David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for the ‘holistic’ Category

Healing the heart is an afterthought.

Tue ,10/03/2009

I’m having de ja vu.

When I was 11, the same year my dad left my mother and me, my brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was twenty-three at the time. Although he made a good go of it, the cancer caught up with him, spreading to his liver. The final few months were terrible. His muscles wasted away along with his patience and joy of life. His belly swelled up like those of the kids you see on TV – he literally starved to death. My brother Danny, who for my whole life was a large, loved-filled, creative and nurturing man, transformed into a living skeleton in front of my eyes. We shared a wall between our bedrooms and I remember coming to hate the sound of his knocking. No longer loving and gracious, I watched chemotherapy suck the life and joy out of him, and morphine render him irritable and spacey. In my final words to him, I made a confession: I *did* eat the extra piece of cake that he suspected me of. But he was already gone. Comatose. Brain dead. 

It took me quite a while to work through that experience. I was thirteen at the time and I turned the next five years of my life into a hazy binge of drugs and alcohol. By the time I was eighteen I had partied so hard that friends and family alike were worried about my health and future. 

Then I found the drama program in my high school, and like some kind of unintentional group therapy, I found an outlet for all my pain. I started writing and performing in earnest, and spent a good deal of my time playing guitar and writing on my little Mac SE, which my dad helped me buy.

I’m at my dad’s house now, 22 years after my brother died, and I’m watching someone else that I love waste away. I wrote in this blog earlier about how he had cancer in his prostate and how our trip to Portugal together was timed so that we could do that together before he got any worse, god forbid. 

While we were in Portugal, he showed me a large, death-looking black mole on his arm. He was waiting for test results, but I knew what it was instantly. I let him believe it could be a cyst or some other benign skin thing. 

The day we got back to Canada, dad heard back from the hospital – the mole was in fact an aggressive melanoma skin cancer tumour, and its immediate removal was needed. 

Almost two years later, a dozen surgeries, radiation and chemo, the cancer has spread to my father’s liver. Doctors give him a few months to live. Already he’s lost a lot of weight, is weak, irritable and spacey. This, in contrast to the workhorse he normally is – happy really only when he’s outside moving rocks and hammering things. Dad has always been in his element working eight hours straight in the beating sun with no sunblock. He has said repeatedly throughout that the hardest thing for him to deal with was not being ‘sick’, but being stationary. 

There’s a lot of things going through my head these days. I wonder about all those sunblock-less hours in the hot sun and whether that had anything to do with it. I wonder about his diet, which is rich in fruits, but also in packaged foods and artificial sweetener. I wonder about all the stress he took on as a senior manager at the LCBO in the 80′s. I wonder about all the wine he drank and the supposed miracle effects of the red pigment. I wonder about how someone so healthy could become so ill, so quickly.

And I especially wonder about this triple-edged sword of surgery-radiation-chemo – the standard weapons of cancer-fighting the world over: How was my father supposed to get better by having his lymph nodes (which aid the immune system) torn out, his body blasted with cancer-causing radiation and then pumped full of highly toxic chemicals? I know this system works for a lot of people, but I wonder what role your outlook plays in your ability to survive it. 

For my father, the surgery-radiation-chemo cycle may have extended his life by a few months, but it has also sapped him of the will to live. The 100 or so visits to doctors, the endless tests, the painful recoveries, side-effects, blod-clotting, and the terrible, soul-sucking effects of intense radiation and chemo treatments have left him broken and miserable. And after all that, guess what? He’s still going to die.

I did try to offer some alternatives. I offered to go with him to a sweat lodge, or put him in touch with a dear friend who is a holistic nutritionist that specializes in cancer care. I offered to fly out with him to Canada’s only holistic oncology centre in Vancouver. In the end though, my dad’s faith in the medical system was unshakeable.  

I obviously don’t have any answers here. Who knows if a different diet, lifestyle, sunblock or anything at all could have avoided the fate my father now faces. But I have to think that an approach to healing that focused on the spiritual and mental dimensions of disease – in addition to the physical – that helped him to cope, and gave him hope, even if it couldn’t save his life, might have at least made his final days more bearable. 

So, I’m here doing what I can, which for the most part is just being present. I’ve seen this all before. And unlike with my brother, my dad’s knocking isn’t making me angry, I don’t need drugs and alcohol to cope, and it’s not going to take me years of pain or drama classes to work through it. My father and I mended our relationship years ago. I don’t have a last confession to make this time. Just a little lament that what we call ‘health care’ so frequently misses where the real healing needs to happen: in the heart.