Jan. 21, 2005. 07:57 AM
Bob Hunter was near death but he’s free of pain and back to work after receiving a variety of unconventional treatments. He meditates and continues a regime of special diet and supplements.
Not without a fight
Bob Hunter, Greenpeace co-founder and CITY-TV eco expert, is battling prostate cancer head-on
When all else failed, he went to an alternative clinic in Mexico. He's not cured, but he's feeling better


"I'm not out of the woods yet."

Long hair flowing to his shoulders, agate bracelet clasping his wrist, Bob Hunter sits in his writing cabin, at his computer, surrounded by trees.

You wouldn't think death was on his mind.

"God bless the 'burbs." He looks out the window at the sylvan glade that doubles as the backyard of his home in the wilds of Scarborough — not exactly where you'd expect to find one of North America's most prominent environmental activists. This is the man, after all, who co-founded Greenpeace and created "Media Mind Bomb" tactics designed to explode in the public consciousness "through dramatic, camera-ready opposition to environmental crimes," according to the Greenpeace website

And here he is, one of Time magazine's top "eco-heroes" of the 20th century, glowing with good cheer after three and a half weeks at a Mexican cancer clinic, belying rumours of his imminent demise.

"When I thought I was toast," he laughs — yes, laughs, though his eyes tell a different tale of facing a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer — "we decided to sell the house. But now I'm going to stay here till I die." He grins.

The 63-year old trickster chooses his words with the care of a consummate craftsman. The 13 books he's written over the past 35 years are arrayed across the top of a filing cabinet. "If I don't collect me, who will?" (Reporter's disclosure: In the late 1960s, in my first job out of university, reading the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts at McClelland & Stewart, I "discovered" Erebus, Hunter's first novel, published by M&S in 1968.)

The bookshelves behind him sag under the weight of manuscripts and files crammed with material of interest to a University of Toronto archivist, contacted when Hunter thought he was doomed.

Above the windows that frame his work-station are dozens of framed photographs documenting his multifaceted career, including stints as a hard-hitting Vancouver Sun columnist, whale-protecting activist, and CITY-TV "ecology specialist" — stages he regards as different lifetimes lived in one.

There may be more — lifetimes, that is.

Facing death, he's learned more about life and its possibilities, including reincarnation. In his search for hope, after his Toronto oncologist gave him two years to live, he has sought out so-called alternative therapies.

The Mexican clinic — Hospital Santa Monica, about 25 kilometres south of San Diego in Playa Santa Monica, Baja California, Mexico, founded in 1983 by Kurt Donsbach, an American naturopathic doctor and chiropractor who has a Ph.D. in nutrition — popped on to his radar screen as a result of a desperate phone call by Laura DiBattista, a CITY-TV health reporter, to Dr. Fred Hui, a Toronto physician, late last year.

"She was in tears," Hui says. "Her colleague Bob Hunter was in terrible pain and he needed help." DiBattista had called Hui, 53, a Hong Kong native and graduate of U of T's medical school, because he's known as an open-minded physician who is interested in "integrative medicine."

"I am the doctor of last resort; I treat all the leftovers other doctors can't help," Hui says. "Conventional medicine is wonderful but it has its limits."

`After Greenpeace, I was burned out, thought I'd failed to save the world. I was suicidal'

Bob Hunter

Hunter had hit the wall. His prostate cancer had metastasized into his bones (ribs, spine and pelvis). He was surviving (barely) on morphine, to dull the pain, devouring morphine tablets "as if they were Smarties," Hunter says. "I felt so bad I didn't want to live."

Hui observes that "Bob's cancer was blowing up so quickly that as a last-ditch measure, his doctors offered him chemotherapy, which maybe could prolong his life for a few months.

"The chance of success was remote, he would lose his hair, grow weaker and weaker ... I thought of the Santa Monica clinic. I have a patient who years earlier had terminal prostate cancer — I didn't know him then — and he went there and is healthy to this day."

Hunter had been first diagnosed in 1999, just before flying to Hollywood with his wife Bobbi to accept a prestigious Wyland Foundation "eco-pioneer" award. (Bobbi was "the first woman in front of a harpoon, confronting the Russian whaling ships back in the '70s," Bob says. "They stopped when they saw Bobbi.") The Hunters then went to Amsterdam, where Bob addressed a huge crowd of Euro-Greenpeacers and "educated them about the origins of Greenpeace in Canada."

Back home in Toronto, Hunter faced the truth: He had prostate cancer. "We've got to operate," the doctor said.

"I jumped back," Hunter says. "A natural reflex." Surgery, he was told, offered a 70 per cent chance of both impotence and incontinence. "I thought I'd like to try something else." To this day, he does not regret turning down surgery.

"It was his decision," says Bobbi Hunter, who eventually stepped down from her management job at Rogers Cable Inc. (and went back to construction planning) in order to spend more time taking care of Bob. "It didn't seem like a big emergency at the time," she says. "You don't know what's the best thing to do. Surgeons want to do surgery. The radiation guys want to radiate. The chemo guys want to do chemo."

Hunter chose radiation. He proceeded to Princess Margaret Hospital, where "I got high voltage 3-D conformal radiation with gold chips in my prostate. Everyone said it was working. Yeah, I thought I'd beaten cancer. I was one of the lucky ones." (For Canadian men, prostate cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death, and the most commonly diagnosed cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.)

In 2001, CBC-TV came calling to do a documentary on prostate cancer and Hunter agreed to participate. "I thought I had something to cheer about." His PSA (prostate specific antigen) was monitored every few months, but a year later, during Moses Znaimer's "Idea City" conference, where Hunter was speaking, he received word from his doctor. His PSA numbers were up. The radiation had failed. "I cried my eyes out," he says. "We all bawled our eyes out."

He was put on hormone blockers, which dropped his PSA numbers down to zero, decreased his testosterone and sapped his energy. "Night sweats. I had to take sleeping pills to get any sleep." All to no avail. A year and a half later, in early 2004, the constant monitoring of his PSA showed the numbers were up to 11, a month later up to 20 and rising rapidly, doubling to 40. The cancer had spread to his bones — ribs, spine, pelvis. Which produced the doctor's "death watch," verdict, as Bobbi puts it. "The doctor said Bob had two years to live."

He went to a naturopath, went on a Vitamin C drip, and his PSA numbers kept climbing.

The Hunters flew to China to tell their daughter Emily, now 19. "I couldn't pick up the phone and say, `By the way, Dad will be dead in two years,'" Bob says. He can't avoid noting the terribly polluted state of China. "On clear, sunny days, all we saw was a pale orb in the sky. The pollution was so bad Emily left after six months."

She is a chip off the old block. Last April, she boarded the Sea Shepherd with Hunter's old comrade-in-arms, Paul Watson; she was the only female on a mission to protect the Galapagos Islands from marauding poachers. Enrolled in international studies at U of T, she's bright and she's focused. "I want to be an activist like my parents," Emily says. Her brother Will, 26, the family politician, is working for the Ontario government's Ministry of the Environment as a communications assistant.

(Hunter is a grandfather, thanks to his older children from his first marriage. Justine, 37, is a political reporter with CBC-TV in Victoria. She has a young child. Conan, 41, works on computer integration with the federal government in Ottawa and has three children, the eldest 17.)

`We don't know where this is going. The clinic isn't guaranteeing'

Bobbi Hunter, wife of Bob Hunter

Hunter's family rallied round to support him and he started meditating with yogis in the Brahma Kamaris tradition. Softening into spirituality was new for him. "I'd always been in a rush, in a panic, to hurry up and get things done. After Greenpeace, I was burned out, thought I'd failed to save the world. I was suicidal."

It's a common affliction for environmentalists: being in a painful state of awareness, knowing how bad things are and how the situation is worsening as anti-environment governments (such as the Bush administration in the U.S.) continue to deny the damage being done. "I can only hope there will be a massive scientific breakthrough, something unexpected out of left field, like the Berlin Wall coming down ... "

By September 2004, Hunter was consumed by the pain of bone cancer. "The morphine high lasts only a month, then you get agitated and depressed," he says. "You develop a tolerance, they boost the dosage, you feel worse. I didn't give a s--- emotionally about anybody — Bobbi, the kids, the dog. They say detachment is a neat, Zen thing. It's not, actually."

He had a heart attack, he lost weight, "he was skin and bone, had no energy, couldn't walk," Bobbi says. On Oct. 13, 2004, his birthday, she took him to the hospital — "in a wheelchair, he couldn't stand up" — and said, "Get him off morphine."

The pain was excruciating. All the "cancer doctors" could offer was chemotherapy, to extend his life a few more months. Then Hui recommended the Mexican clinic, where Hunter received "a mosaic of treatments that attempts in 20 different ways to make the human body an unwelcoming host for cancer cells," clinic founder Donsbach explains in an interview.

Among the treatments Donsbach delivered:

Blood transfusions for anemia, "a normal medical procedure because Bob was so anemic when he came in."

Infusions (intravenous drips) every day for two to three hours a day: amino acids, fatty acids, more than 90 vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, "some having anti-cancer properties, to build up the body."

Hyperbaric oxygen: Hunter sat in a sealed chamber filled with oxygen "creating hyperbaric pressure to supersaturate all the body cells with oxygen," Donsbach says. "Cancer cells do not multiply well in an oxygen-rich environment. Normal cells love it." In addition, Hunter had an oxygen mask over his face. "It felt like space travel — in a geodesic dome, much hissing of tanks," Hunter says.

Hyperthermia: heating the tumour. Targeted microwave energy increased the internal temperature of the tumour. "At 107 degrees F, cancer cells begin to die," Donsbach says.

Insulin, administered to drop his blood sugar, leaving the cancer cells "screaming for glucose," Donsbach says. "Normal cells can use fat or protein as a back-up energy source but cancer cells cannot. We drop the glucose level precipitously, administer a precisely formulated dose of chemotherapy at one-twentieth of the normal level, with glucose. The chemo is carried by the glucose primarily to the cancer cells, which are in desperate need of glucose."

(Dr. Linda Rapson, who chairs the complementary medicine section of the Ontario Medical Association, attended a Society of Integrative Oncologists conference in New York in November. "There was a whole day on herbal treatments, and a paper was given on hyperbaric oxygen," Rapson says. She knows of a Toronto doctor who's used hyperthermia. "We should be open-minded — but we need rigorous testing of all these methods.")

For the patient — Hunter — the process was exhausting. Yet he emerged with surprising — to him — results. No pain. Hope: "Bob really didn't start to fight until he got to Mexico," Bobbi says. "The doctors here (in Toronto) made him feel hopeless."

And clinical data showing the decline of his "cancer numbers. With the PSA test, any numbers over 6, 7 or 8, they start to monitor you. It's called `watchful waiting.' When it's over 10, they worry. I was at 720 when I went to Mexico. Now I'm down to 480 — high, I know. The hope is that the numbers will keep dropping. On the bone cancer, I was at 1100, now I'm down to 62 — in the normal range."

`We should be open-minded — but we need rigorous testing of all these methods'

Dr. Linda Rapson, chair of the Ontario Medical Association's complementary medicine section

He is on a strict diet, similar to a diabetic's: no sugar, no wheat, no starch. As we talk, he munches on nuts and sips water. (Later, he makes a sandwich and uses the wrong kind of bread. "Got to get this figured out," he mutters.) He's trying hard. His kitchen counters are piled with bags and jars of pills and supplements from the Santa Monica Institute.

"We don't know where this is going," Bobbi cautions. "The clinic isn't guaranteeing, they're not gouging, all I know is that if Bob had been on chemo, he would be in pain, his hair would have fallen out, he'd be depressed as hell, at death's door. Today, he's happy, he's eating, he's not in pain. How long will it last? We don't know."

Hunter kept meditating, before he left for Mexico, while he was there — with Bobbi helping to manage his days, get him to treatments, make sure he was eating — and after his clinic sojourn. "Eyes open, no chanting, just focusing on where the third eye would be and tuning in to your spirit," he says. "The more you meditate, the more effortless life seems, somehow."

With his yogis he contemplated God, reincarnation, spirituality. He looked over his life, his childhood in Winnipeg — where like many kids in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he played behind the "fog trucks" spraying DDT, which he thinks may have played a role in his cancer. (Donsbach believes the "overall lifetime exposure to all the toxic chemicals in the environment" is a major culprit.)

Hunter says he "worshipped" his French-Canadian mother, Augustine Gauvreau, who gave him a typewriter when he was 15 — and concealed her origins from him. She was part Huron Indian, something he didn't know when he wrote Occupied Canada with Robert Calihoo. Published in 1991, the book recounted Calihoo's struggle to find his roots, after being raised "white" — and won a Governor General's award. After which Hunter discovered his own ancestry. (In Red Blood, published in 1999, he described how, at 17, out winter camping, he nearly froze to death and was saved by a Huron Indian.)

Hunter's father was a source of pain. "My dad was away during (World War II). He came home when I was 7, then he ran away. I was angry at him forever. I eventually realized it's ridiculous, blaming your dad — but you do."

If he made mistakes along the way, he's not admitting to any, not even his infamous trip to Thailand in the 1980s to try out "paid sex." It resurfaced during his run for the Liberals in a Toronto by-election in 2001, won by the NDP's Michael Prue.

Hunter looks back on the Thai trip as "getting something out of my system," and teaching him the value of love. Sex without love, he learned, is not very interesting.

"It was a stupid male thing," Bobbi says. "He would never think about doing such a thing, now."

The love of his life still loves him warts and all, after 31 years together. Bobbi says her husband's confrontation with death has changed him. "Bob has become more open to people in the last four or five months. He's been a guru to a lot of people over the years, and now he's reached a deeper level."

Manifest, Hunter says, at the Mexican clinic, where he hung out with other patients, "most of them Americans, some who voted Republican" — not the sort who, in his previous incarnation, he would have connected with. "I looked at them as fellow souls." A huge shift for Hunter — and no doubt for the Republicans, too.

After spending Christmas at Hospital Santa Monica, he and Bobbi returned on Jan. 8. (He took a leave from CITY-TV in September and says the station has been "incredibly supportive.") He's back at work, on the morning show and hosting Hunter's Gatherings on CablePulse 24, Thursdays from 9 to 10 p.m.

As for the lessons of the Mexican clinic and its strict diet and supplement regimen, "I'm sticking to it. This living thing is kinda cool."

Email your comments and

experiences to: life@thestar.ca

Additional articles by Judy Steed

› Get the NEW Sunday paper! Save 50% now!

Legal Notice: Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved. Distribution, transmission or republication of any material from www.thestar.com is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. For information please contact us using our webmaster form. www.thestar.com online since 1996.