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Bella English

Dying, he keeps to sunny side

By Bella English
Globe Columnist / August 14, 2011

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For decades, Dr. Herman Lowe, a clinical psychologist, had a flourishing private practice in which he used rational emotive behavior therapy to teach patients how to redirect negative or anxious thoughts. At the heart of the therapy is unconditional acceptance: of oneself, of others, of life. Lowe watched it work well on thousands of his patients. But he has never relied on it so much as he is today, as he battles brain cancer.

It was June 2009, and Lowe had just won a golf pool at The Pinehills in Plymouth, where he and his wife Mercia Tapping live. Pleased that he had played his best round in weeks, he loaded his clubs into the trunk of his Corvette and headed for home, about a mile away. He’d made the trip several times, but this time, he could not remember the way.

“All of a sudden my brain stopped working,’’ is the way Lowe, 74, puts it. He was soon diagnosed with glioblastoma, the aggressive, terminal brain cancer that killed Senator Ted Kennedy. Doctors couldn’t tell him why he’d gotten it, so Lowe began researching. The result is a slender e-book he has written, “Brain Cancer: Beating the Odds.’’ The book is free, but he asks for a donation to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Even as he is dying, he is trying to make a contribution to others as he has done his whole life,’’ Tapping says.

The odds Lowe has beaten so far: The average life span after diagnosis is 15 months. He has had it 26 months and he’s still living at home, playing cribbage every Monday night with friends, following his beloved Red Sox avidly, enjoying Mercia’s beautiful gardens. Until a few months ago, he was still seeing patients in his Plymouth office one day a week.

“I’m feeling fine and doing well,’’ says Lowe, dressed in khakis and a striped shirt, relaxing in a chair in his den. “I’ve just got these deficits that aren’t too pleasant.’’ Those would be some memory issues and an imbalance caused by medications.

Lowe is convinced that his golf-ball sized tumor, which doctors at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital removed, resulted from his years of excessively using cellphones. Besides his offices, which he had in Stoughton, Newton, Plymouth, and elsewhere, Lowe also did “brief counseling,’’ where clients would call in, from all over the world, for phone consultations. “I had been spending several hours [a day] with my cellphone pressed against the right side of my head,’’ he writes in his e-book.

Though scientists have yet to prove a link, Lowe is convinced of it. “I absolutely believe it,’’ he says. “All I know is I have a glioblastoma that came out of nowhere. I had excessive use of cellphones. I put two and two together.’’ He has met others with the same cancer who have told him similar stories. And he’s heard from readers of his e-book that they have stopped or cut back on cellphone usage, which pleases him.

“I have come to the conclusion that it’s better safe than sorry,’’ says Lowe, noting that one of the reasons he wrote the book is to warn people about cellphones. His three children and grandchildren are also more mindful of cellphone usage, he says.

Tapping, who has been married to Lowe for 15 years, owns a Braintree-based company, Boston Green Goods Inc., which runs online businesses dedicated to healthy living. She bought an infrared sauna for their home that she believes helps kill toxins; he used it twice a day until recently. Tapping also saw to his anti-cancer diet that includes giving up sugar, white flour, and processed foods.

But more than anything, perhaps, it is his training as a psychologist that has helped him deal with his disease. “He carries on as if nothing is happening even with the reality of needing two strong guys to lift him out of a golf cart, and he still tries to swing at the ball,’’ says Tapping. “He has enormous courage and no self pity.’’

Ask Lowe about his positive attitude and he explains that rational emotive behavior therapy tries to change irrational thinking into the rational. He studied under Dr. Albert Ellis, whose groundbreaking work in the 1950s was a response to the Freudian school of psychoanalysis. “Freud believed in the id, ego, and super-ego,’’ says Lowe. “Ellis said that’s not an acceptable form of psychotherapy; it didn’t help people. Human emotion is caused by the way you think. If you change the way you think, you change the way you feel.’’

Lowe’s only patient these days is himself; he says he tries to change the way he thinks in order to strengthen his immune system. “When I begin thinking about dying or about my cancer, it’s not a very healthy thing for me to do.’’ So he doesn’t use the word “cancer.’’ He substitutes “carrots.’’ Instead of thinking, “this damn cancer,’’ he thinks, “those damn carrots.’’ Instead of thinking, “I’m dying,’’ he tells himself, “There’s no evidence I’m dying this minute. Why should I waste time thinking about it?’’ Each morning when he awakes, he mentally puts all the cancer cells in a box, and, mentally, takes them to the dump and throws them away.

Sarah Boisvert is a family friend who has been helping out since Lowe’s diagnosis. “He’s such an inspiration to be around because of how he’s facing this devastating disease,’’ she says. Once, when he was told he could not play in a small golf tournament because he might hold others up, he sat silently in the golf cart, dejected. But Boisvert knew what he was doing: his own therapy. After awhile, he got out of the cart and greeted her: “Oh, Sarah, it’s a beautiful day! I’m so glad you’re here! Let’s play golf.’’

It is because of his attitude, says his wife, that people come to visit and take him on outings, which in turn contributes to his well-being.

Plus, Herman Lowe gets the husband-of-the-year award. He traded in his beloved Corvette so that Tapping could get a new car. “And no one is happier than he is that he bought me a new car,’’ she says. Though neither are spring chickens, he tells her - and makes her feel - that she is beautiful. “He also tells me firmly to bury him and find someone else. And that any man would be lucky to have such a woman in their lives,’’ she adds.

But, she figures, she is the lucky one, to have found him.

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeEnglish.