PART ONE: Successive Rings of Fire
Miracles are in short supply these days, though we seek them daily. Sometimes we find them, or possibly they find us. Helen Liang, a beautiful young girl, lay dying in a Vancouver, Canada hospital bed, the victim of a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma (cancer). After a devastating course of chemotherapy failed to eradicate the disease, doctors told her that she had only two weeks to live.
Her only hope was an extremely painful bone marrow transplant with a success rate of five per cent. Faced with death, many people would desperately cling to any offer of hope, but with courage rare in one so young, Helen Liang resolved to spend her final days out of the hospital, at home, trying to find a kind of peace with her family.
Her father, the famous martial arts Grandmaster Liang Shou-yu, refused to let her give up hope and embarked with her on a course of qigong, tai chi, meditation and alternative Chinese and Western medicine. Two weeks passed. She was still alive. Another two weeks, and then another. Week after week became five years. Whether to attribute the miracle to Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, to qigong, to bitter Chinese herbs, to a family's unwavering love, or Helen's own will to heal her cancer, the answer is still a mystery. But seeing Helen today performing her favorite martial art forms is poetry of the soul in motion, a miracle in action, and a dancing light beaming steadily out of the darkness that nearly extinguished her life.
Follow the Light
"You always see it on TV movies, somebody gets cancer, and then they die, that sort of thing. And so right away, I was lying there, looking at my dad, he was holding my hand, and I was having so much pain at the time, and thinking cancer? I just felt like crying, but I didn't cry. I didn't know what my feelings were. My dad said, 'Well you have to be strong.' I asked, what happens when I die? Where would I be going? Where are you guys going to be? And my dad who practices Buddhist and Taoist meditation said, 'Just make sure that if you see any kind of light, you have to follow the light, you can't be afraid of it, you have to go there.' I was trying to imagine how that would be like."
"Then he had to go, he had a class that night. My mom came to stay with me. I was lying there that whole night and I didn't want to fall asleep because I was afraid in the darkness that I wasn't going to wake up again. Later on I heard that when my dad got to class -- he's very strong, never cries -- but later on students told me that he could barely talk, and he told me he was crying in the car by himself."
Helen started an aggressive chemo treatment, which was very difficult and harsh for her small size and frail body to take. "I had long hair," she says, "and of course they told me that I'd lose my hair. Each new thing was something that you just can't imagine happening. One day in the shower a whole handful of hair suddenly came out. It took me so long but I couldn't get out of the shower. My dad was very worried, because I was very weak, and a lot of times I needed their help just to take a shower. I came out and I was crying. "
"My parents just felt so bad, and they tried not to show it in front of me. They gave me a lot of care, and my friends and their friends and a lot of doctors did too." Despite the debilitating effects of chemo, Helen also practiced qigong and meditation.
The chemotherapy went on for about 3 months, but after the final doses, the cancer came back again a few days later. Helen started to get lumps once more, and developed a very high fever. "I was hospitalized again," says Helen. "They tried other things, but then they said to me, you only have two weeks to live."
Helen Liang's doctors said "You only have two weeks to live. The only thing we can do is try a bone marrow transplant. But the success rate of that is less than five percent. And we have to find the right marrow. Then they took me to a wing of the hospital and tried to show me what the transplant would be like. They showed me some of the people in there, and that was the most horrible thing that I remember. I saw all kinds of tubes running into their bodies, as I was passing by their rooms, and I just didn't feel it was a life anymore."
The doctors told Helen they could not give her any other treatment for her cancer. This was the last hope they could offer. She had been in the hospital for three weeks with a raging fever, which no medicine was able to cure. "That afternoon," she says, "we had to make a decision on whether to go for a bone marrow transplant or not. I remember that day. All my family was there for this decision, because it was an urgent issue. And nobody could make that decision. I had to make the decision. So eventually I was thinking about the pros and cons. I think my Dad was leaning towards not doing it and seeking alternative medicine, but he couldn't really make the decision for me. I was just sitting there and I was thinking, I've looked at those people and is that a life that I really want? And the chances were less than five percent. Do I want my last few days to be in that room, or do I want to be with people I love and do the things I wanted to do? It was a hard decision."
"But finally I said, I'm just going to enjoy the next two weeks, and do whatever that I have to do. But my aunt reminded me, now I'm already experiencing so much pain, later on it will get worse and worse. It will be very painful. But I said that's OK, at least I'm home, I'm with you guys. It's OK."
Helen went home, tended by her entire family and her family doctor, who practiced Western medicine but had also learned qigong with Liang Shou-yu. This doctor supported Helen leaving the hospital and Helen's parents when they said they wanted to search for an alternative medicine treatment. Her father, says Helen, would try anything.
After seeing her life drain away in the hospital, Helen was at least glad to be home. She recalls, "After I made the decision I went down to the beach and all of a sudden it's as if I have thrown away all the burden. I feel it's OK. I'm just going to do what I have to do for the last two weeks, and every day I'm not going to give up. My dad's still telling me to do meditation, do qigong. And it so happened that day that a close friend of my dad's in Seattle called and said, 'I know this Chinese doctor from Beijing, maybe he can help.' My dad said, yes, let's try."
After contacting this Dr. Wang, Helen described her illness and symptoms to him over the phone. He wrote a prescription and faxed it immediately. "We went to get these Chinese herbs," says Helen. "My parents were forcing me, saying you have to take this, at least just to kill the fever for now. You have to just try. With the bowls of this bitter Chinese medicine, I was so weak, and I'd take just a little bit and I would throw up. But I forced myself. I'm not giving up, I thought, and I'll do whatever I need to do. So I took the medicine for a few days, and my fever did start to get better. I had diarrhea but that's how the medicine works, how the medicine gets rid of the impurities in your body to help you. So at least my fever was more in control.
"I was more relaxed, and I was doing qigong and tai chi with my dad every day. We'd go out doing all kinds of qigong because it's good for you to stay outside and get a lot of oxygen. That's supposed to kill the cancer cells. So we're outside two-thirds of the day, my dad and friends and everybody taking turns, taking me out, walking on the beach. We had to stay away from the crowds because my immune system was really low, very weak. So I just took Chinese medicine, doing qigong and tai chi."
Helen did this routine for one week. Then another. Soon it was three weeks. "I say oh, three weeks, I'm still around. And I know everybody is feeling that way, they just don't want to say it. They don't want to get excited. They're very careful. And my dad is very strict, saying you have to go out in nature every day, get as much oxygen as possible. And do qigong and a lot of meditation. And take the medicine. Then we combined it with another medicine, from another alternative medicine doctor, a Western doctor. Some kind of medicine that's supposed to boost your immune system. I was giving injections to myself. That was a very painful process, because I had to stay in bed for an hour or two just doing the injection to my stomach area. All the medicine, from China, from different places, it cost my parents a lot of money. Every month thousands and thousands of dollars."
Slowly, Helen's body began to heal. For the next six months Helen's cancer would come back a little bit, but then go away. The combination was working. Little by little her strength came back to her, and by the end of one year she was finally regaining her body and spirit.
Here is a video about Master Helen Liang's cancer journey.
Vision of Healing Light
As Helen's recovery progressed she practiced Buddhist and Taoist qigong with her father, and also a serious amount of meditation by herself. "Every day," she recalls, "I'd go in the backyard where we had flowers and bamboo. In the morning, facing the sun, with no noise, I'd sit and meditate. I'd combine methods, and shorten them, tailor them to me. I focused sometimes on the goddess Kuan Yin; I'd feel peaceful whenever I'd think of her. So I'd do something that has something to do with her, visualize an image of healing light.
"Another thing that really helped me, I found it myself. I would sit there and imagine I am one with the universe, almost that I'm not there. When you think about that, how immense the universe is; the good, the bad, disease and everything, how everything moves on, recycling, coming in a circle, you're no longer afraid of anything. I'd think, I'm not even sick right now, I'm the universe. Feel how powerful the universe is. I'm not there and yet I'm powerful."
"Sometimes feeling pain, the side effects from chemo, I'd feel horrible, that's when I meditated the most. I'd wake up and feel refreshed, feel peaceful and powerful. I was the universe."
As her body healed Helen had the strength to practice more Tai Chi and other internal styles, particularly her favorite Liu He Ba Fa (Water-style boxing). In the quiet bamboo shade of her garden, or the salty air of the Vancouver beach, Helen's focus never wavered. She took in life moment by moment, day by day, becoming one with nature.
"Everyone tried not to talk about it at the beginning," she remembers. "Then three weeks passed, four weeks passed, then I just don't think about it anymore. One of the things I learned the most is let nature run its own course. Don't worry about the outcome. Worry about the process, and let nature go from there. Always try your best, but don't worry. If you fail and lose, it doesn't matter. That's part of nature."
"At the beginning when the doctor told me there was nothing they could do, and I only had a couple of weeks, I was in denial. I asked why? I never knew the answer. I couldn't pull myself out. And with this disbelief, I was scared and depressed."
"Then, I found some kind of answer. It depends on how you look at this thing and what you learn from it. Now, I can say I don't feel bad what I went through. I wouldn't say I'd want to re-live it, but the experience, and what I learned, it was a very special experience. I don't feel bad because I learned so much. There were enlightenments that I really, really treasure. I can feel it, I know it."
Many people have trouble with meditation because they don't know how they are supposed to feel, and have a difficult time disengaging from the mundane thoughts of everyday life. Few people achieve the kind of deep focus that was afforded Helen by being on the edge of the abyss, but the very fact that her meditation was a life or death matter may have produced an exceptional human experience.
"During meditation," she says, "if you could reach a stage where you're in a state of bliss, you don't feel yourself. It's hard for anybody to reach that kind of state. It is the ultimate state. A few times I reached that. That kind of happiness cannot be described. But only two or three times I had that kind of experience. Meditation now, I do it in a different way. But then, my mind wasn't thinking about anything else, just healing myself every day. Every second, every minute, healing yourself."
Helen recalls reading the martial art novels her father gave her as a teenager, and says she felt like one of those mystical Taoist hermits. Forced to stay away from people and crowds due to her low immune system, she found her real peace with herself and nature, in the backyard garden, in the park, on the beach. "It was a quiet and peaceful feeling," she says, "which I carry with myself from that time onward."
The above is an interview with Helen Liang by Martha Burr (Edited 2016) "© KungFuMagazine.com. Reposted by permission."
Master Helen Liang, the eldest daughter of Grandmaster Liang, Shou-Yu, began training in traditional Wushu at the age of 4. She has participated in many international competitions and has won a great number of gold medals. She has been featured in many magazines and TV programs. Master Helen Liang lives and teaches in Vancouver, Canada.