Not a photo of me, but please read on if you’re a male devotee and over 35…
In all my years as a devotee of Krishna, and that’s thirty-three this summer, I have never really been ill – ever. Well, alright, that’s if you exclude bouts of Delhi-Belly and the Calcutta-Quickstep on my many trips to India. And then there was German measles when I was eighteen. Otherwise I have enjoyed the benefits of a good and healthy way of life. And it’s a pretty healthy life as a Vaishnava. In fact, I think as lifestyles go, you’d be hard pressed to find a physical and mental regimen as fundamentally natural and health-giving as that of a Bhakti-yogi.
From the tender age of seventeen as a travelling brahmacari I was getting up at half past three every morning and taking a cold dip in a river, lake, or in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s something very bracing about jumping into cold water at that time in the morning and it does wonders for your concentration! Then there was the profound health-giving effect of deep meditation and philosophical reflection before breakfast, coupled with a simple, carefree life of travelling and preaching on behalf of the guru.
And what breakfasts, and what dinners. Not only vegetarian but cooked fresh, (and sometimes from vegetables picked at dawn from the farmers’ fields, if I may make a small confession) and with helpful spices according to the Ayurveda. Lots of physical exercise as we chanted sixteen rounds of japa in a walk of around four miles each morning; lots more walking while selling books, then dancing and singing in kirtan.
Then there’s all those bad habits we were spared from. No alcohol, cigarettes or coffee. No other drugs. No rollercoaster sexual relationships. Well, none at all in fact. When you add it all up, it was a great foundation for life; and those good habits stayed with me up until today.
However, I always had a sneaking suspicion that maybe I would not get through one whole life without something to convince me that the material world is a place of suffering. It was too good to be true that I’d never been sick. My mother had cancer when she was 50 – she is now 76 – but I’d always thought that I’d eaten and done all the right things that maybe history would not repeat itself. Well now I know.
I remember distinctly looking at a large poster on the London Underground. It showed three innocent children sitting on a wall with the caption: ‘One out of every three people in this country will develop cancer’ ‘Support Cancer Research.’ I felt it was a great shame that so many people would have a killer disease, but also felt relieved that I would not. How could I? I had lived such a healthy life, and besides, I was a devotee of Krishna, He was sure to protect me. He did, of course, but not in the way I’d expected.
While I’ve had cancer – twice now – many male devotees including several sanyasis have written or called to wish me well but also to reveal their own doubts: ‘How did you first become aware?’ ‘What are the first signs?’ I have tried to be as clear and helpful in my responses as possible; I wish that everyone can be spared from this horrible disease.
One of the problems with cancer is that it sneaks up on you while you’re not looking. You don’t come down with a nasty headache, or break out in spots, or keep running to the toilet. So what can I tell you of warning signals if you are a male Vaishnava and approaching or already past middle age? In my case there were some peripheral symptoms which may or not be relevant to you. With the bladder cancer I had what I thought were kidney stones in my urine for quite some months beforehand. They began as ‘sand’ or ‘gravel’ – very fine particles – and then came larger sharp stones mixed with blood. Although I thought they were kidney stones, and some of them may well have been, they had also grown or remained within the bladder making them technically ‘bladder stones.’
With the prostate cancer I had, for around one year or more, some periodic background twinges which I thought was the beginnings of some kind of hernia problem. It became one of those aches that you consider asking a doctor about but never actually do. There were also some problems with interrupted urination and the bladder not fully emptying at the time of urination which I vaguely fancied was a complication from the kidney stones. There was also a general lethargy which may or may not have been related. Now, those who know me know that I am generally not attentive to health issues and quickly become bored when devotees talk about their health, health cures or treatments. I have, rather cynically, considered too much talk about physical health to be a symptom of poor spiritual health. I also did not visit a doctor unless I really needed to.
I think a little differently now. From all that I have read, and all that has been told to me, and all that I have experienced, and for as long as I am interested in prostate cancer prevention within the Vaishnava community, here are a few pointers which you may like to note down if you are male and over 35:
- If you have a history of cancer in your family, you might have a genetic pre-disposition to cancer. So get yourself regularly checked. Just a simple blood test for PSA will be helpful and a full screening if you can.
- Check whether you experience any discomfort during urination, or whether it is interrupted, or if you have to get up at nights to urinate.
- If you are over 35, now is the time to lay off the paneer. Too many dairy products are beginning to be indicators for prostate cancer. Your sadhana will not suffer for lack of curd subji. Srila Prabhupada said – if I remember rightly – that our total consumption of milk per day could be one cup. (OK, so send me hate-mail for this)
- Lay off so much sugar and items containing sugar. After a certain age it just gets too much for the body to handle. Yes, I know, I know everything Srila Prabhupada said about white sugar. Please don’t email me about this one. He also said to Gurudas das in 1975 (who related to me personally the same year) that: ‘Many sanyasis have fallen down in the name of mahaprasadam’ meaning that even the most sacred food can, if taken continually in the spirit of enjoyment, be the cause for disturbance and sickness.
- Drink more water. Drink lots more. Your body will thank you for it.
- If you are concerned about kidney stones – and ouch! you should be – cut out rhubarb, go easy on spinach and dump the chocolate!
- Be careful of too much sitting and deskwork. Get more exercise – even if you have to descend to the level of frivolous sports.
- Check out your Ayurvedic constitution and avoid eating those foods which are inappropriate for your dosha.
- But be careful of listening to too many sources of alternative health information. It’s confusing and we have lost devotees because they ignored the obvious cures for their ailments and instead went in search of the most alternative and so-called miraculous cure.
- Always pray to Krishna for His protection, whatever He understands that to mean for you.