A LIFE SENTENCE TO CANCER OR LIBERATION FROM A MINDLESS EXISTENCE
I have just returned from Tasmania after spending 3 weeks with my beloved sister Annie who had sudden surgery for a bowel blockage which turned out to be cancer. She is 42, the same age at which I was diagnosed with breast cancer now over 9 years ago and the same age at which our brother had a heart attack 2 years ago.
It was an extraordinary 3 weeks. I taught her to meditate, made lots of juices and very healthy vegetarian food and talked and talked and talked. Feeling so full of grief that she too would have to make this journey with cancer and so full of gratitude and joy that maybe I in some small way could help her to fast forward some of the processes by which she could uncover her own path of healing.
During this time I began to realise that maybe I had learnt one or two things, that I was still not really acknowledging a lot of what I had achieved in those areas where I had had choices and responsibility.
I decided that perhaps it was time to update my story for Mandala (an international Buddhist journal), my original article published 6 years ago in October 1993. It was called Growth through Suffering and it documented the first 3 years of my journey with cancer, including the elimination of an 8 cm liver secondary without the use of chemotherapy..
Incidentally, at the time the Ven. Thich Nguyen Tang , a Buddhist monk in Vietnam, a member of the FPMT and a prolific writer, translated that article into Vietnamese for his followers (" I have thought everyone, they achieve for themselves what you did for yourself’ he said "so I translated it into Vietnamese for my followers and it was published in our magazine. We are all delighted…"). Thereafter I received a steady flow of letters, some in English and some in Vietnamese from people in Vietnam asking me for help and advice with their illnesses and problems. With the support of the Vietnamese Buddhist community in Adelaide I corresponded with them all. They continued for a few years. In the meantime I lost contact with Ven. Tang because I changed my name from Dixon to my maiden name—until a young Vietnamese woman approached me at the Dying To Live workshop in Adelaide in June 1999 and told me that the Ven. Tang now lived in Melbourne and would like to visit me on Kangaroo Island on 4 July (coincidentally the date of my mastectomy 9 years ago--- yes, Independence day!).
Susan Taylor and Ven. Thich Nguyen Tang (1999)
So he and a party of 7 of his followers, mostly from Melbourne came to visit me and my Peter on KI, as he said to ‘update his information about me for his followers in Vietnam’
It was a wonderful experience to meet this beautiful young man, so completely committed to the Dharma, still writing for Vietnamese papers in Sydney and Vietnam and teaching at the temple in Melbourne. He gave me one article in the Vietnam News published in Sydney which had a large picture of Lama Osel and an article about me.
I told him the rest of my story……That in 1995 I made the decision to come to KI to write a book about my healing. It had been a huge wrench to leave my two younger children who had said that they wanted to live elsewhere, my son Aran (15) with their father and my daughter Hilary (18) with university friends. With Kimball Cuddihy’s great support I took my caravan down to the land next to De Tong Ling, in a beautiful remote wilderness area, wrote and wrote and led the monastic life. Until I met Peter who lived there, a man of earth wisdom, more buddhist than a lot of people I’d seen who professed to be Buddhist.
By March 1996 we had moved out to a rented cottage and found our own land. Not an easy time. The land was 600 acres of mostly virgin bush with a splendiferous array of plants and wildlife and we dreamt that one day we would have a biodynamic garden and a small retreat centre. Peter began a woolclassing course at Agricultural College in Victoria, coming home every fortnight or so and I made long-awaited plans to go to Ireland with Aran.
In May, just as we where about to leave for overseas I discovered that the 8 cm tumour was back in my liver. I put it down to the stress of moving, the separation from Peter and my family’s disapproval of the relationship. I went away anyway and had a great time. Aran and I were the fittest in the group we went with.
By October the tumour had shrunk somewhat. I’d been on and off tamoxifen, but I didn’t like being on it for its side effects, particularly the hot flushes, so I took myself off it again around then.
Life went on and we found ourselves overstreched with time and money trying to grow wool with my Sydney brother, with too many sheep and no resources. I had been aware that my life seemed somewhat out of balance even though I thought that things were fine in the relationship. We seemed to be working far too hard, driving 100 km round trip each day to our land, never getting home before 8 or 9 at night, never having quiet relaxing times.
In November 1997 I was totally devastated when Peter said that he thought that we should separate, that things weren’t working between us and that maybe in time we could be together again. A bleak Christmas with Hilary and Aran and a hot busy January chasing sheep over the paddocks, mustering them to sell once and for all.
By late January 1998 I put Peter and his daughter on the ferry to go to Adelaide shopping and aware of the growing pain in my right side, took myself off to hospital prior to the 100 km trip back to the other end of the Island. And I finally collapsed, overwhelmed with grief and pain which was quite obviously secondaries in my liver again. I stayed in the hospital, cared for by wonderful staff for 4 days by which I intended going back home with Peter who came back from Adelaide. We did that but he had to bring me back to hospital the next morning with horrific shoulder tip pain. He left me there and then the hospital organised to airlift me to Adelaide via the Royal Flying Doctor.
In floods of tears with grief and in a huge amount of pain I ended up in Flinders Medical Centre where the next day tests revealed a pea-sized lymph-node affected in my clavicle and both lungs full of tumours, my liver bursting with cancer. The oncologist recommended chemo and tamoxifen and I told him that I just knew that I could not have chemo having never had any drugs before. I’d take the tamoxifen. Meditation dealt with the pain and the staff left me alone for the week that I was there. It was somewhat awe-inspiring to be really and truly facing my death. I’d been through it all in theory, read all the books, done Po-Wa and Vajrayogini practice, but when it came down to it, I was plain terrified. I struggled for some days with the will to live, feeling that, in many ways, despite my terror, death must be a far easier option. After all, at some level, I felt that I’d done everything to deal with the underlying causes of cancer—so what more could I do? Maybe it was my karma to die sooner rather than later.
I knew that I had a choice to return to Adelaide, be near my old Dad and two sons (by now Hilary was studying medicine at Newcastle, NSW), go to Victoria amongst my friends and work colleagues at the Gawler Foundation where I had been working on and off, or to return to KI. I continued to meditate in hospital, asking my teachers and all the unseen beings for help and inspiration. I spoke with my friend Annie who prays in tongues and who helped me to realise that even returning at all to KI was an option. My friend Lynne confronted me with this issue and amidst more tears, terror and sheer determination, I made the hardest decision of all, to return too KI. The hardest thing I’d ever done. To go back into the mouth of the vast unknown, that place within myself. To be alone with my loved ones standing by, not stepping in to rescue me. To live by the sea in a cottage owned by an elderly bodhisattva couple. Hardly able to move at first, feeling utterly alone, facing myself for the first time. The demons of the mind. The heartache and the misery. Fear, heaps of fear. But also lots of meditation, juices and vitamin and herbal supplements. My dearest friend Trish even organised a circle of friends to contribute to a Healing Fund to help me pay for my carrots and supplements.
All of this was rewarded by a slow rebuilding of my physical strength, a glimmering of hope and a flickering of peace of mind I’d never experienced before. The lymph node began to shrink immediately. This was February. By March it was gone. By then there were only 2 out of 10 lesions in my lungs. By June all the lung tumours had gone and the liver tumours were smaller and more discrete. I had lots more energy, felt like I was a new person and Peter and I were able to make the decision to be together again. I felt like I had grown up, moved away from huge insecurities and doubts about myself. I’d experienced the dark night of the soul and felt in some way transformed.
Now eighteen months down the track, the liver tumours are still shrinking and the rest is clear. In May this year the oncologist told me that it was one thing to have static disease but quite another to shift tumours, particularly in the liver. I’ve realised that for years I projected the insecurities and need for approval stemming from my damaged self-esteem onto my relationships with people in the outside world. It was my relationship with myself that was the problem
And all through this time I’ve meditated, done my practices. Mindlessly. Now I feel like a complete beginner on the path. I used to ‘do’ meditation…still fear-based, it used to be ‘if you don’t do your practices, do retreats, attend every teaching possible, you’re a hopeless Buddhist and you’ll get nowhere on the path to enlightenment’. Just like my Old Testament upbringing.
My teachers Ven. Khensur Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche have given me their utmost love, support and guidance and without this I’m not sure that I’d be still around. And my practices, 35 Buddhas( visualising prostrations if I’m too ill or tired to do them, on instructions from Ven. Khensur Rinpoche), Vajrasattva Medicine Buddha twice a day , Vajrayogini and as much mindfulness of breathing as I can manage.
But I also think it’s been about a daily Dharma practice of living in relationship and learning how to speak about how I feel. Very scary stuff when I have hidden behind intellectuality and my achievements in the world all my life. Acknowledging negative emotions, particularly anger has been extraordinarily difficult, especially understanding that it’s a root cause of suffering and a complete ‘no no’ in Buddhist cosmology. But I did learn that my teachers were not saying ‘don’t feel anger’. They were saying ‘be aware of your feelings and make a conscious choice to deal with its expression differently.’ To transform anger with compassion. Such a liberating awareness. Be conscious, wake up. My favourite writer of all times, Stephen Levine speaks so eloquently of this very path. And Jack Kornfield’s article Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds To Heal has been of enormous value as he speaks so brilliantly about what I have experienced—meditating for 17 years and still finding myself full of deep unresolved childhood issues, only just now surfacing and beginning to be resolved
So the dharma practice of letting go of control, allowing things to be as they are, understanding that I can only take responsibility for my reactions to what arises as my karma unfolds. I can’t make anything happen. The daily practice of taking responsibility for my feelings and trying at all times to avoid projecting them on to others. Through living, through being in relationship with another person committed to the path of honouring who they are intrinsically, who has the courage to live his truth regardless of, as Caroline Myss says, the ‘tribal culture’ and who has the willingness to open his heart and love unconditionally. To open our hearts, take the risk to be close, have the courage to speak our truth and be who we are as individuals, sharing our lives together, committed to continuing the process of unfoldment of ourselves..
And so we live day by day. Our vision unfolding, working in our certified garden with windsong and birdsound. I’ve been working here and there counselling and running huge groups at the Gawler Foundation with my dear dear friend Bob Sharples of Tara Institute fame, another major support person for me along this way. I ran a Dying to Live workshop at Buddha House and Chenrezig Institute in Queensland ( the latter rather ill with the flu—I felt that I was a living example of someone who was dying!). Both were opportunities for me to share my ideas about death awareness and living consciously and mindfully every day. And meditating and having lots of laughs together and cooking very healthy and delicious food, making our own tofu using Southern Ocean sea water….
So there we are. I feel completely blessed to be alive, so humbled by the experience of being ordinary and human and glad that I have the opportunity of living every day with cancer. I will live until I die. I will be healing myself (with a little help from my friends/teachers) until the day I die---and then into my next life.
(Written in 1998 to Mandala. It was published in the Gawler Foundation Newsletter in Spring 2000)
Now here it is June 2001 and Peter and I are living in Tasmania. We came here to be closer to Annie my sister and to find work so that we could save to eventually build a house and retreat centre on KI. We live in another beautiful landscape with huge tall trees and stunning coastal scenery, the big cliffs and the mountains, all the water, the sea meeting the sky, the birds..
Annie died on 2 May. I think I helped her to die well but it is so sad. I had an experience that showed me that death is only part of the fabric of this cycle of samsara, that the essence of Dharma practice in each life we have is to be kind, be gentle and compassionate and that love is the tool that will heal the world. And that it will make a difference…..
Update : 01-08-2002