Friday, July 9, 2010

"50% of everything is in your head."

In the early 80’s we were transferred to South Africa, to Johannesburg.
It was an amazingly beautiful country, even with all the social problems of apartheid.

I have to admit, we loved parts of the experience, great friends that we still have, a gorgeous country, filled with amazing landscapes and naturally an animal population to rival any.

While there I started to feel badly, tired and weak. A doctor I went to kept telling me it was stress. This went on for months. I was tired and weak and eventually started to lose lots of weight, which was good, but bad at the same time since I made no effort to lose it. This doctor however, turned out to be a dud, irresponsible really, and made a huge error in judgment when trying to diagnose me. He took blood tests but only tested for tick bite fever, which is prevalent in S.A. (we had been to the bush recently) and it never occurred to him to do other vital tests had he been on the ball, when he saw that I was not improving.

Jeannine, very concerned by a lump that appeared under my arm, told our friend who lived across the street. He immediately took me to his own doctor. We went through a battery of tests and did a biopsy on the lump that appeared under my arm. The surgeon he sent us too had been his professor at university, and very funny, he said he liked the fact that I was American; he could tell me the truth. I explained that I was probably more Greek than American. It did not slow him down, he told me “you have a curable cancer”. I was surprised at the order of his words; he explained that had he said, “You have a cancer that is curable” I probably would have heard cancer and then had a heart attack. Funny guy, I guess it is surgeon’s humor, since he was laughing when he told me.

He recommended an oncologist that was amazing, in Pretoria, a short drive from home.

This doctor was a true inspiration, he told me “50% of my cure was in my head, 20% was in his head and the drugs delivered 30%. The drugs always delivered their share, his whole family, wife and children were oncologists, and so his 20% was a certainty as well.” All I had to do was deliver my share. He put it in such away that all my fears left me; we just had to focus on my cure. He had involved my wife as well, so it was very doable, actually she was the power behind the whole mental attitude.

He never spoke about remission, only cure, he just made me feel unbelievably positive.

He also told me to get rid of all friends that were negative, the hand-ringers, and people that mean well but immediately start to cry. Cancer then and even now, to some people seems like a death sentence. It wasn’t, to us it was a life sentence, and everything fell into perspective.

Six months later and fifty pounds lighter, it was gone, not a trace of it. I was able to go to work right after every chemo session except the 1st two, well actually I made an appearance at work for about 1 hour after the second chemo session and I lost, maybe, two weeks in total, as well as all my hair. I was very tired, and occasionally made no sense, but I was “CURED.”

This experience put lots of things in a positive light, I am very glad that I had cancer. I, we, are different people because of it. I do not advise getting cancer or any other life threatening disease but if you do, it does change you, and from what I have read, it is usually for the better.

50% of everything is in your head.


  1. Dear Baron :)
    your story is a truth well told..
    and now I understand why is it that everybody seems to moan wrongly about the hardships of Greek economy, since 50% of what we suffer is in our head !!! :)

  2. Amazing story, brilliantly told...I was lucky to hear that story from you a year and a half ago in NY, while you were recovering from that other thing that was 100% in your head...

  3. Greg is always an inspiration to to me and to anyone who is dealing with such a difficult and unexpected illness. He was never sick a day in his life, except one time in Spain when he had a bad respiratory infection and was given penicillin. The doctor, a friend, came to check on him the following afternoon and was amazed at his quick recovery....Greg explained that he had never taken an antibiotic in his life....Well, said the doctor," Now I really understand what they mean when speaking of penicillin as a miracle drug."

    The point of this is that his illness hit us both like a moving van hauling at incredible speed. We were caught completely by surprise and angry at the doctor who was more concerned with Greg's celebrity within the advertising world, and more interested in telling him he was treating Lisa Minelli who was to be performing in Sun City. Had we not needed all our energy to combat this illness, I would have dragged that atrocious excuse for a doctor to court. Even today it rankles me to think of the precious time we lost...he was supposed to be one of the best, and to our detriment was so off the mark.

    To Greg's credit, he could not be bothered with anything so distracting as this incident.
    His optimism, energy and faith in wellness even at the worst moments were remarkable and drew us closer together...We were a team and I would be his inspiration and besides life was too good to give up without a fight. We had to make decisions and quickly. Go to Stanford University in California or remain in South Africa and be treated by Dr. Folkson an oncologist in Pretoria, recognized professionally abroad and the USA for his remarkable work. We were blessed and Greg was in good hands. We remained at home and Greg insisted on driving the 45 minutes back to our house after the third treatment. The doctor was amazed. This is not to say that there were no profound heart fluttering episodes for us both during treatment but his attitude made all the difference and my being there for him reinforced his faith in surviving the cancer.

    He is a very special person and he spoke openly about his illness and remarked that talking about it was part of his cure. Internalizing was not healing and visualizing himself cured was important.

    Our wonderful neighbors, were steadfast, and true friends. An Irish gal who married a Greek, they had two adorable children and treated us as they always did and we loved them for it. I enjoy remembering seeing her for the first time with her oversize straw picture hat, a large flower decorating it a la 1950's Hollywood, her blond hair faintly tinged with red blowing against the soft afternoon breeze while her arm raised, and fingers spread across the brim of her hat to catch it should it be carried away.

    A few really good people that genuinely care about you make all the difference and at least four wonderful trips to the bush, ending the day with sunsets to inspire and convince you that life was too good to let go of.

  4. the "cure" was impossible without you

  5. Bravo Greg, inspirational, and I admire the fact that you give credit to where credit is due.....

  6. Insprational story and one that I fully relate to being recovered from cancer myself and losing my wife to cancer 8 years ago. When things like this happen your outlook on life defenitely does change.

    Things that you thought were so important before aren't any more. It's as if a light went on and your whole being is seen in an entirely different way. You don't get upset at things or as angry as you did before. You just realize that the most important thing is living life to the fullest, appreciating what you have and forgiving all the things and people you never would have in the past.

    I remember Greg, when that thing was in your head 2 Christmases ago. I was glad I was there for you and so happy it turned out so well. I also was so happy that Jeannine's problem was taken care of and she was fine also.

    I'm only sorry my dear, sweet Eunice didn't make it, but her bravery was so inspirational that she will always be a part of me and I will love and remember her forever. I wish she also survived, but she didn't. This past Saturday, July 10th, was our 50th wedding anniversary and I drank a toast to her and I know she clinked glasses with mine.

    Thanks for the memories.

  7. Bravo Frank, beautifully said. Keep writing, you do it so well.

  8. I was the kid next door.

    I remember this so well, I remember asking my Mother why did Mr Birbil shave his head? Even through all of this I cannot recall a moment that he was not his old self, arguing with my mother about who was making the pancakes for breakfast and drinking coffee with my father, who was a Greek hailing from Alexandria. You can just imagine the conversations.

    Here is my story to add to this blog entry about South Africa. My family and I lived on Leigh Ave in a suburb of Johannesburg called Glenhazel. In the times of apartheid and sadly still to this day, suburban white South Africans were divided from their communities by high walls and a fear of being victims of violence. Most of the properties in such suburbs had large gardens and swimming pools, so the need to leave the grounds was generally unnecessary. However as kids we still went up to the bambie cafe (the local corner shop) to buy chappies (a brand of gum) and Kojac lollipops, a dead ringer for Greg in the above pic - dont you think?

    One day I had a pal around the house after school and as 9 year old boys are, we got up to mischief. There was a telephone cable crossing the perimeter wall between Casa Di Birbil and my parents house. So, the game was to get solid clods of earth about as big as the palm of your hand and hit that cable. We did this for about 10 minutes until I heard someone shout "Shitty Kids!!!" Naturally we ran back inside the house, started to watch the television and play the innocent kid routine. A few minutes later the door bell rang, my mother went outside to meet the visitor, after about 10 minutes I hear a shrill Irish accented RORY!!! GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE NOW!!! I gingerly made my way outside to where the sound came from, I was greeted by a filthy look from my mother and a woman with lovely long dark hair and a welcoming face, this was my first meeting of Jeannine, know to me only as Mrs Birbil.

    As it turned out the clods of sand were not only hitting the cable for 10 points but also landing in the always sparkling pool of the Birbils. Jeannine, courteously asked my mother to control the two unruly boys. In a time of much uncertainty and cynicism all it takes is a few clods of earth in the hands of a "Shitty Kid" to bring down the divide.

    That was the start of a now 25 year old friendship with a family that I have the utmost love and respect for. We continue to keep in contact with Greg, Jeannine, Paul, Justine and Chris. Yesterday was the 5 year anniversary of the passing of my Father and some of my fondest memories of him will include the Birbils.

    And that is my South African story.

    Much Love and Filakia.

  9. Jeannine, your description of the Irish gal, who happens to be my mother doesn't quite ring a note in my head.

    All I can remember is running out of fear for my life from a crazed red haired Irish woman wielding a sjambok ( in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. I don't remember any soft afternoon breeze.

    I have days like this to thank for me becoming a South African champion sprint hurdler.


  10. Great Rory, not only were you a "shitty kid" but you turned into a hell of a writer, thanks, all my love kiddo

  11. Rory, I just love your description of how we all met and became fast friends.....My description of your mom was after we moved into our wonderful house and I first noticed her from a distance; She was of course moving purposefully... we were all so destined to meet; thank you for being that delightful, mischievous little boy who brought us all together....

  12. Besides reading your blog Greg, I truly enjoyed the posts written for you. What wonderful memories and what a great bunch of friends you all have!I miss you all! Have a healthy and relaxing summer...

  13. You too Maria, Great friends make a big difference. You need them.