Thomas Hickenbottom‘s transformative battle with cancer
Just before 8 p.m. on July 21, 2012, voices lower at the Gray Estate, where a large cancer benefit is being held in Thomas Hickenbottom’s honor. Santa Cruz City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson begins to read the Mayor’s proclamation:
“… and whereas Thomas Hickenbottom was an original member of both the O’Neill and Arrow surf teams, representing Santa Cruz in surfing contests up and down the California coast for over 30 years …”
“… and whereas Thomas Hickenbottom served in the United States Army as a medic with two tours of duty in Vietnam from 1967 [to]1969 and tended the wounded during the Tet Offensive of 1968 …”
More “and whereas” statements follow, highlighting Hickenbottom’s role in local surfing institutions (including the Santa Cruz Longboard Union and Westside Longboard Coalition, Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society, and Santa Cruz Surfing Museum), as well as his involvement with the community through Santa Cruz Little League, the Santa Cruz Old Timers, and local museums. Robinson then references Hickenbottom’s two books, “Surfing in Santa Cruz” and “Local Tribes,” before delivering the final words of the speech: “[I] hereby proclaim Saturday, July 21, 2012 as Thomas Hickenbottom Day.”
The crowd of 300-plus friends, family, colleagues, and fellow Santa Cruzans erupts in both cheers and tears. Hickenbottom smiles humbly, taking the microphone into his hands. Reaching up to press the button on the stoma in his throat, he whispers his thanks for everyone’s support.
A Santa Cruz Past
Hickenbottom moved to Santa Cruz with his family in 1954, and has been an active resident and surfer since the town’s surfing heyday in the early 1960s.
His earliest memory is from Cowell Beach where, when he was only 8 years old, he spotted a large piece of driftwood just offshore. Despite the fact that he hadn’t yet learned to swim, Hickenbottom recalls paddling his way out, hopping on the board, and riding a wave back to the beach. Cue the beginnings of a surf legend.
“I went to the beach a lot,” says Hickenbottom. This is quite an understatement—he thinks back on nearly failing high school as a result of being drawn toward the sand and surf.
“Surfing, and beach life in general, was who I was,” Hickenbottom says. He recalls life in Santa Cruz at the time, when the waters were nearly empty and fellow surfers were friendly and shared the waves. “Santa Cruz was different back then,” he adds. “It was a very small town that was safe, family-oriented, and really laid back.”
Michael Thomas, a close friend and surfing partner of Hickenbottom’s since 1964, remembers Hickenbottom in those days as “a giant cheerleader for life in every respect,” who was always “stoked” to ride. “We used to promise each other that we’d go out and surf together—there was no one else out there,” Thomas says.
Practice paid off for Hickenbottom, and as a senior in high school in 1966, he rose to become the fifth-rated competitive surfer in Northern California, representing his hometown and the original O’Neill Surf Team.
“He did a great job on the team,” wetsuit inventor Jack O’Neill tells Good Times. “He’s dependable, and a great surfer.”
Hickenbottom’s days were consumed by waves and sunshine; his nights with beach bonfires and storytelling. Life was good.
When he graduated high school, however, his lighthearted life as a surfer took a darker turn. Hickenbottom was drafted into the Vietnam War, where he served as a medic for two full terms. Hickenbottom says the unrelenting exposure to violence, pain and death tormented his psyche. But while many other soldiers succumbed to using drugs, alcohol and prostitution as outlets for coping with the trauma, Hickenbottom says he found solace in literature. “I needed numbing,” he recalls. “Writing is what saved my life in Vietnam.”
The Next Battle
Upon his discharge from the army, Hickenbottom found himself an outsider in a once-familiar beach life. “I was 22 going on 60,” he says. “Everyone I knew was 22 going on 16.”
Returning to Santa Cruz from Vietnam, he observed drastic changes in himself. His ability to relate to others on the deep level he was known for before the war had completely dissolved. “If I didn’t have surfing, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” he says. “I was able to use the mystic power of the ocean to help me get my head back together.”
Eventually Hickenbottom found love, while continuing to write and surf, and now lives with his wife and two sons near Cowell Beach, in the same home he grew up in.
Five years ago, however, another drastic change shook Hickenbottom’s life. He was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, a condition he believes was set off by a combination of smoking cigarettes early in his life, exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, working in a house painting business, and the weakening of his immune system following his mother’s death. Earlier in his battle with the illness, Hickenbottom submitted to a number of Western cancer-fighting treatments: to date, he has endured multiple surgeries—which involved both laser treatments and three more involved procedures—radiation (including a period during which he received 30 treatments daily), and intensive radio-chemotherapy.
Hickenbottom says his only return on the tens of thousands of dollars these treatments cost him (his family’s entire savings, he says) has been unparalleled pain, including second-degree-burn-causing radiation and the removal of his voice box. Despite these treatments, the cancer spread to his lungs.
“My VA oncologist, who I now call ‘Dr. Doom,’” Hickenbottom explains, “told me to make a will and write a bucket list. [He] also prescribed an extremely caustic double-drug chemo regimen that would’ve completely fried and poisoned my entire body until it either killed the cancer or killed me first. I politely got up, [said] ‘I’ll see you later,’ and I never returned.”
Hickenbottom’s wife, Susan Allison, Ph.D., is a therapist and the host of a healing-oriented radio show on Voice America. “Basically, [these] doctors are doing their best and their hands are tied by legalities to only offer three forms of cancer treatment: surgery (cut), radiation (burn), and chemotherapy (poison) to attempt to cure the person of cancer,” she writes via email.
As fate would have it, says Hickenbottom, a guest on Allison’s radio show pointed the couple to a more cutting-edge facility for cancer treatment in Reno, Nev. This involved an “integrative therapy” approach, blending both low-dose insulation potentiated therapy (IPT) chemo with purportedly cancer-killing naturopathic supplements. Though Hickenbottom says the center worked wonders compared to his previous treatments, the facility still practiced the use of chemotherapy and prescribed him a regimen of 30 pills a day.
Back To Nature
Now, one month after Santa Cruz celebrated Thomas Hickenbottom Day, the proclamation’s honoree has just returned home from Arizona, where he underwent the most recent leg of his treatment journey. In search of a more holistic solution, Hickenbottom decided to head to Sedona to try a new, completely homeopathic regimen that included total body detoxification and immune system strengthening.
The Gerson Diet, as the plan is called, consists of multiple weeks of system flushing while maintaining a diet of almost entirely raw vegetable juice. “I made the entire circumnavigation from standard Western treatment modalities to complete alternative path,” he says.
Now back in Santa Cruz, he looks forward to maintaining a regimented program to complete his recovery via total alternative care, and says he feels exponentially better already.
“I must say that I feel and look great and I also have the greatest expectations of a complete cure from this tough disease,” he says with a huge grin. “I will stop at nothing until I reign victorious in this fight, and I also feel I’ve found the correct path to get here.”
But throughout all of the pills, treatments, and diets, Hickenbottom says one of the most powerful healing agents in his life has continued to be his beloved Santa Cruz waters.
“[This] has been a huge factor to my healing,” he says. “I got out of the hospital, [and as] soon as I had the strength, walked down to Cowell’s, took off my shoes and waded into the healing waters. It really helped me get back into my body after the horrors and intense pain … I could feel the sand and the chilly waters working wonders in calming my nerves and helping me remember who I was at my very deepest core.”
Hickenbottom says writing has been another factor in his recovery, just as it was during the Vietnam War. He is currently working on transforming his 2010 novel “Local Tribes” into a trilogy series using stories based on his own adventures.
Throughout the battle, Hickenbottom continues to donate to and support local museums and work with surf clubs.
“Tommy is honorable and has given to others his entire life, and that is why so many have banded together and surrounded him,” says Laura Gray, a key organizer for the July 21 cancer benefit. “That is Tommy’s power as a person, and what motivated such a broad and loving response to his need.”
His giving has been returned several fold, says Hickenbottom, who adds that his recovery would have been impossible without the love and help he has received from the community. His outlook, he adds, is nothing but positive.
“It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, but where you’re going that truly defines your vision and path in the world,” Hickenbottom says. “Don’t let your mind and emotions fool you. Pick up your sword and shield and head into battle.”
Ongoing support for Thomas Hickenbottom continues to be raised at giveforward.com/supporttommy.