My second trip to Mexico has been as intensive as the last and I remain satisfied with all the treatments I have received here, but these have been my real highlights this time round:
One day my childhood friend Charlie Bower came to visit me at the clinic in Tijuana. He lives just across the border with his family in San Diego where he’s making a film and raising a son the same age as my daughter. I hadn’t seen him for about twenty years.
Our Mums were good friends when we were little and I used to hang out at this house a lot so he brought with him a raft of memories from halcyon days long gone.
He looked weathered by life, but more fully Charlie and bestowed with the enduring inside-out beauty that only comes from being your true self.
Like mine, his was a hard-earned becoming and he wears it like a cloak, the cadence of which closed the swathe of time between us and made me feel safe.
We spent some time sitting in the sun sharing potted histories of the past two decades – not the what-have-you-been-doing-and-achieving kind, but the where-have-you-been-hurting-and-growing kind. Snapshots of the ordeals we faced that dismantled our conceit and the feet we blistered on the road to vulnerability. A meeting without masks.
He has been a faith healer for many years and offered me a healing after we had lunch with Anne at an organic restaurant near the clinic, which I accepted gratefully.
I can’t explain what he did or how he did it. I just lay on the bed in my hospital room and felt the heat seep from his hands in gentle circular motions across my body. It stilled my rushing mind and seemed to reach down into the childhood I shared with him and squeeze its leftover hurts from my eyes.
“I want to be well Charlie,” I admitted afterwards, my face still wet with tears.
“There is a quiet place right here,” he replied, touching my chest near the heart, “where you are well. Don’t forget it in the midst of everything else you are doing. Keep coming back to it sometimes.”
I felt very still and peaceful when he left. Grateful for his visit and all the blessings issued from the Great Unknown on this quest for wellness. I don’t know what, if anything, he healed that afternoon, but I felt some rip in the fabric of my psyche weave itself back together again and solace tumble from its yarn.
Dr Mûnoz was the doctor who turned me down for treatment five months ago, when I believed he was my last hope. I wrote about this devastating blow in Sacred Unknowing along with my immense delight when I met him last time I came to Mexico and he agreed to treat me. So two clinics for me on this trip!
Dr Mûnoz specialises in immunotherapy for cancer and offers many of the same treatments offered by Oasis. He also offers a variety of different vaccines to eliminate various cancer-feeding ‘bad guys’ in your body.
One is called the dendritic vaccine. He takes the dendritic cells from your blood as well as cancer cells from your primary tumour and trains the former to attack the latter. Do not ask me how! Way over my head. The method is still in trial but he says it is showing great promise and I have met patients who have experienced its benefits.
So he took my blood when I first arrived and then I went to his clinic several days in a row this week to receive the vaccine. He also took my blood in January and has developed other vaccines for me to take home and inject myself with, almost daily, for the next twenty weeks. I hate needles so this is a slightly daunting prospect, but I am thrilled to be bringing home a new customised weapon for my tumour-bashing armoury!
Even more uplifting than what he has to offer is the man himself. He is clearly brilliant and committed to helping you understand what he is doing and why. Oozing kindness and humility, he feels honoured to treat you and makes you feel like you’re the only cancer patient in the world.
His office is right next door to the treatment room and he is in and out talking to patients, connecting, making his presence and care felt. He is accessible. Every time I went there he invited me in to see him with no formal appointment. He looked at my scans from the UK, explaining them in more detail than anyone has done before, and took the trouble to show me how to vaccinate myself when I go home – which he could have easily asked one of the nurses to do instead.
His clinic is very simple compared to the Oasis hospital. No rooms for patients to stay in. Just some treatment rooms and a tiny cafe serving organic food. All his patients spoke of him with relief, trust and gratitude, many of them finding in him a place to turn when all other options were exhausted.
I found in him a place to go when my options are still flowing and my tumours are in retreat. My oncologist at home says he doesn’t expect further shrinkage at this stage, but hopes we can keep my cancer stable for as long as possible. So that’s what I’ve been aiming for. Stay alive as long as possible. But Dr Mûnoz has encouraged me to shoot for remission (yikes, I start sweating just writing that word), so I’m taking the plunge and daring to picture that possibility. I’m even admitting it publicly – with prayers aplenty and all fingers crossed.
It is important for all patients at Oasis to have a companion and most people come with a close family member, but I don’t want to bring Gabriella to Tijuana (which is quite a dangerous town) or leave her at home with anyone but John. It’s a big ask for someone to spend two or three weeks with me.
Last time my darling friend Catherine Rolt came for the whole trip and her friendship, wisdom, humour and camaraderie (as someone also living with a debilitating illness) made all the difference.
This time I was accompanied by Anne Brown, who was married to my business partner and spiritual teacher Brad Brown until his death in 2007. She lives in California and was planning to come for a few days, but ended up staying with me for the full two weeks. She is an amazing woman in her late seventies, vibrant with energy, deliciously funny and deeply thoughtful.
She also has a gift for reaching out and connecting with people others might give a wide berth to. There are a number of Amish patients at the hospital, who travel here from all over the States because they trust Dr. Contreras. Often there is one family member waiting alone in the lobby for their loved one to come out of surgery. So Anne would introduce herself and then invite them into the dining room to eat with us or offer them her phone so they could call their families with news.
She did the same thing with the families of two patients who died this week, reaching out to them in their terrible grief during the days they had to stay at the hospital arranging to transport the bodies back home. One family was from Korea and the other from Kazhakstan, but she managed to transcend any language difficulties to give them solace and support. The wife of the Korean man who died felt safe enough to weep in her arms. It was really beautiful to witness her love complete strangers this way.
I am grateful to Anne for all the walks on the beach and giggly conversations and her helpful reminders about what medications I was supposed to be taking when. But I am especially grateful for her company because being with her made me feel close to Brad again. She reminded me how very much he loved me and we both shared teary memories of his impact on our lives.
I am sure he orchestrated events for her to spend the whole trip with me. I felt his spirit close many times. I am in no doubt that what he taught me has enabled me to embrace this experience of cancer with grit, humour, dignity and creativity these past seven months. I miss him immensely, even eight years after his passing, but I am doing what I can to live his heritage and mark his memory well.