When I was a teenager, I started developing several angiomas, benign growths made of blood or lymphatic vessels, in my eyes. Both the doctors and I were puzzled for years—they just didn’t know why a 16 year old was forming tumors.
Eventually I was sent for a type of blood test which used genetic DNA sequencing—a big deal for the early ’90s in Melbourne, Australia. The results came back and the doctors said there was good news. “We know what’s causing your tumors, Chris, we’d like you to see this specialist doctor.”
I drove to a place that looked like a lawyer’s office and sat as a specialist revealed my diagnosis in a very brutal way. “Okay, Chris,” he said, “We’ve found out the reason for your tumors. You have a condition called Von Hippel Lindau (VHL) Syndrome. Your life expectancy with this condition is an average of 30 years.”
VHL is a rare, hereditary disorder that causes tumors to grow in certain parts of the body. While they are typically benign, those with the condition have an increased risk of developing malignant tumors.
That was that. I wasn’t left with any brochures or support. I just walked away, sat in my car and right there thought: “What’s the point?” My life was just beginning and here I was, told I would be dead by 30.
Not only did I lose any ambition I had, I gave up all hope of any future. I was a very angry young man and constantly challenged doctors about my condition. At the time my parents didn’t have it, so I couldn’t understand why I did. In actual fact, my father ended up being diagnosed with the VHL condition much later in his life.
At the time I was in college studying graphic design, but after the diagnosis I dropped out of my course and took an ordinary job. I just wanted to lay low for a while, so, when a friend of mine said: “Who wants to go to America?” I said: “Hell yeah, I’ll come. Let’s just get out of here.”
In 1994, I went on a wild adventure across the United States for six months. I was partying and doing some side jobs abroad to keep me afloat while ignoring my condition—no doctors appointments, tests or scans.
Soul searching in my twenties
When I came back to Australia, at the age of 21, I had my second near death experience. My first had come at 7 years old, when my appendix burst and almost killed me, though my memories of the event are hazy.
The next came when I was renting a holiday home with my friends on the Australian coast. The sea was rough and when I went for a swim I got caught in a huge rip current and nearly drowned.
I felt like my body literally left the water. I saw my life flashing before my eyes; all the important moments from when I was a baby to 21. While it was a profound experience, at the time I just shook it off and laughed about it with my friends.
After coming back from the States my dad didn’t know what to do with me. I wanted to work in advertising and marketing, but I didn’t have any experience so wasn’t being accepted for any jobs.
Eventually, my dad gave me a management job at the factory he worked at, which lasted for two-and-a-half-years. By the time I quit, I decided I was never going to do a job I wasn’t passionate about ever again. After all, I thought I was going to be dead by 30, I wanted fulfillment and a sense of contribution.
I did eight months of soul searching, because if I had five more years to live, I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with them. I finally got to the point of deciding to become a full time entrepreneur.
During those months I had begun to read for the first time. The first book I read, at the age of 24, was something about sales and marketing, but after that I began devouring literature. I believe I read close to a thousand books, about business, psychology and strategy—I even read the bible cover to cover.
With my newfound knowledge I began giving business and marketing advice. I did it for around six months and I really enjoyed it, until I heard one of my clients had made their first million. I was dead broke and realized I had to stop this nonsense of giving this advice, I had to achieve these results in my own life first.
Waking up on the operating table
Around the same time, I had my third near death experience. I had to have an eye operation to remove excessive floaters caused from all my laser eye treatment and I woke up in the operating room, after an accidental overdose in the amount of morphine that had been administered to me.
I woke up with the sensor on my finger that measures your heart rate— I looked at the machine and thought, why is it flat lining? All of a sudden everything went white. I don’t know how long I was out for, but then all these nurses came into vision and I was back.
Again, I didn’t really acknowledge what an extraordinary thing had just happened, so I just continued with life as normal.
Shortly afterwards, I set up my first business at the age of 25. I started a packaging assembly factory and I loved it. I realized that being an entrepreneur gave me energy and drive, but after a $300,000 distribution deal was canceled, I was left nearly bankrupt.
By the time I was 29, I decided to move from Melbourne to Sydney to start a new life. I thought the city was beautiful and my number one priority was finding a new community of friends and people that I could relate to, while focusing on my entrepreneurship.
At the time I was still ignoring my condition, but in 2003 I celebrated my 30th birthday. I was totally healthy and held a big party to mark the day. I didn’t tell anyone about my disorder, and was still very worried about it, but I was just relieved I had made it.
Two years later, I came up with another idea for a business. It started with a friend of mine, a totally tech-obsessed doctor, who was making a fortune with affiliate marketing from home over the internet.
I asked him whether I could spend six months learning about what he was doing, so I could create an online course about working remotely. He agreed and I later started selling this course to professionals.
I was making a decent amount of money and was finally paying off the debts I accumulated during my first business venture. Everything was going well—until my doctors began frantically calling me.
Nearly dying due to brain tumor
Two weeks earlier I had visited my practitioner because of some headaches. I had been trying my best to ignore my condition, but had started feeling these strange sensations running down my spine.
The doctors told me I had a 5cm brain tumor on the back of my head. It was ready to pop at any time, and if it had done so, it would have killed me. They had to operate immediately. I just thought: “Are you serious? I’m having a brain operation next week? No way.”
After my initial shock, I looked at the sky and said: “Wow, okay, here it is. This is the end” And it was a relieving moment. It really was strange, because while I was doing well in my life, I was still thinking: “Okay, enough is enough. I’m done. I’ve had enough of running away from my diagnoses, I’ve had enough of living as a victim of my hereditary condition”
When I became conscious again, the first thing I thought after opening my eyes was: “Thank God, it’s still me.” I had been scared I might not be the same person anymore—I was also scared that I might not be able to talk or walk.
“Touch your nose,” the nurses said to me. I said OK, and touched my nose. But when I did, for some reason this realization hit me: This was my second chance at life.
For two days this enlightenment feeling came over me. I was trapped in this hospital bed with stitches that went from the top to the bottom of my neck—feeling like somebody had thrown me off a cliff onto a pile of sharp rocks—and I was looking at the window seeing birds still flying and people still running past. I realized my insignificance in the world. I knew the world would carry on without me. It was an “ah ha” moment.
As I was enjoying my realization, doctors informed me that I needed a full body MRI scan. Shortly afterwards, I was told my right kidney was now so riddled with cancerous tumors they made up 95 percent of the kidney and that my left had four large tumors. They needed to operate right away.
It was a life-threatening emergency, but I said no. I still had swelling in my head from the brain surgery, and these tumors had already been in my body for God knows how long. I wasn’t going back to the operating theater that day.
Reluctantly, doctors agreed to postpone the operation for a few months. But after leaving the hospital, I felt my personal growth had just accelerated. Beforehand I had felt on the brink of transforming, the brain operation was rocket fuel.
After eventually having the operation to remove my cancerous right kidney at 32 and when I returned to Australia I finally had the operation on my left kidney to remove the four large cancerous tumors at 34, without which the cancer would have spread and killed me, I knew I needed to heal. I took a year off in 2006 and thought about how I wanted to spend my life. I traveled for a while and fell in love with the Philippines.
While I was there I met fantastic, talented people and I just thought to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing if I had some staff supporting me from the Philippines. So, I expanded my existing knowledge to create a company which enabled employers to manage staff globally, which I’ve been running ever since.
What it’s like nearly experiencing death
In total, I have nearly experienced death eight times. The seventh was at 45, when I underwent a second operation on my brain to remove two tumors. One burst, which led to eight months of rehab so that I could relearn to walk and talk. And the eighth, at 46, happened when I had a second operation on my left kidney to remove six fast growing tumors.
I have come to believe a number of things. Once we cross to the other side, I believe we’re in a different time dimension. For some reason, we are still consciously present; we still have awareness within that dimension, but it’s a black void. For me, there’s this feeling of oneness, every time—though I haven’t felt anything physically in terms of my body or motions.
When you get so close to death and you come back, you can’t help but recognize the wonders of being here. For me, it’s like being a kid at Disneyland. Someone says: “You’ve got two days. Enjoy all the rides, do whatever you want, but while you’re here just try to look after everyone else and contribute something good to the park.”
So, have fun, do something that fills you with pleasure and fulfills your needs, but along the way, serve and contribute—try to make an impact and help others.
I believe we all need to wake up to the reality that we are going to die. We all know this, but I think often we struggle to accept our own mortality. I believe you have to recognize it to make an impact in this life.
We all have some kind of deep desire; something we want or something we want to do. Well, I say, if you don’t do something about it now, when will you? Whether it’s a book, music or business idea, once we’re six feet under the ground, just having wanted to do something is no good to anyone.
So whether you think you’ll succeed or not, you may as well give it a go while you’re here. I believe the world will be better for it anyway. My one piece of advice—do not just strive for comfort. We’re visitors here. You may think our time is going to be long, but before you know it, it comes and goes.
Chris Jankulovski is the founder and CEO of Remote Staff and the author of Near Death Lessons. Find out more about Chris’s book at neardeathlessons.com
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Newsweek editor, Monica Greep.
Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at firstname.lastname@example.org