Eye of the Hurricane: Surviving Cancer, Treating Cancer
Ken Weizer, ND
Having been on this journey of cancer since 1989, I have had many wonderful and many terrible experiences. This journey has taken me from being a Hollywood film maker with cancer, to being an Oregon naturopathic physician who treats people with cancer. When I stop and reflect, it becomes clear that I practice medicine to be more fully alive, and to gain insight into my fears and uncertainties. Fears of doctors, of treatment, of reoccurrence, of death. Fear of cancer. Fear of the uncertainty of it all.
Patients often come to me with the same fears and uncertainties. They also come with the idea that I have the cure for cancer, with the belief that I cured myself solely with natural medicines, and with the hope that I have finished my cancer journey and now have it all figured out.
What is true is my medicine rests upon a subtle and invisible pivot point. This single point gives power to my words, captures the heart of my patients, and inspires me to continue this challenging work. This pivot point is based on a single fact—I am still here.
I approach my patients with the understanding that they are alive, right here, right now. Everything else is unknown—including the future. This approach establishes an unspoken communal bond that is intuitively understood—we are both still here. We may be bald, shook-up, scared and full of scars, but we are unmistakably, unalterably still here. There is profound comfort and connection in this. We feel deep appreciation for just showing up.
Although we lust for cure, we are touched and moved by healing. Although we are shattered by our mortality, we feel the immortality of time standing still today. Although we suffer, we believe our pain is endurable. Although we are dying, we choose to live.
Like the story of the velveteen rabbit, cancer will rough you up, as it makes you more real. One of my patients frequently reminds me—“I always remember what you said the first time I saw you—‘cancer is a one-way ticket to the land of no bullshit’.”
For me, being diagnosed with cancer was like being bounced around in a tiny boat in a raging hurricane. I knew my life would never be the same. Not only was the physical challenge of cancer treatment immense, but the emotional and spiritual challenge was even greater. Like many cancer patients, I had been given books, tapes, and plenty of suggestions about what I should do. But none of it felt quite right to me. What I needed was solid ground, not a patchwork of other people’s ideas and advice. If it would never be the same, what would my life become?
After my diagnosis, surgery and radiation treatments, I took a nine month sabbatical from my work as a film maker. My priority was getting my body and mind back into shape. I moved from Los Angeles to a tiny town outside of San Francisco to be away from the film business and have the opportunity to take frequent hikes in the redwoods of Point Reyes National Seashore. I hiked with others occasionally, but mostly I hiked by myself. This solitude became the space to heal. Before cancer I had seen life as linear, and I feared the end of the line. But as I hiked more and more, my screaming mind began to quiet down, and I started to see the miracle of death all around me—I saw that soil was none other than the surrendered bodies of generations of great forests, and that dead trees became nurse logs. Nurse logs that sprouted dozens of baby trees. The circle of life and death became real, even gorgeous to me; it soaked deeply into my bones. The seed of rebirth was sown in the soil of my death.
And so I became something else too. To the shock of everyone who knew me, I left my Hollywood career and attended National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Ironically, my intention was not to work with people with cancer, because I felt that my healing journey was complete. My intention was to have a general practice using nature cure techniques. But when I opened my own clinic, people with cancer started showing up. And the seed that was planted in the redwoods began to grow.
I realized that the foundation of my practice is more than protein smoothies, glutamine, probiotics, herbs, homeopathy and hydrotherapy. It is a mysterious mixture of doctor and patient, human and human. As I have come to accept this more and more, it has become both a responsibility and a freedom. The responsibility to keep walking in life, open and humble, with an attitude of curiosity and service. And the freedom to say, ‘I don’t know’. This freedom allows me to create a medical practice that is a win-win situation for the medical doctors, the patients, and me. I am left no agenda or dogma to hide behind. My intention is to leave agenda and dogma behind and move toward what works. This opens my training and belief systems up to rigorous and often uncomfortable scrutiny. A scrutiny my practice must withstand to persist, and flourish.
I believe there is something exquisitely important that we naturopaths have to offer cancer patients and cancer doctors. We treat the person. We expand health. We do no harm. We can use our training to develop programs to support and restore the vital force of the cancer patient, so that they can tolerate their oncology treatments, recover from them, and rebuild the fabric of their bodies and spirits. I find that inspiring. In this insane world of cancer and cancer treatment, it creates a space of humanness and healing. And in that, there is the feeling of hope, confidence, and wisdom.
So in the end, maybe that is what my patients and I do together—find the eye of the hurricane. If you have ever experienced one of those in real life—and I have—there is an otherworldly magic to it. The colors and the brightness and the calmness. This magic catches our hearts, and allows us to breathe again. To gather our wits together. To fight for life, and to enjoy life with everything we have. In my practice I have seen many people die, but I have seen almost everyone value breath and kindness.
These deep relationships with patients are so satisfying and life-enriching, for both of us. I cannot imagine practicing any other way. Yes, sometimes I want to run out of cancer world and go back to making movies. Sometimes I have had enough of oncology, cancer, doctors, death, drugs, and suffering. But I come back to the kinship, the walking together with others on this hard journey. Our touch on each others’ shoulders reminds us that the journey of cancer never ends, that from start to finish, it is the journey of life.
Ken Weizer, ND, (NCNM ’99) practices naturopathic medicine at the Providence Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Clinic in Portland, Oregon. He also teaches classes on health and healing at Nike, Marylhurst University and the American Cancer Society.