My Human Revolution Saved My Life
How Kate Hungerford won over a life-threating illness by transforming herself from within.
by Kate Hungerford
I grew up in federal housing projects in Philadelphia. Seeing my family and those around me grapple with tragedy and poverty while others outside our community were spared of such problems, I concluded that there was no fairness in this world.
In 1971, I moved to Los Angeles to escape that life. Although my young husband and I struggled for years, he eventually became a successful cinematographer and I became a fashion model. But deep down, I still believed I came from “bad stock.” I always worried that something terrible was about to happen, especially after the birth of my first child. I needed a great philosophy.
When looking for something beyond the material success we were enjoying, a fashion designer and friend introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I received the Gohonzon shortly after on May 30, 1984.
That October my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I returned to Philadelphia to be her caretaker and connected with local SGI-USA members. With their support, I fought through my own anguish to become a source of encouragement and strength for my family. As a result, my mom and two sisters received the Gohonzon.
Though my mother prolonged her life by six months, her body was devastated by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Seeing her in deep pain made me feel the same sense of injustice I’d felt as a child. I blamed the harsh medical treatment for her death and swore that if it ever happened to me, I would not accept conventional methods.
About two decades later, that distrust in medical doctors reappeared when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, followed by my two younger sisters who were also diagnosed with cancer a few years after. They both passed away in 2009, having lived less than two years with conventional treatment.
Thinking of my three children, I was horrified and determined to beat my cancer. Armed with my practice and belief in the power of my life itself, I launched into researching alternative treatments and nutrition. Cleaning up my diet meant replacing drinking, smoking, sugar and meat with juices and green smoothies. For 11 years, I felt great, kept a full schedule and continued working, doing SGI activities and traveling.
My only contact with the medical world came once a year when I would schedule an MRI. Though not cancerfree, these tests consistently revealed that my breast tumor did not grow or spread. In spite of this, it never failed that I would leave the doctors office feeling angry and coldly disrespected for my choice of treatment.
‘The question is always the same: Am I willing to change?’
In November 2013, I was accepted to intern at a health institute where I ate raw food and did juice fasting for three months. I was sure that this huge effort would eradicate my problem once and for all. But on Jan. 30, 2014, at the end of my internship, I discovered that the cancer had not only come out of remission but had spread through my lymph system to 32 bones in my spine, ribs and pelvis. The radiologist looked at the PET scan and said, “Kate, you’re lit up like a Christmas tree.” Although I was not experiencing pain, I knew what could happen. I had lost friends to bone cancer. I quickly made plans in February to visit my son and his family in Brazil, fearing that I might not be able to travel later.
I have shared Nichiren Buddhism with many people, including my niece Judith, and the protective forces of the universe appeared via a phone call from her. She is a district leader in Philadelphia and insisted that we attend a conference at the Florida Nature and Culture Center. She had no idea that my cancer had spread, as I hadn’t told anyone.
At the conference, I sought guidance from a senior in faith. She had no opinion concerning my choice of treatment other than I’d done well up to now, but she reminded me that Nichiren Buddhism concerns itself with the present and the future. But my strategy had included reacting to things that had happened in the past. She said that there’s a fine line between learning from the past and holding a grudge. She also encouraged me to use the power of prayer to find: 1) the best doctor with 2) the best medicine and 3) to be the best patient.
I also studied President Ikeda’s guidance about how fundamental changes in oneself inevitably result in changes in the environment. I needed to change. My life depended on it.
With the three points for overcoming illness on my altar, I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A never-ending stream of SGI members came to my house each day to chant with me. They supported me in ways I could have never imagined, making me even more determined to fight for my life. I also continued to support the members as a women’s leader, chanting for them and calling them to offer encouragement. As the month wore on, I was feeling the pain of my bone cancer from doing the simplest of tasks like breathing and walking.
The words “best doctor” still made me cringe, but as I continued to chant about it, I began to think of doctors as having the same Buddhahood as me. I thought of the future young doctors I know who are studying pre-med, how idealistic and full of hope they are, how they want to change the world.
With this change of heart, I researched and found a wonderful doctor who treated me with deep care and respect. At our first meeting, she said: “Please let me help you. You have fought so hard and long. We don’t want to lose you now.” I was moved by her warmth and genuine concern. Last July, after several biopsies, she was finally able to prescribe a groundbreaking drug, an antibody, that indeed turned out to be the “best medicine.”
Even though my cancer spread to 32 bones, my blood and organs had remained completely healthy. As a result, my body responded much faster to the medication, and in only three treatments, my bone cancer completely disappeared. The radiologist and the oncologist are stunned and want to study my recovery to help other patients. My doctors are respectful and interested in the path I have traveled.
And rather than ruling out certain types of medicine, I learned that with my powerful life force, anything in the universe can aid and help me recover, no longer fueling a war with my attachment to right and wrong. I will continue following my doctor’s direction to complete a year of treatment (that’s me being the “best patient”).
Through this process of human revolution, we can transform any circumstance in our environment. And the question is always the same: Am I willing to change? I will continue to challenge my human revolution for the rest of my life, and I will fight to ensure that the next generation has the same opportunity.