How Rob Louw Cheated Death
Rob Louw is one tough bastard. The man is a prototype for an action figurine. He’s the guy every South African man would want to have a beer with. Hell, if I were Rob Louw, I would want to have a beer with me.
He played rugby for his country as a devastating dervish of a loose forward in an era before the insurance of shoulder pads, scrumcaps and creatine – when his only protection was Deep Heat at half time and a headband that tamed his bedraggled mop of sun-bleached hair. The 19-capped Bok is also a life-long surfer, having ridden some the coastline’s most testing waves. He’s been hacked by the blades of a rubber duck’s motor and he’s walked away intact from a plane crash (which is more than the plane could say). His latest defiance of mortality is his conquest over a festering cancer that intended to kill him within three months.
Here are Rob Louw’s 7 Tips To Ward Off Cancer
Four years ago Louw returned from a spirited weekend at Rocking The Daisies in Darling with Schalk Burger – a fellow hard-rucking, blonde-haired, death-cheating loose forward. On the Monday afterwards, he visited a doctor with a stomach ache that he put down to the weekend’s festivities with his flanker compatriot. Not long after, a surgeon’s scalpel revealed a festering black spot on Louw’s gall bladder.
It was cancer.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” he says.
Although, given his life-long feud with death, you’d also think Louw was bulletproof. Twenty-three years ago, Louw was flying across the faces of waves in the Langebaan lagoon on a rubber duck. The boat launched into the air like a leaping klipspringer as it smacked the wind-swept breakers. In one such airborne state, Louw was hurled towards the engine and the whirring, unceasing blades of the engine’s propeller hacked his body.
“I almost died,” he says. “I was in intensive care for four days. My blood pressure was 40 – I was on the edge. I was very lucky.”
Luck seems to cling to the man. Fifteen years later, Louw would escape with his life from the wreckage of a plane. “That was something to behold,” he says. “We were helluva lucky to survive.”
It was 20 August, and the Boks were about to play Australia in Perth. Louw and five others where flying from Nelspruit to Chitwa Chitwa in the Kruger National Park to watch the boks take to the field on the Subiaco Oval. The plane’s wings were slicing through the thin Lowveld air, and as the pilot angled the Cessna towards the runway, he realised he’d overestimated the length of earth to land on and the amount of time in which to do it. “He was too far, and we went off through the bush at full tilt,” Louw says.
The wheels were scrunched as the plane collided with the hot, dry earth, which stifled the momentum of the careening mass of steel. The plane eventually came to a stop a few metres short of a clump of stubborn, gnarled baobabs that would have crushed the Cessna and the gasping, screaming cargo inside it.
“Thank God the wheels broke off and we went sideways – that saved us,” he says. “We would have gone straight into the trees.”
Louw had sidestepped death before, so when he was told he had three months to live he refused to accept it. “I actually walked out of the oncologist’s office when he said to me, ‘You’ve got cancer’. I said to him, ‘Stuff that, I’ll fight this thing.’ It was arrogant in a way but I just had this belief that I would fight it.”
Still, the odds were against him. The cancer had reached stage four. Cancer Research UK defines this stage as when the cancer has spread to another body organ. It’s the final official stage of the disease. “You’ve basically got the death sentence,” Louw says.
Skin cancer’s evil lies in its clandestine nature. It rarely causes symptoms until very late, says dermatologist Dr Dagmar Whitaker, president of the Melanoma Advisory Board South Africa. “It doesn’t hurt or even look alarming,” she says.
Louw didn’t have the luxury of warning signs. “My melanoma was unique because I didn’t find it on my skin,” he explains.
The cancer is as industrious as it is stealthy. “Sometimes a cancerous mole gets destroyed by the body’s immune system and one never finds it, but it only needs one cell to survive and multiply and that leads to spreading of the cancer,” Whitaker says. “It only needs a thickness of a millimetre to be at the level of the blood and lymph vessels – which makes it possible to spread.”
Whitaker cites South African men over 40 as being at a particularly high risk of skin cancer. “They haven’t been taught that’s important to protect and use creams.” Rugby, surfing and working on site for his thatching business meant that Louw was regularly under the sun that spawned the deathly mutant cells. They infiltrated his body like Trojans and then ran amok, metastasising. “ It was all over,” he says. “It spread to my liver and my small intestine.”
Johann Rupert – who had been friend of Louw’s since their student days at the University of Stellenbosch – advised him to get treated at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. This cancer treatment centre has nearly 20 000 employees and is ranked as the best of its kind in the US. Louw – who had been told he had one last summer on the planet – decided to give it one last shot. In December 2009, he said his indefinite goodbyes to his family. “It was helluva emotional saying goodbye to your kids, and not knowing whether you’re going to see them again.”
Once he arrived in Texas, he met Dr Jeremy Erasmus, a South African radiologist at MD Anderson. “Rob, you must hope that they’re going to have a long operation,” Erasmus told him.
It’s the quick operations that you shouldn’t hope for, Louw explains. “In the short ones, they open you up and say, ‘Jissus, we can’t do anything,’ and then they close you. And that’s it.”
Erasmus walked with him to the operating theatre, and watched the entire surgery for the four hours, where the boisterous former Springbok lay unnaturally still as the operating team scrutinised his inner workings for deviant cells. The surgeon’s scalpel sliced away pieces of Louw’s small intestine where the cells were festering. They left some cells on his liver to monitor their growth rate and to decide whether they’d need to use T-cell therapy to eradicate the cancer.
T-cell therapy pivots on heavy amounts of risk and reward, Louw explains. “They infuse your body with T-cells and then they give you chemo for three weeks. It drops your whole system down,” he says. “They knock you and if you aren’t strong enough you can die.”
When Louw woke up, Erasmus and Louw’s wife Azille were at his bedside. “I said, ‘Jeremy, was it long?’ He said it was.”
He asked him if it was successful. “We’ll see,” Erasmus replied.
Louw was ordered to take several weeks’ worth of rest. Although, his definition of “rest” is different to most as he spent most of his downtime snorkelling beneath the ocean’s surface or paddling on top of it. When he returned to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the specialists said that because he was in such a strong condition, he wouldn’t need to have T-cell therapy. “I recuperated so quickly because I was so fit, they couldn’t believe it.” They removed the growth of his liver, stitched him up and sent him back to South Africa.
He remembers walking through the corridors of the hospital where he was given his grave predictions and feeling a rare strain of smugness that only those who have been told they should be dead can feel. “People were in disbelief,” he says. “They all looked at me as if I walked in from the dead. They didn’t say anything but you could see it on their faces.”
Stay Fit, Stay Alive
One of the many factors conspiring to keep Louw alive was his extraordinary level of fitness. “My immune system is so strong because I’m fit,” he explains. “At 58 years old, I still play squash three times a week and I play touch rugby with my son and I spend a lot of time surfing. Being fit saved my life.”
Louw explains that his fitness is a side effect of pushing himself to feel the rushes he felt when he wore the green and gold. “I worked on adrenalin in rugby because I was small compared to the rest of the guys. My big thing was my adrenalin kick; I had to get inspired and fired up for the matches. When you run onto Newlands and you’ve got 50 000 people in the crowd going mad, you get that adrenalin kick that will get you going.”
“After giving up rugby, I’ve always had this adrenalin craving to satisfy. That’s why I love surfing,” he says. “You need those kicks in life.”
Before he knew he had cancer, Louw says he was always conscience about what he ate, and made sure he stuck to a healthly meal plan. “My diet had moved away from all the processed stuff. I was taking green tea three times a day and I started cooking with turmeric.” He’d read that turmeric fights cancer.
A recent study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention confirms this, showing a dose-dependent administration of curcumin (the active ingredient of turmeric) effectively activates apoptosis, meaning it prompts harmful cells to die.
Louw says his ability to fight the disease comes from a combination of choices. “It’s a three-pronged attack scenario,” he says. “I’ve always had a positive attitude but I’m only positive because I’m fit,” he explains. “It’s fitness and your diet that makes you positive,” he says. “If you haven’t got these, you’re never going to get your positivity.”
“If you’re an unfit oke with a paunch or inflammation, the chances of you surviving cancer or heart disease are very small because your body won’t be able to fight it,” he says. “You’ve got to be healthy and fit.”
“People are losing the war against cancer because they’re putting crap in their mouths,” Louw says. “Processed meat worries me – it’s cheap, quick food and full of antibiotics and the side effects that go with that. I think we’re going to be hit with a major spate of cancer within the next 15 years because of diet.”
Cancer is 90% lifestyle, he says. “It’s what you put in your body, what you expose yourself to, what you smoke and what you drink.
“With me, it was melanoma – I overdosed on the sun. I thought, What the hell, I’ll never get cancer,” says Louw.
Sadly, most of us think this way too. “South African men are notoriously difficult when it comes to taking good care of their skin or sticking to a preventative routine,” Whitaker says. “They love their sport and their outdoor lifestyle but they don’t observe their bodies like women do, and often come in very late for medical advice. That’s one of the reasons why we are the leading country as far as skin cancer incidence is concerned.”
“All I’m doing is I’m stating is what has worked for me,” says Louw. “With my cancer, you can’t fight it with chemo. My lifestyle is the only way of fighting it.” With his steadfast stance on attacking cancer with a natural approach, he’s received a spirited backlash from the medical fraternity. “I don’t attack oncologists,” he says. “All I say is oncology is moving so quickly – there are so many trials going on and so much movement happening – so most oncologists don’t study diet because they can’t keep up with the pace.”
Louw says people phone him about three times a week, asking for advice on dealing with cancer. “They’re in dire straits, and most times they’ve got melanomas,” he says. “I’ll give them my situation, but I’ll say trust in your oncologist, but cut out sugar, white flour and trans fats.”
Dietician Lila Bruk of Lila Bruk and Associates warns that it’s important to be wary of relying solely on diet rather than conventional treatment.
Nine months after his surgery, the cancer reappeared on his small intestine. “I had the choice of going back to America or trusting in the doctors here.” He stayed in South Africa and had it removed.
A year later, a specialist noticed a suspicious spot in a scan close to the pancreas and cut it out. “I went for the second scan a month ago, and I’m clean, bru,” he says.
“EVERYBODY’S TOUCHED BY cancer, whatever family you’re in,” he says. “It’s all around you all the time. But if you survive it, you have got to give hope to people. People need that hope,” says the 58-year-old man who, as per several medical opinions, should have been dead 33 months ago. But here he is, alive and smiling.
And, later this afternoon, he’s got a squash game to win.