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Cognition

Listening to the Advice of Experts May Save Your Life

Cancer provides lessons in humility and trust.

I have never been a compliant person. As a child, I was rarely openly rebellious, but I was also rarely compliant. I was the sneaky type. I behaved well when I was watched, often fooling adults into thinking I was a “good kid” because I did my chores and helped out around the house. But, when I was out of the gaze of my parents, I would often circumvent the rules and do things that would have gotten me into trouble if they found out.

Occasionally, they did, but that didn’t stop me. As I got older, my willingness to work around the rules continued, and I combined it with a desire to challenge individuals in positions of authority. This included teachers, principals, police officers, and ministers. I was especially defiant toward authority figures if I thought they were racist, arrogant, arbitrary, or unfair. But as was true when I was a child, I never allowed my rebelliousness to go too far or to prevent me from pursuing and achieving my goals. I managed to strike a balance between complying when I knew it was necessary and deviating when I thought I could get away with it. In high school and college, I was an activist and organizer, but also a straight-A student. I smoked weed regularly but I also studied hard. I was a disciplined athlete but also liked to party and have a good time.

My creative approach to challenging rules and those who enforced them allowed me to experience the satisfaction that comes from doing things “my way."

Cancer diagnosis and the advice of experts

After my cancer diagnosis, I quickly learned that my illness and the way my body responded to treatments would not allow me to do things “my way." Initially, I tried to have it both ways: I thought I would follow the orders of my traditional doctors when I thought it made sense, but I would also seek out alternatives. I had learned from the experience of others that while Western medicine might provide the most reliable treatments for the disease, it might not be as helpful in my healing and recovery.

At UCLA’s Ronald Reagan hospital where I went to receive chemo and radiation treatments, I was immediately impressed by the expertise of my doctors and the overall quality of my care. Nonetheless, though I was confident about the care I received, at the suggestion of my wife, I also consulted with a well-regarded naturopath. With an M.D. from Stanford in oncology, she hardly seemed like a kook, so I embraced her unconventional advice. She suggested that I fast before and after the days when I was to receive chemotherapy. Fasting, she said, would make the chemo even more effective in destroying the cancer cells. She also recommended that I take a variety of herbal supplements and vitamins to reinforce my immune system.

I followed her advice and fasted 24 hours before my first chemo appointment. However, when I showed up at the clinic, I discovered to my surprise that the male nurse designated to take care of me had gone to high school with me in Brentwood, New York. This was a stunning coincidence. Over 40 years after our graduation, we were meeting at a hospital in Los Angeles. I took it as a good omen.

After laughing about the coincidence and sharing a few stories from our high school days, he gave me a stern warning: “You better eat as much as you can, while you can, because you’re going to lose a lot of weight. If you lose too much, they’ll put you on a feeding tube and you really don’t want that.” I was sobered by his warning, but I trusted him more than the naturopath. So, I listened, like the obedient student I never was. I ended my fast as soon as I finished my first five-hour chemo treatment by eating a big hamburger.

I had a similar experience during one of my weekly visits with my radiologist, Dr. Chin. Chin was a renowned expert in treating head and neck cancer. With a Ph.D. in radiology from the University of Chicago and an M.D. from Stanford, he not only had years of experience in treating my illness, but he also led research on it. Almost halfway through my radiation treatments, he noticed that I had lost 30 lbs. In his soft but serious manner, he informed me, “We’re going to have to put you on protein shakes now to keep you from losing more weight and to make sure you’re getting enough nutrition.” He followed with this warning: “You should know that 95 percent of people with your cancer end up on a feeding tube, but 95 percent of my patients don’t if they listen to me.”

His confident assertion got my attention, so once again, I listened and obeyed. He sent me home with a week’s worth of protein shakes. I followed his advice and began drinking the shakes at each meal, even though I found the shakes he recommended disgusting to drink. Fortunately for me, my wife was able to concoct her own equally nutritious version of a protein shake that tasted less bad and sustained me.

Valuable lessons

Through these and other experiences, I learned that if I was going to get through my cancer journey successfully, I would have to listen to the experts. I still deviated from the prescriptions of my doctors to some degree. I received regular acupuncture treatments which helped tremendously and relied on weekly massage treatments from a dear friend to help me cope with the aches and malaise I endured.

But, for the most part, I had to comply. While lying still and being fastened to a table as I was zapped for 12 minutes with radiation administered to my neck, my only innovation was the choice of background music I would listen to (I always chose Bob Marley), and my ability to meditate through the procedure. The combination of music and meditation helped me to suppress feelings of claustrophobia that many others complain about when undergoing similar treatment.

Over the course of my cancer journey, I saw and appreciated that I was receiving excellent care, and I learned that I would have to listen to the highly skilled medical professionals responsible for my treatment. I was a reluctant learner, but my illness was teaching me valuable lessons in humility and trust.

Old habits are hard to break, and I still found ways to get around some of the advice I didn’t like. For example, Dr. Chin instructed me to start gargling with a substance called Moo Goo that was designed to coat my throat and prevent me from getting mouth sores because of the chemo. I tried it once and nearly puked. From that time on, I would lie to the doctor and my wife, assuring them that I had gargled with and swallowed the Moo Goo at night, just as I had been told. Fortunately for me, I didn’t get mouth sores.

Together, the health professionals caring for me on my journey, and most importantly, my wife and partner, taught me for the first time in my life to accept expert advice and acknowledge that I was not the master of my fate.

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