“Time is shortening, but every day that I challenge this cancer and survive is a victory for me.”
Three time academy-award winning Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

I am coming up to the 25th year anniversary of my initial diagnosis with colon cancer, and my entering of the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney for a Hemicolectomy, which involved the surgical removal of the tumour and the surrounding parts of my descending colon. Since then, I have been through regular colonoscopies, and have often had more bits cut out, but I am still here, and intend to be so for a long time to come.

Author: Nephron (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Nephron (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that I have learned much about life in my nearly 70 years on this planet, and also that I still have much to learn, but this anniversary, and the fact that I am also trying to help two friends who are now embarking on this same journey, has had me thinking about what I had learned specifically as a result of my brush with cancer.

Here are 10 of my lessons learned while going through the medical procedures and treatment:

– Medicine is not an exact science, as I was originally given a 50/50 chance of living just one year. Doctors are well trained professionals but have much the same error rates as the rest of the population.

By TomTheHand; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikiemdia Commons

By TomTheHand; CC BY-SA 3.0 license

– Be prepared to ask your specialist what he would do in your situation, but only after establishing a relationship as equals rather than having just a doctor to patient discussion. I stopped chemotherapy after my serious one-on-one session with my surgeon.

– Fighting a life threatening disease is not a part time job. You must give it all your focus. If that means including some non-traditional help such as meditation, tai-chi and forward visualisation, embrace it. I did all three and more.

– People who keep telling you to “stay positive” are not morons; they just don’t know what else to say. Most people who have faced cancer tend to agree that this is one of the silliest things that anyone could have said to them. Even “be strong” makes more sense.

– People who treat you normally when you are sick are a greater comfort than those whose voices drop 25 decibels and 2 octaves, and who thus address you as a sick person. I used to hear people in the corridor chat normally with my wife, and then enter my hospital room and address me in a hushed sombre whisper. I have never understood why they thought that this would help.

– There is significant advantage in looking for the humour in situations when you feel that you are facing death, such as a friend who gave me the latest Wilbur Smith book at the time called “A Time to Die”. My wife and I giggled to tears.

Author: jimincairns; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Wilbur Smith; Author: jimincairns; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– The medical system can only handle the high volume of disease through standard process management. Your responsibility is to ensure that the treadmill you are placed on makes sense for you, or else, if it is an option, you need to get off and manage it more personally.

– Laughter is a more powerful medicine that any drug. I had a wonderful nurse who, early on the day after my operation, forced me to get out of bed and start walking by threatening to take off down the corridor carrying the catheter bags that were attached to some sensitive parts of my anatomy.

– Not everything that happens is an omen. I kept waking up at 4.44 every morning in the hospital, and it bothered me until my wife reminded me that I wasn’t Chinese, so Asian numerology was really meaningless for me.

Here are another 10 key lessons about life in general that I learned as a result of my illness:

– You can’t bottle things up … unless you are a wine maker. Many people now understand that “lifestyle” can be a major contributor to illness. My diagnosis suggested that my having been a heavy smoker may have been an issue (this link to colon cancer has now been established), but at the time all I could say was that I never did the drawback on my cigarettes so strongly that it could have gotten down to the affected area.

Author: Dick Rochester; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Dick Rochester; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Stress relief is an important part of robust health. For me this involves having dogs. It is hard to stay stressed when you have a wagging tail in front of you, or a wet nose pressed up against your hand, just asking for a head, back or tummy to be stroked. Whatever works for you is worthwhile and is needed.

Author: Bev Sykes; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Bev Sykes; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Great friends (as compared to friends on Facebook) are a real comfort, but not all friendships last forever, and knowing when to move on is important. I had friends who couldn’t cope with my illness and therefore kept away, and some who kept me and my wife sane while I fought my way through it all. Remember that cancer not only affects you, but also affects all around you.

– The best reason for staying alive as long as you can is because there are people that you love too much to easily leave behind. This may not be enough reason to overcome a serious illness, but it is the best one that I can think of.

– You should work as hard as it feels right for you, rather than what feels right to someone else. Killing yourself for another’s glory or riches makes no sense, and being the richest person in the cemetery is not a meaningful objective.

– Mental and physical fitness is a key to survival, if for no other reason than it makes your recovery so much easier. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest triathlete, but being fit enough to live life fully is critical.

– 25 Calendar years are equivalent to just one year in real life … which is how fast it goes. My last 25 years have been incredibly full of change, wonder and excitement and we have packed a lot into that time, but looking back it feels like days have passed rather than years.

– The world has more than enough arseholes … there is no need to swell their ranks. Being tough when it is needed is acceptable behaviour, but forgetting that all people deserve your respect is unforgiveable.

– If you seriously dislike whatever you are doing in life, you must stop doing it immediately. (This doesn’t apply to such things as doing necessary household chores or paying taxes).

– You need to live every day as though it was your last … one day you will be right.

I always try to remember what was said by American actor Michael Landon (1936-1991) “I’m going to beat this cancer or die trying”.



In life there are some things that you should have in suitably generous servings at every opportunity that reasonably presents itself.

These are friends, laughter, sex and vegetables. Everything else in life you should have in moderation. (Note that combining the last three simultaneously may not work for everyone).

Woman holding bananas in produce aisle of supermarket, rear view close up shot of a neon sign that says sex

I believe that having great friends is a critical success factor in a healthy life.

Friends Playing at the Beach

I am not talking about people who can help you succeed in your career or in your business, or business contacts and acquaintances a la Linkedin, but people that are a serious part of your life. Friends who know enough about you so that there is no need to explain or justify what you do, who know you well and still want to be your friend anyway, who add a richness to your life just by their existence in it, and who see you the same way. The type of friends who can’t be bought, as Steve Wright (US Comedian) points out “If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?”

Robin Dunbar (British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist) came up with the number of 150 as the maximum number of people with whom we can have a meaningful relationship (Dunbar’s number).

Facebook seems to disagree as they have set their limit at 5000 friends. At 5000 your wall would need to be about the size of the Great Wall of China, and you would need to dedicate your entire life to just keeping up with the newsfeeds, and yet petitions abound to have this number raised to at least 15,000. MySpace already appears to have no limit at all. I wonder whether for many people these “pseudo-friends” have replaced real friends as, apart from keeping your life posted on the chosen site, there is not a lot of effort that has to be put into each individual friendship.

three friends holding a camera in front of themselves taking a picture

Social network junkies should however heed the warning of George Carlin (1937-2008, stand up comedian and 5-time Grammy award winner) who said “One good reason to only maintain a small circle of friends is that three out of four murders are committed by people who know the victim.”

I don’t actually believe the limit itself is as important as the reality of having meaningful relationships with whatever number of true friends you wish to have. Whatever that number may be for you, the issue is that each one carries with it some major responsibilities. If you want unconditional love you should get a dog, but every other relationship will require work and effort (See “Emptying your bucket” posted 5/8/2010).

Some of my basic rules of friendship:

  • Honesty versus criticism (family may survive criticism, friendship rarely)
  • Unquestioned loyalty
  • Their secrets are your secrets … no exceptions.
  • They are your friends because of who they are, not what you would like them to be
  • If you love them, tell them (goes for all sexes)
  • Periodic contact whatever that means and whatever that particular friendship needs
  • Help unconditionally when needed, even if not specifically requested
  • Keep your word
  • Laugh together often, even at yourselves

The conventional wisdom is that good friendships enhance an individual’s sense of happiness and overall well being. It has also been shown that loneliness and lack of social supports are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infections, cancer and higher mortality rates.
US radio host Bernard Meltzer (1916-1998) used to say “A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked”.

Egg with crack