14 Jun 2020

'My cancer is my mōkai [pet]' - Te Kehukehu Butler

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:05 pm on 14 June 2020

“It’s about learning how to climb over the obstacles and carry on" - Te Kehukehu Butler

In this series, Te Ahi Kaa talks with people who have been diagnosed with cancer to get a sense of their life philosophies and the impact cancer has on their whā​nau. This is Te Kehukehu’s story.  

Maara Kai - growing organic food is one of Te Kehukehu's hobbies.

Maara Kai - growing organic food is one of Te Kehukehu's hobbies. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

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In te reo Māori, illness or sickness is at times referred to as ‘ngārara’, which means a pest or a monster. It is a word Te Kehukehu has heard many times at tangihanga (funerals) during the formal speeches.

“I go to the tangihanga [and...] ka tu ētahi o nga kaikōrero, ka kii pēnei ana, te ngārara [speakers refer to illnesses as a monster]. I thought 'no, we think about [illness] negatively, we need to somehow embrace it" he tells Justine Murray.

Te Kehukehu has prostate cancer and refers to it as his 'mōkai' [pet or friend]. His philosophy is that illness is a part of his body, and therefore he takes care of his mōkai with good kai, exercise, and mindful thinking.  
At the moment, Te Kehukehu says his mōkai is sleeping, which means that he is doing well.

“It’s about learning how to climb over the obstacles and carry on. This was a big obstacle, where I had to change my whole lifestyle, change my job, change my diet and sort of had to step [back] and take things a little bit easier.”

Te Kehukehu Butler tries to go fishing atleast once a week

Te Kehukehu Butler tries to go fishing atleast once a week Photo: Takiri Butler

While Te Kehukehu believes in western medicine and has undergone chemotherapy, he also believes in the power of nature and his faith. He regularly fasts in line with the Māramataka (Māori Lunar Calendar).

The Butler whā​nau is all about keeping fit, and Te Kehukehu and Teena Butler both foster sports and athleticism in their children.

It was part of Te Kehukehu’s daily routine to run up and down Mauao and have a swim at the beach or go for a surf - all before sitting down for breakfast.

At his home in Matapihi, sports equipment takes up a fair bit of space in the backyard. There’s the outrigger canoe, the kayak, the different sizes of surfboards and stand-up paddleboards, the boxing bag, the garage-turned-home gym and a rowing machine - not to mention bikes and a boat tucked away on the property.

The whā​nau's approach to wellness was nurtured from a young age.

“There’s a soft-top board up there that I start the kids on. My two-year-old grandson and my five-year-old grand-daughter they all surf, too, I start them off around two or three [years old]…I go to Rangiwaea we have a batch over there, we go back to Mōtiti island and do a lot of diving, the grandkids love it there."

Te Kehukehu's older grandson Kehu Butler is a pro-surfer, and Te Kehukehu has at times accompanied him on the international surfing circuit. The overseas trips have taken a back seat since his diagnosis three years ago, though.

“The oncologist had told me I would have had [the diagnosis] five years before because my prostate was loaded with cancer, and for it to get like that, I would have had it for five years beforehand, so eight years all up, and I’m still here,” he laughs.

Te Kehukehu's garage was transformed into a gym to help keep up the whanau's fitness regime.

Te Kehukehu's garage was transformed into a gym to help keep up the whanau's fitness regime. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

While eating healthy was always on his radar, since the diagnosis Te Kehukehu makes a more conscious effort to eat well.

“Being Māori, not a lot of us want to give up the good food... birthdays, weddings, all it is an excuse to have a big fat feed. There’s meat,  there’s this and that… The main diet for the cancer is glucose, is sugar."

Te Kehukehu grows his own organic food, including passionfruit, grapes, feijoas, blueberries, kale, limes, lemons, strawberries, kumara and black pepper.

In the early days after his diagnosis Te Kehukehu was vegan, but today he’s incorporated seafood and fermented food into his diet.

“The kānga pirau, koura mara, fermented crayfish, kina mara, everything to us was mara, mara, mara. I would put [the kina] in fresh water for three to five days. All the spikes fall off the shell. When you crack it open and you have to fight with the flies to eat it, you know it's ready."

Te Kehukehu Butler grew up on Mōtiti Island where the sea was his playground and his pātaka kai.

Te Kehukehu Butler grew up on Mōtiti Island where the sea was his playground and his pātaka kai. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

Te Kehukehu finds solace in the ocean, he spent time as a child growing up on Mōtiti, where the sea was his playground and pātaka kai.

Today he still likes to surf, is a keen seafood diver and fisherman, but these days he prefers to paddle out on his kayak to get enough for the whā​nau.  

Three years ago, a chance encounter with Susan Brown at Capers Café in Rotorua led to both Te Kehukehu and Teena attending at a  retreat programme run by Aratika Cancer Trust in Tauhara, Taupo.

At the first retreat in April 2018, Te Kehukehu was the only Māori male and wanted to leave but was encouraged to stay.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me… All of them are great, [the retreat] is very helpful, there are doctors and they’ve all been through this journey with cancer."

Both Te Kehukehu and Teena are now regular attendees at the five-day retreats run by Aratika Trust in Rotorua.

“When people are given the word 'cancer' and your doctors say you’ve got cancer, straightaway people think you’ve been given a death warrant. I don’t like the idea of saying things like that because straightaway it eats at your mind.”

The next Aratika Cancer Trust retreat is happening in November this year after a March retreat was postponed due to the Covid-19 Lockdown.

Te Kehukehu with his whanau

Te Kehukehu with his whanau Photo: Takiri Butler