Ignaty Dyakov: Illness as a positive life-changing experience

Illness as a positive life-changing experience

On 27 May 2017 Ignaty Dyakov from St Petersburg, known across the UK as a linguist, Russian teacher and coach, walked the 100 km distance from London to Brighton within 24 hours in aid of Gift of Life and raised over £1200 for our young patients. Ignaty dedicated that challenging journey, without sleep, breaks, music or audiobooks, to the children receiving oncological treatment in Russian hospitals.

Ignaty, what inspired you to take on such a significant challenge to your will and physical ability in aid of Gift of Life?

My victory over my own illness, and my desire to help children diagnosed with cancer. My 100 km challenge took place at the end of May. That’s roughly the time when, in 2015, I was diagnosed with tongue cancer and my treatment began. Two years later, my own example proved that cancer was not a final sentence. It’s a trial that can make you stronger, especially in terms of inner strength, and give you a new, fulfilling life in which every moment can be clearly seen as precious.

In a way, I was lucky to fall ill as an adult, at 31 years of age. I had already managed to do something useful—I’d published several books, created a cultural education project, mentored students and individual entrepreneurs, and provided career counseling to teenagers (back in Russia). I think it’s very important to give ill children a second chance. They need to recover, gain independent lives and achieve self-realisation through their professions and their talents. I would like all our readers to take part in these children’s lives.

It’s far from easy to walk 100 km in a day without sleep or even breaks. How did you keep yourself motivated and did not give up?

To me, that walk was a true test of my endurance, which I consider a more important and useful quality than strength. It’s a little like a thorough MOT for the whole body. I needed to see that in this respect my life was normal again, that after prolonged treatment, I had enough physical and mental health to walk this distance.

The target itself was also a great source of motivation. I did not listen to music or audiobooks so as not to get distracted, and also because I just don’t like wearing headphones. I spent the time thinking about how my experience and example could inspire the kids in Russian clinics. It’s important to demonstrate to them that cancer’s curable, that you can survive it and, for example, walk 100 km like this two years later.

Could you tell us about how you felt when you were talking to the doctor about your giagnosis in May 2015?

I have no negative associations with the word “cancer”. I consider my experience more positive than anything, because I focus on my recovery rather than on the illness. Even so, I found it very hard to accept the news and to come to terms with the idea of constant danger and uncertainty. The diagnosis was a complete surprise to me, since tongue cancer is extremely rare. In the UK, of the roughly 600,000 annual cases of cancer, only 6,000 involve oral cancer, and only a fraction of those are tongue cancer. Most of the sufferers are smokers and excessive drinkers and consumers of fried red meat. None of this applies to me, and yet I fell ill anyway.

I try to be as open as possible about my illness and to share information so that people learn how it happens and where they can get help.

I remember how I couldn’t help crying when the doctor confirmed our suspicions of cancer. As someone brought up in post-Soviet culture, where men mustn’t cry, I was very uncomfortable and ashamed. At that time, I was thinking more about the new negative emotions overwhelming me than about the illness itself. It wasn’t until half a year after the treatment was over that I became able to control my emotions again.

Sometimes, sick people feel that their disease was given to them as a punishment. Did you ever think that?

No, that never occurred to me. Ever since it started, I somehow unconsciously started to ask myself about the purpose behind the illness, not the reason. I tried to understand what the world, the universe wanted to tell me, to decipher this signal. I’m a linguist and an instructor, so I’m constantly using my tongue to communicate with my students, colleagues and partners. I couldn’t conceive of losing my speech. I’d cease to exist within my profession. There was a serious risk of that, since at the time of the diagnosis the doctors were extremely pessimistic. There was little chance of me being able to speak again after the surgery.

In the end, I underwent two operations and a six-week radiotherapy course at a British state hospital. I turned down chemotherapy, and the doctors later admitted that in my case this was the right decision. I’d also like to underline the importance of what the English call a second opinion. When it came to this, I was greatly aided by Elena Nikolaevna Gracheva from the St Petersburg AdVita Foundation—she had been teaching literature and working at the theatre at the St Petersburg Classical Gymnasium, where I studied, and we stayed in touch after graduation. She suggested that I consult specialists in Russia and other countries. It’s a profound relief to be able to choose a course of treatment based on several doctors’ opinions.

I was lucky to immediately get into Guy’s Hospital, where the doctor in charge of me, a professor, was able through colossal effort to save about 65% of my tongue after the first surgery. In essence, he “moulded” me a new tongue, with which I learned to eat and speak from scratch, and to make almost all sounds well enough to be understood. I’m exceptionally fortunate to be able to speak and communicate. To me, my cancer wasn’t a misfortune, but an ascent to a new level of spiritual consciousness and understanding of my purpose. In the Himalayas, where I traveled to rid myself of the persistent side-effects of radiotherapy, the Karmapa (traditionally the second most important person after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism—ed.) took one look at me and told me I had to teach. So now I’m trying to develop in that very direction, towards instruction and coaching.

Coaching is a rather fashionable specialisation. But for you it was the natural next step after overcoming your illness. It makes sense for you to help people sort their lives out since you were able to preserve and enrich your own.

When I was going through my lengthy recovery stage, I wasn’t calling it coaching. Rather, I was a drowning man looking for flotsam to cling to. The American model of positive thinking 24/7 is foreign to me. Instead, I found an accessible and understandable tool in the question “What am I living for?” and the promise to myself to find something to do, to not give up. It was through asking the right questions that I reached coaching. Later, several people independently applied the word “coach” to me, seeing my professional skills and experience capable of helping others. For example, I try to be as open as possible about my illness and to share information so that people learn how it happens and where they can get help.

In coaching, unlike psychotherapy which analyses the client’s past to the very marrow of its bones, attention is focused on the present and future. And that is how it should be, since one should live in the moment while making sure tomorrow is taken care of. After entering the profession in an organic fashion, I completed my coaching courses in 2016, and am now actively working and developing my clientele. I would like coaching to become my primary professional activity. In the meantime, I get the majority of my income from teaching and the books I previously published (unique study aids for Russian, successfully used in schools and universities, and available worldwide via Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles and WHSmith—ed.).

You received help in finding a new professional path in the Himalayas. Please tell us more about your journey and healing in the Tibetan mountains.

During that Himalayas trip, I set myself three tasks. First, to try to rid myself of the side-effects of traditional treatment. The tongue and throat radiotherapy needed for my type of cancer burned away not only the cancer cells, but the salivary glands and taste buds as well. The lack of saliva made it very difficult to speak, eat and even breathe. On top of that, I was weak, constantly feeling muscular fatigue, and sleeping 8 hours a night plus more during the day to at least partly assuage my lack of energy. Western medicine cured me through surgery and radiotherapy, but I decided to turn to the East to improve my condition afterwards. In my case, it worked—thanks to a course of recuperative massage, after 5-6 weeks in the Himalayas I stopped sleeping during the day, and became able to drive and travel freely, and eat almost anything I wanted.

That was the point at which I began the volunteer linguistic project that was the second objective of my trip. The idea was simple: teaching English to Tibetan refugees, monks and laypeople. It was important for me to find out whether I could run accessible and comprehensible classes under new conditions, with limited ability to pronounce certain sounds. And I could. I ran group and individual lessons. This was a very important point in my rehabilitation which gave me faith in my own abilities. My third objective was to learn something new about the region, about Tibetan and Indian culture.

This trip greatly improved my health, and gave me new skills, confidence and knowledge about things I previously didn’t take seriously. Before the illness, I smiled condescendingly at Ayurveda, acupuncture and Reiki, but today I know how they work to benefit my body. I think that when treating any illness, you have to rely on your own sensations, to try various methods, and definitely to turn to traditional medicine, which efficiently and effectively helps to remove illness, as well as carefully selecting means of additional treatment if you need to deal with negative side-effects.

I’m continuing to research diets and healthy living. I’m trying to gradually transition from vegetarianism to an exclusively plant-based diet, to veganism. I’m not following a fad here. I haven’t eaten meat since I was 14, and I virtually never eat eggs or milk products—I fundamentally reject the principles of the modern milk industry. One’s diet must be based on ethics, balance and care for the environment. That is when food brings you benefit.

The illness shifted your professional priorities and even your eating habits. How did it change your attitude to life as a whole?

Today, what matters to me most is to live in the present. This is a skill I’m trying to master. It’s not always easy, since I’m used to planning everything in detail and living in the future. I’m trusting my intuition more often, and listening to my inner voice in order not to spend too much time and effort on rational decision-making. I’ve started to value my time more after understanding how little of it I could have left. That’s exactly why I value work that can bring not only profit but pleasure. Today, I choose the most interesting activities, travel more, encounter new cultures and people, and spend more time meeting others face-to-face than on social networks.

No matter what happens, cancer will change your reality and your familiar life. As the English say, you’ll have a new normal.

Socialising in person is a priority for me, as are printed, non-electronic books. I read a lot of Russian authors. I particularly respect Grigory Chkhartishvili (the writer Boris Akunin’s real name—ed.), and am learning literary mastery and a proper attitude to life from him. Recently I discovered Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, an astounding book in terms of realisation and acceptance of the cyclical nature of life. Of the classics, you’ll find Chekhov and Bulgakov on my bookshelves. Each in their own way masterfully answers essential life questions. My relationship with Tolstoy didn’t work out. But he was a remarkably deep thinker, and I sometimes discuss his ideas with my friends.

I consider my illness a rebirth, a second chance I’ve been given to pursue new achievements. The credit I’d built up out of personal and professional victories has run out, and now I must earn it anew, and, of course, value every moment. Life is made of moments just like a film is made of frames, and it disappears just as quickly and imperceptibly if you let yourself be a passive viewer. You have to not be afraid to drop the things that are weighing you down and start living for real.

But one doesn’t always have the confidence and strength to live a full life, especially after a severe illness. What would you suggest to the patients of Gift of Life and Podari Zhizn?

I would like to ask all the kids undergoing treatment to think about two things. First, what questions are “living” in your head? Your chief helper should be the question “For what purpose?” That’s the one which makes your brain think about the present and future, which awakens your strength and helps you find a way out. Second, are you ready to accept a new you? No matter what happens, cancer will change your reality and your familiar life. As the English say, you’ll have a new normal. Your new life might turn out to be more interesting and painted in brighter colours. In order to make that happen, you have to think about the future and repeat to yourself, “I will be different, and I will have a new interesting life.”

Photo credit: Olga Kotilevskaya

Ignaty’s interview on Angliya newspaper website, in Russian