Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cancer and Nichiren Buddhism

On St David’s day, the first of March 2006, I was presented with the news that a lump that had grown in my neck was a secondary cancer of the lymph nodes and that I needed an operation to remove it plus radiotherapy and chemotherapy to treat the primary cancer. 

I felt calm, absurdly calm and not in the least bit worried about the diagnosis.  Indeed I felt a wave of joy wash over me and immediately I recalled the words of the Gosho Letter from Terradomari that were to act as my staff in the troubled times ahead:

The hardships along the way were worse than I could have imagined, and indeed more than I can put down in writing. I will leave you to surmise what I endured. But I have been prepared for such difficulties from the outset, so there is no point in starting to complain about them now. I shall accordingly say no more of the matter.
Nichiren Daishonin

By way of background, I have practised this Buddhism since 1985.  I have never missed Gongyo and I chant about an hour Daimoku every day.  I do confess to being a little less earnest about attendance at meetings but I do try and read the Gosho on most days.

In April 2006 I had a radical neck section.  In total I had three operations on my neck over a period of just fifteen hours. The first, 7½ hours long, removed all the lymph glands including 7 with cancerous cells, from the right-hand side of my neck, the right side front jugular artery, a section of the base of the tongue; and a primary muscle section from top shoulder to middle chest.
The second operation, performed urgently (2 hours long - from 02:30 the morning following the first trip to theatre) was to stop my neck bleeding internally and to fit a fluid drain tube.  The ends of the removed jugular artery had continued to bleed, post operation.  The neck was filling rapidly and my doctors were concerned that the airway would be compromised. 
During the third operation (1 hour long - from 04:30 the same morning) surgeons worked to stem the flow from another bleed that I developed after the second operation and to clear a blockage in the fluid drain system. They also inserted a second fluid drain tube.
This third operation was done without a general anaesthetic, because there was concern that two previous generals had been given in quick succession.  I became aware of a bright white light directly ahead of me. My immediate thought was ‘oh bother, this is it’.  I am going towards the light’.  I felt absolutely no fear just irrational contentment and warmth.  It was then that I became aware of several people looking down at me: it was the surgeon, his surgical team and the anaesthetist - I had woken up on the operating table.  I was only awake for a matter of, perhaps, a minute or so long enough to say "this is surreal" and "anybody know any good jokes?" and then I drifted back off to sleep while the surgical team finished their work.

I was wheeled back to the Ward by about five o'clock and I slept for a couple of hours.  I woke and did morning Gongyo immediately, then concentrated on a crossword until my breakfast was brought.  I had no pain after the operation whatsoever.  Apart from the two drain pipes protruding from my chest, I had no discomfort either.

I was about three weeks in hospital recovering from the operation: I rather enjoyed being there, there was always something happening and the turnaround in my ward of characters was a great source of inspiration and entertainment.

A biopsy of the original lump revealed that the primary cancer was in the base of my tongue. 

The next stage was the radiotherapy and chemotherapy.  I looked upon these as more ‘such difficulties’  Thus when I arrived at St Luke’s Hospital; Dublin for the radiotherapy and chemotherapy, (mentally) I ticked the ‘boxes’ marked 'no nausea', 'no fatigue' and 'I don’t want any other side effects'.  As a result I got no nausea, no fatigue and few other side effects, save for losing a perfectly good beard as a result of the radiotherapy. 

I should also mention the worst suffered was chronic hiccoughs!  These started after a couple of weeks in St Luke's.  They were just a few at first and they went away if I held my breath.  Over the weeks had built up to, typically, at least fifty, sixty or even more attacks in a day.  During the attacks, the hiccoughs came at intervals of six or seven seconds, so it was vexing rather than painful and frustrating that something like a hiccough suddenly should visit me with such frequency, and once here, should issue at such short intervals.

There was nothing that the doctors were able to do about it (apart from the Doctor-Mantra “Tried holding your breath?  Every doctor knew someone else whom they thought had a remedy.  Claire in Pharmacy was doing some research on hiccoughs, or was it a tablet to cure the bubonic plague? or used that other well worn get-out clause “That’s nasty.  We’ll review it again in three, or four days…”

As Dr Lewis Thomas put it in ‘Nothing to worry about’.
The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.

I suppose that the bewildering combination of pills and elixirs that was taking for the cancer, and to counter the side effects of the radiotherapy and chemotherapy, must have some adverse effects or contra indications rattling about in there somewhere.  Then the hiccoughs came with an additional threat: instead of the regular coughs, my stomach heaved in a succession of gulps, as though my body was trying to make me vomit.  The motion of the coughing settled into a pattern of a series of single hiccoughs leading up to multiple spasms when it felt like my throat was being forced into my windpipe, effectively stopping me breathing, choking me.

On one evening during evening Gongyo, I got desperate.  I was on a nebuliser for my breathing and the choking was getting to me.  I would retch six, eight, ten, a dozen times, becoming more distressed each time.  I think that I got to the stage where I couldn't breath until the retching resided.  The cycles of retching were getting longer and, to my horror, I realised that I was getting to the stage when the cycle was so long that I was in danger of choking to death.

There's a particular piece of the Gosho that directs us that:

the important thing for you is to chant Nam-myoho-renge kyo single-mindedly …… When the world makes you feel downcast, you should chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, remembering that, although the sufferings of this life are painful, those in the next life could be much worse……………

Continue your practice without backsliding until the final moment of your life, ………

 Nichiren Daishonin, The Fourteen Slanders, WND 755

With the spasms threatening to choke me I was very possibly near to the 'last moment' of my life, or at least as near as I want to be for a while yet.  What was more, even at this stage, I was chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge Kyo single-mindedly, albeit single-mindedly yearning to get rid of my hiccoughs!  So between the spasms I chanted to be rid of the hiccoughs.

“I no longer want these hiccoughs”
“By the time I finish these evening prayers”
“I want the hiccoughs to go,”

I finished Gongyo a few minutes later. The hiccoughs had stopped. They stayed stopped. I celebrated by telling the three nurses on duty what I had done! “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo - like a lion!” I told them. I was like the Child Snow Mountains, wanting to tell everyone about the practice and how I had cured my hiccoughs with Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!

I believe that in attacking the hiccoughs I had made the cause to be cured of my cancer.

An extract from guidance from Vice-President Tsuji reminds me of the awesome power of daimoku:

"When you chant daimoku, Nam myoho renge kyo explodes in your life. There is not one part of your life which it does not affect. The important thing is to realise this and attack the area of your life that is causing you suffering - whether it is physical or spiritual sickness. The important thing is that you attack the specific area with your daimoku, remembering that its effect will be like the roar of a lion on other beings. Daimoku is not begging or asking; it is attacking the cause of your suffering. You must attack, attack not beg."

Before that night, when I believe that I had been chanting 'at the final moment of my life' my daimoku had actually been begging or asking. Then I attacked and saw the proof of the practice immediately! But of course I knew this already, in theory.

Since leaving the hospital I have been improving steadily, although my energy levels are not back to the place they were before the operation.  I have, however, remained "all clear" of the cancer in my throat, although it is early days yet I believe that this is an excellent sign of the way things are.

In the Gosho, Reply to Kyo'o, the Daishonin says

"Believe in this mandala with all your heart. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?"

Since initial diagnosis I was very positive, almost cheerful, with the cancer. I also ascribe my Positive Mental Attitude to my Buddhist practice.  My chemotherapy and radiotherapy ran their course.  I survived and I know that a PMA (positive mental attitude) and plentiful Daimoku really works.

Robert WT


  1. Dear Robert
    I feel extremely encouraged to read your blog. My mom has Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. We have started chanting recently. Is there anything you would like to suggest. Pls mail me on
    Sonal (India)

  2. Hi
    Sorry. I wrote wrong email ID.