07 March 2023

By Tim Baker

Older readers may recall a time when patients who’d undergone major medical procedures might look forward to some time recuperating in what was rather quaintly termed a “Convalescent Home”.

A stately manor house in the countryside or by the beach surrounded by rose gardens, where the recovering patient could be sat with a pleasant pastoral or ocean view and a rug over their knee to breathe fresh country air, watch the clouds drift by and the cows munch grass while they healed body, mind and spirit.

What a lovely idea. I wonder what happened to it. It appears to have gone the way of the dial up phone and the milkman to make way for greater efficiencies. These curious ruminations were triggered by a week just spent in a residential lifestyle retreat called Quest For Life, in the bucolic environs of Bundanoon, in the Southern Highlands, south-west of Sydney.

Close readers may recall, I met Quest For Life founder Petrea King on the set of the SBS program Insight, dedicated to cancer survivorship, or as Petrea puts it “people who didn’t die on time”.

There I was indulged with loads of meditation, healthy mainly vegetarian food, opportunities for emotional healing, counselling, massage, and a safe sharing circle of empathy with others facing life-threatening chronic illness.

I wish every cancer patient could have such an experience. And yet the component parts of this, giving people living with cancer the tools to better manage their diagnosis, should not remain beyond the reach of a modern, compassionate, healthcare system.

So, allow me to try and break down these component parts of an experience I found so deeply enriching and healing and see if we can find a place for them in modern health care.

At their best, support groups can provide this safe circle of sharing and are well worth exploring, even if my own experiences haven’t been entirely positive. The PCFA can point you towards the closest one in your area.

Time in nature away from day-to-day stresses? Not everyone can afford to go away on retreats but many of us could manage a camping weekend or even a bush walk, the therapeutic powers of “forest bathing” discussed in this column previously.

Most of us have access to qualified counselling now, thankfully, whether through a mental health care plan from your GP, or with a PCFA telehealth counsellor. If you’re not already availing yourself of either or both of these services, and you’re struggling with any aspect of your diagnosis, please reach out for some professional help.

Massage might be a luxury for many, but as someone with a chronic illness, you may qualify for a care plan that would subsidise the cost of oncology massage under Medicare. Highly recommended when something more tactile than talk therapy is required. Or you could explore whether you qualify for NDIS funding to cover such therapies.

Having someone prepare three healthy meals a day for you is probably a bit of an ask for most of us, but taking whatever steps you feel capable of to clean up your diet and embrace the delights of fresh fruit and vegetables may be an unexpected pleasure. Cooking in bulk and freezing for later use is just one way to make this easier.

Of course, there is an “entourage effect” when all these elements are combined in a deeply nurturing, concentrated setting like a retreat, with intangible, alchemical benefits which are difficult to articulate.

And it’s hard to imagine this having anything but a positive influence on patient outcomes in improved quality of life, reduced stress and anxiety, renewed hope and optimism and the ability to make peace with one’s diagnosis, however grim.

And in the raw, human stories around our sharing circle – of unimaginable pain and heartache and suffering and wretched luck and generational trauma – comes another illuminating effect. The realisation that everyone is dealing with something, that I am not so alone or special or remarkable in my own pain and suffering, that it is an inescapable part of the human condition.

Among the many wise gems we were given to store somewhere precious and take home and retrieve in times of need was this: “Forgiveness or acceptance is giving up all hope of having a better past.” It’s a statement worth dwelling over for a little while. Forgiveness of ourselves or others, acceptance of our circumstances – what’s done is done and can’t be undone. How we respond, our attitude, is what will determine the way forward.

And this: “What sort of ancestor do you want to be?” A question that briefly stopped me in my tracks. How are you going to choose to live your life, even when facing your own mortality? And in finding your path through that, what legacy, what breadcrumb trails are you leaving your descendants?


About the Author

Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with Stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.