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Cancer is crazy – every single day, you’re dealing with physical symptoms and side effects of treatment and your own emotional state while still trying maintain a sense of normality in your everyday life. It’s so easy to overthink it and get swept up in the craziness of it all… That’s why I love talking to Khevin – he is a male breast cancer survivor who has a way of cutting through the noise of worries and stress and deal with cancer in a profound and honest way through humor and ingenuity, how to laugh despite cancer, at the world and at yourself. Here is what we cover:
- The numbness of cancer diagnosis
- Uncovering the myths about applying meditation and mindfulness
- Laughter yoga – oddly therapeutic!
- Using music for stress relief during cancer
- Kevin top 5 lessons learned in dealing with cancer
- How to laugh despite cancer
- and much, much more!
Khevin Barnes; Male Breast Cancer Survivor, Cancer Writer, Inspirational Keynote Speaker
Episode 018: Finding The Light Amidst The Darkness
Joe: Khevin, the first thing I want to ask you is, how did you react when you first found out that you had cancer?
Khevin: Well, I was numb. The reason for that is, the way I found out was a little different. I was living in Hawaii at the time, with my wife. I had retired from being a magician for many years. We wanted to do something, something that was really different and something that we really wanted to do, which was to live in a zen centre and to study zen meditation. We actually lived in Hawaii as residents in zen centre for a year, and my diagnosis happened there in Hawaii. We went to see my primary care physician and I had a little bump on my breast and went to see a surgeon, who did a needle biopsy. She was going to get the results to me in a few days.
At that very same time, my mother who lived in the States, had fallen and broken her hip, he was 93 years old. I jumped on a plane, they said she wasn’t going to live very much longer. I flew to California to see mom, say goodbye to mom. On Mother’s Day, which was on May 11th of 2014, I got a phone call from this physician, she left a message. I’ll never forget the words. She said, “Khevin, I have a little bit of bad news.” That’s how I got my diagnosis, over the phone, on Mother’s Day, when I had gone to literally say goodbye to my mom.
She lived another couple of days, I flew back to Hawaii, but the thing that’s so unusual about this is that I was there for her, so my brothers and sisters were there, we were all saying goodbye. When this happened, and I found out I had cancer, I didn’t even have time to even process it. I just put it away. On the plane ride back to Hawaii, it’s when it first hit. That numbness that I had remained that way for a couple of days, until I was heading home, and then I started thinking about it. That’s when all the typical fears and thoughts of the future, worries about the heck this cancer even is, that’s when it all set it.
Joe: Yes, well, I guess it’s a real struggle to talk about cancer, as well, because when you’re going through it and asking for help and talking to your family, talking to your friends. How did you go about that?
Khevin: Well, my family was very supportive, but remember, they were 2,500 miles away. They were all back in the mainland. Fortunately, I was living in about the best place you can be to have a cancer diagnosis, which was a zen community, and a zen Buddhist temple. People there, of course, were totally supportive. I guess that proves that no matter what kind of lifestyle you live, you can be vegetarian and sit in meditation all day long, walk on the beach, and still get cancer. There’s no guarantees that where you are or what you do is going to keep that out of your life. They were totally supportive. I stayed there another four months before I came back to the mainland, then I had my surgery, my mastectomy there. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Joe: Yes, that’s fantastic, Khevin. Tell me, how did the meditation help you to deal with the whole madness of cancer?
Khevin: It helped me a lot and it still helps me today. It’s one of the best tools that I have. Meditation is really just the simple practice of living in this moment right now. It sounds tripe, it sounds over simplified. It really is not a complicated thing. It takes a lot of practice because our minds are in and out of the fear of cancer, the fear of recurrence, the issues we’ve had in the past with the pain of living with a life-threatening disease. Meditation, I think is probably the single most beneficial thing that I have. I try to do meditation every day and it’s been a wonderful help.
Joe: You know, Khevin, for me, meditation has been always something that I’ve heard about and wanted to try, I guess if someone wanted to get into it, what would you recommend as a way to get in? We hear a lot about meditation, but no one really knows how to do it?
Khevin: Well, the professionals, the guys who go back a thousand years will tell you they don’t know how to do it. You’re not doing it. That’s true. I’ll play the Hollywood version. Nobody becomes enlightened, we’re not heading somewhere that’s going to give us peace in our lives, or change our lives in some significant way, we’re not trying to get that. Meditation is a lot easier than that. Zen mediation should be effortless and eventually, it is. It’s sitting quietly, watching your busy thoughts, we all have them, all day long.
I have them right now as I’m speaking to you, wondering what your next question will be. Understanding that, that’s how the brain works, that’s part of it. When we can focus on this moment right now, which is you and me talking, and forget everything else, we are in perfect Zen meditation. That’s really all there is to it. The Hollywood version makes it much more complicated. We are all enlightened beings, it’s a matter of sitting with that and allowing that to take place inside of us.
Joe: That’s a pretty cool rundown, Khevin. Another form of dealing with stress and with cancer, I guess is music. I know that for me, Khevin, music has always been so much more than self-expression. I know it might sound weird, but for me, music has always been a form of self-therapy. I know that you’re into music, as well, so has your song-writing, has it helped you to deal with cancer and the madness of it all?
Khevin: Absolutely. Next to meditation, music is the number one thing in my life, but it always has been. Meditation is something I got into, probably 15 years ago when I got married to my wife, who had been meditating for 4 years. Music heals. That’s all I can say about it. Music heals. I’ve been writing music for many years. As I was sitting recuperating in that Zen centre with all of the tubes coming out of my left breast, I wrote a song called: What good is a breast? It made me laugh, it was a funny, silly tune. Really, asking the question: What good is a breast?
That’s what got me through those first couple of weeks. Long before I started to write a musical about it, which I’ll tell you a bit about later. It was that song, what good is a breast. I had that going on in my head the whole time. I’ve written probably 150 tunes and I look back at my whole life and I have these songs, and they tell me everything that I had gone through. I think the music is key. You don’t have to be a writer but listening to it and using it is a wonderful healing tool. It’s so important.
Joe: Do you think that music is something that anyone can get into? Anyone who wants to express themselves, but maybe they’ve always been afraid to try? Maybe they’re worried about not really having the musical talent or not having a great voice, is that something that anyone can do, do you think?
Khevin: Sure. I’ve been doing it for over 50 years. I still worry about whether or not I have a good enough voice to do it. That’s typical for us, I can’t speak for all of us, but I never feel totally like I’m professional at anything. There’s always some learning I can do and improvement. Yes, anybody can do it, whether you’re writing it, playing an instrument, listening to it. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t enjoy hearing music. I’m sure there are some folks out there, but it’s so key. It’s such a fantastic element that we can add to our lives. I can’t imagine living without music.
Joe: I completely agree with you, Khevin. I think I also think that continuous improvement is a path to mastery. You can never be settled and just being in one place.
Khevin: Well said, yes, absolutely. Yes, I love writing lyrics and tunes and I was writing a musical, but I’ll tell you about that.
Joe: Yes, let’s talk about that. You have an entire musical about male breast cancer. How did that come about?
Khevin: Well, it started with that song: What good is a breast. I had written another musical prior to this, about maybe eight years ago when we were still living in California. I wrote a musical that I wanted seniors to do with it. We were very involved with teaching senior’s laughter yoga. Going into senior centres and laughing with people, basically. Laughter is another tool for helping people. I wanted to write a play that they could relate to, to actually get up and actually do. It took a year to write it, had twelve songs in it, and so I had one under my belt that I had done.
The idea of writing another one was a little bit daunting because it takes a lot of time. I’ve been working on this one for 15 months now. My deadline for finishing is the end of this month, June. I’m almost there. It’s a lot. It really gets your focused on the issue that you’re working with. In my case, male breast cancer. There are so many elements. It’s a comedy, believe it or not, and people say to me, how can you laugh at cancer? I told them, I’m not laughing at cancer, I’m laughing in spite of it. That’s the whole point.
Male breast cancer, anyway you look at it is a laughy thing. It doesn’t make any sense, because most people don’t know they even have it. It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of, because of that, I’m able to laugh along those lines and write a show that I hope will engage people and let them know that male breast cancer actually hits. A lot of folks still don’t realize that.
Joe: Yes, that’s fantastic, Khevin. We all know that laughter is the best medicine. Like we said, it can be really a great tool for dealing with cancer and all the stress. I know how you have some unique strategies on when it comes to putting laughter into practice, can you talk about that?
Khevin: Sure. My wife got me into laughter yoga about 12 years ago. Laughter yoga was invented, if that’s the correct word, it was conceived of by a gentleman who lives in India. His name is Dr. Kataria, he was a medical doctor. He got the idea about 20 years ago, to use laughter for healing people. He gathered people and in park in Mumbai, India, and they told jokes. After three of four days, they realised they ran out of jokes, and they came up with this concept of laughing for no reason.
That’s what laughing is about, laughing yoga. We get on the phone, we do workshops, we laugh with people, but for no reason, because laughter in a group situation always brings more laughter. You start laughing because you’re laughing. It’s a very simple thing, it’s like meditation in that sense, you can’t overthink it. Again, it’s a wonderful tool. You’re breathing properly, if you’re laughing, you’re breathing down deep where you need that oxygen. You’re lowering cortisol, which is the stress hormone. You’re increasing endorphins. This is all supported by scientific evidence in the last ten years. Anyway you look at it, laughing is a good thing, if you can do it with a group, right on, you’ve got it made.
Joe: That’s great, so teach me. I think it sounds so great, like laughing for no reason at all, but someone has to start, right? Someone has to get it going.
Khevin: Just talking to you, I’m laughing. Okay, I’ll teach you a little laughter exercise. Can you see me?
Khevin: For those of us who are listening to the audio right now, I’m holding two pretend glasses in my hand. Can you do this with me? Joe, you’ve got to hold up your glasses. You’re pouring laughter from one glass to the other saying, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Joe: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Khevin: Okay, the other glass, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. We’re shaking them up like a cocktail and now we’re drinking it. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.
Joe: Wow, that is a great tool, yes. Wow, yes.
Khevin: When we combine simple exercises, like the one we just did, and there are hundreds of them that we can do, it helps a lot. It helps to stimulate that laughter. Mostly because it’s silly, pouring an imaginary glass of laughter.
Joe: Yes, Khevin, also I think it’s very symbolic, right? Like you’ve got a glass half full, half empty.
Khevin: There we are, I’ve never thought about that. Way to go. There are hundreds of exercises that people have come up with, we use a lot of them, through all of these simple things.
Joe: That’s fantastic. I know that you’re a big believer in mindfulness, as well. What does it mean for you and how can someone apply it in their daily life?
Khevin: Well, mindfulness, of course, is related to meditation. In my case, Zen meditation. It really is a very simple thing. Mindfulness is a psychological process, really, of bringing a person’s attention back to what’s happening right now. Mindfulness and meditation is a tool for achieving mindfulness or at least experiencing it. Basically, if you are able to forget about that MRI you have tomorrow, or at least set it aside, because the fear that goes with it can be terrifying, at least in my case. I don’t like them.
To get back to the moment at hand, the moment at hand right now is talking to Joe, or the moment at hand is petting my cat who is sitting right over here in the corner. Really, it’s as simple as that. Mindfulness is simply being mindful for where you are in the moment. It takes practice. People who have worked at this for years will tell you, it’s still working. It’s a daily practice you. You need to do it more to be able to do it.
Joe: Cool. Look, Khevin, I know that you speak to many folks about how they deal with cancer, you obviously think about it a lot. You write a lot about your cancer experience. You express it in so many different ways, so what are the top, let’s say, three things that you learned about dealing with cancer, dealing with the fear, dealing with the stress, what are the top three things that you have learned that everyone should know about?
Khevin: Well, how about I give you the five things real fast?
Joe: Perfect, even better.
Khevin: The first one is laugh often, laugh deeply, laugh with friends, laugh at yourself, and by all means, laugh at your cancer. This may seem foreign to you for a moment, but let that sink in. Again, you’re not laughing at your disease, you’re laughing when you realise how crazy it is that it even exists. There are 14 million people a year diagnosed with cancer around the world. Here in the United States, we’re expecting about 1.7 million new cancer people to be present in this coming year, 2018. It’s huge, it’s around the world. It’s difficult to assimilate. It’s difficult to understand. Number two, I would say get involved.
As a cancer survivor, the best thing I’ve ever done is like writing music, it’s writing for cure magazine and some other ones. I write whatever I feel. I love to be able to do that. It’s nice to be able to express. Write in a journal. Write a letter to another cancer survivor. Get involved in some way and you’ll find that it takes your stress away from your own situation. Number three, I’d say believe in being well. Our bodies respond to how we believe, what our beliefs are, what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling. I believe that I’m a well person right now. I may have cancer in my body, but I’m symptom free. At the moment, symptom free is all I need. Believe in being well.
Number four would be exercise. I’ve been a runner my whole life, I can’t run now but I just had two new knees put in, so I’m walking pretty well. Whether it’s walk, and if you can’t do that, sit in a chair and move your arms, get some movement in your body and in your life. I would say number five, add some music. Again, I can’t overstress how incredible music is, music feels. Do it any way you can. Listen to it, sing it, jot it, add music into your world.
Joe: Love it. Khevin, that is fantastic. You mentioned get involved, I think that’s such fantastic advice. What are some of the great ways to get involved in something that’s bigger than yourself?
Khevin: That’s a good question. It is bigger than yourself and the very fact that it is, is what makes it work so well, I think. All of the cancer periodicals, magazines, blogs, they want to hear your story. Don’t even try to be a writer, just try to tell your story. That’s what people like to read. That’s one way to do it. Again, help somebody down the street that you know has cancer. I love meeting new folks because I remember how terrifying it is, really, for the first weeks and months. Some people don’t have the wonderful support that I had. You can reach out and help folks. Go to a support group. Again, if you know somebody, ask them, what do you need? What can I do for you? What can I tell you from my experience? There are many ways to get involved and those are a couple of them, that I think will help. You’ve got to be aware that there are folks around you that are experiencing the same thing you are, 14 million a year. It’s an amazing number, it’s overwhelming. They are looking for help. Give a hand out.
Joe: So true, Khevin. I was reading about how cancer stole your life, but it also gave you a new one, could you talk about that?
Khevin: Yes, that was a piece I wrote for Cure a while back. When I wrote it, I was talking about, I’ve had the good fortune is the right word, to experience cancer from both sides. What I mean by that is, I was a caregiver. My first wife died at the age of 47 from ovarian cancer. She died much too young. The last three of four years were very difficult. I was her caregiver, she was on a food tube for six months. I had to feed her that way. She had all kinds of procedures, experimental therapies, flew around the United States to get help from different agencies that wanted to give her a hand. Ultimately, it killed her, but she never lost her spirit or her fight.
In fact, being my magical assistant, we still had a couple of tours that we did. We went to Japan and did a tour when she lost her hair three times. The only way that she could go was her oncologist allowed us to take her chemotherapy with us to use it halfway through the tour, so we found a doctor along the way to give it to her. Her drive to keep living was incredible. That was the life I had to leave behind. For a long time, a couple of years, really, I wasn’t quite sure how life would ever come back. You’ll hear this from a lot of survivors who have lost a spouse and a friend or a brother or sister, it’s very difficult to imagine living without that person. What I had to do was, I had to realise that was a life here and I had a chance for a totally different second life.
In a way, cancer left that life behind but allowed me to live this brand-new life. As I see it that way, it’s not that I’m forgetting any of the past or pretending it didn’t happen, but this new life is exciting, it’s another chance to live, and I’m very grateful for that. That’s really what I was talking about when I said that cancer stole my life and gave me a new one.
Joe: Yes, that you for sharing that story, because it’s really moving. Khevin, if you had a minute with someone who just got diagnosed with cancer, what would you tell them?
Khevin: I had advice from a fellow who was a paraplegic. I was feeling very distressed, a lot of pain, I was living in a small place in Oregon after my wife died. I said to him, how do you deal with this pain? He couldn’t move his arm to his leg, and he’d lived like this for a number of years. He said to me, and I’ll never forget his words, “Khevin, immerse yourself in your pain.” In other words, face it head on, which is really what meditation or what mindfulness is talking about. Get in the moment that’s passing right now, it might be painful but that’s reality. That’s the advice I’d anybody. Immerse yourself in the situation and it’s not always easy, but it’s real and it will get you through.
Joe: Yes, that’s such a unique take on it, Khevin. I’ve never really heard that perspective. I think that’s really powerful. Khevin, so if someone wanted to find more about your journey and the projects that you’re working on, what would they do?
Khevin: Well, I can certainly share things about my play that’s coming up. I have a website: malebreastcancersurvivor.com. That would be a good way. They can always reach me through any of the pieces that I write. I think I’ve got something like 150 of them out there now, which really just tells you how much I need to express, as I go through this expedition, as opposed to a journey, but as I go through this cancer expedition. It’s a wonderful way for me to share with people. They can always respond to an article and ask questions and maybe give me an idea, something I can write about. We can talk that way, as well. I’m always open, via email or phone or hello as you pass on the side of the road. Let me know, I’m there for you.
Joe: That’s fantastic, Khevin. Thank you so much. You’re a true inspiration.
Khevin: Thanks a lot. I’ve enjoyed so much to talk with you. I’m going to be your best follower now, because I know you’re doing a lot of these chats. I’ll be listening to see what you cover.
Joe: Fantastic. Thank you, Khevin.
Khevin: Alright, my pleasure. We’ll talk again. Bye.
Joe: Thank you.