Munro since diagnosis #134 – a change of tone and style

13:30 – Mount Keen (M235), 3081ft, 939m

Regular readers will notice a change in tone and style.

Increasingly I am coming simply not to believe I have cancer.


Throughout my career as a cancer patient, the struggles have always been with the processes of diagnosis and prognosis, and with the demons of my mind that have been exposed in their wake. There were of course times, especially in the beginning, that I have no doubt I was very ill, but these seem now to have receded into distant memory. Although, even at the beginning of this year I felt very much worse than I do now, when I learned that the medication was not working any more, when my PSA value began to double more quickly than before, and when I had a nasty feeling in my chest in the region of an identifiably enlarged lymph node. Which is why I am becoming so genuinely sceptical, as opposed to being simply in denial, that I still have cancer.

For ten months now I have been medication free.

I’ll repeat that: For ten months now I have been medication free.

I have been looking after myself using sensible nutrition, good exercise, love and compassion, meditation and assorted dietary supplements. During this time I have received a great deal of both moral and financial support from friends, family and colleagues in the international messenger community. I took this path explicitly because the medication was not working any more, because this was my only hope of continuing in this life. My cancer had progressed from locally advanced to metastatic and had now become hormone-resistant.

According to the deterministic logic of stage progression, since I stopped taking the medication, the cancer should have spread like wildfire. But I feel nothing of this in my body whatever, and as I have said, I actually feel better than I did at the start of the year. This experience has been a very good way of learning not to give cancer any solidity in my mind.


But of course I hear it asked: “What do the tests tell you? Have you had any results?”

This clamour for objective truth has become for me part of the problem. There was a blood test sometime in the summer, and there were some scans too. The last time I spoke to my oncologist I made a deal with him; that he test me so that he had data, but that I not know the results. He agreed, just so long as I accept that as my physician, he has a duty to tell me if he discovers anything immediately life threatening. I have heard nothing.

My opinion about the results of these tests is straightforward. They give only a snapshot of a particular moment in very complex living processes. Without any context, without any idea of how things are changing, they are more or less useless – unless incorporated into the deterministic logic of stage progression, which my experience now rejects.

According to statistical norms, my case is now marginal. Big science is not good at dealing with marginal cases. Clinical science on the other hand should I feel be fascinated by marginal cases. If a person does better than expected according to statistical norms, then there is surely something about that person or some aspect of his or her life that has made a difference. Which is surely of interest to those charged with improving the condition of all of those under statistical scrutiny. If they could bottle what such a person has, they could surely use it as medicine.

Even if there were anybody remotely interested in investigating my case to see if it might help others, they would discover quickly that it is probably impossible to isolate any one factor, any single item of diet, environment or attitude that has made the crucial difference. Unlike the illusory mechanics of Cartesian metaphysics, the world is not the sum of component parts operating according to mathematical principles; it is a complex and continuously changing interconnected whole with which we are intricately entwined.


There are many ways now of doing science, and the meaning of the word science has changed considerably throughout its history. The science of the medical establishment of the present employs an outdated and sterile notion of objectivity, founded on the dualistic metaphysics of the seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes, and it is no longer fit for purpose. Or at least, if its purpose is to manage the progression of disease using statistical analyses of snapshot measurements of assorted aspects of human bodies, on the assumption that these are biochemical machines separated from intrinsic consciousness, then it has a certain social, political and economic function, and power. But if it genuinely believes it is bringing individuals into a condition of health, then it fails. Miserably.

There are many perfectly coherent sciences of life that accommodate the place of human beings within the complex interconnectedness of things, without insisting that it is only possible to know anything at all by standing at a distance from life and assuming it is a machine – no matter how complex. At an intellectual level, I have always believed the former over the latter – except when it comes to the operation of machinery; my continuing life is now living testament to this attitude.


I do not need any more objective evidence than this of my own condition. Which today took me to the top of the most easterly Munro in the tables, taking my tally for the year to 52. A pleasant walk in, along a good estate track, followed by a few hours ploughtering through snow, with views west to Lochnagar and Glen Shee shrouded in snow cloud, and of the North Sea from Fraserburgh to St. Abb’s Head. The sun shone low through thinning cloud above Glen Clova, garnishing the slopes of Dreish and Mayar with orange glow, sparkling their crust of snow.


It will probably surprise readers to learn that in spite of this fact, I still find it difficult sometimes not to slot into the logic of medical determinism. At a daily practical level, this involves always living in fear that the ordinary twinges of being alive, the occasional pains of a body, are signs of the spreading of the disease; that at any moment, one of my vital organs might begin to fail or my body become wracked with excruciating pain. With every summit I reach however I actively negate the alleged inexorability of cancer, and undermine the power of medical technocracy to determine my fate, chipping away at the fears it engenders to reveal the ordinariness of life, where there is stuff to fear, to be sure, but it is always real and never insurmountable.

And so henceforth, each post from the summit of a new Munro will be numbered not with cancer, but since diagnosis.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

5 thoughts on “Munro since diagnosis #134 – a change of tone and style”

  1. Well done on the latest Munro and thank you for more stimulating writing that I would like to respond to in more depth than is practical at this time and on my phone. I’ll just have to try to keep the thoughts fermenting until I’m at a proper keyboard or we’re on the approach to another mountain!
    My mind has been fed, now home to feed the body!


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