Staying at Hallwang is like being in a hospital. It’s a very posh hospital, but still a hospital. The routines are governed by the treatments and the mealtimes. It can be regimented.
If your physical state is not robust, you may need to get the permission of the doctors before going out. So you get used to asking the doctors if you can do this or that, like a child.
After four weeks there, you are effectively institutionalised. Plus, you build up relationships with the other patients and staff, so your friends and family become Hallwang. Their ups-and-downs become yours.
There was Peter, who had Stage IV metastatic colo-rectal cancer, who was given less than a year to live. He came over to Hallwang, spent 10 weeks there for his initial stay, and the mets started vanishing.
There was R. with an inoperable throat tumour which had wrapped itself around an artery. After repeated visits and TACE treatments, his tumour had almost vanished.
And there was S. who was told by the doctors in the UK that the tumour in her colon was inoperable and were going to subject her to six months of systemic chemotherapy “which may or may not shrink the tumour”. After two TACEs and one course of chemotherapy, she returned home to London where the disbelieving doctors reluctantly examined her and told her that they could operate.
It was exhilarating being in this kind of environment, where the impossible was made achievable. Where the doctors and nurses were positive and fought alongside the patients.
But there were not all happy endings.
I don’t want to romanticise the Hallwang experience. Most people go to a German cancer clinic because they’ve run out of options for the standard of care back home, or the cancer has run out of control. After all, most people with early stage cancer will not spend upwards of Euro10K per week when surgery and chemo might sort out the problem at home, at less expense.
So a lot of the people I met were end-stage or with metastatic cancer. It was a sobering experience. An in-your-face experience.
I was honoured to visit B. who had been a long-term patient at the clinic. His fantastic wife, H., had sold their house to fund their search for a cure for his metastatic colon cancer. Unfortunately, the chemo he had had in Australia damaged his kidneys and after a long battle, his kidneys failed. I held B’s hand and said a prayer for him. He was still very lucid and able to hold brief conversations with his wife.
I met briefly with G. who also had colo-rectal cancer. He died after he returned home for a holiday. (It was unexpected as he had been responding well to treatments.) His wife, N, was bubbly and down-to-earth, and a fantastic example of positive thinking and doing. But even her energy and natural positivity was dented by the days his colostomy bag burst and she had to clean up the mess.
These cancer patients were fine people who had amazing careers, and families, and who used to have strong bodies. Reduced by rogue cells to shadows of themselves.
My sense of mortality grew immensely while I was at the clinic. I realised what a grim enemy I was facing. And realised also that I was in one of the best places to fight this enemy.
I got caught up with the drama of life at Hallwang, and cared a lot for the people there. It was like being in a mini soap opera, with life-and-death episodes everyday. The world outside Hallwang dimmed for the four weeks I was there.
Which is why, when you leave Hallwang or any other clinic, it is important to make sure you have a few days to decompress somewhere that is not a hospital-type of environment before going home. That way you get a chance to acclimatise to life outside Hallwang again.
I made the mistake of returning to London and then to work almost immediately.
On the final day, I had my leaving consultation with Dr Kopic, and was issued with a huge bag of supplements by the pharmacist, which meant re-packing my suitcase to accommodate two huge bottles of Aloe Vera juice.
One moment I was at Hallwang being hugged by the staff, and six hours later, after a short flight, I had my Marigolds on and was cleaning the loo at home. The contrast couldn’t have been greater.
Three days later, I went back to work. The office environment was a cold shock after the nurturing and support structure I got at Hallwang. I also missed my three meals a day cooked by the chefs!
I hadn’t realised how caught-up I was in the structure and routines at Hallwang until I got home.
I tussled with constipation and loose bowels from the TACE chemo, my hair started falling out. My system was in a state of hyper alert. It took me months before I managed to sleep through the night and weeks of acupuncture before my body relaxed again. All while holding down a 9-5 job!
A few people I know went off for holidays after Hallwang. Definitely the wise way to decompress.