I was late for meditation. It was raining and cold. I could see my breath, and in the darkness of the trails that led away from my room, the shadowy outlines of wallabies perched in the meadows and stared back at me. I sprinted across the paths of the Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in the hinterlands of the Gold Coast, Australia, and tried not to think about cancer. The retreat was an opportunity to experience a new place, take time for myself, and be alone, but my mom was being treated for two types of cancer back in New York. The rain coated my hair and faded black Mountain Hardware jacket, and I struggled to process the information in this idyllic setting. The meditation seminar had started 15 minutes ago, and I was sweating in the chilly mountain air.
Cancer lurked in my family’s background like the laughing Kookaburras in the trees above. As far as we can tell, the roots of the disease started with my mother’s father, Grandpa Maurice. He died of pancreatic cancer six years before I was born. Twenty years later my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Thirty years later I had thyroid cancer. Now, over 40 years later, my mom was struggling with skin cancer and bladder cancer.
It was understandable that since I’d arrived for my healthful stay at Gwinganna, cancer was all I could think about. The peace and beauty of the mountaintop retreat, the soothing tones of its professional staff, and the no-caffeine, no-sugar, and no-alcohol policy had me close to tears.
I was almost to the meditation hut and recalled the conversation I’d had with my dad prior to my departure for Australia. “Can’t your mom catch a break?” Lightning crossed the sky. Getting cancer feels like being struck by lightning. To be struck once seems unlikely. To be struck on multiple occasions seems a statistical improbability. Yet, my family was the genetic equivalent of that improbability.
Meditation class was in full swing. I plunged into the overheated room with all of the disruption of an unschooled pupil. I peeled off wet clothes, sat in the back row, and thought, “Will our family ever catch a break?” I have a 4-year-old son, and I worried about the family legacy of cancer I might be passing on to him. Would he be the recipient of the next bolt of lighting?
When I learned about my thyroid cancer, I naively assumed it meant I had a free pass from other types of cancer. My endocrinologist bluntly corrected my assumption. “You are more prone to cancer now,” she said. “Not less. “Now, mellow out. Stress isn’t your friend.”
At Gwinganna, the meditation guide sat at the front in the room and explained to the rows of people on folding chairs how to breathe, count, let thoughts flow, and place one’s fingers in varying Buddhist poses. It was comically complex. Even before my doctor’s directive to “chill out,” I studied meditation. I enjoyed it immensely and knew its benefits but, ironically, this particular round of meditation only seemed to increase my stress. I couldn’t sit still, let alone be one with anything.
My mind wandered back to the time when I learned about my thyroid cancer. I read up on the disease, I tried to understand its path, and came across this bit of information about predictors: Pancreatic cancer increases the likelihood of a hereditary proneness to colon cancer and that, in turn, increases a hereditary proneness to thyroid cancer. Cancer’s lineage was a direct one in our family: My grandfather, my mother, and me. It was like being royalty in a backwards sort of way. What did that mean for the future of my young son? Was he to be crowned next in the line-up? Was I passing on to him the vulnerability of our family of cancers?
The meditation continued, but I squirmed with my eyes opened, staring at the other people in the room and wondering about their health constraints, their hereditary issues, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be.
The dry heat of the meditation room got to me. I could feel a tickle start in my throat and the cough build up. I tried to contain the damage but could do nothing in the face of the oncoming coughing fit. My exit was as noisy and noted as my entrance.
I retreated to the cozy dining room with its grand stone fireplace. A fire roared due to the chill outside. The Gold Coast was experiencing a cold snap of historic proportions.
Sharon Kolkka, Gwinganna CEO, sat at one of the tables going over the menus with the gardener and chef Shelley Pryor. Much of the food at Gwinganna was grown on site, and I’d already toured the bountiful gardens with its aromatic herbs and flowers. Sharon motioned me over to the table, and Shelley offered me a cup of herbal tea.
Sharon was an amazing spokesperson for the retreat, a person who embraced the philosophy of alternative lifestyle and health. Her gentle voice, radiant skin and clear eyes communicated her commitment.
We’d barely gotten through the niceties when I blurted, “I’ve had cancer.” She nodded appreciatively, sympathetically. I spoke about my mom, and how it wasn’t fair that in her 70s she still had more than her share of cancer to deal with. I repeated my father’s lament, “My mom deserves a break!”
Sharon nodded to the fellow “retreatists” sitting around the hearth enjoying the quiet time before dinner. “We all deserve a break. Our guests come to Gwinganna for many reasons,” she explained. “Spiritual advancement, lifestyle changes, recovery.”
It was true. Earlier, I had overheard several guests speak about the medical tests they would undergo after their trip to Gwinganna. Others were trying to make up for and detox from indulgent ways.
“People come here to deal with health issues and make important changes to their lives,” said Sharon. “But we don’t have to be victims of our genes.”
Sharon began to explain the science of Epigenetics to me. Since the Human Genome Project began a number of years ago, researchers have discovered that our cellular biology, our genes, can be switched on and off. Each gene has a receptor site for various biochemical compounds. Depending on our internal environment, the genes can either increase receptivity or diminish receptivity to harmful or positive biochemical compounds. You have some control over your cellular destiny. I had no idea about the advances in cellular biology, and I devoured the information.
“The focus for people with a history of a degenerative disease in the family is to learn how to provide the ideal environment to ensure a gene switches off or turns down certain traits,” said Sharon.
“Like my family and cancer?” I said.
“Like your son’s future,” she said.
I was being offered more than exotic herbal tea, tricky meditation practices, and wet wallabies. I was being given positive tools to pass down to my family to counteract my negative hereditary contributions.
Cancer patients might be lightning rods. Bad things are more likely to happen to us. My mom’s cancer and my own were treatable. If my son ever developed cancer, the chances are it would be caught early, and successfully handled, because we are aware of our family tree’s hiccups and challenges. We will prepare ourselves with strategies to turn down our receptivity to bad biology and increase our receptivity to good biochemistry.
“We have to be strong,” said Sharon.
I took another sip of my herbal tea, and felt my anxiety slip away. The meditation was working after all.
Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.