Guest Post: How I Beat Cancer by Disregarding Everything Chris Has Told You

Charlie don't surf!Hello again BBL readers. I’m back for my long overdue and hopefully anticipated follow-up to my first and only guest post on the Blue Belt Life blog.

It has been nearly a year since I stayed at the Blue Belt household in Tokyo and attempted to adhere to Chris’s strict vegetarian, no alcohol diet. Trips to the farmer’s market at Yurakucho filling backpacks with vegetables, eating rice, homemade butter and concoctions of vegetables that I didn’t know existed and fighting the temptation to go anywhere near meat or booze (although I did eat quite a bit of sushi as Chris conceded going full vegie would be near impossible from my starting point). It was a great time, like entering a new world of sustenance I never knew existed.

I kept it up for 2 weeks before getting on a plane to LA for a film festival in the middle of my month-long trip. Upon arrival in the USA, I met my mate Ernie and we went directly to an American diner where I hesitated for all of 2 seconds looking at the almost non-existent vegetarian selection before thinking “Am I crazy?” and joining Ernie in ordering an enormous hamburger washed down by at least 3 beers. And looking back that was the end of me being the perfect guinea pig for the Blue Belt Life diet.

So is that it for your follow-up blog to the BBL diet you ask? The “weekly charting of my progress” that I envisaged was just a 2 week trial that ended in failure in the land of “Supersize Me”? No, there’s a little more to it than that and I have a story from my past that may better help explain my thoughts almost a year on.

In 2008 I was told by a very well educated English oncologist that I had best put my “things” in order as stage 3 bowel cancer wasn’t something people usually came back from. In true Anton form I laughed and told him I wasn’t going to start picking out a casket just yet and I was going to give this cancer thing a run for its money.

However having my treatment in Melbourne and running a car export business with 20 odd employees in Tokyo was going to make things a little difficult, but not impossible I thought. From March 2008, every second week for an insane 24 weeks I flew from Tokyo back to Melbourne and was hooked up to an intravenous drip that for all intents and purposes was pumping poison into my body. Chemotherapy, or “chemo” as it is known, is a poison aimed at killing rapidly dividing cancer cells. Unfortunately it cannot distinguish between cancer cells and other rapidly dividing cells such as those that make up blood, skin, hair and nails, hence the ghostly look of patients on chemo who often lose their hair and their skin turns dry and brittle. Often it’s the chemo more than the cancer that is making them look so sick, at least in the short term.

Anyway the idea is to poison someone with so much chemo that you almost kill the patients themselves, but hopefully don’t succeed in that endeavour and instead kill the rapidly dividing cancerous cells in the body wherever they may be.

I started my sessions in late March about 3 months after the operation to cut out the initial tumour and after the first session brushed off the chemo as a walk in the park. I wasn’t sick at all. I’ve had cough syrup that made me sicker, I thought at the time. Little did I know the effects were cumulative and by September I’d be having adverse reactions and being pumped full of adrenaline to “bring me back”. But we’ll leave that for later.

So I began my first couple of sessions travelling to and from Tokyo on a bi-weekly basis and doing all the things that cancer patients are told will save their lives. Everyone you meet has their own advice as to how to beat this curse called cancer. Going full vegetarian, healthy living, abstaining from red meat, yoga, meditation, positive thinking, reading books for inspiration…they were all offered up as the best way to help beat cancer and I listened intently, especially to the nurses who I met every Wednesday for the “in hospital intravenous drip (IV)” and Friday to disconnect the “take home IV”.

The nurses were great and initially, to an extent I was taking all of their advice. I read books on beating cancer including Lance Armstrong’s one, which even then seemed like it was made up – I guess he had a habit of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. I ate lots of vegetables, tried to be calm and positive and even laughed at the ridiculousness of vomiting in the same large pot plant on my way out of the hospital each time. This nice, grey haired old lady who I guess was a nun of sorts used to visit me on my 3 hour Wednesday session on the sofa with the IV hooked up and asked if I’d considered prayer and God as my salvation. She was a nice lady and I made a joke or two that if I had to repent all my sins I would likely run out of time even if I got through this thing so after 2 or 3 attempts she left me to my own devices.

So great I thought. I’ve likely got 6 months to live and if I give up all my vices including meat and red wine, and spend my time doing yoga and meditation I just might get through. Or alternatively die living the last 6 months of my life in the most boring existence possible – in my mind anyway. But I was going to beat this, so I continued to adhere to all the advice I was given and try everything I was told.

There was this one nurse though who I really struck up a rapport with over the first few sessions. Jane was about 30 and Irish and she told things the way they were. The other nurses weren’t as straight forward, trying to shield you from any negative thoughts I guess. Once when I asked Jane where Tom, one of the other patients was, as I hadn’t seen him in a week, she gave me a hard look and said, “You know how it works Anton, not everyone wins here.” That was all she needed to say.

About the 3rd session in, whilst sitting on the sofa taking in my poison, she stopped by to see how I was doing and I asked her advice. “Jane can I ask you about all the suggestions and recommendations I’ve been getting since all this started. Some people have told me to go vegetarian, some say meditation is the key, I’ve even been told about hypnosis and the power of positive thinking. What’s your take on all this?”

“Aye Anton” she said, pausing and considering my question, “You know there is a an old guy who comes in here for treatment. He smokes a packet a day, drinks like a fish and eats fried food and potato chips. And you just know he’s gonna survive this. It’s always the mean old fucker who doesn’t care about any of that shite that you been told, the one that does everything he’s told he shouldn’t, he’s the one who’ll survive. I hate to say it but the nice ones who do everything right – they are just as likely to not get through this. So you know what my advice is? Do whatever you like Anton. Do what feels good to you. You’ve only got so much time on the planet, make the most of it. If you’re meant to get through this you will.”

I’ve never forgotten what Jane said. The next Friday night as I went through Melbourne airport on my way back to Tokyo, feeling sick from the cumulative effects of the 3rd session I went up to the lady at duty free and said, “Pick me out 3 $100 bottles of red wine – cab sav preferably and package them up for me. Whatever you think is the best.” I’d decided that day that if I was only going to be around for another 6 months I was going to live life to the fullest and feel good when I could. And why not splash some cash doing it. I thought I may as well enjoy some of it while I still had the chance.

I arrived on the Saturday morning as usual and called my two best mates at the time – Chris and Peter. I made a trip to National Azabu Supermarket to get some real bacon, eggs, orange juice and freshly baked bread and made a full English breakfast for us all. Pete at my request brought a selection of imported beers – his favourite was Hoegaarden – and a handful of pharmaceuticals that would have baffled a qualified chemist. Chris’s job was to raise the IQ of the room, which was not hard in the presence of Pete and I, although I’m sure he brought some beers too – some wonderful cans of Asahi perhaps. We ate, drank, talked about many things, walked around Yoyogi Park in the sunshine and came back to the house in the late afternoon to drink some more and watch movies until we likely passed out on the large, very soft sofas as Apocalypse Now played on repeat.

So that was the pattern of my life for the next 6 months. One week in Australia on chemo feeling so sick I was nearly ready to pack it all in and one week in Tokyo eating great tasting food and drinking the finest alcohol available to man, mixing it with some of Pete’s pills and the leftovers from bottles of pain killers I had from my operation with names such as Endone and Oxycontin. I’ll tell you what, even the constant nausea of chemo can be beaten with a full English breakfast, 3-4 beers, a fine red and a variety of opioids.

So that became my alternate weekly routine for the toughest 6 months of my life. One week of having poison put in my body by the very nice nurses at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne and the next week working and recovering in Tokyo, trying my best to keep it together and eating and drinking what I enjoyed and doing whatever felt right. Basically I was living my life and doing what felt good to me in the company of great friends.

By the end of September the hospital had decided to stop my chemo sessions as I was having adverse reactions (to the chemo I think and not the recreational stuff from the week before) and I even went into a fit and briefly stopped breathing the last time. So I finished at 11 sessions. And by October I began to feel somewhat human again, although it would be a year before I could say I was anywhere near back to normal. And I don’t remember a great deal about 2008, even the weeks that I was in Melbourne and living the clean life.

But in spite of it all I survived and I have a good story to tell. And maybe that’s what it’s all about. As Jane said, do what makes you feel good. I’m not advocating taking pharmaceuticals or getting drunk every day as a lifestyle choice as trust me – it doesn’t work long term – but the big breakfasts washed down with a few beers and some very fine reds worked each Saturday as a mechanism for me to be happy and get through a tough period and I still laugh at the memory. Thanks Chris and Pete for being there for me at that time and thanks for your great company at those breakfasts that went late into the afternoon and more often than not involved a walk around Yoyogi park, wonderful, beautiful place that it is. And here ends my story to give the scales of the Blue Belt Life diet a perhaps (un)balanced and slightly different perspective. Strict vegan diets are for some, paleo for others, for me these days its a variety of good food and the occasional few beers or a red – and everything in moderation. Basically I do what makes me feel good.

Anton at the foot of the great rock        the beginnings of blue belt life

cleansing it        drowning it

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: How I Beat Cancer by Disregarding Everything Chris Has Told You

  1. Life lived only in the positive

    The thing that I think fails to be well reflected in this is mindfulness. Some of the comments address it, but there were an infinitude of paths that led up to a story of Anton at virtually the same point in his life but never having had cancer. Many of those paths align with a BBL outlook. The thing about being human that is often so limiting is the inability to see things in the negative- what choices are we taking away from ourselves by making the ones we make now? Sometimes, the extra beer or poor diet is taking away the option to have lived a life free of cancer.

    This, of course leads to two problems: 1) what decisions do you make or unmake for other people when you make your own decisions? Is one more night of hedonistic enjoyment worth missing the opportunity to see your children grow up- that sort of thing (though there are better, but more esoteric examples- like how many people’s poverty is your luxury vehicle worth?) and 2) do you believe you bear any responsibility for your life?

    1. bluebeltlife Post author

      This is an excellent point, and one that your reading recommendation, Black Swan, first introduced me to. Whether by nature or I would say more likely through conditioning by the information we take in, humans are currently disinclined to think in the negative. Just think of all the unsung heroes there are who averted disaster before it became obvious to others.

      On the other hand, the life philosophy I promote here will not prevent anyone from getting cancer or sickness, or help anyone survive one moment longer than they would without this information. The choices we make, both right and wrong, all eventually lead to the same place – our departure from this physical experience. What I hope to do is provide an example, a means, or an incentive for people to learn, grow, and maximize our experience here. And in making the right decisions, and exercising our will and imagination we can leave a better world for all future life.

  2. Anton Cavka

    That’s the greatest picture of you at the top of that volcanic rock out in the sea off Ohama Beach. You were the only one who had the agility and courage to climb all the way to the top. There must be some symbolic meaning to that 😉 Great times, I still remember it like it was yesterday.

    1. bluebeltlife Post author

      That was an expert snap I must say. A steady hand for a chemo patient on his 7th beer tiptoeing on sharp rocks, screaming “Never get off the boat!” at the top of his lungs.

  3. Anton Cavka

    Its very cathartic to look back and reminisce on that time in our lives Chris. It may be a better resolution for the BBL if I said I can look back with the benefit of hindsight and explain how I would have done things differently but it was an insane set of circumstances I found myself in and to be honest I’m not sure I would have done it any other way.

    I don’t consider this an example that anyone should follow as a “how to guide to beating cancer” and if it happened again my lifestyle and circumstances have changed so much that I don’t think I would have the inclination let alone the ability to recreate that crazy time even if I desired a repeat. As you know this story was just one chapter of an extremely wild journey through Tokyo that we all survived and we live very different lives now. So no, no need to track down those big velvet sofas and a 65 inch plasma or find a kitchen with a vinyl floor impervious to any amount of spilled beer from shotgunned cans.

    Perhaps the next step is to put all of those stories from that year together in a book. It would certainly offer an alternative point of view on how to mentally tackle an illness considered by many the modern day plague. It may even make for an entertaining read. An honest recounting of a dark, funny, inspirational and ultimately tragic time in which humour got me through and an experience I learned a great deal from.

    There is no time in life for what could have or should have been. Learning and moving forward each year no matter what stage you’re at is something I picked up from you. I appreciate that and through the haze I have held onto a lot of what you said. You know I like to tell a good story so perhaps that’s what I’ll do next. Thanks again for the opportunity to tell this one.

    1. bluebeltlife Post author

      Of course if we possessed the knowledge and level of conscious development that we do today we would have done a great many things differently. But isn’t that the beauty, mystery, and challenge of life that those events that we now call mistakes are the foundation of our current knowledge.

      I have no regrets about that time – we did no harm to others, we grew, and lived. It will make for some good stories to share up in heaven now that I am more like the guy who eats tofu and exercises every day in that Bill Hicks skit.

      As for your stories and other projects you are considering, ask the question – which of these has the greatest potential to bring knowledge into the world? And also which is the most difficult and interesting? My vote is for that little video project you mentioned, and write your memoirs as time allows or when you are ready for a break from full-on production.

  4. bluebeltlife Post author

    Great story Anton and I am proud to have played a part in it.

    I do need to weigh in with some thoughts before people start taking this as a how-to guide to beating illness or adversity. First of all some background: before the diagnosis Anton was not exactly a meditating yogi – he lived life a thousand miles an hour, ran a successful business working upwards of a hundred hours a week and spent nights and weekends making Tokyo and Japan his playground (instead of catching up on sleep). He has many more stories than the one above from his time here and I hope some day he shares them with us.

    The point is, though, making the change from hardworking party animal to singing Kumbaya at the Melbourne Vegan Meetup probably would have upset his life rhythm too much and done more harm than good. Going buck wild instead every couple weeks in Tokyo worked because it maintained a semblance of his previous life and the direction he was trying to take it. I think this, more than the approach that worked for Anton’s individual case, is the true lesson here. Keep growing, keep moving forward, do these together with close friends – no need to turn your life upside down because the disease has already done that.

    Anton, how would your approach differ now, were you to be diagnosed again? Are we going to need to track down those couches?

  5. Amy Lane

    Chills, Anton. You took control, in your own way. It’s your life and you balanced the good and the bad. You walked your own path – ultimately we all have only one life, and one story to tell. Thanks for sharing yours!!