How a Holocaust Survivor Beat the Cancer Oddsby Pamela Kaufman Health Writer
Paul Kraus, a retired schoolteacher in his 70s, has faced unimaginable hardship. In 1944, his mother gave birth to him in a Nazi labor camp in Austria, eventually escaping with him and his older brother. Today, Kraus says his mother saved him in another way, too: by passing along a spirit of determination that has helped him live with mesothelioma — an aggressive, asbestos-related cancer — for more than 20 years.
In his 2005 book, “Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers,” and on the website, Surviving Mesothelioma, Kraus describes his initial terrified response to his poor prognosis and his decision to fight for his life. He cites many reasons he beat the odds, but first and foremost he credits his commitment to cultivating a positive mindset and making rigorous lifestyle changes — he is a big believer in meditating and juicing, for instance. Here, via email, he shares his story with HealthCentral from his home in a suburb of Newcastle, Australia.
HealthCentral (HC): Can you describe how you came to be diagnosed with mesothelioma?
Paul Kraus: In 1997, at the age of 52, I had been suffering from what my doctor thought was an umbilical hernia that required a minor surgical repair. The surgeon was shocked to find my abdomen was full of fluid and did a laparoscopy revealing tumors lining the abdominal wall. Within three weeks, pathology diagnosed peritoneal mesothelioma.
HC: How were you able to stay positive when faced with such awful news?
Kraus: Initially, I was consumed by fear as one doctor after another gave me a prognosis of fewer than 12 months. I found it hard to believe that my life would be over in my early 50s. But shortly after the diagnosis, I read in one of Bernie Siegel’s books about the “four faiths” that are crucial in helping to recover from a life-threatening illness: faith in oneself, one’s doctor, one’s treatment, and one’s spiritual faith. I was determined to put this into practice. Three weeks after diagnosis, I attended a 10-day cancer retreat conducted by the famous cancer survivor Dr. Ian Gawler. What I learned in those 10 days set me on a healing path. Firstly, that hope is physiologic and can influence the healing process and that correct nutrition is a prerequisite to getting well again. We were taught how to meditate to relax the body and bring our minds into a state of profound stillness, in turn reducing our cortisol levels and banishing stress. During that retreat, I learned that healing from cancer is possible even when the medical profession believes there is no hope. I left that retreat with a sense of empowerment.
HC: Do you think your experience as a Holocaust survivor has helped you fight cancer?
Kraus: Because I was born in a Nazi camp, my survival had little to do with me and everything to do with the determination and skill of my mother. From the time of my birth, the lives of myself, my brother, and my mother hung in the balance. She knew that if she did not survive, all three of us were doomed. Her escape, her treacherous cross-country trip back to Budapest, and later a hellish migratory experience built a resilience, courage, and faith that was displayed in our family home and to some extent gave me the determination to do whatever it took to survive.
HC: You write in your book that there’s a difference between positive thinking and wishful thinking. What is it?
Kraus: Positive thinking involves adopting a number of strategies that give hope a realistic basis to believe that a terminal illness can be overcome. Positive thinking requires letting go of anger, guilt, failure, fear, vulnerability, and other baggage that we may have internalized in our lifetime. To replace these with loving thoughts and affirmative actions is not easy, but with the aid of meditation it is possible to foster a genuine hope that life will turn out for the best whatever the outcome. This, of course, implies that healing is much more than the curing of an illness.
I myself did not find it easy to maintain a positive mindset in the first 18 months after diagnosis, but perseverance with my new lifestyle and a genuine belief that all would be well while addressing the health of body, mind, and spirit were invaluable. Repeating affirmations is not wishful thinking but a simple way of affirming your own belief in your healing. A strong spirituality regarding living and dying is very important and cannot be ignored when dealing with a life-threatening illness.
HC: What is your daily life like now?
Kraus: My daily life 20 years after diagnosis has changed only marginally. I am not as strict as I used to be, but I still focus on meditating, exercise, and healthy nutrition, such as daily vegetable juices and a variety of nutritional supplements including vitamins, herbs, minerals, enzymes, and probiotics.
Interview has been condensed and edited.