Gary Brunk, recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, is fighting for his life with a holistic health regimen, accompanied by his wife Judy (left) and daughter Tracy L. Barnett, a travel writer. The trio set sail this week with the Holistic Holiday at Sea, a macrobiotic healing health cruise.
AIRBORNE OVER MEXICO – Six months ago, when my father was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, my friend Michelle responded right away. “You should take him on the holistic health cruise,” she said. I dismissed the idea at once – in the first place, I don’t like the idea of cruises anyway – a floating hotel at sea, I’ve always imagined them. I’m an independent traveler who chafes at the cumbersomeness of groups of more than two. Besides, on my Dad’s rapidly dwindling retired factory worker budget, and my freelance budget, who was going to pay for it?
“Nonsense,” said Michelle. “You’re a travel writer. Pitch this to some magazines. You can do it.”
She was talking about Holistic Holiday at Sea, a cruise dedicated to macrobiotic eating, yoga, meditation and a whole regimen of wellness strategies. I contacted Sandy Pukel, the cruise organizer, hoping he’d give us a discount that would work with our budgets. He was reluctant. His cruises always sell out, he pointed out, and there’s already been plenty of publicity. But he left the door open, and I began pitching the story to magazines.
Meanwhile, Dad was struggling with the decision of a lifetime. He had paid a visit to the state’s best cancer center, where they had given him a grim prognosis, delivered by a cheery doctor named Maria in a rapid-fire technobabble: Mesothelioma, nearly always fatal within a year of diagnosis. With chemotherapy, he might hope to live a few more months. It was already probably too advanced for surgery, and radiation for the lining of the lungs was not advised.
Dad listened quietly, taking in the information but clearly skeptical. He’d already had the preliminary diagnosis and some time to research. My parents had always been skeptics of the health care system, but now that Dad’s life was on the line, they’d come with an open mind, ready to embrace the best option. They wanted to know, however, that their doctor was schooled in nutrition and open to alternative medicine.
Dad tossed out a test question. “What if I change my diet?” he asked. “Do you think that would make a difference?”
“Not really,” she responded, the half-smile still frozen on her face.
“So I can eat anything I want?”
“Biscuits and gravy?” This, with a hint of wistfulness.
“Sure! Eat whatever makes you feel good,” she said. As if to say, it doesn’t matter – you’re going to die anyway, you might as well enjoy your last days.
That was the moment, I think, when Dad said goodbye to the medical-industrial complex – and also to biscuits and gravy, a beloved comfort food from his Southern roots.
As we walked out of the cavernous complex into the sun, Dad shook his head. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “These people really don’t know anything about nutrition and what it can do.”
Dad had always been the nutritional scofflaw to Mom’s dietary disciplinarian; she’d experiment with macrobiotics while he’d shovel in the meat and potatoes, loading up on multiple dessert servings at every opportunity. But now it was a matter of life and death.
Dad found a naturopath who worked with him to make the switch. He would have a brutal six-month anti-cancer regimen: no meat, no dairy, no wheat, no sugar, no caffeine, nothing fried. More than half of what he ate should be raw. Now instead of roast beef, he’d be shoveling in spoonfuls of supplements. Harshest of all was the cesium chloride, what his doctor termed “natural chemo.” Everything was designed to boost his immune system and shift his pH to an alkaline state, which is believed to be hostile to cancer.
It wasn’t long before meals became an eternal struggle. Mom knocked herself out with green drinks, super salads, and vegan versions of everything ranging from pizza to chili. Meanwhile, Dad dreamed of coffee heavily laced with half-and-half, barbecued pork steaks, bacon and eggs. His appetite was gone, and his motivation was going with it. He’d already lost 30 pounds since the diagnosis; he’d lose another 20 in this three months.
To support him in his struggle, I gave up meat as well – and for a time, dairy products and sugar and coffee, though that part was tough to stick to. I knew it was for more than Dad, though. It was for me, too. I survived a bout with cervical cancer myself in 2007, and I know I’m at risk. So Dad was inspiring me to do what I needed to do anyway.
I knew he needed inspiration – something that would give him joy in his new life without the foods he loved. Something to look forward to in the months ahead, something to keep him hanging on. The cruise was a bright bubble on the horizon. I never knew whether it would materialize, and I worried about giving false hopes – but I kept holding it out there, and I kept trying.
I came back to Missouri just before Thanksgiving, right when the brutal three months was coming to an end. Dad greeted me with an elation I hadn’t seen since before the diagnosis. “You know what I just did?” he asked. “I had an EGG!”
Gradually he was able to add a few small cherished items to the diet – three eggs and three small servings of fish each week, and the occasional serving of venison. Perhaps more significantly, the cesium chloride treatments were winding to a close, and his appetite was coming back. The color began returning to his face. Slowly, bit by bit, his strength began to return. It seemed too good to be true, but the naturopathic treatments and the diet seemed to be having an effect.
Still, the challenge remained. Life without cheese, coffee, cream, milk, butter, steaks, desserts – it was a pretty grim horizon from Dad’s perspective.
Three weeks from departure time, an e-mail showed up in my box. “Are you still interested?”
It seems there had been a cancellation, and Sandy was willing to cut us a deal. We were on.
And now my parents and I are on our way – they, from chilly Missouri, me, from sunny Mexico – set to converge at the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal for the first Caribbean Cruise of our lives.
My hope is that this will be a journey into a new level of consciousness, one in which we can take full responsibility for our own well-being, and full joy for a diet that is life-affirming – and that together, we’ll be making memories that will last many years – for all three of us.
– Tracy L. Barnett
Freelance writer Tracy Barnett is reporting from the Caribbean from the Holistic Holiday at Sea, She will be documenting the holistic cruise over the next two weeks through a series of blog entries. Stay tuned!
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