By Brian O’Donnell
In the past four years, I’ve had two serious medical crises that required a choice of how to treat these conditions — using conventional medical treatments or alternative approaches, or some combination of both. It goes without saying that to make life altering choices when you are deeply thrown is difficult. One’s usual capacities are shaken and at times unavailable. Yet oddly, in just such a time, new capacities and resources can be revealed. The usual structures of thought and feeling can be more porous and fresh possibilities can enter.
The first diagnosis, which I received about four years ago, was prostate cancer. This was determined not only by a blood test but also through a biopsy of the organ. I was completely surprised, as I was relatively young for such a diagnosis (56). I also prided myself on living a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise, good nutrition, spiritual practice, and a healthy balance of work and rest did not make me immune to this occurrence.
My urologist strongly recommended a radical prostatectomy. This is the surgical removal of the prostate; major surgery that can have very challenging side effects, including incontinence and impotence. I made it a part-time job to explore the literature on the disease and treatment options. I also decided to get other opinions. All told, I consulted five different medical specialists to ascertain my options.
I visited a well-known specialist in treating this condition without surgery. He recommended radiation, which basically destroys the prostate without the vagaries of surgery. Yet this method also has its own possible deleterious side effects. I visited the doctor at the University of Michigan who is most recognized in the approach of “watchful waiting,” which is the idea of not intervening surgically or radiologically, but to keep a close eye on the cancer, as it may be slow growing and not need any treatment. Even he recommended surgery or radiation, as I was so young and would tolerate the treatment better and the cancer could possibly be more aggressive.
This perspective was compelling to me, as he was the expert in this option of watchful waiting or active surveillance. I decided to go ahead with conventional treatment and chose radiation. I was configured for the procedure, an experience very similar to the procedure itself, which was scheduled in one month’s time. I was ready and set to follow this protocol.
At the same time, I was exploring alternative methodologies. I prayed to be guided to whoever might be able to help me. I saw a number of well-regarded energy healers; intensified my nutritional regimen; increased my psychotherapy sessions; and had a Native American medicine pipe healing ceremony. A number of other practitioners were recommended to me, but in meditation I didn't feel a resonance. I learned to listen and respect my guidance. I went to whomever the guidance directed, no matter how outside my paradigm, and I declined whomever my guidance directed, no matter how highly recommended.
A significant and profound realization came to me in the midst of the Native American healing ceremony. It was augmented in my psychotherapy. I could surrender to whatever was being asked, even if that meant my death. I saw that healing does not have a particular outcome and may not mean a “cure.” I understood that the desire for a cure can be an egoic impulse to remove a symptom so as to feel better, which is certainly understandable, yet quite different than a healing. A healing is a deep surrender to what is; an opening and inquiry into what may be out of balance and the willingness to pay the price to re-establish this balance no matter how uncomfortable. I came face to face with my fear of dying. I embraced it in such a way that it didn’t have control over me in that moment of my journey. I was released from my decision being shaped by fear. I didn’t want to die; in fact, the crisis activated strong impulses to live more fully. Yet, if this was what was being asked, I could yield.
A background to this exploration was the fact that my brother also had prostate cancer. He’d had surgery and it did not abate the cancer. He was slowly slipping away. So the reality of this disease and its toll was never far from my awareness.
One morning in the few weeks before my radiation and shortly after the healing ceremony, I had a meditation that clearly indicated something had shifted and that I should get another blood test and reconsider my treatment. I questioned this, as it seemed so predictable for someone in my situation to deny and avoid the upcoming trauma and discomfort. I was hesitant to ask my urologist for another blood test because he might also suspect my motives. To his credit, he listened and agreed.
The blood test came back dramatically different. The blood values were now in the low normal range. The urologist was surprised.
I called and canceled my radiation. The radiologist was taken aback and said I was making a big mistake — “You will be back in a year, only worse off!” This was challenging to hear; yet I felt the rightness of my decision. It wasn't made from fear. I was willing to undergo the treatment. I was willing to meet whatever might come my way. I was also willing to trust my own inner authority. This took some fortifying, as I had to contend with all these doctors urging me to pursue conventional notions of treatment. (In the past few years since my diagnosis, medical opinion is evolving around the recommendations of testing and treatment for prostate cancer.)
It has now been four years and my tests numbers have bounded around some yet remained in the normal range. I’m aware that these numbers may change again. If so, I’m open to considering conventional treatment. This may be exactly the healing agent that I require.
In the fall of 2011, another medical challenge occurred. I had sharp stabbing pains in my gut that led to a diagnosis of diverticulitis. A C.T. scan confirmed this. Once again the resounding chorus of conventional opinion was to have surgery to remove the diseased sigmoid colon, which is about 18 inches long and no small matter. This had been my fourth attack in the last year. The conventional recommendation is to remove the sigmoid after two severe bouts.
The science of this disease seemed to me more established than that of the prostate. There were not competing medical specialists vying for their prescribed methods, as there were with prostate treatment, so I didn’t seek a second medical opinion. Also the pain was quite palpable, unlike with prostate cancer, where there are no symptoms.
Yet, I also wanted to check in with alternative treatments. I made the rounds again of energy healers and alternative practitioners. Some were convinced I could use herbs or healing to treat this condition. Some were neutral. One told me during the consultation that any surgical invasion of the body was counter productive — only a few minutes later catching herself and admitting this was her bias. She asked inside herself again and came back and said that surgery might be helpful. I felt so grateful, as this was the only practitioner, alternative or conventional, to admit a bias and to look beyond it.
Another alternative practitioner told me in a detached manner that he detected liver cancer while scanning me. I had mentioned that the C.T. scan had revealed lesions on my liver. He suggested that I not go for a scheduled M.R.I. to further discern the nature of these lesions; instead I should do more treatments with him. “The M.R.I. will only confirm the cancer and they will urge you to treat it medically when I can treat it this alternative way.”
I was completely undone with his diagnosis and his clinical manner of delivering such devastating news. I spent several days believing I was going to die.
Again I was called to my inner authority. When I quieted myself enough to listen to my inner voice, I decided to go ahead with the M.R.I. It revealed, after painstaking days of waiting and numerous missed calls from the lab, that the lesions were benign cysts and needed no treatment.
I chose the sigmoid surgery. I had a skillful and compassionate surgeon. The surgery was strong medicine indeed. One year has passed and there are scant traces left of this treatment. I had it done robotically, and so the scars are almost invisible. I am in better shape than I have been in years, as I was suffering with a diseased bowel and didn't know it.
What did I learn from these medical challenges? I learned that both conventional and alternative methods have their place. Each practitioner, with his or her particular worldview, can be both helpful and blinded by strengths and prejudices. This commitment to their structure of understanding can allow for depth of learning and practice, yet it can obscure other equally valid yet unknown perspectives.
I learned that disease can be a doorway to awaken inner authority. It can also lead to submission to the egoic forces of fear and the need for certainty.
When we feel shaken and unsure the temptation is to turn ourselves over to the “experts.” The true expert lives within us and can guide us uniquely in every situation and decision. The essential point for me was to turn within and trust my own inner “doctor.” Of course, this can be easily misunderstood and misused to rationalize a fear-based decision. The price to pay for trusting this inner knowing is that I had to open to any course of treatment, alternative or conventional, before I could truly hear what my guidance was leading me to. If I could accept something beyond my preference, I could more faithfully trust what the deeper intelligence was revealing. If I could relax my grasping and aversion, which is no easy task, especially when it is life and death, I could open to the medicine of the soul.
Brian O’Donnell, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Ann Arbor. He also teaches the Pathwork, a contemporary spiritual course of self development. (He was interviewed about his work in the January thru April 1997 issue of the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, read here.) He can be reached at Bodpath@aol.com.
By Brian O'Donnell
A fundamental shift of perspective is needed if we are to have access to the “inner doctor” that I referred to in the article Threading the Eye of the Needle. This “inner doctor” possesses a much broader and deeper resourcefulness than the limited and fragmentary perspective of the everyday egoic mind.