15 years ago this month I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer which had started to spread. As well as being a founding partner in a growing management consultancy, I was also a young mum, pregnant again and juggling an oversized social diary. It looked like success, except I had failed to notice that I was living in a way not conducive to sticking around long enough to bring my children up.
At the time I was diagnosed I was inundated with advice, mostly from friends and family. Do this, try that, take this, avoid that; I was pretty ignorant about complementary medicine, although I had been seeing a homoeopath for a couple of years because of the eczema that covered my hands. When I turned inward for guidance, the strongest message in my head was to slow down and take it easy. That message had been there for a long time, I had simply been telling it I had no choice. I used to tearfully, and sometimes angrily, say the same to my husband when he pleaded with his grumpy and stressed wife to slow down.
Luckily for me, cancer served to take away my choices even more, it was a stark wake up call. I decided to listen and to rein my life in to parameters that would suit my body better.
In the years, the many years, that have followed I continued to struggle to cultivate quietness and silence and a sense of inner calm. It’s not my natural state – I’m noisy to the core – but my brain keeps prompting me to try.
Coincidentally, I was in Oxford last week and wandered into a shop on Broad Street called Innerspace where I was greeted by a wise and wonderful and quietly spoken man with time to talk who pointed me in the direction of some blissful guided meditation pieces on a CD called The Jewel. I’ve managed to listen to it 3 times since then, which is a record for me! Even as I’m writing this, I can feel the pull towards the peace of that experience.
Yesterday, by chance, I came across a ‘new’ publication by Dr David Servan-Schreiber whose book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life, has been a great inspiration to me and many of my clients. I read with great sadness that he died last year as a result of a powerfully malignant return of his original aggressive brain tumour. This amazing man – a psychiatrist and practitioner of integrated medicine – conducted one of the most comprehensive analyses of the cancer literature, looking at nutrition, exercise, psychology and physiology to help himself and his readers. HIs book was an enlightened and empowering plan to save your own life. I used it, along with millions of others.
He freely admits that, in the years following his diagnosis, driven by the enormous success of the book, he pushed his mind and body to the limit – and sometimes beyond, straying from the path of his own findings. In his last, short book, which I bought and read yesterday (Thank you, Kindle), he reflects on what he might have done differently to avoid a recurrence of this particularly aggressive form of cancer. His 18-year survival was remarkable but he mentions a fellow-sufferer and one-rem survivor, Molly, whose disease prompted her to live in almost total isolation. “Every day she takes long walks on the banks of a lake. When you ask her, ‘What is it that helps you most to keep the disease at bay?, she responds: ‘It’s the quiet, The quietness protects me.” Molly is still very much alive and free from recurrence.
In his final analysis of what is the most important element to ensure survival he simply says:
“In the light of my own ordeal, I’m tempted to emphasise the absolute necessity of finding and maintaining inner peace, notably through meditation, cardiac coherence exercises and a balance lifestyle that minimises sources of stress. Next, I would put physical exercise, whose importance cannot be overstated. And on a par with physical activity, I would put nutrition.”
We are in a phase of world development that seems to reward those with stamina and appetite and cast-iron constitutions (and consciences) so much more richly than the gentler members of our species. The temptation is to join them, to push ourselves to achieve in the way that seems to win. When you look at human metabolic typing, however, you realise that the go-getters of this world are just one of the ‘types’. There are at least 4 other metabolic types not designed to live at the limit. When we behave contrary to our type we experience psychological and physiological stress in our bodies that creates the conditions for disease: which explains why some people can live happily at G Force 8 and some of us fail. The trick is knowing which type you are and honouring that.
Like many other people, Dr Servan-Schreiber discovered that the time he managed to spend in quietness paid dividends for his energy and productivity in all the other areas of his life, underlining the fact that we don’t have to find more time to create a quietness practice. On the contrary, it will reward us with a feeling of more time in our lives. And, quite possibly, more years to enjoy.
If you are one of the many people living at a faster pace than you want to, then I can’t urge you enough to start listening to your body and taking some time for silence and renewal.
RIP David, and thanks for all the wisdom.