The first step toward healing from cancer: Belief.
by Sue Hughes, MSEd., HHP, CNC
Mind over matter. The placebo effect. Call it what you will, just make it your first priority.
Given the tools to heal, that’s just what the body will begin to do.
Okay, so what are those tools to which I refer? A healthy diet, quality rest, and the addition of moderate exercise into your daily routine all can be considered important tools supportive of healing from cancer. But the truth is, in my opinion, there is something that needs addressing before all of that other stuff. It may very well be the most powerful healing tool we have, and perhaps the least expensive! THE MIND.
You read that right. And you may be thinking I’m a bit crazy to believe that your mind has the power to help heal your body. Well, if I’m crazy, then all of the physicians and researchers out there are crazy too because they validate the healing power of the mind in almost every study or trial that they perform through the use of a “placebo“. As written by The American Cancer Society:
“A placebo (pluh-see-bow) is a substance or other kind of treatment that looks just like a regular treatment or medicine, but is not. It’s actually an inactive ‘look-alike’ treatment or substance. This means it’s not a medicine.
“Typically, the person getting a placebo doesn’t know for sure that the treatment is not real. Sometimes the placebo is in the form of a ‘sugar pill,’ but a placebo can also be an injection, a liquid, or even a procedure. It’s designed to look like a real treatment, but doesn’t directly affect the illness.”
Placebo or nocebo . . . what’s it gonna be?
The interesting thing is that a placebo often results in positive changes in someone’s symptoms for no scientific reason whatsoever – a concept referred to as the placebo effect. On the flip side, a placebo can actually cause “side effects” – this is termed the nocebo effect. Let’s refer to cancer.org once again for details:
“Together, these 2 types of outcomes are sometimes called expectation effects. This means that the person taking the placebo may experience something along the lines of what he or she expects to happen. If a person expects to feel better, that may happen. If the person believes that he or she is getting a strong medicine, the placebo may be thought to cause the side effects. The placebo does not cause any of these effects directly. Instead, the person’s belief in or experience of the placebo helps change the symptoms, or changes the way the person perceives the symptoms.
“Some people can have the placebo effect without getting a pill, shot, or procedure. Some may just feel better from visiting the doctor or doing something else they believe will help. This type of placebo effect seems most related to the degree of confidence and faith the patient has in the doctor or activity.”
As Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of the book “Mind Over Medicine” (which I highly recommend) writes:
“When patients in clinical trials get nothing but sugar pills, saline injections, or fake surgeries, but believe they might be getting the new wonder drug or miracle surgery, their bodies get better 18-80% of the time.”
Wow. The implications of this seem powerful. (Do you still think I’m crazy?)
Clearly, our beliefs can lead to physiological changes, positive or negative. So what does that mean when it comes to placing complete confidence in the beliefs of another? Your doctor, for instance. Let’s say he tells you that you’re doing fine, that you’re on your way to recovery, that cancer hasn’t spread and the prognosis is excellent. Do you question it? Of course not. After all, he’s the doctor so he knows what he’s talking about and this is fantastic news. It makes you feel good inside, which triggers biochemical reactions supportive of healing and regeneration. Now let’s assume the opposite: he tells you that your cancer is terminal, that it’s impossible to get well and he “gives you” only a few months to live based on statistics . . . do you question it? Probably not. As with the first scenario, since he’s the doctor you may assume his beliefs to be fact. Unfortunately, this is not good. Would your confidence in his beliefs be strong enough to affect your body’s amazing healing capabilities? The answer is, quite possibly, “yes”. In such a case your body’s attempts to heal would be impaired – a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t trust our doctors. I am suggesting that we put his beliefs and the beliefs of others in perspective.
Do statistics lie?
The opinion of your doctor is likely based on statistical data. Not only can this data date back several years, but it fails to acknowledge or further analyze why, even in the most aggressive of cancers, some patients do beat the odds whether using conventional treatment or even alternative methods that have yet to be fully studied. Such cases are termed “radical remissions” by Kelly A. Turner, PhD.
As Dr. Turner points out in her book Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, there are thousands of folks who have experienced unexpected remission of their cancer but these cases are rarely published in the medical journals. Although doctors detail the biochemical changes that have occurred in these patients, they don’t dig further to find out what the patient did that led to healing. As a result, not only do we not have an accurate picture of how often this unexpected healing occurs, but we have no idea why it occurred. (Dr. Turner is a forerunner in the effort to document and study these cases. Visit her website http://www.radicalremission.com/ for more information.)
The bottom line is that the data that your doctor uses to determine your prognosis is incomplete. And remember first and foremost, this data is based on other people’s bodies, other people’s minds, other people’s lifestyles, and other people’s internal and external environment. It truly is information helpful only to those other people whose fate has already been realized. Prognoses . . . survival statistics . . . these are all about other people.
So if you do, wholeheartedly, believe what the doctor or anyone else is telling you, it can work for you or against you, just like the placebo, or nocebo, effect. That’s why I feel that “belief” is the most important first step to healing. If you don’t believe you can heal, there is no nutrient or medication or exercise program or amount of rest that will allow you to do so.
Check out this fascinating article on the power of the mind by Dr. Bernie Siegel: From Cancer Patient To Respant
When “Belief” Seems Impossible
Okay, so you know you should believe healing is possible, but it’s not that easy when so many negatives are being thrown your way. That’s why it’s so important to find positives during this difficult time. But how?
Surf the web.
Google “cancer healing stories” and you’ll come up with enough inspiration to keep you busy reading for a very long time! Clearly, there is an abundance of healing going on out there, it just takes a bit of digging to find these amazing stories. A couple of specific websites I’ve explored and enjoyed for their positive accounts are the Gerson Institute website and the website of a woman named Kris Carr: http://kriscarr.com/about/about-kris/
Curl up with a good book.
If you ever exhaust all of the positive stories on the internet, I urge you to check out the following books that focus on the significant role of the mind when it comes to healing:
- Love, Medicine, and Miracles
- Biology of Belief
- Mind Over Medicine
- Radical Remission (as I mentioned earlier)
- The Gerson Therapy
- Healing the Gerson Way: Defeating Cancer and Other Chronic Diseases
Meditation is a practice by which you clear your mind of jumbled thoughts that may be causing you to lose focus or feel stressed, thereby improving emotional and physical well-being. It’s been known for ages that practicing meditation can help increase mental focus while decreasing stress which, in its own right, will help the healing process. You see, when we experience stress, the body reacts by mobilizing the energy necessary to react to the stress (“fight or flight”) by shutting down our “non-essential” bodily functions, including all of our healing mechanisms. Back in the day, when the “stress” was a tiger chasing us, this was a relatively temporary issue. Once we escaped the tiger (assuming the positive!) our body would return to its normal functioning. In today’s world, the “tiger” may actually be a traffic jam, an argument with your spouse, money troubles, or even bad news regarding your health . . . stuff that isn’t so temporary. This means your body’s healing mechanisms may be shut down for quite a while, undermining your ability to regain your health. THIS is precisely why it is so important to implement practices, like meditation or yoga, that change the way your body handles stress, allowing the healing to continue in the face of life’s problems, both large and small.
Speaking of meditation, there’s been even more exciting news about this practice lately! A recent study has found that practicing meditation can actually physically change cells. Exciting news, for sure. The study was performed on breast cancer survivors and definitely worth a read.
If you love the thought of giving meditation a try but have no clue where to begin, the University of Michigan Health System provides some excellent downloadable guided meditations on their website. Click here to check them out. There are also plenty of meditation apps available for both iPhone and Android. If you need help finding something that suits you, feel free to email me.
Use your imagination!
Visualization involves exercising the imagination to allow the mind to influence the health of the body – creating a sort of purposeful daydream. As explained by The American Cancer Society:
“One type of guided therapy used for cancer patients is called the Simonton method, which was developed in the 1970s by O. Carl Simonton, a radiation oncologist, and Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, a psychotherapist. In the Simonton method, people with cancer are asked to imagine their bodies fighting cancer cells and winning the battle. One popular exercise is modeled on the old Pac-Man video game. Patients picture tiny Pac-Man characters eating and destroying tumor cells, just as he destroys his enemies in the game.”
Take a moment to read this amazing story of spontaneous cancer remission attributed to visualization: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/03/ep.seidler.cancer.mind.body/
Yoga is a form of exercise that involves a program of precise posture, breathing exercises, and meditation. Its gentle movements open and strengthen the body while allowing the release of stress, both mentally and physically. Studies have demonstrated that yoga can lead to lower levels of pain and fatigue, and higher levels of invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation. Sounds like a recipe for success for a cancer patient, which may be why yoga classes specifically designed for those touched by cancer have been popping up all over the United States.
You may find the following articles on the topic of yoga and cancer of particular interest:
Cancer is no laughing matter, but try to laugh anyway.
This may sound ridiculous, but laughing actually promotes healing. According to cancer.org:
“the physical effects of laughter on the body include increased breathing, increased oxygen use, short-term changes in hormones and certain neurotransmitters, and increased heart rate.”
The website goes on to say:
“One study found the use of humor led to an increase in pain tolerance. It is thought laughter causes the release of special neurotransmitter substances in the brain called endorphins that help control pain. Another study found that neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during episodes of laughter.”
So similar to meditation, laughter causes a change in the way the body responds to stress, allowing full use of all healing mechanisms. Perhaps you’ve heard of the case of Norman Cousins who claimed to cure himself of a serious illness using laughter and vitamins. In 1979 Cousins wrote a book, Anatomy of an Illness, detailing his experience. Clearly, there is something to this, as many cancer centers now include laughter therapy as part of the treatment regimen.
So belief in your own healing and incorporating practices that help your body better handle stress both hold tremendous importance as an accompaniment to physically-based healing support and treatment. Whether you practice meditation, visualization techniques, yoga, comedy, simple deep breathing or all of these, you are providing your body with tools that allow it shift its healing mechanisms into high gear! To think such simple practices can result in such a significant physiological change! And not only that, these are skills – living in the present moment, maintaining a calm mind and being wide open to the possibilities – that will benefit you long after healing from cancer is complete.
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