Photo courtesy http://www.facebook.com/pages/Damian-and-Nicky-on-974-MOREFM/83550471126Yesterday I took part in the Relay for Life, the cancer society's annual fundraising and consciousness raising event. I arrived early, saw the teams from the Diocese of Dunedin, and from Anglican Family Care, and went to the official tent to collect the purple sash which marked me as a cancer survivor. Clemency wore a green one, given to those who have supported loved ones through cancer. The event this year was held in the Forsyth Barr stadium, so it was weatherproof. It's a great event with a sort of carnival atmosphere. Organisations and businesses raise teams who commit themselves to walking for 24 hours in relay. A small entrance fee is paid and the teams raise money through sponsorship, so a considerable sum is accumulated to pay for cancer research and for the excellent supportive work of the cancer society. Each team sets up a little headquarters and the members are inclined to deck themselves out in some sort of uniform or dress to a theme. There are balloons and food stalls and quirkily dressed people and a sound stage with continuous live music and hundereds of people walking happily round a running track.
A very moving part of any Relay for Life is the candlelight parade, when the walking track is ringed with lanterns, each one commemorating someone who has died from cancer. I missed it this year but I was there for the opening when all of us in the sashes walked the first lap of the track. It was great to be one of the elite, but given the qualifying requirement, I kind of wish I wasn't.
It's been five years since I was diagnosed, and I'm still here so I've defied some of the odds that were laid against me early in the piece. Which raises the question of why I am still here, when 7 out of 10 men with my original set of parameters aren't. Some of the answer to that is quite conventional. I have a good urologist. I had timely surgery and I had radiotherapy, and all these helped turn the statistics in my favour. But there's more to it than that.
When I was at the Gawler Institute we had a very interesting address from a researcher at Monash University's medical school. He told us that several meta studies, that is a studies of studies of cancer showed that across all cancers, chemotherapy increased five year survival rates (that is the percentage of people left alive five years after diagnosis) by 2%. Chemo is very effective against some cancers so the implication is that for some others it has no effect at all. By contrast, lifestyle change (that is, changes in diet, exercise patterns, spiritual practice, relaxation, stress management etc) increased 5 year survival rates by 30%. Strangely, not much hard research has gone into these phenomena. Which lifestyle changes make a difference and why? Why do "spontaneous remissions" occur? As the researcher pointed out, discover a new form of chemo that increased survival rates by 30% and you would win the Nobel prize; it's bizarre that so very little research is carried out into the whys and wherefores of lifestyle change but even more odd that very little emphasis is placed on it in the training of doctors. The result is that for those of us wearing the purple sashes, getting reliable information and sifting out the crackpot theories from the helpful stratagems is really down to us. For my own part I am certain that the diet I have been keeping for the last five years and, especially, my daily practice of meditation have kept me on the planet.
I couldn't help wondering as I circled the track how much of the money raised yesterday will be going into further chemotherapy research. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the research is being done, and one day I may well need to take advantage of it. But there are promising, demonstrably working treatments for cancer already to hand and some of them could be effected very cheaply indeed. It doesn't cost much to teach someone to meditate or walk or change their diet. You'd think that having someone run a critical scientific eye over some of the alternatives to radio and chemo might be really, really helpful.