A year ago I never dreamed that I would be writing about two subjects, both of which are generally considered taboo. One of these is cancer. We avoid talking about cancer – “the Big C” – because it speaks of our fears of mortality and pain. When an office mate is rumored to have cancer, she is viewed differently. We avoid the topic, or speak in whispers about it. We wish it would go away.
For entirely different reasons, ayahuasca is talked about in muzzled tones. The Drug Enforcement Administration – the grand arbiter of all chemicals in America – is responsible for this taboo and has classified DMT, one of its constituents, as a Schedule I drug, thereby rendering it illegal and nearly unavailable for fascinating medical, psychological, neuroscientific, and spiritual research. Like cancer, we tend to talk about it in whispers, too.
Since I now enjoy the privileges of a recently retired person, and a friend of cancer and ayahuasca, I can speak freely about them both. I say “friend” because that is the way I now see the relationship I have with both.
Ayahuasca and Cancer
My direct connection with cancer probably started with my birth sixty-eight years ago, which sent me into the world with a genetic structure determined, at least in part, by family members of previous generations on both sides who had died of metastacized colo-rectal cancer. If there is any validity to the genetic predilection theory, I was directly in line for a first hand experience with cells gone amok to form tumors.
And that is precisely what happened to me ten years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. Since I felt great, I had doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis, and requested to see the biopsy along with a pathologist. Sure enough, with the aid of a microscope, I saw with my own eyes the little cells, all bunched up like globs of red mud. How did that happen? I wondered.
Immediate surgery was the order of the day. I begged off in order to experiment with natural healing. The surgeon and I agreed on a four-month timetable, during which I followed a naturopathic regimen: micro-doses of various substances, vegetarian diet, visualization and plenty of rest and exercise. After this period, the second biopsy revealed no cancer cells. I was overjoyed; the surgeon seemed disappointed, and asked for another biopsy in two weeks, to which I agreed.
This time around he was able to dig up some more tissue with cancer cells, and convinced me that I should have the surgery. I did, and was told five years later that I had been “cured” through the wonders of surgery.
All went well until September 1996, when a routine physical exam revealed that my CEA count – an indicator of carcinogenic activity – was up. Another blood test shortly thereafter showed the CEA count going up rapidly. Further exams were conducted, during which two suspicious looking dark shadows were seen on the right lobe of my liver. A biopsy was soon performed on the tissue taken from the shadowed area. The verdict from the pathologist: the Big C.
Having lost a grandfather and father to metastatic liver cancer, I was seriously concerned over this new development. What to do? A preliminary conference with one of the oncologists said that surgery might be a possibility, provided there were no other tumors in my vital organs or lymph glands. That meant further exams.
While waiting for the results, I went to the University of Hawaii’s medical library for some research on liver cancer. I was referred to the “bible” of oncology, a two-volume tome titled Cancer: Principles and Practices of Oncology (1989), edited by Vincent T. DeVita, Jr. I turned to Section 3: “Treatment of Metastatic Cancer to the Liver,” by John E. Niederhuber and William D. Ensminger. The opening paragraph had the following encouraging words:
“The spread of malignant cells from a primary tumor to the liver and their growth therein carry a grave prognosis for the patient. While these meta-static liver tumors may be the first evidence of the progression of a patient’s cancer, and often – especially in colorectal cancer – are the only tumors detected, they almost always signal widespread dissemination of the malignancy. Despite improvements in early detection of liver metastases, new drug development, improved surgical techniques for resection, and innovative targeted therapies, most patients will not survive.” (p. 2201)
The remainder of the chapter was devoted to sustaining that dismal prognosis. In a word, the future looked pretty grim. Until, that is, I began to seek information on alternative therapies.
Seeking an alternative
I turned first to Dr. Andrew Weil, who recommended the following: 1) have the tumor surgically removed, if possible; 2) start taking micro-doses of maitake mushroom extract; 3) read Michael Lerner’s book,Choices in Healing.
While waiting for my mail-order requests for the maitake and Lerner’s book, I had further meetings with surgeons, who were not exactly reassuring. I was told by one that my chances for survival were around 25-30%. Another put it at under 15%, if you factor in the risks of the surgical procedure itself. It appeared that they had read De Vito’s cancer bible, too. They also advised me that if surgery was possible, I should follow it up with a year of fairly heavy chemotherapy in order to kill off any remaining cancerous cells (along with the majority of healthy ones) that were undoubtedly floating around in my bloodstream.
When the Lerner book arrived in the mail, I sat down and read through its 621 fascinating pages as rapidly as possible. At the same time, I began taking the maitake mushroom extract, and to prepare myself both physically and mentally for the surgery and the follow- up. During this period I discovered other literature on alternative therapies, including Essiac, macrobiotic diets, reiki and coffee enemas, all of which offered as much or more hope than the oncologist’s bible did.
The surgeon (aptly named Dr. Payne) removed the right half of my liver on November 26, 1996. During the following five days I was attached to several catheters, one of which shot morphine directly into my spine. It was not until my discharge from the hospital that I realized how badly my body had been assaulted, not just by the surgeon’s knife, but by a mixture of drugs that are part of the arsenal of invasive surgery. The thought of further assault by chemotherapy was frightening.
Sometime during this period of painful recovery from the operation, I remembered having read something, somewhere about the healing properties of ayahuasca. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, since it seemed unlikely that I would be going to the Amazon, and wasn’t particularly interested in a psychedelic experience. Still, it lingered in the recesses of my mind, which was still reeling from the physical and psychic wounds of major surgery, the outcome of which was dubious.
Three weeks after the surgery, I went to my appointment with the oncologist who proposed beginning the chemotherapy treatment immediately. When I told him that I had decided against it, because I did not believe that further assault on my body would be beneficial, he seemed miffed, perhaps even insulted. When I told him of my plan to follow a program of alternative therapies, he snickered, but wished me well.