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A Wave Trying to Find the Ocean

Faced with a terminal condition, what solace can surfing really offer?

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What I recall most vividly was my wife gripping my hand so tightly that I thought my fingers would break. We were in a hospital. The same hospital where both our children were born. But this time, instead of something growing inside of my wife that held the promise of new life, there was something growing inside of me that threatened to take life away.

I’ve struggled for words to describe the surreal terror of receiving a diagnosis like this. The best I’ve come up with is that it felt like being smashed in the face with a baseball bat.

It started with a routine check-up after I turned 50 that included some serious frowns from my GP. Then came a battery of tests, scans, and referrals. Finally, a bespectacled urologist calmly told us that I not only had prostate cancer, but it had already spread. “The horse bolted,” as he so quaintly put it, to my right femur and to the seventh rib on my left side. It was incurable and ultimately fatal, but could be managed for an indeterminate number of years with an array of treatments, each with its own suite of debilitating side effects. Just like that, life was tipped upside down.  

This is not one of those stories where I rejected conventional therapies, and instead juiced and meditated and visualized my way to health. Rather, it’s the story of how I learned to live with this dire diagnosis and sought to find joy, acceptance, strength, and wisdom amid the panic attacks and freakouts and chemo and radiation and hormones and earnest medicos who assured me there was nothing I could do to improve my prognosis. This disease is going to kill me, and there is nothing I can do about it.

We are all accustomed to stories of miraculous cancer survivors or emaciated cancer victims, a kind of cancer porn. I am interested in filling in some of the mundane stuff that happens in between. What occupies the vast majority of those of us living with cancer is simply getting on with the challenging work of trying to live a meaningful life. And for me, the two things I can do for myself that have been the most potent and reliable sources of strength, peace, and bliss are surfing and meditation.

My son Alex was 9 when I was diagnosed, and in the first throes of a severe case of surf fever. During chemotherapy, this proved both a blessing and a curse. He was too young to really understand the effects of the treatment that left me tired and groggy for a few days over each three-week cycle. He’d wake me up at the crack of dawn and beg to be taken to the beach. But it was the best thing I could do, dragging myself out of bed and hurling myself into the ocean, to wash away the lingering aftertaste of toxicity.

I’d taken to wearing a surfing hat prior to my diagnosis, wary of the accumulated effects of four decades of sun exposure. Alex wasn’t too keen on the surf hat at first. “Do you have to wear that thing?” he’d cringe, as if I were the most embarrassing father in the world. I, on the other hand, saw the surf hat as a tool of spiritual growth. One of the stages on the path to enlightenment is the annihilation of the ego and, as any surfer knows, nothing annihilates the ego faster than a surfing hat. No one wears a surfing hat because it looks cool.

Once my hair started falling out, when I’d run a hand through and come away with great handfuls of the stuff, I shaved it off completely to avoid looking like a half-plucked chicken. Alex then became okay with me wearing the hat. He’d watch me smearing my newly shorn dome with sunscreen and ask, “Aren’t you going to wear your hat?”

Those early morning excursions together were a high point of this strange, frightening, surreal period. Watching him scratch into a wave, scramble to his feet, and trim joyfully across little peelers made me feel profoundly fortunate at a time when I could have easily wallowed in self-pity. Hearing him hoot me into one did the same. He’d often hang on to my leash and beg me to tow him back out, or goad me into paddling out on marginal days when I would have normally turned up my nose. I clearly recall paddling out with him one day at Rainbow Bay and thinking, Well, if this has been my life and it is to end prematurely, it has been a fucking cracker—way beyond anything I could have imagined as a surf-obsessed but landlocked kid growing up in suburban Melbourne.

When the surf was over 3 feet, it was my time to go surfing for myself. Although when it was over 5 feet it was questionable as to whether I should have been surfing at all. My oncologist had sent me to see an orthopedic surgeon, who suggested we might need to pin my thigh bone to prevent a “pathological fracture,” which didn’t sound good. I was put on a bisphosphonate, a bone-strengthening agent with the charming side effect of me being in deep shit if I were to break a bone or even chip a tooth. Modern medicine seems to work like this. One treatment addresses one issue but creates a whole other set of issues that require another treatment, which then creates more issues. It’s a stunning business model, perhaps inspired by the proverbial old lady who swallowed a fly.

We’re all going to die. Buddhism suggests that our life’s work is to prepare for death, but for most of us it is the homework we put off until the last minute. A cancer diagnosis is a wake-up call to do that homework.

So my surfing became tentative, risk-averse, and conservative, though wildly liberating and more precious than ever. It became my own therapy that carried no side effects more serious than a saltwater nasal drip.

One spring day during chemo, an unseasonal east swell lit up the Gold Coast points. I watched Greenmount from the beach: 5 feet, sheet glass, metallic gray, ruler edged. Weak and groggy, I wasn’t sure if I should paddle out at all. But the need for saltwater immersion overcame the fear of injury. I paddled out timidly and weakly, like Matt Johnson in Big Wednesday after his big night out. I might have easily muttered Jan-Michael Vincent’s immortal line to myself, “I’m going to drown and all they’re going to find is my shitty board.”

I’ve never been great with crowds. But on that day, amid the frothing and snarling Superbank lineup, I was little more than a priority buoy for others to paddle around before picking off another perfect wave. A bloke I know named Al, one of those blokes I know just from the surf, recognized my pathetic state. He must have known something of my circumstances, and he took pity on me. “If I get one,” he offered, “drop in on me.” That small act of kindness was enough to boost my flagging spirits and, in the end, I didn’t even need to take advantage of his offer. A set wave came straight to me, unmolested and with no one on the inside. I dragged my arms feebly through the water and felt that familiar exhilarating surge as the wave lifted me up. I crawled to my feet, flailed down the face, and looked up at that sublime view as water drained off the bank.

I stood flying in the mouth of the thing, no longer a cancer victim or chemotherapy patient but a surfer in the sweet spot of life. I drove high up the face, racing to make the feathering lip line ahead. I dropped into the next section, barely barrelled but mesmerized by that hypnotic view, before straightening out ahead of a dumping closeout and riding prone to the beach. It is a medicine more powerful than any chemotherapy drug coursing through my veins.

In such moments, I’m reminded of the words of philosopher Alan Watts: “A man trying to find God is like a wave trying to find the ocean.”

We’re all going to die. Buddhism suggests that our life’s work is to prepare for death, but for most of us it is the homework we put off until the last minute. A cancer diagnosis is a wake-up call to do that homework. If survival is my only goal then I will always be on tenterhooks, sweating the next scan or test result. There lies no contentment or peace there. If my goal is my own evolution, to ascend to higher levels of consciousness in whatever time I have left, that is something I can work on every day.

When I drop in, to a wave or a meditative state, I no longer feel like a wounded antelope that has fallen behind the herd and is limping across the veld, waiting to be picked off by an opportunistic hyena. In those moments I feel magnificent and exultant and timeless spiritual entity, a field of energy vibrating harmoniously with the universal, untouchable, immortal. I am convinced that things are somehow going to work out. Whether that’s reincarnation or just through the deeds and memories of my amazing children, I don’t know.

Lying in savasana at the end of a yoga class once, the teacher said quietly, “What’s in the way is the way.” Those few words became a kind of personal mantra for me. This experience is not an obstacle to be climbed over in an attempt to resume my old life. It is my new life. And though I would wish the cancer gone if I could, I would not wish away the learning.

Illustration by Alex Jenkins.