Nearly 20 years ago, Jim Learning had a feeling he should get screened for prostate cancer. His father had been diagnosed previously and Learning wondered if he, too, was vulnerable.
“Our father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his mid-80s and he lived into his 90s,” recalled Learning, who will be 76 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 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 had Level 2 cancer of the prostate.
“They found cancer right across the gland and they told me it was a Level 2, “he said.
“So, I didn’t know what that meant. 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 course of treatment — surgery followed by chemotherapy. But Learning didn’t want to decide prematurely. 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 take 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 suppose 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 effects 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 than 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, with surprising results.
He has two daughters and a son, all of whom 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 him.
“He takes your pulse, looks at your tongue … and get this: he’s working with an abacus,” Learning recalled.
He was expecting to hear something about his prostate cancer. Instead, the doctor was more concerned 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,’” Learning recalled.
“Years before that I had a lot of what I thought were stomach problems. But it was my liver.”
Learning had been prone to stomach pains for much of his life, prior to visiting the doctor. But after he was given a two-month regimen of herbal remedies, those problems went away.
Learning prepared the remedies by boiling 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,” he said.
Making lifestyle and dietary adjustments were important for Learning. 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 18 months ago, Learning developed a case of prostatitis, an inflammation which makes urination difficult. He had little choice but to see a doctor and take a chemical treatment.
Learning doesn’t know if it was caused by his prostate cancer or was simply a part of aging. But while at the hospital, he agreed to a cancer checkup to see whether or not the cancer had spread — his first cancer test since he was diagnosed in 1995.
He 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,” Learning said.
“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.”
A scan revealed a “fleck” on his pelvic bone, something Learning said he can live with.
“That didn’t seem like a big deal. I’m still not going to do anything with it,” he said.
And he hasn’t let it slow down his life. A vocal opponent of the Muskrat Falls project, there are currently seven charges pending against Learning in the court system, stemming from three demonstrations he participated in since 2012.
In April 2013, Learning 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 the brevity of life.
“The biggest thing rolling over us is time,” he said.
“If you ever say that you have lots of time, it’s a fool’s game you’re playing.”
Learning wants to make it clear that he’s not against modern medicine or modern cancer treatment. He 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 mind on the subject.
“I’ll take ancient medicine before I take modern. I have a bias that way,” he said.
“But I don’t condemn modern medicine, absolutely not.”