NunatuKavut elder living with untreated cancer for 19 years
Nearly 20 years ago, James (Jim) Learning had a feeling he should get himself screened for prostate cancer. His own father had been diagnosed previously, and Learning wondered if he, too, was vulnerable.
© Derek Montague/The Labradorian
James (Jim) Learning has refused conventional cancer treatment for nearly 20 years. Despite living with cancer in his body, the 74-year-old has maintained an active life.
“Our father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his mid-80s and he lived into his 90s,” recalled Learning, who will be 76-years-old in July.
“(I thought) because he has it, I must have it as well. I just transferred that because a lot of these things are genetic …”
Learning was given a cursory check by a doctor in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and was told he was cancer free. But Learning insisted that a deeper probe be done.
Through a second analysis, scar tissue was discovered on Learning’s prostate gland, and a biopsy was ordered in St. John’s. The results showed that Learning did indeed have “Level II” cancer on his prostate.
“They found cancer right across the gland. And they told me it was a Level II. So, I didn’t know what that meant,” said Learning.
“Cancer is a fearful thing. When I was told I had cancer, I basically went numb from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. It felt like there was nothing in between those two points.”
Learning’s doctor recommended a common treatment for cancer — an operation followed by chemotherapy. But Learning didn’t want to jump to any decisions regarding treatment. First, he wanted to educate himself on the subject.
“The doctor said … we’ll operate, we’ll chemo and we’ll radiate. But the first thing I had to do was find out what cancer was. We all think we know cancer, but we don’t.”
After careful consideration, Learning came to a decision that would surprise his doctor and much of his family. He would not be taking any form of medical treatment. He decided to “let the cancer be” inside of him.
“The doctor was taken aback by it. It took awhile to convince him. I got a letter from the doctor, telling me that I would be basically trashed within a few months if I didn’t have the operation and go through the regimen,” said Learning.
“I supposed I realized that doctors don’t have a cure for cancer. They have a terrible regimen that cuts, burns and poisons, and that never appealed to me. I prefer quality of life to quantity of life.”
One of the people who helped Learning cope with cancer since the beginning is his close friend Roberta Benefiel. Right from diagnosis, Benefiel helped her friend understand cancer and the affects of different treatments.
“I supported Jim 100 per cent,” said Benefiel.
“At the beginning, there was a lot of reading and research involved.”
Benefiel can still recall the day Learning informed her of his cancer diagnosis. She was attending university in Toronto at the time when she received the fateful phone call.
“When he called, he had a list of books and he told me to go to Chapters and buy as many of them as possible,” recalled Benefiel.
After helping Learning research the subject of cancer, she fully understood why he wouldn’t want to undergo chemotherapy.
“I think he would rather have died then put poison in his body, because that’s what chemo is, it’s a poison,” said Benefiel.”
Not long after his diagnosis, Learning did seek one kind of treatment for his cancer, with surprising results.
Learning has two daughters and one son, who all live outside of Labrador. When he was visiting one of his daughters in British Columbia, Learning visited a Chinese doctor who specialized in herbal remedies.
The procedures were both fascinating and foreign to the man from Labrador.
“He takes your pulse, looks at your tongue … and get this: he’s working with an abacus,” Learning recalled.
Learning was expecting to hear something about his prostate cancer. Instead, the doctor was more focused with Learning’s liver, and seemed to brush away the cancer as a secondary concern.
“He focused on the liver, and he said your liver’s very bad; very weak liver,” said Learning.
“Years before that I had a lot of, what I thought were, stomach problems. But it was my liver.”
Learning was prone to chest or stomach pains during much of his life, prior to visiting the doctor. But, after Learning was given a two-month regimen of herbal remedies, those problems went away.
Learning prepared the remedies by boiling the dried herbs. The taste was almost indescribable.
“Absolutely horrible; the worst in the world. They give you a little candy to go with it to counteract the taste,” said Learning.
Making lifestyle and dietary adjustments were also important for Learning. Eating the right foods in moderation helps Learning deal with his liver and his cancer. The NunatuKavut elder makes sure he has the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and nutrients in his daily meals.
“My salt beef dinners only come around once every two or three months, when normally I’d like to have that every two or three weeks,” said Learning.
“Worst of all, I have a sweet tooth, a severe sweet tooth. So I had to pull away from an addiction.”
For nearly 18 years after his diagnosis, Learning avoided checkups and hospitals as much as he could. And he claims to have lived those years symptom free.
But a year-and-a-half ago, Learning developed a case of prostattitis, which made urination difficult. For this Learning had little choice but to take a chemical treatment from a doctor.
Learning doesn’t know if this was caused by his prostate cancer, or was simply a part of his aging body. But, while at the hospital, he agreed to a cancer checkup, to see whether or not the cancer spread to other parts of his body. It would be his first cancer test since he was diagnosed in 1995.
Learning said he felt tense before the screening, but wasn’t afraid of the potential results.
“I was apprehensive, yes I was. I don’t think I was afraid, because once you decide these things, you’ve settled on it,” said Learning.
“If I went to get yearly checkups, I’d always be apprehensive about that … if I’ve decided to let this thing kill me, then live with it … don’t fudge around.”
According to Learning, a scan revealed a “fleck” on his pelvic bone, something Learning can live with.
“That didn’t seem like a big deal, I’m still not going to do anything with it,” he said.
Learning continues to live with cancer, and he hasn’t let it slow down his life. The elder is a vocal opponent of the Muskrat Falls project. There are currently seven pending charges against Learning in the court system, stemming from three demonstrations he participated in since 2012.
In April 2013, Learning even went on a hunger strike while remanded at the Labrador Correctional Centre.
He may be comfortable living with cancer, but that doesn’t mean Learning feels immortal. Like many others, he ponders about the shortness of life.
It’s not because of cancer, just because of time itself. The biggest thing rolling over us is time. If you ever say that you have lots of time, it’s a fool’s game you’re playing,” said Learning.
Learning also wants to make it clear that he’s not against modern medicine or modern cancer treatment. Learning chose to ignore the advice of doctors because he felt it was best for his own body. Everyone else has to make up his or her own minds on the subject.
“I’ll take ancient medicine before I take modern; I have a bias that way. But I don’t condemn modern medicine, absolutely not.”