resolved the Hodgkin’s recurrence but this was followed by a non-Hodgkin’s recurrence) were the most arduous and challenging of my life. My previous go-it-alone approach would never have worked – I would likely not have survived without the active help and support of Gillian and my friends and family.
What helped me
In medical circles there is a premise that to create ‘false hope’ in the mind of a patient is somehow unethical or otherwise morally wrong. I understand the point but I don’t hold to it because unconditional hope and faith have been major factors in my recoveries.
I always worked to retain hope and held a firm belief in my ability to recover – even when the odds were not in my favour. This hope and faith fuelled my optimism, fighting tendencies and will to live. They encouraged me to always look forwards and to expect a life into the future. It was never a case of whether I would achieve my remission, but rather when it would be achieved and what had to be done to get to that point.
At times, messages that reached me made little allowance for hope. While I survived, I feel that for some people these messages help seal their fate. There is cause for hope even when the odds or statistics are against us because there is no cancer which does not have somerecovery rate. People often defy so-called odds to live longer and increasingly richer lives. I am one of them.
Humour has always been one of my favoured weapons against cancer. I used it to buoy myself before and after my operations and other procedures. Having read of Norman Cousin’s use of laughter for healing chronic illness in his book ‘Anatomy of an illness’ I developed my own ‘humour library,’ collecting recordings of some of my favourite comedies from television and film. Everyone’s sense of humour is unique, but for me, shows such as Get Smart, MASH, Cheers, Monty Python and Seinfeld had me in fits whenever I employed them for that purpose.
Fortunately I have always had the knack of seeing the bizarre and ridiculous in otherwise serious and even dire situations. This frequently lifted my mood, gave me extra energy and strength and bolstered me against some of the worst of the treatments’ potential side-effects. Viewing operating theatre staff as looking kind of ridiculous rather than ghoulish and intimidating in their masks and garments, for instance, enabled me to face the operating theatre with a greater sense of control over my thoughts, feelings and circumstances. I even found humour in the shock realisation (while showering one day…) that chemo’s alopecia-effects were not contained to my scalp!
Another great cancer recovery measure for me has been music. Music can lift me in the same way laughter can when I’m at a low ebb, and produces many of the same physiological benefits as laughter, including relief from symptoms of treatments such as pain and nausea,the promotion of my sleep and appetite, reduction in my anxiety and the lowering of my heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate as well as the promotion of an overall sense of wellbeing.
Music also helped me open and reveal emotions trapped within me (as the Ancient Greeks believed). My go-it-alone nature came with (or perhaps stemmed from) a tendency to emotional repression. I knew that keeping my feelings bottled up inside of me was not going to help my recovery cause, but I had great difficulty expressing them. Using music to help me open up to what I was feeling inside proved invaluable.
Decision-making with potential life and death consequences were always stressful but using music as a calming, stabilising or resolve-building measure helped me make better-considered decisions. It helped me face the doctors’ rounds too, when I would learn the latest good or bad news on my condition and prognosis.
My approach to the use of music has always been very simple. I would play gentle, relaxing music to help calm me when I needed my decisions to be made in a more considered frame of mind. I would play music that moved me to open up to my innermost feelings. I played fast and energetic music to pump myself up and put me in ‘fight’ mode when I felt the need to face impending news with a forward looking, defiant attitude.
It’s often said that an encounter with cancer can prove to be a profound and life-enhancing experience once you’ve recovered from it. While I would never have chosen to have cancer once let alone six times, I can see that it has been the catalyst for major personal growth for me and it has encouraged me to pursue a life path that has been increasingly meaningful and fulfilling.
It is very easy to drift in life or to take the path of lesser resistance. Discussions in cancer wards often turn to life’s regrets with ‘should have’ and ‘wish I had’ frequently mentioned. Each new cancer battle prompted me to take stock of my life and to accelerate whatever I wanted to do or achieve at that time.
Then as I worked hard to recover from my lifetime 5th and 6th cancer diagnoses in my mid-40s I felt I had to make some dramatic life changes to help the recovery process, and to ensure that, as long or short as my life was to be, I did not leave this world with regrets about missed opportunities.
For me this meant leaving my corporate management job to write my long-planned book (Life, Happiness & Cancer – released in 2006 and now in its 4th print in NZ, with editions in Australia, Africa and Poland), and to become a life and leadership coach and motivational speaker.
I also felt compelled to find ways to give back. So many people had freely supported me in different ways through my life with cancer. My book created interest in others and became a vehicle for speaking to audiences on my philosophies on coping with cancer. I started a speaking program throughout New Zealand that continues to this day.
Gillian and I also decided, relatively late in life for me, that we wanted to start a family. On 1 July 2007 Rhys Philip William Kerslake entered our world. In December 2008 he was joined by his brother Matthew James Alexander Kerslake. Our sons bring us immeasurable joy every day and are testament to the fact that cancer should not stop us from living the life we want to. If my cancer journey has taught me anything, it’s that life is a gift to be taken with both hands and relished every day.
As I embark on writing my second book in 2012 – a Memoir of my life coping with cancer, and reflect on the first 52 years of my life, I can’t help but acknowledge that despite the adversity that cancer has brought me at times, life has just continued to get better and better.