Brad McGann's treacherous journey to self discovery

By Julie Middleton

On a crisp July night last year, Brad McGann became the new star of New Zealand film. His feature debut, an adaptation of Maurice Gee's 1972 novel In My Father's Den, took Best Picture at the inaugural New Zealand Screen Awards. McGann landed gongs for direction and screenplay, and Den took 10 prizes overall.

It was "a fantastic night - I was chuffed," says McGann. He hadn't expected such a haul, although the moody, atmospheric film about a disaffected war photographer's return to New Zealand had previously taken honours at festivals in Canada, France, England, America, China, Taiwan and Spain.

The next day he had a routine doctor's visit. McGann, 41, had fended off bowel cancer twice before - first in 1998 after a doctor failed to investigate recurring abdominal pains although McGann had a family history. The second came in 2003, when the bowel cancer cells spread to McGann's liver. Both times he underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

Still, as he headed to the doctor's office, a little jaded, McGann felt those difficult experiences were behind him. He felt well and happy, and expected this visit to show he was still clear.

But the comedown was cruel. Scan results proved that the cancer cells had migrated to McGann's lungs.

Doctors recommended treatment with an expensive drug, Avastin, which is not funded by the state. Late last year, with friends arranging an auction of film memorabilia at SkyCity Theatre to help raise the $80,000 needed, McGann talked publicly for the first time about his nine years of cancer.

The revelations came as a great surprise to many. McGann, who describes himself as "private", had kept his health status closely guarded.

However, he agreed to this interview because he is weary of seeing cancer constantly described as an instant death sentence, as a one-way road, as something to tiptoe around. He is living with cancer, says McGann, cross-legged on a leather couch in his secluded Ellerslie townhouse.

Life goes on. People overcome cancer, living for years after treatment. He has plans for the future (see sidebar).

McGann admits he was in denial as he was treated for the first cancer, shocked by the sense that his body had betrayed him. "If you can't trust your own body, who can you trust?"

The last nine years have brought insights, McGann says. "I've gone through a huge journey, a journey to self." Cancer "provokes a totally different outlook on life. You have to widen your vision. You have to look at life in a big-picture way and realise that you are here for a certain amount of time, and that your aspirations are things that you've been conditioned to want.

"People assume because they want something, they need it. But when you have cancer you realise how little you actually need, and how important the simple needs are."

For McGann, those things are "love, friends family, going for swims, affirmations, good conversation, creative outlets".

Life, he says, has come to be about "experiencing the moment to the fullest, to be responsible for your actions and your thoughts, and that goodwill to yourself and others is invaluable".

McGann was born in Auckland to a Catholic family, but doesn't follow any particular religion. However, he has found himself moving in recent months to "an almost Buddhist way of looking at life. It's the idea of keeping life simple, of letting go".

On the night the fundraising auction took place, McGann was in Auckland Hospital. As bidding began he found himself wandering into the hospital's small, spartan, sixth-floor chapel.

It was empty. He sat down in the silence. Contemplated. "I invoked the idea of handing over, putting trust in something that was higher than me, and saying, can you help?"

It was, he says, almost a "naked state - I had arrived at a point where I needed to trust." To have faith in himself. In others. In some sort of higher being.

Later, McGann was "flummoxed" to learn that 500 people attended the auction, and that it had raised two-thirds of the money needed. Its success felt like a "10-fold" response to his trust.

Central to McGann's life is his family - which includes his mum, dad, two sisters, a brother, aunts and his stepfather - and a tight circle of friends, all of whom have been "incredible support".

They bring him tempting food to try and improve his appetite and understand that social plans can collapse if McGann starts feeling unwell. "Your friends," he observes, "are the ones who can ride with whatever's happening."

Some can't, or won't, and have backed off. McGann is sanguine. "I don't think it's bad intent. It's just fear, not knowing what to say when someone's dealing with a potentially terminal illness. They back away because of an inability to deal with the brutal reality that part of living is dying. There's not much out there to help people with that issue."

McGann says he refuses to be ashamed of his ill-health, or afraid. "I could be dead a year or six months from now, and that's reality," he says. "But then, maybe not. I'm now able to say that - 10 years ago I would have never been able to. I would have said: Who's to blame? Why? Whose fault is it? Why me?

"In reality, it's: Why not me? And maybe no one's to blame. Maybe it just is. You know, I accept myself and I accept my situation." He pauses. "To be able to say that is much harder than you think."

The story of living with cancer

Film director Brad McGann hopes his follow-up to the award-winning feature In My Father's Den will be an "intensely personal" short movie about living with cancer.

"I'd love to make a short film about my experience," he says, "but in a way which is accessible to a wider audience."

McGann, of Ellerslie, Auckland, is about to start his third and most severe course of drug treatment. He works when he can.

McGann has turned down numerous offers from large studios, saying he would like to make an "intensely personal, abstract and impressionistic" film focusing on where living with cancer has taken him emotionally and spiritually.

For someone who prefers a low profile, this is a big departure and reflects the personal, sometimes rocky journey he has been on while living with cancer.

"I'm interested in telling stories that I feel are relevant," he says, "and having lived with this disease for nine years, it's something I'm ready to communicate in a film."

McGann aims to evoke "a response which is personal to the viewer ... so that they can bring their own experiences [to bear]". He doesn't rule out taking a camera to his Auckland Hospital chemotherapy treatments.

He also hopes his film will also combat what he sees as fear-mongering media depictions of cancer, which he describes as "very Woman's Weekly and reductive".

"For me, it's about affirming the notion that life goes on," he explains. "If I can do anything that can separate the word 'death' from the word 'cancer', then I'll do it."

He says that as long as he keeps life simple, he can deal with his health and have a "life and aspirations. I don't need the bright lights and the big films. I'm aware I can't do things on such a big scale, and I've learned to let that go. I'm happy to do things on a smaller scale, and I'm still excited about film being in my life." 

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